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South Georgia 2007

On board are Hamish, Kate, Helen (7), and Anna (5), and four guests who joined us in the Falkland Islands.

sunrise from yacht seal

sunrise yesterday morning

yacht seal

Seal in Cooper Bay

dinghy patch

Hamish fitting the metal patch

dinghy patch

metal patch in place

dinghy patch

metal patch ready for another use

November 19

Cooper Bay, 54 : 47 South 035 : 49 West

We had a quiet day yesterday for the most part. We have had such good weather since we arrived that we've been on the go almost continually, and so three of our number elected to have a day on board. The wind quieted down in the afternoon and the sun was out, so Hamish and I took the opportunity to spent a rare hour on shore together with Helen and Anna. Usually one of us stays on boat watch and keeps the dinghy with Seal.

We went ashore and tied up the dinghy (using a stern anchor to keep it away from the rocks) and climbed through the tussac to a hill free of fur seals, where the girls could play and we all sat in the sun in t-shirts. I went for a walk up the hill, to discover that the pellets we'd found in Elsehul must be from giant petrels - I found quite a few of them nearby the trademark red ooze that giant petrels sometimes regurgitate.

A female fur seal had come ashore and been claimed by one male. They spent most of the afternoon biting one another. We're watching her to see if she'll pup, but she's quite small so it could be her first season ashore. All the elephant seal females have left the beach, leaving the males belching in their wake. They've relaxed completely since St. Andrews. A few of the male elephant seals are seen fighting in the shallows, but much less aggressively than previously. But even way up on the saddle overlooking the bay, I could still hear the elephant seals belching, though I could no longer see the cove.

When we returned to the dinghy, we discovered the bow section was completely deflated. Hamish went down on his own through the fur seals, leaving Helen, Anna and me up in the tussac to watch. We had some emergency metal patches in the dinghy so Hamish installed the smallest one (he actually had to lengthen the hole with a knife to fit in the patch). There was another tiny hole, but I was easily able to keep ahead of that one by pumping the air pump as we motored back to Seal.

We pulled the dinghy out and Hamish put on a proper hypalon patch over the two spots and we had the dinghy back in the water in about forty-five minutes. We think a fur seal must have been startled by the dinghy as it was emerging from the water and taken a bite out of it. Leopard seals will savage a dinghy, sometimes leaving 60-odd holes in it, but there were only two holes in the bow, and one was very small, so we're pretty sure it was a fur seal ... an elephant seal would have left bigger holes. We don't know of anyone else who has had a fur seal bite their dinghy ... we know lots of people who have had their dinghies chewed by leopard seals (one cruise ship in Antarctica had five dinghies chomped in one afternoon), and one who had their dinghy bitten by an elephant seal, and another who had the dinghy torn by fur seal "toe nails."

In any event, we were extremely glad to have the emergency patches and the air pump in the dinghy.

sailing yacht in albatross cove

sailboat in Albatross Cove

macaroni penguins and a fur seal

macaroni penguins and a fur seal (elephant seals in the upper left)

sailboat in cooper bay

macaroni penguins in Cooper Bay

(Hamish took these photos of Cooper Bay a few years ago)

November 18

Cooper Bay, 54 : 47 South 035 : 49 West

The big news of yesterday was we all had hot showers for the first time in a week! Our hot water is heated off the Refleks heater, but it requires a circulation pump to work (the rest of the boat can be heated without the pump, although we usually use the pump for the most even heat.) Our three-year-old pump burned out in Stanley a week before the trip, so we installed the spare, but there wasn't time enough to order in a spare for the spare ... and after a pitiful three weeks, the spare burned out. Since Hamish had fitted a an extra loop in the heating system to let it run without the pump, we were warm enough, but getting dirtier. There was plenty of stove-top heated hot water for bucket showers, but they didn't hold much appeal ... "conveniences are never missed that were never enjoyed," said Tilman, and it was clear the shower convenience was heartily missed.

I rewound the pump using the old wire, but I didn't have enough wire to do the job properly since 17 feet off one winding was totally welded together. But a plea to a friend for help resulted in an email consultancy from her brother Bob in Massachusetts ... He had the idea of running it on lower voltage, so I rewound it again, doing a better job, and then switched it from 24 to 12 volts and it's been running beautifully ever since. We're babying it and only using it for hot water and occasionally to even up the heat in the rest of the boat.

South Georgia showed her other side yesterday. It was windy and sometimes rainy, with a few sixty knot williwaws whipping through the cove, showing white, as they picked the water up two feet in the air on their path. Hamish washed the raised saloon windows twice yesterday to get rid of the salt, even though we are in the most protected cove on South Georgia. (Fortunately, my tolerance for salted windows is higher than Hamish's ...) Helen and Anna were playing on deck while Hamish and I set another shore line, and a few times, Anna had to lie down and hold on because the gusts were knocking her off her feet.

While we were setting the shore line, gentoo penguins were chasing us in the dinghy, porpoising behind us.

Most everyone tried to sit in a sheltered spot and watch the wildlife, although Nigel came back from a long energetic walk through the tussac. Others admitted to finding a warm spot and having a nap.

Hamish's well washed windows paid off as I was making dinner. At one point, there were four of us in the galley, watching out the window as gentoos porpoised right next to the boat, and a group of young fur seals charged through the bay, porpoising, and swimming around and around in a synchronized swim for about fifteen minutes. At first we thought they might be returning females, though it seems a bit early, but then we decided they must be young males.

This morning, Hamish jumped out of bed at five-thirty to photograph the dawn, which showed orange behind Cooper Island and a huge tabular iceberg. I followed, and then we stayed up and watched the gentoos head off to sea. They marched down the beach, stopping to consider a launching spot, and then turning away and marching on. We couldn't figure out why they were so spooked. There were a lot of elephant seals and fur seals lurking in the shallows. Fur seals sometimes eat penguins, but I don't think elephant seals ever do, but the penguins were very nervous. In Antarctica, we've seen them panic over a weddell seal (which don't eat penguins), and then relax once they made a positive ID. Finally they came to the end of the beach and a very slippery rock. They crowded at the rock, with the pressure becoming greater as more and more penguins arrived. The earlier ones started skidding down the rock ... one did a pirouette and fell in on his back. They were frantically trying to stop and not go in the water, but there were too many penguins behind.

Usually when this happens and the first penguins surface unharmed, the rest of them go in willingly, but today they didn't want to. So each batch skidded down reluctantly into the water.

We went back to bed, and it's been a slow morning. No one is too anxious to get off the boat in this light, but I'm hoping to fit in a long walk.


south georgia seen from satellite

yesterday's Skyeye image of South Georgia - the dots are large icebergs and you can see the sharp aproaching front line

south georgia on grib weather file

the GRIB map for yesterday evening

tabular iceberg seen from satellite

a tabular iceberg seen on the Skyeye

yacht seal sailing off south georgia

wing and wing down the coast of South Georgia

November 17

Cooper Bay, 54 : 47 South 035 : 49 West

We spent yesterday morning at St. Andrews Bay. The young male elephant seals were still patrolling, but much less aggressively than they'd been the night before. There were significantly fewer cows on the beach by morning, so maybe their departure is the reason behind all the extra activity.

We had good sunlight all morning, and the Skyeye showed a rare picture of South Georgia completely in sunlight.

The weather information we have now is a complete transformation from what we had when we were last here. Nine years ago, we had the out of range Chilean weather fax which came in hesitantly on the SSB radio sometimes. If there were a lot of weather between here and Valpariso, the fax wouldn't come in at all (we used to joke that they could just send out their test signal and we could make a forecast based simply on the clarity of the letters ... if you could read the test page, it would be fine, if you couldn't it would be dreadful.)

Now, we have GRIBS, which are issued by NOAA and the US Navy (we pick up both models; they are usually consistent, but sometimes they are dramatically different, which helps us judge the quality of the forecast.) These are computer models only; in areas where there are human forecasters, we ordinarily find that the human forecasters do a better job, but in these parts of the world where there are no forecasters, the GRIBS are an enormous boon. Sometimes they are so accurate that you can practically tack on a schedule. They tend to be quite good forecasts for 24 hours, and increasingly rough as time goes on. We pick them up to 120 hours just to give us an idea of what might be coming. We download them on the Iridium satellite phone and display them on the laptop.

We've used GRIBs for quite a few years now. This year we also added Skyeye which is a real time satellite image receiver that picks up images from the US govt. POES satellites as they pass over head. We are still learning to use this, but we are finding the visual images (there are also infared images) incredibly helpful, because they show the front lines very clearly and also show larger icebergs. Seeing the cloud picture really helps us fine tune the GRIB forecast, and also lets us make our own forecasts about cloud cover, which is very interesting to the photographers! We're not always right, though: this morning, we thought it would be good light for an hour or so early in the morning, but the front came through sooner than expected, so it's blowing hard and thick cloud cover. We find the infared images less intuitive, but we're getting more and more used to them.

With the image of the coming front on the Skyeye and the forecast for incoming NW winds, we opted to skip all the harbors close to St. Andrews and head straight down to the very protected anchorage at the SE end of South Georgia. We had a good sail down, poled out wing and wing again, as we hugged the coast of South Georgia. The mountains were all clear in the sunshine, and we could see the glaciers pouring between them to the sea. There were about a dozen extremely large tabular icebergs drifting around the SE corner. These large tabular pieces come from Antarctica (they've cracked off the ice sheet, or perhaps off the enormous iceberg (30 or so miles long) that we've been watching on the skyeye.)

We came into the shallow "Albatross Cove" in Cooper Bay ... we lifted the rudder, lifted the keel and motored in through the rocks and kelp patches, and put four lines ashore. There's so little water here at low tide that we have to keep the keel partially lifted the whole time. We had dinner to the roars of a young elephant seal which we could see through the windows. He was very tough until another male galumphed down the beach at him and came into the water, at which point the first noisy one backed off and quieted down.

king penguin colony

King Penguin

king penguins in south georgia

the King Penguin colony at St. Andrews Bay

sailboat seal with king penguins

Seal at anchor in St. Andrews Bay

elephant seal in south georgia

male elephant seal

November 16

St. Andrews Bay, 54 : 26 South 036 : 11 West

We woke up early yesterday and headed off for St. Andrews Bay. There was still low cloud cover, but the day promised to clear. The northerly swell hadn't really died down, but it was going to be a perfect day for St. Andrews Bay if only we could get ashore. St. Andrews is home to 150,000 pairs of King Penguins, and it is the largest colony in South Georgia. The noise of over 300,000 king penguins is extraordinary ... it's loud even with a 25 knot wind and a windproof hat and a goretex hood over one's ears.

Even as everyone packed their kit up, we still weren't sure if we'd be able to get ashore. The sun was clearing, but the swell was still breaking over the seaweed slippery rocks. Hamish made a reconnaissance in the dinghy and declared it do-able, so everyone piled in. There is so much wildlife here that it took everyone about an hour to get 200 meters from the landing site: fur seals, elephant seals, a handful of gentoos, and of course, king penguins everywhere. The bulk of the colony is gathered together, but there are isolated knots of birds out in the suburbs.

The day cleared to brilliant sunshine, so the photographers were very busy. Cecilia filled four memory cards, and everyone else took nearly as many photographs.

When it was time to collect part of the shore party, Hamish called on the VHF and said I should be careful as there was a large elephant seal (big enough to be quite menacing, but not big enough to get a place on the beach) lurking at our pickup slot. Friends of ours had their dinghy punctured two seasons ago in this same cove because they'd startled an elephant seal when coming in. So I came in and loitered until Hamish waved me in, and then drove quickly into the rocks.

Since I hadn't managed to get ashore all day, Hamish and I swapped places so I could take a quick stomp up to the edge of the glacier. We waited until the coast was clear of the elephant seal, and then roared in to pick everyone up as quickly as we could. I realized I'd gotten out without a bodger, so called to Hamish to throw me one. He leaned over to get it, when suddenly an enormous head with wide open gape and long teeth appeared a foot away from the dinghy. I shouted "get out!" to Hamish, who was still looking at the bodger, and fortunately, he didn't stop to ask why, and zoomed away. I felt a bit bare without a bodger, but the fur seals here are quite relaxed, so banging two stones together is a pretty good deterrent.

I went for my walk, but when I returned, Hamish said he'd been watching the elephant seals, and they were getting very active and aggressive, and four large-ish males were patrolling the coastline, particularly the bit where it was easiest for us to land the dinghy. I went down the coast to scout for another spot, but there were seals everywhere. On the beach, activity had heightened considerably - I passed the beachmaster mating with one cow, while another bull came charging up the beach to try to sneak into the harem. It is quite a sight to see these bulls move. They are enormous. Their fat ripples when they move, humping along like a great slug as Helen and Anna say. They weigh up to about 4.5 tons, and it is an enormous effort for them to move across the beach, but they can certainly put a turn of speed on when they want to. Then they rear up and open their mouths, inflate their noses and roar, their breath streaming. When a big beachmaster roars, that is enough usually for the smaller males. (The main fighting for the beach takes place considerably earlier in the season.)

There are more elephant seals in St. Andrews Bay then anywhere else in South Georgia, so perhaps that is why they are so aggressive, but I wonder if it might be that we are in the last days of the cows staying ashore. More and more cows have slipped away to feed, leaving the "weanies" lying like fat sausages on the beach. This year's pups won't swim away for another month or two, so they are enormously fat now to allow them to survive the fast. The not-quite-beachmaster-sized males may be lurking in the water more now because it is their last chance to mate until next season. Whatever the reason, they were certainly on the move last night.

I couldn't find a better section of the rocky cove to land, so Hamish came out in the dinghy and lurked offshore, while I pointed at the two closest males, which were swimming very close to the cove where I was standing. Then, the most aggressive one found a cow to mate with, which distracted him enough that Hamish could nip in and extract me off the beach! After all that it was 11 pm when I got back to the boat. (I had gear to spend the night ashore if necessary; the seals were much calmer in the morning, but we won't try nighttime walks again, at least at this point in the season.)

November 15

Cobbler's Cove 54 : 17 South 036 : 18 West

We were up early yesterday morning and came to Cobbler's Cove, which is lovely round bowl in the rocks. Everyone headed ashore immediately to head up through the snow to the macaroni penguin colony.

The photographers returned full of delight with their pictures - Russell caught two light mantled sooty albatrosses flying together (they are amazing fliers and fly in synchronized flight making a haunting call to cement their pair bond.) Cecilia and Nigel were able to see a light mantled sooty on the nest - making it worthwhile dragging tripods and telephotos over the rough ground to the colony. Everyone came back to the boat tired but happy. Bob came back last after dinner -- I came upon him eating dinner in the dark and offered to turn on the light ... "Oh no!" he said, "you can see the nature much clearer with the light off ..." Even after spending all day outside, he didn't want to miss a minute, so with the lights off we all looked out the windows for the last bits of light.

November 14

Off Barff Point, 54 : 15 South 036 : 26 West

We are motoring out of King Edward Point under light wind and low cloud.

After our 4 am start yesterday, we had a bit of a slow day ... we went back to King Edward Point, and walked around Grytviken. Helen and Anna spent their dishwashing money on a Christmas present for Hamish at the museum shop, and we watched elephant seals.

In the afternoon, Russell got a superb shot of an Antarctic tern. This spurred everyone on to extreme competition, and Cecilia and Nigel spent the next few hours trying to get another one. Bob takes slide film and large format film, so we are all anxious to see his photos. Everyone else looks at their photos on the laptop during happy hour. The digital has a big advantage of having instant feed back about lighting and so on, but on the other hand, Bob is usually still off taking pictures when everyone else is in admiring the days' take!

An friend of Hamish's is in town as part of a French climbing expedition, and they came back from climbing Mt. Paget (the highest point in the British Empire these days) and Mt. Sheridan. Sheridan is one of four mountains named for key men in the liberation of South Georgia; there's an unofficial challenge to the various climbing teams to try to summit all of them this year for the 25th anniversary. When the climbers came down from the mountains, they came alongside in their support boat, Ada 2, skippered by Isabelle Autissier, and everyone came over to Seal for a glass of wine - long after our GMT dinner, but before their local time one. Their main project for the trip is to make a traverse of all South Georgia (the long way).

Earlier Entries from South Georgia 2007

November 9 - November 13

October 5 - November 8

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Antarctica 2007 Blog