Tag Archives: Elephant Seals

The Scenic South Orkneys

Friday 1 March 2024­ – In following Shackleton’s route, i.e. heading towards South Georgia, the benign conditions and lack of icebergs in the way had enabled the skipper to make sufficiently good progress that Pippa could plan an extra stop, rather than just blatting our way directly to South Georgia.  So we found ourselves at Shingle Cove, which is on Coronation Island, part of the South Orkneys.  In sunshine! And light winds!!

The sunshine made the scenery quite spectacular.


But equally, we could see that we were in Iceberg Alley, so once again the captain had done a good job of not bumping into anything.

This meant we could undertake a brief expedition from Hondius. The specifics of the timing meant a slightly unusual sequence of events – Blue Group went before lunch and Orange Group after – but it was nice to get off the ship in light winds and sunshine.

The landing area was, unsurprisingly, a shingle beach, or at least a beach with small stones on it rather than inconveniently large boulders. Right by where we climbed out of the Zodiacs were several elephant seals, one of which, although not a full-grown adult, was quite huge.

You can see that his size dwarfs the other seals on the same stretch of beach.  You could tell he wasn’t full grown because his nose hadn’t grown out into the elephantine proboscis that marks out adult elephant seals; but you can see it starting to develop.

Even if he wasn’t fully grown, he was nonetheless an impressive sight.

Eventually he got fed up with people staring at him and lumbered off to face away from us, looking like nothing so much as a grumpy Vogon.  Well, all Vogons are grumpy, so I suppose that’s a bit tautological.

The views from the island continued to be spectacular.

but there were other things to be seen apart from just the view. Turning one way led us to a glacier that was unusual in that it debouched on to land rather than the sea.

And heading the other way led to what was once a colony of penguins.  Since all the chicks had fledged, there were actually very few penguins left

and the main inhabitants of the island were seals, mainly elephant but with a leavening of fur seals.

There was somewhat gruesome evidence of the demise of many penguins

but we weren’t sure whether these had been predated or had just expired.  There were skuas around

and these are sufficiently nasty pieces of work that they might p-pick a p-penguin if they felt p-peckish.

The rocks that lay around on the walk were very colourful in places

and the paths that the landing party had marked out for us with red poles led past rocks decorated with moss and a striking orange lichen

that we were enjoined to be careful not to walk on, as it is fragile and takes centuries to grow.  And all the way along our walks there were more seals, all of whom were evidently conserving energy, since they moved not a muscle as we went by.

One of the main reasons for their lack of movement was that they are moulting.  Like penguins, these seals undergo what’s called a “catastrophic moult”.  Here’s a good example.

During the moult, they cannot go into the water to feed, so conserving energy is an important tactic.

Apart from the bit where I fell over, slightly damaging both my camera and my wife in the same moment of clumsiness*, the expedition was a delight, partly because of the scenery and partly because of the sunshine.  We headed back to Hondius, which eventually set off in the general direction of South Georgia, passing south of the South Orkneys and providing the passengers with views of blowing whales and some more wonderful scenery.

There were many vast icebergs, as big as apartment blocks.


There were also a handful of fishing vessels nearby

which we reckon were probably fishing for krill.  Whilst this is not illegal, there are supposed to be quotas for krill fishing; but there’s no policing mechanism, and there is a significant danger (and some evidence) of krill overfishing.  Although these small shrimp-like creatures are astonishingly plentiful, the human appetite for them for purposes that are unnecessary – omega-3 supplements, skin care products, dog food (!) and, most irritatingly of all, food that will turn farmed salmon a more marketable shade of pink – is not only endangering the food chain, since practically everything is utterly dependent upon krill, but also contributing to climate change, since Antarctic krill (if left to themselves) sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than the Amazon rain forests.  This is a sobering message, and one hopes that people will come to understand the seriousness of the situation and start changing purchasing decisions away from products which use krill or krill oil.

One can but hope that matters will improve.  Indeed, the way the Antarctic has been internationally recognised as an important part of the planet is evidenced by the international Antarctic treaty, originally signed up to by 12 member countries and now involving some 27, either as claiming some territorial rights or wishing to enter the area for research purposes.  The conditions of the treaty lay down strict rules about what may and may not be done in the region. It’s heartening to know that countries, even ones which traditionally compete such as USA and Russia, can work together for some kind of common good.  As we head for South Georgia, leave the Antarctic and cross the 60th parallel heading north, I feel better educated about the critical importance of this region, with even a glimmer of hope that the human race might not, for once, fuck something up.



* Not too seriously, thank goodness.  However, my wife will repair herself, but the camera, whilst still capable of taking pictures, is going to need a visit to a service centre.

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind

Friday 23 February 2024 – Plan C2 seemed to be holding, at least for the morning, so the schedule demanded an earlyish 7am breakfast and expeditions starting at 8am. The passengers have been split into two groups, Blue and Orange.  The idea is that when one group does a landing, the other does a Zodiac cruise and they swap over at half time. Jane and I are in the Orange group and it was our lot to do the landing bit first.

We had a hasty breakfast (though not so hasty to make me ignore the chance for bacon and egg) and then fossicked around in our cabin worrying about how to kit ourselves for the weather, which was actually very benign but still 0 degrees and with a chill breeze.

The island in the picture is called Penguin Island, and this gives a clue as to some of the animals we might see once landed.

As I’ve said, muck boots are mandatory on a Zodiac expedition, as are a waterproof jacket and trousers. The rest is up to us, so we put on a couple of layers underneath all that, packed a backpack with stuff, donned lifejackets and headed down to level 3, where a controlled chaos similar to yesterday’s was in evidence.

We shuffled forward and were checked for correct wearing of all of our gear before heading down to stumble on to a Zodiac.

It was a short trip to the shore, where a sort of base camp was set up, including a tarpaulin which allowed people to put stuff down without it touching the actual ground, and a bag for the life jackets.  Pippa was there to brief people before they got out of the Zodiac – where they could walk, how long they should be and what to do if charged at by any of the local wildlife (hint – don’t run). A little more gentle pandemonium ensued whilst everyone got all their various bits in the places they wanted them to be

and we stumbled off over a somewhat rocky terrain.

The island is called  Penguin Island, and indeed hosts several penguin rookeries.  It is also home to a large number of fur seals, mainly females and younger males – the bigger bull males have had their wicked way with their various harem members and buggered off to the local equivalent of the pub, i.e. gone out to sea until it’s time to come back and do the wicked thing again next year. But there are a lot of seals still on the island.

Which gives plenty of opportunity for portrait studies.

We had a choice of route on the island, each option being indicated by red poles to guide us.  One way took us to a rookery of chinstrap penguins.

and the other, somewhat more challenging, route was up the side of the volcano which formed the island.

We started with the penguins, who were very numerous

and many of which were moulting – adults losing their down in the post-breeding season annual cycle, and juveniles losing their first down covering.  In both cases, this moulting process renders the birds non-waterproof so that they can’t enter the ocean.

After a short time we left the penguins, who were selfishly just standing around shedding feathers rather than doing anything attractive, cute and penguinish.  In their defence, moulting takes a lot of energy, so one can understand their disinclination to waste any more by clowning around for the benefit of spectators. We set off up the side of the volcano, which gave us some great views back across the sound, nicely gussied up by a recent sprinkling of snow,

as well as into the caldera.

It was then time to stumble back down to base camp, reacquire lifejackets and join the queue to get on to a Zodiac for the cruise bit of today’s expedition.

We were piloted by Rose, who took us around the island and past some quite striking scenery

to another rookery of chinstrap penguins.

Rose then started to take us, along with our “buddy” Zodiac, towards where she knew there were some Adele penguins.

But the conditions, reasonably benign as they were, were still a little too rough and so we turned back.  We passed some more seals, including an elephant seal with an interesting pale colour

and as we headed back towards Hondius, the value of the buddy system among the Zodiacs became clear, as ours developed a fuel leak which disabled the engine.  We were quite near the ship at this point, but it could have been quite a lot more serious than it was if we hadn’t had the other Zodiac to basically push us back home.

Once back on board it was time to clean and disinfect our boots; the cleaning is done by a fancy machine with a bunch of rotating brushes, so all one has to do is to stand there for a few seconds and then exit via a “sheep dip” biocide bath for the boots.

Lunch was available almost immediately after our return, so we threw ourselves rather hungrily towards the buffet and then retired with coffee to our cabin to take stock, backup the photos, and, in my case, hope like hell that that was it for the day, as the morning had been quite tiring. It’s not that we did much that was strenuous, but we have a way to go before getting rigged up in all the necessary gear becomes a less demanding task, and struggling to work out or remember what to do under which circumstance becomes replaced by the ease of second nature. Fortunately for us, the scheduling necessities of the medevac exercise did mean that no further expeditions were possible, so we actually had a good, relaxing afternoon to recharge. The weather obligingly gave us some nice things to look at, too.

The area we were parked in for the medevac features a variety of international research stations, so every so often our phones would ping with a message from our UK mobile supplier saying “Welcome to China” or “Welcome to Uruguay”, or whatever. Sadly, none of these signals provided any internet access, so we had to go back to the boat’s rather expensive system of buying credit – probably a good idea to discourage us from getting too distracted by events outside our Antarctic bubble.

And that was it for the day.  We’re currently headed south, and tomorrow might see us actually set foot on the Antarctic continent itself, depending, as ever, on conditions.  I’ll try to post an update on how that went as soon as I can.