Category Archives: South Sandwich Islands

“The most awful place in the world.” James Cook, 1775

“A scary, serious paradise of penguins.” Tom Hart, 2014

Chinstrap penguins porpoise off Candlemas Island, South Sandwich

Chinstrap penguins porpoise off Candlemas Island, South Sandwich

Hi All, usual apologies for the delay, lots has happened.

The team has been incredibly busy, mostly on the Antarctic Peninsula, but also around the Scotia Arc (South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkneys and the Peninsula). I’ll resume the story in Ushuaia. Caitlin Black has flown out back to the UK and Gemma Clucas from Southampton University has flown in. In addition to helping with the cameras, Gemma will also be collecting samples for her PhD.

The South Sandwich Islands are a chain of volcanoes that arc around from East of South Georgia to East of the South Orkney Islands. They are volcanic and all active to some degree. Because they lie in such rich krill waters, they are a paradise for penguins, with millions of chinstrap and Adelie penguins. I’m privileged enough to have been there twice before
(https://penguinlifelines.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/south-sandwich-islands/) and (https://penguinlifelines.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/gearing-up-for-saunders-south-sandwich-islands/) and I’m in love and terrified by these islands in equal parts.

A visualization of earthquakes since 1898 neatly outlines the Scotia Plate to the North of the Antarctic Peninsula http://uxblog.idvsolutions.com/2012/06/earthquakes-since-1898.html

A visualization of earthquakes since 1898 neatly outlines the Scotia Plate to the North of the Antarctic Peninsula
http://uxblog.idvsolutions.com/2012/06/earthquakes-since-1898.html

It’s almost completely unrepresented in the scientific literature, but is essential to understanding observed changes in the krill transport chain impact of fisheries on penguins further West.

We join the Sea Spirit in Ushuaia, with a new team we’ve heard a lot about, but not worked with.

The Sea Spirit in Royal Bay, South Georgia.

The Sea Spirit in Royal Bay, South Georgia.

A spectacular voyage lies ahead, visiting the Falklands and South Georgia before the South Sandwich. With such a spectacular prize, it’s difficult not to wish away the start. The weather is kind, with some rain and wind in the Falklands, but nothing bad.

Gentoo penguins in the Falklands

Gentoo penguins in the Falklands

West Point, Falkland Islands with Black Browed Albatross overhead.

West Point, Falkland Islands with Black Browed Albatross overhead.

On route to South Georgia, we manage a photo census of Shag Rocks; part of our ongoing effort to monitor more colonies and understand the Southern Ocean dynamics. Shags are particularly sensitive to disturbance, making them a vital indicator.

Carrying out a photo census of Shag Rocks in perfect conditions.

Carrying out a photo census of Shag Rocks in perfect conditions.

We had a blissful, perfect five days on South Georgia, managing to get back to some of the cameras we placed in October and conduct more photo censuses.

King penguins at Gold Harbour (Gemma Clucas)

King penguins at Gold Harbour (Gemma Clucas)

But, just as we were due to leave South Georgia, a really large storm came through. We delayed a little, departed, turned back and then finally got under way again. Captain Oleg made a great decision and after another day at sea, the familiar shape of Saunders Island appeared on the radar and on the horizon. Wow!

Steam rolls of the side of Saunders Island in the South Sandwich. The camera was upright, and was still working until 10 days before we arrived. We serviced it so that it should be good for another three years. At this point, we were trying to work out where the nearest humans were – probably on the International Space Station.

I can't quite believe being back - geothermal steam rolls up the hill past a massive colony of chinstrap penguins (Photo: Dave Riorden)

I can’t quite believe being back – geothermal steam rolls up the hill past a massive colony of chinstrap penguins (Photo: Dave Riorden)

Spring hits the South Sandwich Islands - an image from the seaward facing camera.

Spring hits the South Sandwich Islands – an image from the seaward facing camera.

We had two days in South Sandwich, revisiting Candlemas for the first time since the 2011 survey. We left with a wealth of data to go through and immense pride, not to mention exhaustion. Dr Jo was threatening sedation unless I slept by the end…

(Brown) Trousers Rock off Vindication Island in January 2011; what the South Sandwich Islands usually looks like.

(Brown) Trousers Rock off Vindication Island in January 2011; what the South Sandwich Islands usually looks like.

...and in December 2014 on an incredible, calm day.

…and in December 2014 on an incredible, calm day.

A spectacular iceberg of Vindication Island with a leopard seal patrolling. The seal was calling for a mate. When we turned off the engine, we could hear it through the bottom of the boat.

A spectacular iceberg of Vindication Island with a leopard seal patrolling. The seal was calling for a mate. When we turned off the engine, we could hear it through the bottom of the boat.

A king penguin in the middle of the Scotia Sea, miles from home.

A king penguin in the middle of the Scotia Sea, miles from home.

As if the South Sandwich Islands weren’t enough, the weather teases us with the possibility of a landing (and camera) at Elephant Island. I’ve attempted this four times and always been blown out. However, I should have had faith in Captain Oleg and the luck of the Sea Spirit! We landed and placed a camera, making the monitoring network I’ve been trying to create for the last five years essentially complete.

Thanks Team!  The Sea Spirit team at Point Wild, the overwintering site of Shackleton's men on the Endurance expedition.

Thanks Team!
The Sea Spirit team at Point Wild, the overwintering site of Shackleton’s men on the Endurance expedition.

Gemma and I leave the Sea Spirit in Ushuaia with a lot of new friends and some bewildering, spectacular shared experiences. Thanks guys – there’s no finer team in the Southern Ocean!

It’s the start of the season – we’ve kicked off a more complicated season than usual, but one that is very exciting for what it means in what we can deliver for Southern Ocean monitoring.
This season has several strands – Gemma Clucas (from Southampton University) and I (Tom) will be visiting the South Sandwich Islands on board the MV Ortelius. We’ll aim to get samples and place cameras on South Georgia, South Sandwich, Elephant Island and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Next, I’ll fly to Berknor Island at the South of the Weddell Sea to attempt to place a time-lapse camera on an Emperor colony.
Finally, in phase three, we’ll be back on the Ocean Diamond servicing the cameras around the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, I’ll be joined initially by Paul Nolan from Citadel University in the US, then Caitlin Black, an MRes student from Oxford. Finally, I’ll be joined by Al Davies from the Zoological Society of London who will field test the first satellite linked camera we hope to deploy in some really remote places.

A gentoo penguin sits up the top of Danco Island in the Ererra Channel.

A gentoo penguin sits up the top of Danco Island in the Ererra Channel.

1st November, 2013
Gemma and I board the MV Ortelius, previously a Russian ice-strengthened transport ship, but now Dutch owned and renovated as a polar tour ship. We’ll be on this ship until the 23rd November, visiting the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich and the Antarctic Peninsula. We’re also meant to be going to the South Orkneys, but as these are still in the sea ice, that currently seems like a long shot.

8th November, 2013
King Edward Point! Site of Grytviken, an old whaling station and also the research station which conducts fisheries research. I meet Pat, one of the Government Officers to check permits and also catch up with good friends. The South Georgia Government has been very helpful with cameras around this region, so I was able to pick up the SD cards from three cameras in the region, which were full of good data.
The visit is short and in no time at all, we’re saying good bye to friends Sue, Andy and Pat.

A light snow shower makes for a pretty scene next to one of the old whale catchers

A light snow shower makes for a pretty scene next to one of the old whale catchers

South Sandwich!
I wake up at 0330 to a radio call saying that we are close to Saunders Island. I jump out of bed and go to the bridge. Sure enough, there is Saunders Island on the radar and emerging vaguely through the fog. It’s very different to the last time I was here in January 2010 on the yacht Golden Fleece. As Captain Ernesto picked his way through the sea ice to an anchorage, I start to recognise the features and possible landing sites. The wind is alternating between 20 and 45 knots. We anchor with trepidation and wait – get these conditions wrong and you’re stranded in one of the most remote regions on earth, with very little chance of help. Our mood turns from hope to fear as it looks like we might lose our main objective. When it starts looking like we may have to give up, the wind eases and starts to stabilise. The fog clears a little and suddenly it looks possible for a landing in drysuits. We launch a scout boat and land- victory! More than that, it rapidly turns stable enough to land all the passengers, so everyone gets to experience the bleak, impressive landscape on Saunders. Gemma and I waste no time in getting our respective work done, still sweltering in drysuits and sliding down the sides of the gullies. We are recalled to the zodiacs an hour and a half later, craving more time but incredibly happy about the result. We reboard Ortelius, so grateful to the Captain and Expedition Leader Delphine for getting us to shore. I feel hugely relieved, having landed three years ago I knew how bad the conditions usually are and therefore how easy it would be to fail. Now we only need to worry about getting back in future years…

13 Saunders Isl. s.Sandwich (12)

Saunders Island  in the South Sandwich - we didn't have a lot of time, so we had to run to get the sampling and cameras done! (c) Chris Eves.

Saunders Island in the South Sandwich – we didn’t have a lot of time, so we had to run to get the sampling and cameras done! (c) Chris Eves.

Sunday 17th November, 2013.
We’ve had a slow crossing from South Sandwich to the Antarctic Peninsula, with initially a lot of sea ice around South Sandwich, followed by a stronger headwind and larger seas than forecast. Long crossings and time at sea can be frustrating, but we’ve had a lot of birds and whales to watch.
Expedition accounts from the past frequently refer to methods of fending off boredom.

‘It’s time enough to do it when you’ve got to; until that time comes, make yourself as comfortable as circumstances permit.’
Earnest Shackleton, when the Endurance was stuck in ice.

Shackleton put all of his team to work – he had the scientists scrubbing the decks to reinforce the sense of an expedition team. Not everyone saw the benefit of this; Thomas Orde Lees was a mechanic from the navy and grouped with the scientists. He makes a number of references to some parts of manual labour being beneath him.
‘This is not work I should like mind a bit except for the disgusting way everyone spits all over the deck, which would not be tolerated for a moment in a man-o’-war’.
Life on board Ortelius is much more exciting and with far fewer chores, so although we’re slower than expected, it’s been a very nice crossing. This morning, we reached Elephant Island at 0300. It was pretty calm; a very gentle but long swell rolled past the ship towards the shore. It must have been just past dawn, but the light was still very grey and flat, with no obvious sun. Elephant Island covered the horizon on the port side of the ship. It was a spectacular morning and very quickly we launched a scout zodiac to attempt a landing. Sadly, the swell was too big for a landing, but we had a good look at the site at which Shackleton’s men spent the winter while Shackleton and five others crossed the Scotia Sea in a small boat to find help.

Delphine the Expedition Leader on Ortelius, searching for a safe landing at Point Wild, Elephant Island

Delphine the Expedition Leader on Ortelius, searching for a safe landing at Point Wild, Elephant Island

South Sandwich Islands

South 2011 – Penguining around the Southern Ocean

I’m republishing this as we get ready to go to the South Sandwich Islands this year. Just reading it has me all excited about what we’re going to see. Fingers crossed my camera has survived and we’ll get the first long-term data from the South Sandwich Islands EVER!

Stage 1: South Sandwich Islands

30th Dec- 1st Jan 2011
Set off from London and reached Santiago just in time for New Year. There wasn’t too much time for celebrating, as we were on an early flight. I met Hansjoerg (who organised the yacht charter to the South Sandwich Islands) and Rich from Oceanites, who will be carrying out counts of seabirds at all the colonies we reach.
I tried to get some sleep, hearing people celebrating New Year. Got up really early to repack and send the last emails for up to 5 weeks. Slight nerves – no-one goes to the South Sandwich Islands for a really good reason – they are terrifying!

Saturday 1st Jan 2011
Arrived in Stanley, capital (and only) town in the Falklands. The first step of this field season is to take a yacht from Stanley in the Falklands to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The idea is to carry out a population genetic survey of these islands to see whether they are distinct populations from South Georgia or the rest of Antarctica. We joined the Golden Fleece, run by Jerome and Dion Poncet. Jerome gave us a briefing and any nervousness went away. Jerome sailed the first yacht South of the Antarctic circle in 1973, and has most of the ‘firsts’ since then. Golden Fleece is a steel tank of a yacht (a very pretty tank) and it’s reassuring looking around the boat and getting to know her.
We had dinner and then slipped the mooring. It’s a nice still evening in Stanley harbour as we motor out through the narrows and get some sail up.

1st-5th Jan 2011.
At sea- it’s been pretty relaxing, getting some work done without email and also catching up on reading. I read South by Shackleton the other day, his account of the expedition when Endurance sank and they had to man-haul across the ice and then sail to Elephant Island and up to South Georgia. It brings it into perspective exactly how tough it can be down here, and what sort of guys those early explorers must have been- another breed!

Golden Fleece at Sea

Golden Fleece at Sea

We’ve started to see some of the characteristic wildlife; a fin whale, lots of albatrosses and some petrels.
This morning (5th Jan), we arrived at Shag Rocks, and went in close for a look. There were loads of shags nesting up high and on the water surrounding them. The rocks are very impressive; they jut out like teeth from the sea. I had an accident with my camera and deleted the photos, but there is some video to follow. We’re now less than 24 hours from King Edward Point on South Georgia – this is just a quick stop off on this trip, South Georgia Government and the British Antarctic Survey run a base next to the old whaling station, so we are putting in for some water. I’m looking forward to catching up with friends albeit very briefly.
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South Georgia is an island paradise – that is if your definition is cold with unimaginable beauty and wildlife. Fortunately, that fits my definition perfectly, so I love it here! South Georgia is a long, thin island roughly 150nm long, by about 20nm wide. When you first see it from the sea, it’s like someone flooded the Alps. As an island, it’s very impressive and stunningly beautiful. As you get closer, you start encountering lots more wildlife which forages out from the vast colonies on land. We should be seeing the coastline in the next few hours. I’ll send this blog from KEP, and afterwards this will go a little quiet, as I’ll only be able to send update texts from a satphone.

Golden Fleece in Ocean Harbour, South Gerogia. It's the less rusty one...

Golden Fleece in Ocean Harbour, South Gerogia. It’s the less rusty one…

Saturday, 8th Jan 2011.
We’re on route to Zavodovski, the Northernmost of the South Sandwich Islands. Together with Leskov and Visokoi Islands, these northern three islands are often called the Traversay Islands, as they were discovered by Bellingshausen in 1819, several decades after Cook discovered the Southern Islands in 1775. Zavodovski has the biggest Chinstrap penguin colony in the world, estimated at somewhere between 1 and 2 million birds. This is one of the main reasons why Andy and Rich are here; they are trying to get more accurate counts of these colonies and to see whether the ones that have been more accurately counted have changed since the last counts in 1997.
After lunch, we saw quite a large iceberg with about 30 chinstraps standing on the shoulder. Presumably they were taking a break from foraging. The air has turned a lot colder – surprising as the most noticeable change is usually at the Antarctic Convergence. Very soon after that iceberg, we saw two humpbacks stooging on the surface, occasionally blowing. We went a bit closer and then resumed our course for Zavadovski.

The only other worry is the forecast; it’s not looking too good for the next two days. Ideally we need two good days on Zavodovski, but the next 48 hours are looking pretty bad on the weather report. There’s a big gale coming; it’s possible it will miss us and head North or South, but if not we will need to find some shelter on one side of the island and hang on for a while.
Wednesday 12th Jan 2011.

Zavodovski, land of ice and fire. And penguins

Zavodovski, land of ice and fire. And penguins

GF Zavodoovski

Oops, it seems like I’ve neglected this for a while – I can’t upload it anyway; my satphone can’t handle it at the moment, so I think this is going to have to wait until we get back to Stanley.
So, the past week has been the formative bit of this expedition. We had a total of four days on Zavodovski – I think the photos tell the story there. Zavodovski is an active volcano. We have no idea when it last went off, but the whole island is covered in ash. At certain places where meltwater or lava has cut a path through the ash, you can see the ice cap below the ash.

N shore Zavodovski

There are literally millions of penguins on Zavodovski – part of this expedition is to count how many there are. Rich from Oceanites and Andy from South Georgia Government have been mapping the borders of the colonies with GPS and trying to get density estimates. It’s an enormous task.

Friday, 14 January 2011.
Got up and went ashore at Finger Point on Visokoi Island. I collected a load of macaroni and chinstrap feathers, then took some photos and assisted with the macaroni nest counts. We went back to Golden Fleece around midday and moved round to Irving Point. On route, we encountered two humpback whales, which played around the yacht for at least 30 minutes. Dion, Rich and I got in the water with them, and got up pretty close – they kept coming closer each pass! I had to come back on board the yacht in the end because my hands were freezing.

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In the afternoon, we went ashore on rock pontoon at Irving Point. The surf was a bit lively, so we jumped in with drysuits. Landing was a little hairy, and the uplift from the rocks was similarly undignified- Dion brought the zodiac within striking distance and we all jumped in head first. Good to be back on yacht! Shower and pint. One of the best days of my life – it’s all still sinking in!

Thursday 20th Jan 2011.
We’ve just left Saunders Island – we’re picking up the pace a little as there are quite a few more islands to survey before we have to turn round and head back to Stanley. In the last three days we’ve landed on Visokoi (awesome place, covered in an ice cap and a hard landing). Then we moved to Vindication.

It got suddenly rough and I fell and smashed my shoulder. No major damage, but all-round bruised and battered a little. Can’t afford silly injuries like that as there’s a long way to go yet. The anchorage in Vindication was incredible – there was a massive break just on the outside of us, but the anchorage itself was pretty sheltered. It was still a fairly rocky and rolly night though.

Waves going past rocks just outside our anchorage

Waves going past rocks just outside our anchorage

Candlemas Island was another boulder beach, so another South Sandwich Island swimming masterclass! Lots to do on Candlemas; got loads of samples. It’s a weird place which basically consists of two volcanic islands merged into one. The bit between the two islands is flat and that’s where most of the chinstraps and Adélies are. On either side there are ridges, one of which is called Breakbones Plateau, and the other one which is really hard going… It’s all old lava flow and loose boulders, some of which are quite big but unstable. It’s impressive, but it makes walking around slow.

We’ve just passed the midway point for the expedition, which has got me thinking about everything there is left to do. It’s going really well so far, and the main objective left for me is Southern Thule – if I can get good samples from there, then the expedition will have been a great success. That sounds like I’m wishing it away, but it’s not like that. I’m not looking forward to the end, other than a hot bath and a really good bed. Oh, and clean clothes… OK, so I’m looking forward to some things.
Had a really good day –windburned and tired. Awesome!

Sunday 22nd Jan 2011.

Lying off Montagu Island, and for once it’s pretty quiet. Yesterday we landed on Saunders- loads of feather samples from chinstraps and Adélies. There were some gentoos as well, but it was impossible to get to them without disturbing the créching chicks, so I left those. Saunders was bleak; a very grey day, but impressive. It’s another island with lots of ash, and big gullies cutting their way down through this from the peaks to the beach. In places, these gullies cut through ice a metre or so below the surface, so it’s likely that there is ice cover under the ash on most of the island.
Tonight the clouds cleared enough for a beautiful sunset with Mount Oceanite nearby. Another extremely impressive island.

Monday 24th Jan 2011.
Another awesome day! We’re at Thule, which is the end of the South Sandwich Islands. The three islands of Thule, Bellingshausen and Cook are collectively known as Southern Thule. We’ve got another two days of survey time, and then we need to make the passage back to the Falklands, which could take somewhere between 6 and 8 days. Last night and today we landed on Thule, which has a large chinstrap colony, and also a lot of Adélies – far more than previously estimated. This is also the site of an Argentine base, which was built prior to the Falklands conflict in 1977 and blown up by the Royal Navy in 1982. There is a lot of debris everywhere and some pollution from the wreckage. It’s depressing to see this after weeks in as nearly pristine environment as it is possible to encounter. It’s got me thinking about how to arrange a cleanup expedition.

Thule - old base

Thule – old base

 

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Thursday, 27th Jan 2011

We’ve had a brilliant few days exploring Southern Thule. We spent a day on Bellingshausen, which was great for feather and eggshell collection. We got a lot of the penguin counts done, and then had glorious sunshine for some pictures.

We landed on Cook Island on the other side of the Caldera just for completeness. Then, after a fantastic day, we got back to the yacht and cooked up fondue courtesy of Hansjoerg. The mooring was really calm, so a great night’s sleep and then we set off for Stanley. This morning was a really grey day (still not much wind thankfully), so it’s quite nice to leave when they aren’t looking as amazing as they have the last few days.

Saturday 29th January 2011.
We’re a couple of days into the passage back to Stanley now. It’s 1200 nautical miles in all, and we’ve covered about 400 of them. We’ve been blown up to the North, so we are nearing South Georgia. However, the wind’s come around northerly now, so we’ve got more sail up and are now heading more directly to Stanley. There’s a gale forecast for tonight, so it might be a bit sleepless.

Life on board is a little slow- a few of us have laptops out trying to write up notes and catch up on some work. Others are up in the wheelhouse keeping an eye on the horizon (it helps people to avoid seasickness) or reading. Jerome has an impressive library of Antarctic literature. At the moment, I’m trying to get through as much of it as possible in the evenings before I lose this resource. I’m reading Charcot’s account of the voyage of the Porquois Pas? He was one of the first people to over-winter in Antarctica (he has also done it a few years earlier in the Francais. We are likely to visit either Port Charcot or Petermann Island when we get down to the Antarctic Peninsula, so it’s nice to read the original account. I’m also nosing into a biography of Mawson, who started the Australian interest in Antarctica. It’s slightly strange being at sea and not having to do watches or helm, but Jerome and Dion run the boat between them, so I’m sticking out of the way. The plus side is that I should have lots of work done by the time we return to land.

Chinstrap penguins on an iceberg off Montagu Island

Chinstrap penguins on an iceberg off Montagu Island

Checked the freshwater (that there was enough) and then had a shower – brilliant! It was five minutes, and used lots of hot water – a real Hollywood shower. Then I dug out the last clean clothes before turning in.