Birds & Bergs
FI to Signy
Our second day at Signy, back on the 7th, was cancelled as pack ice had crept back into the bay overnight, floating silently in on a gentle breeze. A bay full of small pans of ice makes it too dangerous to take small boats out so, despite otherwise excellent weather, we were forced to crunch our way back out. We then turned north again to head for South Georgia.
This route might seem awkward when traced on the map, but makes more sense once the sea ice currently filling the Weddell sea is taken into account. While the Shack is able to punch through ice, it makes much better progress in open water. Most years we find that a large lead of open water opens up to the east of Halley. So far it isn't clear (from satelite measurements of ice cover) if this will happen again this year, but we're still a couple of weeks away.
The crossing to South Georgia was good with only one slightly rough day in the middle. About half way we sighted a few groups of whales. I only saw a few spouts in the distance. Had we been a cruise ship, or the whalers of old, we might have diverted for a closer look, for them to be shot by cameras or speared by harpoons. Workers that we are, though, we kept to a straight course and let them alone. Some new birds are also evident, young albatrosses with grey white feathers, smallish birds that fly like white bats with grey chevrons on their wings, and a small flighty black bird that's shy of the ship with a small white patch where the tail meets the body.
The birds were amusing during the patch of bad weather. With a regular swell and small waves they make a stunning sight. Skimming inches above the sea, anticipating each contour and efficiently extracting every ounce of energy from the environment, wings barely flapping. In a larger, messier, choppier sea with heavier gusting winds they cannot quite keep up with the changes in the chaotic surface and sometimes take a watery tumble as they are swallowed by the surging sea. They easily recover and take to the air again but their aura of expertise is tarnished slightly.
We arrived early at South Georgia and spent the night making our way slowly along the edge of the island, the white peaks, lit by the moon, dimly glowing along the horizon. I saw the stars here for the first time (requires both inclination and good weather late at night). Tentatively identify southern cross famous from so many flags. Orion is evident, strangely plunging into the dark southern waters rather than standing triumphant over northern mountains. The hunter become a diver.
Next morning we moored up at King Edward Point, in Cumberland Bay West. After a bit of work shifting cargo for the base we set off to explore the nearby whaling station of Grytviken. At dawn, from the boat, the station was small against the mountains looming behind, with a dusting of snow covering the foothills that sheltered the whalers from the worst of the south Atlantic weather. As the day progressed the snows melted leaving the decayed machinery and rusting oil tanks stark against the green brown grass and grey scree.
Grytviken is part ghostly: silent machines and empty sheds speak the lives of men long gone, and part ghastly: unplumbed generators, cold furnaces, rotting ladders and frames are left lying in the elements while the arrangement of boilers, conveyers, saws, ramps, grinders and storage tanks tells its own tale of industrial slaughter. A museum and restored church provide an insight into the lives of the rough, ready men working in the cold, but neither makes much of the work they did. Forgetting the process of whaling strips away the flesh of the station.
Grytviken is also home to Shackleton's grave, now surrounded by fur seals and King penguins. We paid that a visit then wandered out of town before the afternoon's cruise ship shattered the peace.
After a spot of lunch on the Shackleton, we headed off to Maeviken, taking a path along a stream flowing into the back of Grytviken, then over rock and snow to a pass in the sharp hills behind the town. Ahead of us a plunging glacial valley was interupted by a series of morraines. Each wall of grit and boulders holds back a crystal clear lake, glinting in the sun. We pick our way down past the lakes, pay a quick visit to a BAS field hut, and eventually get to the tussocked hillocks of the final morraine by the rocky shore line. From a distance we hear the roaring seals, barking pups, and the wailing of birds and their chicks. We try to reach the shore but are repulsed by aggressive fur seals. Skirting round them and the bay, we come accross a pair of nesting skuas, sitting a few feet from their egg, their position a decoy to predators. We notice them and the egg in time, and keep our distance.
Crossing through the tussock grass to the other side of the bay is a cautious affair. Twice we fail to spot a seal until we're right upon it, they wake, startled, and rise up in a roaring challenge before pouncing, all momentum and teeth. We escape, unharmed, but undignified after tripping and rolling down a slope, hoping as we tumble that we won't land on another unseen ball of fur and fangs.
Half way around the bay we're attacked by a pair of dive bombing terns, screaming out of the sky with claws aimed at our heads, defending an unseen and unsuspected nest. We quickly move away but they persue us for some distance, eventually giving up the chase when we scare them off by mimicing the shriek of a skua.
We gingerly pick our way around a series of small lakes, past sleeping seals and slippery rocks, and finally arrive at the colony of Gentoo penguins that was our goal. Most of the birds sit still on on their unhatched eggs, pecking at other penguins that come close enough to disturb them. Others feed their newly sprung chicks (the chicks put their entire heads into the parent's mouth, which then vomits a meal back to the chick). The birds were happy for us to be amongst them, and carried on as they had when we were some distance away. We watched their antics with amusement for a while, including many instances of nest theft where a penguin would, brazenly, pick apart a neighbour's nest and deposit the parts into his own. Man like in more ways than their pompous waddle, and far from the model citizens of creation some would have you believe.
Two days ago we left KEP and sailed round to Husvik (Hound Bay) to deposit a field party to study the King Penguin colony nearby. We went ashore to help them set up camp, which in these days of luxury included a generator, bread making machine and satelite phone. The bay was a beautiful spot, and again riddled with violent fur seals and placid elephant seals. Some of the fur seals had their pups with them, so we gave them an especially wide berth.
Yesterday we arrived at Bird Island (which, for the record, looks nothing like a bird), another BAS station at the end of South Georgia, but couldn't get ashore as the sea was running a large swell. We spent the day sheltering in the lee of the island, moving back and forth in a small box on the sea as a mist descended and snow fell. Today we have been able to launch the boats, but only essential people are going ashore as conditions still aren't perfect. Until we get to Halley I don't really have a job that someone else can't do better than me, so I get to spend the day on the ship whistfully looking at the base in the distance. Entertainment is provided as seals leap gracefully through the water around the boat, and birds skim over the sea in all directions.
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