Sunday, 6 November 2016

Zombie Penguins, Peregrines and Leopards!

An occasional slice of life in the south Atlantic.  This week I was lucky enough to be treated to a short trip to Volunteer Point - home to several thousand penguins, peregrines and a leopard......
If you had never seen a penguin in the wild before, would you recognise these furry creatures as members of the species??
Keeping cool at the watering hole
They are, if you haven't already worked out, chicks of King penguins. The breeding cycle of Kings is quite unusual, in that it doesn't follow an annual cycle.  From mating to "leaving the nest" takes about 15 months.
So, a pair of Kings, can only produce 2 chicks in 3 years.
During their early life, chicks are sometimes guarded by a parent; ot other times, left long spells in a creche while the parents forage far and wide for food.
While most of the parents are away, these fluffy "teenagers" mooch around slowly using up their reserves and trying to keep cool in their fur coats.
In a few weeks, they will start to moult and lose these first feathers, and produce the oiled adult feathers which enable them to fend for themselves in the sea.
These chicks have had a few problems this winter, with several hundred dying or being killed by predators such as vultures.  The parents can swim as far as Antarctica, about 1,000 miles south, looking for food, and can be away for a couple of weeks.  While they are gone, the chicks are vulnerable.

 Volunteer Point is a private Nature Reserve within a 50,000 acre sheep farm, about 20 miles due north of Stanley, capital of the Falklands.  However, to get there, one must drive on the rural roads for over an hour, then drive off-road for another hour.
The creche is for penguins only
We were picked up at the road end by the resident warden, Derek, who lives near a 2-mile long beach in a shanty. The shanty is an old shepherd's house, but now it is cosy and hospitable, taking 4 guests at a time. We shared the meals with Derek and wife Trudi, but were free to come and go whenever we wished.
Feeding time
Outside, a few chicks were being fed......

I'm pretty sure, anywhere else in the world, there would be an exclusive and expensive luxury lodge built there. But we had the beach and reserve to ourselves, plus one other visitor, who happened to be a luminary of Polar tourism.
When cruise ships call into Stanley, hundreds of passengers get ashore as early as they can and join the convoy of 4x4 (SUV) cars heading to Volunteer Point. Some pay a couple of hundred dollars each for the privilege, but where else can you get so close to so many breeding penguins in a pristine area?
The main problem with being a day visitor, apart from the cost, is the long overland, bumpy journey for a short time with the penguins. So, it was delicious to be able to relax and know we had all day and most of the next day. Then the fog came in......  :-(
"Does my bum look big in this?"

Penguin feet

The creche is within the white stones.
Four Gentoos

As well as the "stars", the King penguins, there are several hundred (at least) breeding Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.
Out of the mist...

Kings in the mist

Shanty. 10 miles from the nearest road...

Volunteer Beach. 2 miles long. No deckchairs. No people.....

Three Kings....

Two Oystercatchers

Photobombed. Well, it is a sheep farm.....

Moulting Kings

Busy beach

Perfecting Nordic Walking technique

Wall to wall penguins...

In case you get lost....

Penguins everywhere.

Parents with the Incredible Sulk

To youngsters, we might be adults bringing food......

With so many penguins, predators are never far away.

He might be wondering what kind of penguin we are!
The walls of the shanty are covered in stunning photos taken by our hosts. One in particular, is a fantastic portrait of a peregrine falcon landing, wings outstretched, on its nest. We were told we might see the bird if we kept our eyes open....

Peregrine, going fast.....
Amazingly, about 15 minutes walk from the house, we heard an unusual screeching, and looked up to see two peregrines engaged in an aerial display. I nearly managed to get a photo of them both, but they were just a bit too fast for me!
Sea cliffs, home to the peregrines.

Same cliff, with raptor atop....

Falcon food....
After a breezy walk along the cliffs, we returned to the beach hoping to see the sea lion again. What we found was another "first" (after the peregrines) for me!
See that log in the middle of the beach.....?
We were about to tuck into our packed lunch, when I thought the log on the beach looked a funny shape.......
Not a log, but a Leopard Seal. Magellanic penguins consider their options.
On closer inspection, it turned out to be a resting Leopard Seal.....
These seals are top predators, with some very sharp teeth and a penchant for penguins!
Dreaming of penguins....
In a unique occurrence, several years ago, one even drowned a British Antarctic Survey scientist who was diving near an Antarctic base.

As far as I know, Leopard seals only rarely frequent Falklands' waters. But there have been dozens of sightings this year, so I suspect something has gone awry with the normal food chain or distribution of food.  The squid had a very poor year, so it's possible the seals are foraging far and wide. Their home range is Antarctica, and sub-Antarctic islands.
A good bit of track.

All too soon, we were being driven the miles over the rough Camp tracks back to our car at the end of the road. It took about 2 and a half hours to do the 45 mile journey.

A peregrine falcon could have flown from Volunteer Point to Stanley in 6 (yes, six) minutes!

Thanks to Derek and Trudi for their warm hospitality, stunning photos and driving ability; to my wife for organising such a fabulous trip, and to Denise, whom we met there and shared some experiences with - a pleasure to meet you.

How can I follow that?  :-)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield", on South Georgia

[An intermittent insight into island life. The Falkland Islands are remote and windswept, and home to about 3,000 people, including me and my wife. About 800 miles south-east is South Georgia Island - covered in glaciers, temporary home to a few British Antarctic Survey scientists, and millions of penguins. However, there is no shortage of people who want to go there......]

In the last couple of  weeks, I have been lucky enough to meet two parties of explorers whose lifetime ambitions included walking or skiing across South Georgia. Their exploits deserve telling....
Starbuck Peak, (4705 feet, 1435m) (Photo courtesy of Simon Richardson).
The Climbers........

Crossing South Georgia would be an amazing feat at the best of times, but some climbers also wanted to climb some unclimbed peaks along the way! Now, there are good reasons why some of those peaks are unclimbed! They are too difficult!  However, there was a spell of remarkably good weather which allowed a small British group to climb the stunning Starbuck Peak for the first time! When they first saw its vertical slopes, their thoughts were that it was "probably impossible".
Pelagic Australis, sister yacht to Pelagic
About a month ago, 3 British mountaineers sailed to South Georgia on the Pelagic Australis with two guides - Stephen Venables and Crag Jones - and owner of Pelagic Expeditions, Skip Novak. Both Skip and Stephen have explored South Georgia many times in the past.
Yours truly on South Georgia
 This photo shows South Georgia at the end of summer. At this time of year, October - early Spring, it is covered in snow and ice, despite being the same distance from the Equator as the Isle of Man - 54 degrees south! The reason for this is the very cold ocean waters surrounding it. The climbing party spent 5 days in their tents on arrival, waiting for a blizzard to blow itself out.

But the blizzard had the beneficial effect of giving a good base of snow for their ski-touring and climbing. They then had sunshine for 12 days, and climbed 5 peaks, including the highest unclimbed peak on the island, Mt Baume (6,272 feet, 1,910m). Some of the mountains are so rarely visited that they have yet to be named!
Skip and co. in Stanley.
I met the party - Skip Novak, Henry Chaplin, Simon Richardson and David Lund, (Stephen Venables, Crag Jones were still in South Georgia with the Crean Team. See below) - when they arrived back in Stanley. Another party I met this month had very different fortunes.....
Whaling harpoon, Stanley
Team Tom Crean Centenary Traverse.........

100 years ago, one of the most miraculous journeys in history was completed by Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, when they walked into the whaling station of Stromness on South Georgia. Having been shipwrecked for 18 months on Antarctic ice floes, they then managed to sail a small boat 1200 miles to South Georgia. Sadly, they landed at the uninhabited south coast of South Georgia. With barely any equipment or food, they set off to cross the unmapped interior of South Georgia to find help. They walked for 36 hours solid.....

Shackleton's grave, South Georgia
When they reached the whaling station, they asked to see the manager, who had wined and dined them before they had headed south 18 months previously.
Shackleton - "Don't you know me?"
Manager - "I know your voice".
Shackleton - "My name is Shackleton".
Manager - "Come in, come in".

Looking down to Stromness, South Georgia.
And so, 100 years on, the grand-daughter of Tom Crean, Aileen Crean O'Brien, decided to retrace Tom's route across the island, to commemorate the centenary of the epic crossing.

The group was guided by the two guides who were already on the island, Stephen Venables and Crag Jones, and comprised Aileen's partner Bill Sheppard and her two sons, Cian and Morgan D'Arcy. I met them as they passed through Stanley, where they joined the yacht, Pelagic, skippered by Alex and Giselle.
Aileen and Bill, with Shackleton South Georgia tea towel, on the Pelagic
 I knew they had virtually no time in Stanley, so I presented them with a tea towel with a map of "Shackleton's" route across South Georgia, which they were about to retrace. (Maybe it would come in handy if they got separated from their guides?).
Team Tom Crean on the Pelagic, Stanley
The next morning, Pelagic  sailed out of Stanley harbour through the Narrows. It was almost flat calm, and, through binoculars,  I could see the skipper rolling a cigarette. It was probably his last relaxed moment of the trip.
Pelagic sailing out of Stanley Harbour
 After five days at sea, they reached South Georgia, and prepared for their trek. They had been in training in Kerry, Ireland for more than a year, dragging car tyres round the back roads near their home in Kenmare.
Pelagic, through the Narrows.
I would strongly urge you to read the story of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley. Aileen's version got off to a good start, climbing up onto glaciers in the first day of four.  Near the end of day two, and they were abseiling, one at a time, down onto the Crean glacier. There was still a slope to negotiate and Aileen followed those ahead of her. Unfortunately, things went awry and she ended up with a bloody face and a smashed leg.  Her grandfather had done something similar at the same spot and walked away with nothing worse than ripped trousers.
Crean Lake, where Tom Crean fell through the ice!

For the next two days, Aileen was dragged on a modified sled by Stephen and Crag. Very gingerly, they descended down to Fortuna Bay, where the Pelagic  was waiting. Aileen somehow got into the zodiac, and was then winched aboard, and lowered through a hatch to a bunk.  The next day, the yacht arrived at Grytviken, an abandoned whaling station, and now home to a couple of dozen British scientists. Luckily, a doctor put her leg in a splint. But she still faced an extremely uncomfortable week, sailing across the South Atlantic to Stanley...

HMS Clyde
However, HMS Clyde, the Royal Navy's patrol vessel in the South Atlantic, fortuitously appeared over the horizon at just the right moment, and offered to return Aileen to the Falklands at full speed. So, she exchanged a cramped bunk for a small cabin, and parted from her partner and sons. They still had 5 miles of hiking to complete the South Georgia traverse, and so set off for Stromness.
Near Shackleton's Falls, Stromness whaling station on the coast.
After 18 months of isolation, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley arrived at this spot. It was dark, but realising it was a few minutes to 7am, the men paused and listened. Sure enough, at 7am, they heard the sound of the factory whistle summoning the whalers to work. Apart from their own, it was the first man-made sound the explorers had heard in 18 months. Team Tom Crean finished their traverse without further incident.
Pelagic Australis, with Hans Hansson in the background.
However, they now had to follow Aileen back to Falklands through stormy waters....... Once back in the Falklands, Aileen had been ferried to the hospital in Stanley by helicopter. There, her leg was set in plaster to immobilise it. But repairing the knee needed specialist attention. It was decided to evacuate her to Santiago in Chile.
HMS Clyde in Stanley Harbour
While Aileen was awaiting her flight to Chile, I mentioned to our local librarian, Coleen, whom I knew to have a special interest in South Georgia, having spent some of her childhood there,  that Aileen was in the hospital. "Oh, my grandmother told me that Tom Crean was the hungriest man she'd ever met!"  It turned out that Coleen had heard of Tom Crean from her grandparents who ran the First and Last Hotel in Stanley.  When the Endurance explorers had arrived back in the Falklands, Sir Ernest Shackleton had been put up at Government House as the guest of the Governor, but the men had made do in an hotel.  And they made up for 18 months of deprivation, while they waited for help to rescue their colleagues on Elephant Island!

It would take four attempts to eventually save them. A Chilean Pilot, Pardo, is still celebrated in his home port of Punta Arenas for achieving what the Royal or Merchant Navy could not do - pluck 28 men from Elephant Island.
Just before she flew off, Aileen's cast was split open for the flight, as bodies sometimes expand with the changing air pressure.... She didn't much like the cast anyway, as she is a proud Kerry woman, and the doctor had written "Up Wexford" on it!
Aileen with the "Up Wexford" cast, cut open for the flight.
I've been delaying posting this until I had heard where the rest of Team Tom Crean were. Today, as I drove to work, I saw the Pelagic moored at the public jetty.  Having seen some movement onboard, I guessed I could re-introduce myself. Everyone was OK, although most were slightly shaky on their legs after 9 very rough days at sea. They had the look of men who had been through the wringer, and then put back through again.

It wasn't a time for chatting or reflection. I passed on news of Aileen, and gave then souvenir copies of Penguin News which had articles about them. Then I wished them well on their homeward leg. In the afternoon, I bumped into Bill looking for the library and Coleen, but I was giving a driving lesson, so couldn't stop!

According to historians, the Heroic Age of Antarctica was about 100 years ago. However, I feel that some of the recent exploits are nothing short of heroic.

I once worked with a remarkable man, and one of his favourite works was "Ulysses", by Tennyson.

"One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It just came to mind. 

To Team Tom Crean - it was a pleasure to meet you. I think Tom would have been proud of you. Go well. Stay well.