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King Edward Point Diary — November 2009

Outside my office window an elephant seal weaner (weaned pup) has propelled itself caterpillar fashion (it’s termed “humping”) across the fresh snowfall and unsuccessfully attempted to gnaw through the base of the flagpole with its gummy mouth. Across Cumberland East Bay thick grey clouds sit some inches above the coastline. A giant snow penguin now obscures web cam 1, having been built in time to witness a boisterous snowball fight (see archive footage from web cam 1 on www.sgisland.gs the 22nd Nov 2009 or for a compiled version www.zeitcam.com selecting South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the drop down “countries” menu). The weaner looks like it has fallen asleep mid-gnaw.

Summer has been late arriving. A cold snap and heavy snowfall brought about winter conditions again for a week. As late as the 22nd the track to Grytviken and our only means of escape by land, was closed for a day owing to the risk of avalanche. That brought about the snow penguin and boisterousness. This time last year only the higher peaks remained snow-clad as we trod about the rocky slopes below. That’s not to say we sat impatiently looking out windows to wait for the melt. Instead we raided the Field Store for the necessary gear; snow shoes, avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels; on the 21st, Les, George, Richy and I made an attempt on Narwhal, one of the jagged peaks between Grytviken and Cumberland West Bay. An initial and direct assault proved abortive, with an avalanche test pit indicating an unstable snow pack on the steeper slopes. However, scouting around the northern slopes we were able to pick our way up some exposed rock and then onto a gentle summit ridge for a well-deserved panorama of our home — Cumberland East and West Bays, with KEP model-sized in the cove below and brief glimpses of the Allardyce Range peeking through thick grey cloud.

George views the isolated block of snow that easily slid off an unstable layer of snow, indicating a high avalanche risk. (Photo: Luke Kenny)
George views the isolated block of snow that easily slid off an unstable layer of snow, indicating a high avalanche risk. (Photo: Luke Kenny)

On the 4th of the month, several of our team arrived back from re-supplying the Bird Island station (see October diary entry) just in time to welcome in the Fishery Patrol vessel. On board were both new and familiar faces; Dave Peck and Tim Stenning who are no strangers to the island were accompanied by Christian Bernsten. Their role was to carry out structural maintenance on buildings, jetties and the like for the government. Also arriving was the new government officer Keiron Fraser and his wife Ruth. Brian Summers returned to continue the fight against invasive plant species. This burgeoning population was used to full advantage, lending itself to both a ceilidh and a garage disco, part farewell, part commemoration of one year on the island.

Orca were spotted early in the month in Cumberland West Bay by our resident yacht, Wanderer 3. Consequently there was no shortage of volunteers to crew the boats over to Harpon Bay where Tom and Angy camped for two nights. Needless to say the orca avoided the area like the plague during the drop off and pick up. Clever panda fish they are.

Yet again we didn't see orca, but this time we know they were there. (Photo: Luke Kenny)
Yet again we didn't see orca, but this time we know they were there. (Photo: Luke Kenny)

All through the month our eyes have been constantly caught by the dynamic elephant seal population. Females that finished the energy-sapping suckling period mated and slipped back to sea. The dominant male, faithful as ever to the last female stood guard, though his failing energy reserves allowed for more frequent incursions by subordinates. The weaners have humped away from their harem birth spots and spread around the base like a fat sausage tide. Woe betide if they stopped a night outside your bedroom window as they tended to yelp and snort for most of the night, finally settling down to sleep when you had given up hope of doing the same. As the month drew to a close the last of the females departed, to be replaced by animals returning to moult. The weaners began to find their flippers as it were, playing around in the shallows and providing hours of entertainment to passing walkers.

Elephant seal 'weaner tide'. (Photo: Luke Kenny)
Elephant seal 'weaner tide'. (Photo: Luke Kenny)

Jonathan’s daily trips to his Maiviken study beaches were finally rewarded on the 24th by the first fur seal pups. Numbers of females returning to pup remain very much down on last year. It is thought that many females aborted their pregnancies owing to their poor condition. This of course is a direct consequence of the krill-poor year, their main food source. However, krill did start to appear in fur seal and gentoo penguin faeces during the month and by the end of the month a pair of humpbacks had even appeared off KEP feeding on those important crustaceans.

In other news, two marriages took place including two of the four Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) scientists passing through after a stint tagging elephant seals at Husvik station. Martin Biuw the groom and Aline Arriola Ortiz the bride were attended by their colleagues Lars Boehme and Theoni Photopoulos, while the ceremony itself was carried out by the resident registrar Sarah Lurcock and took place in front of a wind-swept web cam 1. The other wedding party arrived on one of the twelve cruise ships that visited this month.

The marriage of Martin and Aline. (Photo: Luke Kenny)
The marriage of Martin and Aline. (Photo: Luke Kenny)

These ships continue to invite us on board on a regular basis for dinner and drinks, indicating that we must be at the very least pausing to hold polite conversation with passengers in between mouthfuls of salad, fresh fruit or succulent barbecued meats. Occasionally they request a lecture on the research and life that goes on here, a small price to pay for such hospitality. Brian Summers officially opened the Biosecurity Store, a building used to check incoming cargo for foreign seeds or animals such as mice or rats. The building was funded by the government, the Overseas Territories Environmental Programme, the EU and the RSPB.

The navy made its presence known, with HMS Gloucester visiting the area early in the month as part of its Southern Ocean patrol. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Golden Rover also paid a visit around the same time.

The 19th was a poignant day written in red letters in our memories. As the fishery patrol vessel raised its gangway we threw snowballs at those people who leaned over the rail, as if to distract ourselves from the fact that we were about to lose them. Elsa Davidson and Steve Massam of the museum, in and out in six weeks; Brian Summers, two weeks, his invasive plant spraying efforts delayed until the last few days by the late snowfalls; the SMRU scientists, two days and a marriage; but perhaps most significantly Angy Jones, doctor and Tommy Vintner, mechanic, one year of their lives, our lives.

The ship waved back as it disappeared around Hope Point, by which stage most were probably scurrying below to throw up.

Gathering to wish farewell to our departing friends (Photo: Luke Kenny)
Gathering to wish farewell to our departing friends (Photo: Luke Kenny)
The Pharos steams past the remnants of an elephant seal harem, and Hope Point (Photo: Luke Kenny)
The Pharos steams past the remnants of an elephant seal harem, and Hope Point (Photo: Luke Kenny)

Farewell on a Red Ship

Because I only had a year,
The Pharos came for me;
That big red ship held just ourselves
And took us out to sea.

We slowly steamed, she knew no haste,
And I had stowed away
My kit, and all my fragile gear,
From her severity.

We passed the base where our friends waved,
Exhausted from their run;
We passed Hope Point and its white cross,
And not a trace of sun.

We rolled before a wave that seemed
A swelling of the soul;
The roof was scarcely visible,
My hat a china bowl.

I retched for days and days; yet each
One seemed more like a year,
A painful wrenching farewell trip
Washed down with salty tear.

Based on Emily Dickinson’s “The Chariot”

Luke Kenny, Assistant Marine Biologist, KEP, South Georgia.