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.
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.


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



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.

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