Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Sealion Island - Where giants collide.....

[Another episode of an expat's life in the Falklands.  This week, we had a flying visit to an outlying island, with a good lodge on it - Sealion Island.   Outside, was the wildlife.....]

If you look back to older blogs, you may find that I have posted about Sealion Island twice before.  We have visited it in the last 2 Februarys, but this time we were going at the start of Spring, rather than the end of Summer.

Watchful penguin
Sealion is about 50 miles south of Stanley, off the south coast of the Falklands.  In February, the  breeding season was at an end - the chicks and pups had either left or were about to set off on their big adventure.

"Sorry, we haven't seen your mate"
The adults were regaining their strength and renewing their feathers or fur, so that they could survive the coming winter.
But, this month is the start of Spring, and some visitors had already produced a new generation.
Male Elephant Seal - 3 tons, female, (1 ton) and pup (45kgs)
Huge Elephant seals were dotted along the beaches, with a few dominant males gathering harems around them.  We saw about 20 pups which could only have been a week old.  Their mothers have very rich milk and within 2 weeks, the pups will be left to their own devices (having quadrupled in weight), while their mothers mate and then return to the ocean.
Pup grows to 400lbs (180 kgs) in 3 weeks!
The pups just have to learn to swim and then avoid the patrolling pods of killer whales and then they can set off into the deep!
Magellanic penguin pair setting up home.....
Other differences we noticed in the wildlife was the absence of Rockhopper penguins - (these are due in a couple of weeks) - and also the lack of Skuas, which was quite a relief, as these birds are extremely aggressive in protecting their young.  No doubt they will return soon, when there is more food (eg, young penguins) for their chicks.

Jaunty Gentoo Penguins...permanent residents.
Some birds are on the island all year round.  The large colony of Gentoo penguins is beginning to get into breeding mode.
Elusive and rare Striated Caracara
And there is a rare bird, known locally as Johnny Rook, which is not shy when it comes to investigating visitors.
Hold still!
It's sometimes a struggle to enjoy a packed lunch when these birds are around....
He's let himself go over winter....female and pup on right
But the BIGGEST difference between previous visits, was the size and behaviour of the male elephant seals.  Last February, these guys had been out of the water for about 5 months, and had used up almost all of their food reserves. They were also moulting, and so were a sorry sight.  Like a discarded, worn carpet.
Must keep doing the stretches to get the figure back.....
 Mostly they would lie placidly on the beach, making strange noises from either end of their 5-metre bodies.
Mother and pup
 But now they were at their peak of condition and were competing for the females on the beach.   Some males already had harems which had produced pups (which are the result of mating the previous year).
Dozing in the dunes.  Person in background....
  Others lounged around in the dunes, awaiting an opportunity to sneak into a harem, or have a fight with another male.
Sleeping seal; stupid photographer...
 One one occasion, the peace was shattered when "Eric" (so named by visiting Italian researchers monitoring their behaviour), sneaked out of the surf to mount a surprise attack on the rear of a slumbering Bruno.
An attack from, and on, the rear....
In seconds, the air was full of howling and grunting as the pair squared up to each other, and tried to find a  way to smash their sharp, but small, teeth into the blubber of their opponent.
Let battle commence......
With much pushing and shoving, Bruno made Eric reverse into the sea, where his dominance was clear-cut.
Hard to tell who is winning!
 After a few minutes, Eric realised he had bitten off more than than he could chew, and it would be sensible to retreat and live to fight another day....
And the winner is .... Bruno
 Meanwhile, back in my old stomping ground in Teddington, London, the local park is currently observing the Autumn rut between Red deer stags.  A very similar exercise in natural selection.  I never imagined, as I was enjoying walking round the parks of South-west London, that I would one day be watching wildlife in the South-west Atlantic.
Landing in a gale
After 10 hours walking around the island, we were ready for a delicious meal from the hospitable hostess, Jenny, (who has taken up Nordic Walking!), and then an early night as we had an early flight in the morning back to Stanley.

Just enough time to get up at dawn (6.30am) and watch the seals one last time, before breakfast.  Unfortunately, the Killer Whales failed to appear, although I heard they arrived that afternoon!   We will just have to go back to see them!
This may be the last blog for about a month, as we are off the explore the land of Paddington Bear.

Continued in November.  Happy Birthdays to half of my family, who seem to have Birthdays in October.


PS .  Elephant Seal factoid - the male/female size difference is the biggest in the animal kingdom.  Imagine someone 3 times heavier than you making advances.....!

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