My name is Helen Jones and I’m a doctor employed by the British Antarctic Survey. For the next nine months I’ll be working on board the James Clark Ross as she performs scientific research in the Southern Ocean and supplies the British research bases of Antarctica.
I’ve started this blog in the hopes of entertaining and giving people a chance to see some pretty pictures. I might even throw some science in occasionally!
Saturday, 29 October 2016
Seals and whales and...venison?
According to one of our scientists, the water is
1 degree Celsius at the moment. When I was still but a bairn and very much used
to American beaches and the laughably naive notion that a visit to the beach
should not be character building, my mother used to take us to the beach at
Whitstable for a paddle in the Channel.I
mention this purely to indicate a sense of scale. This is simply to advise people
that I know parky, and the water here is damned chilly. It is so cold, in fact,
that a person who fell in probably shouldn’t embark on any particularly long
thoughts. Which makes it all the more remarkable to consider that life isn’t simply
clinging on but rather thriving here. Or at least it does until humans come
along and mess about with things.
I went up onto monkey island this evening and within the
space of an hour I spotted seals, endless seabirds and what must have been a
huge pod of whales.
Whales blowing off steam
Unfortunately the whales were rather shy and all that I
managed to see was a rather coy glimpse of flipper and plumes of spray being
released into the air as the whales surfaced to breathe. Earlier, the scientists
spotted some rather hapless looking penguins being carried out to sea by their
iceberg and apparently a humpback whale surfaced right next to the boat!I think one of my favourite things to consider is the way that animals that look so ungainly and ungraceful whilst on land turn into sleek and elegant predators once in the water.
Another one of those ungainly creatures...the greater spotted scientist...
My first seal!
It will be breeding season for the Elephant seals when we
arrive at South Georgia tomorrow and I’m told that they will be on the beaches
in their multitudes. We were shown footage of a South Georgia beach and I was
forcibly reminded of holiday makers as the seals lolled on every spare bit of
sand, farting and burping constantly. But once they get into the water, they
turn into swift and smooth hunters, every muscle under perfect control. I can’t wait to see them in action.
The trick however, is not to be too close to the action.
Elephant seals are huge and during the breeding season are grumpy devils. The
ones to really watch out for though are the fur seals. Their breeding season is
slightly later in the year and things can really get interesting when the males
are around. Their minds are addled by the vast amounts of testosterone pumping
through their systems during mating season and they become extremely
territorial. I have been told that they started putting up fencing to separate
the research station from the beach because of one male who laid claim to the
territory between two buildings which made trips outside rather more exciting
than was hoped for! These darlings move fast and seal bites tend to be nasty.
Their mouths are absolutely filthy and as I’ve already shared with all of the
crew and scientists, if anyone gets bitten they’ll need a thorough washout and
a course of antibiotics at the very least. Ouch!
Whilst the wildlife on South Georgia is flourishing, it is a
very delicate balance. Human interventions have been altering the very fragile
ecosystems present on South Georgia for years. Whalers in the 1800s and early
1900s hunted whales in the southern Atlantic almost to the point of extinction.
Now that whaling has been banned, their numbers are recovering but only slowly.
Seals were likewise hunted but their numbers have recovered rather more
swiftly than the whales as they breed more rapidly. Both are reliant on the
krill (tiny, shrimp like organisms) and you can imagine that seal success may
come at the expense of the whales. Particularly as krill numbers can easily be
adversely affected by the warmth of the oceans.
Man also introduced rats and mice inadvertently onto South
Georgia. Rats are cunning little souls and it’s fair to say that they’ve had a
field day with seabirds that are not used to defending their eggs and young
from land based predators. An enormous eradication programme has been carried
out recently to remove the rats but all it would require to restart the problem
is for one fishing vessel or research vessel to be less than scrupulous in its
attention to detail for the problem to resurface.
This is why, of course, that our exciting day at South
Georgia will start with a biosecurity lecture from the government officer. We
will be thoroughly cleansed to make sure that we are not bringing foreign species ashore
in the form of plant seeds stuck in Velcro fasteners or bacteria in the soil
clinging to hiking boots. Rather sadly, South Georgia used to have a herd of
Reindeer that were brought over by whalers. They were culled after 100 odd
years of inhabiting the island because they were trampling the burrows and
nests of the seabirds that are native to the island. From a strictly rational point of view, this does make sense but on a purely superficial
note, I can’t help but feel that this is rather a shame as they must have looked beautiful. And venison is never to be sneezed at.