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.

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