South Georgia Newsletter, October 2004
BBC News: "Antarctic Food Web Under Pressure" - "Krill in Decline"
Small link of interest from the BBC - report on the decline in Krill numbers around Antarctica. The food chain around South Georgia depends largely upon Krill - and the impact could be huge.
A pink parachute floating down into Cumberland Bay was a common sight when King Edward Point was home to a small military garrison between 1982 and 1990. Monthly airdrops brought mail and provisions between resupply ships. The last of these scheduled airdrops dropped a case of champagne during the opening ceremony of the new research station on King Edward Point, after which a purely civilian presence on the Island was reinstated.
The RAF 1312 Flight Hercules aircraft has continued to fly down to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands on patrol, but only recently have they resumed the occasional airdrop. The ability to airdrop could be important in an emergency, and flight crews need to practice the manoeuvre.
Airdrops need reasonable weather conditions, not just in the drop zone, where the wind should be below twenty knots with clear skies, but at the Falklands and an alternative airfield.
Two boats are sent out from the Point ready to pick up the parachutes and parcels. Two successful drops so far have bought cheer to Island locals. The first was timed to bring special midwinter packages and messages and a longed for copy of the third Lord of the Rings films. The drop this month had up-to-date newspapers, magazines, a few goodies like fresh lemons and some footage of the recent Olympics.
The bells of Grytviken church were rung to celebrate the wedding of the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands Mr Howard Pearce and Miss Caroline Thomee.
The wedding took place at Christchurch Cathedral in Stanley, Falkland Islands on Thursday 21 st October. Islands celebrate as Governor says 'I do'
The following has been re-printed from an article in the "Penguin News"
HISTORY was made yesterday when the Governor of the Falkland Islands married his Dutch partner in a Stanley wedding ceremony.
As they took their marriage vows in Christ Church Cathedral in Stanley, the world's most southerly cathedral, His Excellency Mr Howard Pearce CVO, 55, and Miss Caroline Thomée, 38, made history, this being the first time a representative of Her Majesty the Queen has chosen to wed in the Falkland Islands.
Despite a blustery wind, a large gathering assembled at the Cathedral to witness the occasion. Such was the level of public interest in the event, live coverage was broadcast on television by KTV, webcam by Cable and Wireless and nationwide radio by the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station. Cable and Wireless later reported that internet usage went to its "full capacity" both locally and internationally during the wedding.
All school children in the Falklands were given the day off school in recognition of the event. His Excellency chose to marry in his official Governor's uniform while his Dutch bride looked radiant in a felted dress of Falklands wool. The full length dress featured a subtle pattern of spring colours.
Best man was the groom's friend, Mr Robert Napier, Chief Executive of the World Wildlife Fund and the bride was supported by her friend, Ms Loeky Kramer.
In recognition of the bride' sroots, Reverend Paul Sweeting made the closing prayer in both English and Dutch.
A cheer went up from the crowd as the happy couple emerged from the Cathedral, greeted by a guard of honour from the Falkland Islands Defence Force, bathed in spring sunshine and accompanied by the joyous pealing of the church bells. Members of the Brownies later sealed the event with three cheers for the couple.
The newlyweds, both self-confessed Falklands fanatics ensured the public at large was included in their big day.
After visiting community group Acorns at the hospital for a party, they hosted a two hour celebration in the Town Hall, to which all members of the community were invited, before holding a reception at Government House later in the evening.
Early season Yachts herald start of the tourist season
The first three yachts of the season arrived at South Georgia during October. "Golden Fleece", a Falkland Island registered yacht, arrived first from Stanley with a group of charterers aboard who were keen to enjoy the Island's wildlife and have some adventurous days out. Some of the party skied the Shackleton Route from King Haakon Bay to Fortuna bay in just eleven hours.
New Zealand registered "Northanger", which came from Ushaia, and the French yacht "Valhalla" from Mar del Plata, are private yachts and both intend staying to explore the Island for a month or more.
Valhalla alongside the KEP jetty
There are usually between ten and twenty yacht visits in a season. Some of these are charter yachts which come several times in a summer.
The first tour ship is expected on November 13 th .
Beach-cleaning in Cumberland Bay
Clearing rubbish from the Barff Peninsula coastline
|The melt-back of winter snow means it is possible to continue local efforts to remove rubbish from the beaches around Cumberland Bay. Four trips have been out to the west coast of the Barff Peninsula in an effort to clean all the beaches and coves along the eight miles of coast.
Most of the rubbish comes from the two wrecks at the mouth of Moraine Fjord. A major clean up, done shortly after the two vessels went aground in May 2003, did ensure a lot of the potential environmental hazards were dealt with. Inevitably, as the vessels break up, new flotsam washes up.
Locals use their own time to keep on top of the problem. Most of the rubbish is ropes, foam, plastic boxes and polypropylene sacks. Also recovered was a 50 metre length of floating rope that could have been a serious hazard to shipping, a lifejacket, a hardhat and a beer barrel. Sadly the barrel was empty!
Pitfall for South Georgia spiders
Unwary spiders will once again be falling into pitfall traps in the continuation of a project to look at the local spider population. Four native species of spider are known to inhabit South Georgia. Now Alastair Lavery, whose recent work on the spiders of the Falkland Islands raised the known number of species there from 18 to 41, is looking at samples from South Georgia. The first traps were set in March using three main sites in the Grytviken area. Sampling had to stop in late April as winter set in and snow covered the traps.
|The spiders are very small, only 1 to 3 mm, and are rarely seen, but South Georgia is a surprisingly spidery place and 1312 spiders were sent to Lavery for analysis. Intriguingly almost every spider was the same species, Notiomaso australis . This spider was known to be the most widespread and numerous of the four, but this level of dominance was not expected.
Two other native spiders were collected in very small numbers, just two Notiomaso grytvikensis , and only one of the tiny Micromaso flavus.
Notiomaso australis, is just 2 to 3 mm long (photo - Alastair Lavery)
Three of the four South Georgia spiders were thought unique to the Island, but Lavery found both Micromaso flavus and Notiomaso australis in the Falklands. So South Georgia has only one unique species, Notiomaso grytvikensis .
Now it is spring the sets of five pitfall traps have been dug back in at the three main sample sites. The traps work on the "spider in the bath" principal. The spiders get in but can't get out up the smooth surface of the trap. Less than 1% of the invertebrates in the area of the traps will be captured. The results of early trapping should show if N.australis dominates right through the season or only in autumn.
One other species of spider was identified by Lavery and was new to South Georgia. This much larger specimen had the misfortune to abseil into the chef's soup at the camp being used by the team working on the Whaling Station Remediation Project. It was a member of the genus Negayan , common in South America and the Falkland Islands, and probably came in with the temporary building where it had lived happily until its unfortunate accident.
South Georgia seals gather data for global science
In the first year of an international research project (named SeaOS for Southern Elephant Seals as Oceanographic Samplers) 24 elephant seals, from three different subantarctic populations, were fitted with satellite tags. Nine of the seals were tagged in South Georgia last summer. The results so far have excited biologists, oceanographers and climatologists alike.
The biologists are studying the effect of differing marine conditions on foraging patterns of elephant seals and their population status. South Georgia's elephant seal population is stable but the Macquarie population is declining and the Kerguelen population has stabilised after a period of decline.
The satellite tags were glued to the top of the seals' heads and will fall off after about 11 months when the animals moult. The seals range widely looking for food and spend about 90% of their time underwater, diving 60 to 80 times a day to depths around 600 metres (though can be as deep as 1900m). When animals return to the surface to breathe, the devices automatically report the animals' position, sea and surface temperature, conductivity, pressure (depth) and salinity from the previous dive. The biologists hope to find out why the South Georgia population is thriving whilst at Macquarie their numbers are falling.
Oceanographers are interested in some of the same data to study parts of the ocean they can not sample so easily, or so cheaply. Heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere plays a part in regulating the climate of our planet, so study of the vast Southern Ocean is also an important part of understanding global warming.
The seals often go to areas such as the pack ice zone, which are difficult or expensive to sample by more conventional methods like research ships or drifting buoys.
The SEAOS project promotes the idea that marine animals can be used as sampling platforms to the benefit of both biologists and oceanographers. The wide appeal of the data, collected by the tags whilst the seals go about their normal lives, has also helped biologists raise funding to continue the project.
By fitting a satellite tag to a male or a female seal, which choose different areas of the ocean to feed, researchers can target particular areas of the Southern Ocean where there is a dire lack of hydrological information.
The nine South Georgia seals were tagged at Husvik last summer by a team from the Sea Mammal Research Unit, part of St Andrews University, Scotland. The tags used more power than expected and the last one stopped transmitting a month ago, but one of the tagged female seals was recently seen on the Barff Peninsula with a pup.
Researchers will be back at Husvik this summer to fit another 13 seals with improved tags. They hope the currently tagged seals will return to moult where they were captured so they can recover the old tags for testing and see how they have worn.
|Very pleased with the first year success, one of the project leaders Mike Fedak said, "I think we can make a real contribution not only to the biology of elephant seals but also to a better understanding the oceans (particularly in logistically difficult and data poor areas like the Southern Ocean) and how ocean characteristics influence the success of the animals that use it. The data will also be an important compliment to other more usual oceanographic monitoring and modelling approaches."
Satellite tagged female elephant seal
Wildlife hazard removed
A reindeer exclosure, old apparatus for a study of the effects of the introduced reindeer on the vegetation of the Island, had become a hazard to the deer. At least two animals had died after getting caught up in the partially collapsed structure.
In a half-day, two people removed the fencing and wire and generally tidied the site. The fencing was dragged down to the beach and collected later by boat from Sorling Valley for proper disposal.
Eight exclosures and several other structures were erected in 1973 in the two areas of the Island inhabited by reindeer. The sites were chosen as examples of the principal types of vegetation. The exclosures keep the reindeer out so vegetation can recover from grazing.
The deer have had most effect on their favoured food plants: local burnet; Antarctic hairgrass; tussac grass, and lichens. The deer also encourage the spread of the introduced grass Poa annua.
In the following twelve years annual inspections showed that many of the most heavily grazed plants returned if grazing pressure was removed, though there were no signs of recovery of the slow growing lichens.
Remaining exclosures still in good condition are still of interest and were last analysed three years ago. Interestingly, after thirty years of protection, lichens have shown signs of recovery.
Other broken down structures have been removed to prevent reindeer getting their antlers caught in the loose wire fencing. Most recently the BSES "Footsteps of Shackleton" Expedition removed one from the Husvik area.
Exhibition in Cambridge of South Georgia artworks by Molly Sheridan
An exhibition of South Georgia artworks by artist Molly Sheridan opened at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge (UK) on October 21 st .
|Landscape and wildlife artist Molly was assisted by the Shackleton Scholarship Fund and GSGSSI to spend a summer on the Island two years ago. If the weather was good enough Molly would be out sketching in the field, otherwise she was to be found in her temporary studio in the generator shed! She works in a variety of styles and mediums and produced several works whilst on the Island. It was lucky her visit coincided with that of David Cowper in his motor launch "Polar Bound". Travelling round the Island with David she was thrilled by dramatic combination of large icebergs and the steep sided fjords with glaciers tumbling to the sea. Penguins and rusting whaling stations, also became a strong theme in her work.
She has continued to work on a South Georgia theme since returning to her more salubrious studio in the French Pyrenees, and at times found it strange to be painting glaciers in the Mediterranean heat.
The exhibition at SPRI, which will run until February 2005, will be her fourth solely dedicated to works of South Georgia.
Elephant Seal Colonies in King Edward Cove much bigger than normal
The elephant seal population of South Georgia is thought to be stable. A survey in 1995 recorded around 110,000 breeding females. Similar numbers were recorded by surveys in 1951 and 1985.
|More than 180 females have hauled out onto King Edward Point beach to pup, many more than usual. Counts of the same colony in the previous ten years have been between 90 and 130 females. A separate smaller colony near Shackleton's grave is also fuller than usual, with more than 40 females hauled out. There were none there last year and in the previous few years only about five.
The KEP colony is almost twice its normal size.
"Splitnose"and advisary, the battle he won
"Splitnose" the bull"
The KEP colony started forming at the beginning of the month. The first pup was born on the 5th , by which time 14 females had hauled out. The first battle between two bulls happened three days before that. The victor had his left nostril ripped and was thence known as "Splitnose". He remained the dominant bull until the middle of the month, when he was vanquished. He has been seen a couple of times since at the sea-edge, but has not been able to resume his position. Unsuccessful bulls prowl at the waters edge trying their luck, or snooze in the tussock above the beach, whilst the harem bulls keep a wary eye for competition from the middle of the colony.
By the end of the month the westernmost end of the beach was full of females and almost all with pups. A smaller harem of about 20 formed under the flagpole just outside the office windows of the research station. Several times office work has stopped as everyone watches a mother give birth or bulls fighting. Mating started at the end of the month.
The first pups are now moulting from the velvet black pup coat into the sleek silver fur of the weaner. Pups are fed for just three weeks before their mothers are mated and leave. The pups will remain on land until December.
South Georgia Snippets
The scientific fishing team were delighted to see a Southern right whale and her calf within about 50 metres of their little fishing boat whilst conducting the weekly plankton trawl. Whales are sometimes sighted within Cumberland Bay, mostly in summer, but it is always an exciting moment, especially when they are so close.
As spring progresses more birds are returning and the breeding season is getting underway. On a quiet evening on October 3 rd we heard the White-chinned petrels calling from their burrows for the first time this spring. They are sometimes called "Shoemakers" as the sound was likened to the sound of the old-fashioned cobbler's sewing machine.
The first Light-mantled sooty albatross were seen flying in Cumberland Bay on the 12th, and in the days since lots have been testing nesting sites on cliff ledges all round the coast. The sad cries of birds on the ledges calling in their mates echo around the rock walls.
The Gentoo penguins have returned to their colonies and are mating and laying. Meanwhile fat King penguins have been coming up all month to moult, always social, they form scruffy huddles on the remaining snow patches.
It is light now by 4.30 am so we have moved the working day to 8 to 5 to give people more light at the end of day to go for a walk or a run. The keen skiers have gone out after every dusting of snow, walking up to two hours carrying their skis to Glacier Col or a remaining snow gully for late season skiing.
There are still many large icebergs in the bay. Weather erosion and wave action has carved some into fantastical shapes like a 20 metre high arch of ice, a battleship and a needle-like tower. It is a treat to get closer in the small boats to admire the blue berg with Arabian archways all along its waterline, and a striated ice pyramid.
News from Bird Island
Bird Island is slowing filling up for the summer breeding season. The Black-browed, Grey-headed and Light-mantled sooty albatrosses are all back on their nests meeting up with their partners after their holidays. Like their larger cousin the Wandering albatross they are all great travellers, indeed one grey-headed albatross from Bird Island was recorded circumnavigating the Antarctic twice during its year off. Amongst the other flying residents the Northern giant petrels are busy incubating their eggs and it looks like it will be a good year for them.
The tiny Pippits have already begun and the first chicks were spotted hidden deep in the tussock away from the prying eyes of the hungry skuas. For the Gentoos it has been a slow start, the first egg was not laid until 18th over 8 days later than the previous year. But Macaroni penguins are bang on schedule, the first males arrived in Big Mac on the 19th of October and there followed the usual exponential rise to 40 000 10 days later.
And it's not just the birds. Although not usually an abundant breeder on Bird Island it has been a good year for Elephant seals. We now have 18 pups and the first mums have already gone to sea and leaving their young charges to fend for themselves. Quite a daunting prospect when you are only 3 weeks old.
It will not be long for the Fur seals, the territorial males are starting to take up their positions on the beach awaiting the arrival of the females. So far we can still move about the island with relative ease but in a few weeks the beaches will be impassable packed with a vociferous throng of fur seals.
As part of our on going monitoring work we have been deploying satellite transmitters on adult male fur seals. In this species there is a huge size difference between the two sexes with males reaching up to 200 kg compared to only 50 kg for the biggest females. Although we have studied the movements of female fur seals for many years the males have been largely ignored. With the development of new technology that can transmit information about an animal's diving behaviour as well as its location we can now see where and how these big males forage. So far the information streaming back from the satellites has shown big differences between the sexes with males reaching depths of 350m compared to females that rarely dive beyond 150m. This information will help us understand the role of these predators in the South Georgia ecosystem.
The Macaroni penguin colony called "Big Mac" fills up over a ten day period. Photos by Ian Staniland