Monthly Archives: March 2016

Wildlife and a very middle class expedition

February 2016

Unfortunately it doesn’t look like we are going to get much of a summer, but given all the talk of El Niño in recent months I don’t think we are the only ones. We did manage one decent week this month, luckily that was the week I managed to get away on holiday, but we’ll come back to that.


The nights are drawing in now, so some night boat training was done on a nice evening. The illuminating flare helps shed some light so you can find your way.

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A while back Kelvin had the idea to have a scary movie night over in the whaling station and just before his departure we managed to organise it. There was something of a gale blowing outside so we moved it into the church.

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Early in the month we said goodbye to Kelvin, Lucy and Ray. A short summer for two of them but for Ray it was the end of a 15 month stint. You might remember Ray’s send off to the old winterers from November’s post ( Well, Lewis had the idea to up the stakes with that particular gesture…

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As well as the usual flares and Mexican wave he was afforded 5ft worth of V-sign to send him off, we thought he would approve.

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On a rare sunny day for this summer Katie and I took advantage of some good weather to waterproof our walking boots ahead of a few days holiday.

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My last three holidays have been at Corral and I could easily do the next one there. There is so much to do from the hut, whether that’s peaks, valley or coastal walks or wildlife watching. It’s also the most comfortable hut so bad weather days can be quite enjoyable inside with the tilly (lantern) going. I feel I should point out that one of those beer cases is actually filled with tea towels, scrubbing brushes, toilet roll and other stuff to help stock the hut.

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We brought a loaf of bread, balsamic vinegar (from Waitrose no less), olive oil, gin, wine, Tunnocks caramel wafers, good coffee for the cafetière – along with a milk frother and vanilla syrup to make lattés – and Scottish fudge. I’m not sure camping can get much more middle class than that! Can it?

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I’ve shot most of the wildlife in South Georgia, I had after my first six months. One that had eluded me was the South Georgia pipit. They are endemic to the island but their numbers were dropping thanks to the occupancy of the rats over the last few centuries. It was a year ago that the third and final planned stage of the rat eradication started to bait the Barff Peninsula and a year later the pipits have started to return.

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I counted four on the beach at Corral. A couple of them seemed quite shy but this one didn’t seem too bothered by me, it wasn’t long before I was reducing the focal length of the lens to fit all of him in to the shot.

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Not far above the beach I could make out the unmistakable call of the sooty albatross, another new resident in the area. They are very relaxed birds so getting a close-up isn’t difficult. She stood up and sat down a few times before stretching her wings, I figured she was about to take off. As I changed the camera shutter to ‘continuous’ she leapt forward.

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I didn’t have time to raise the camera to get my eye to the view finder so I had to shoot from the hip – Rambo style. Fairly chuffed with the outcome though.

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The following day’s weather was much better, so Katie and I decided to make our way to the northern coast of the Barff and see the Macaroni penguins.

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It’s a great walk apart from the descent into Rookery Bay, it’s fairly steep scree but on a nice day it’s worth pinching yourself to remember where you are.

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After your descent on the scree there is then a hillside traverse across some fairly tall tussock grass.

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Most of the Macaroni colony is among the tussock grass but the lower part is on several great slabs of rock, a convenient place for the penguins to get in and out of the water. Also a good place for shooting. The colony also attracts skuas, giant petrels and snowy sheathbills or – as they are somewhat affectionally called by most people who spend any time south – ‘shit chickens’. The shit chickens took a particular interest in me as I sat and ate my lunch. At first I thought it was my chicken mayonnaise wrap but then I thought the red beanie I was wearing might make it look like I was bleeding out and about to die.

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Sure enough as I looked behind me I caught this one about to go for my head! They remind me of the little dinosaurs at the start of Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Opportunistic scavengers that get bolder the more their numbers grow.

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Surviving a couple of pecks to the sole of my boot I turned my attention to the Macaroni penguins. Of the four kinds of penguins on SG (King, Chinstrap and Gentoo being the other three) these guys have by far the most character.

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There were a couple of chinstraps in the colony, something I don’t remember seeing last year. Most of the chinstraps are down the south end of the island so they are a fairly rare sighting for us. Though this shot doesn’t give it away the chinstraps are generally a little bigger and don’t take much nonsense from the macs.

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They are easily mistaken for rockhopper penguins, not hard to see why.

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This might be my favourite shot this month, there is something quite menacing about him, almost like he’s conjuring up the sea and bringing it with him.

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Before we went I really wanted to get a shot of them porpoising through the water. Unfortunately the sea was all over the place and made tracking them through the water extremely difficult. Luckily my camera this year is good enough to heavily crop shots and not lose much detail.

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Maybe it was the sky clouding over and improving the light, but the pink in their beaks seems to be particularly bright when they come out the water.

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Above the colony, where the predatory birds get a good view, the giant petrel chicks are turning into football size balls of fluff. Unlike the sooty albatross you don’t want to get close to these guys as they are famous projectile vomiters.

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The next day was spent nearby the hut, chilling with the wildlife. I could watch the sootys for hours. Especially when they are taking off and landing several feet away.

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Our last full day was always looking like the best weather day. There aren’t many peaks left for me to ‘bag’ now, not that I’m into that. But one I was keen to get done was above the Szeilasko icecap. I was up there last year but the biggest peak looked formidable. James (last year’s Fisheries Biologist) had been up on the icecap as well and looked at it. I believe his comment about it was “it’s the best defended peak in our travel area”. We discussed it and thought it might even warrant harnesses, ropes etc. I’d seen a snow slope on the northern side of the peak (this shot is from the south) and thought it might be possible to ascend that with crampons and ice axe.

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We have to take (it’s also a sensible thing to do) enough gear on days out to get by should we get caught out by the weather. At the edge of the icecap we deposited sleeping bags, bivi bags (a waterproof bag for your sleeping bag – needed if no tent), stove, food and sleeping mats before putting crampons on. Our target peak is second from left here.

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The icecap is largely clear of snow at this time of year so crossing is relatively safe – if there were any crevasses you’d see them.

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After crossing the icecap we got a glimpse of the snow slope I’d hoped to climb (tiny section visible on the right before it disappears behind the ridge). But from this angle I realised the upper slopes weren’t as bad as James and I had previously thought. So a slight change in attack was decided. To give a bit of perspective to the size of the rocks and scree, that’s Katie on the left of the shot – hard to spot her as she’s wearing black!

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After much route finding and slipping about on scree we managed to get to the top. 825m and relatively warm! Thats the icecap below and Mt Paget off in the distance (no, not in our travel limit – it’s only been climbed a handful of times). There wasn’t a cairn on top so I built one, it’s probably been done before but I’m not sure.

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At least Katie’s wearing a colourful hat!

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Not often you can say your water bottle is filled with water from an icecap.

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Regular readers will remember Emma (last year’s Doc) and I making a similar journey. We took different approaches to crossing the river on the way to the icecap. I kept my boots on and my feet fairly dry but had frozen boots the next morning. Emma, on the other hand, walked across bare foot and endured cold feet for a while but soon recovered. This time I had a plan! The river is about one mile from the hut so we strapped wellies to our bags to use for the crossing… It’s a little unfortunate you can’t make out the smug grin on my face in this shot.

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We were treated to a fairly stunning sunset that night but rewarding myself with a glass of wine after summiting was higher on the agenda. I took this one fairly quickly as I went to top up the water container from the river.

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I’d taken my neutral density (ND) filters with me and, on the last morning, decided I hadn’t done enough with them.

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We were due to be picked up mid afternoon on the last day. Fairly weary from the day before we decided to go and spend some time with the fur seal puppies. They are now swimming and still quite inquisitive so if you sit at the edge long enough they soon come to you. I’d always wanted to get up close to the waterfall at Corral (just visible above Katie’s head here), having seen it from the boats.

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The ND filters create great contrast between flowing water and inanimate objects.

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Even in bright daylight I can have the shutter open for over 20 seconds.

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Even in fairly harsh light it creates some beautiful effects. I think I’ll shift my focus to using the ND filters more when the wildlife starts heading out to sea at the end of summer.

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Not long before the boats arrived we spotted a blonde fur seal playing with the others. Most of the time it’s just play between the seals but there’s something scary about those lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a dolls eyes, that contrast with the blonde fur.


We are invited on many of the expedition ships for dinner and drinks throughout the season. Few take better care of us than the National Geographic Explorer. Most ships have us dine and chat with the passengers in return for their hospitality. The Nat Geo don’t ask us to eat with the passengers, instead while they dine they leave the bar to us, and any passengers who have questions can come and ask us after dinner. The expedition leader has wintered in Antarctica with the American Antarctic program so I think she realises it’s nice for us to have a drink somewhere else.


The Nat Geo had also brought out good friend and main blog editor Rachel from Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula. She has been working in the post office there for the last four months and is on her way home now. Rachel was one of the museum staff last year so was particularly happy to get to swing by KEP on her way home. I should add that my beard has (mostly) gone now – before I get abuse for it! One of several White Russian cocktails in my hand – ‘the dude abides’.

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