Posts Tagged ‘fur seals’

Stromness – A Playground for Antarctic Fur Seals

February 27th, 2010 at 9:52 am (AST) by Jake Richter

February 24, 2010 – After our interesting morning with reindeer in Jason Harbour, we moved on to Fortuna Bay, where a couple of dozen hardy souls were dropped off to walk the last four miles of Ernest Shackleton’s incredible trip across South Georgia. The hike was a one-way trip, ending at Stromness, the next bay over to the east of Fortuna Bay.

It was snowing, it was cold, and we just were not feeling quite ambitious enough for such exertion so we instead opted to take the ship over to Stromness.

The former whaling station at Stromness

The former whaling station at Stromness

Stromness was a major whaling station on South Georgia, and the relics of the whaling station are still present on shore, but due to asbestos and a lack of structural integrity, humans are no longer allowed to get close to the structures there.

When we arrived at Stromness, Captain Kruse surprised us by running the National Geographic Explorer aground into the soft sand near the beach. This made for a very short trip to shore by Zodiac. The other surprise awaiting us were hundreds of fur seals on the beach, and more particularly, in the water. In fact, one particular area of the surf we could see from our balcony was literally alive with Antarctic fur seals, playing in the water.

Masses of fur seals observe us and the ship with only minor curiosity

Masses of fur seals observe us and the ship with only minor curiosity

It was snowing and raining quite strongly, but we needed to check out these fur seals for ourselves.

The seas are alive with the sounds of playing fur seals

The seas are alive with the sounds of playing fur seals

Once on land we discovered the fur seals were not particularly interested in us, and even the few older male fur seals didn’t waste energy on trying to intimidate us with growling and charging like we had experienced elsewhere on this trip.

Fur seals like body surfing as much as we do, but also in really cold water

Fur seals like body surfing as much as we do, but also in really cold water

Most of the fur seals were young pups – thoroughly adorable and curious, and readily approached us to check us out (and then ignore us when we proved to not be interesting enough).

Bas checks out his temporary fur seal pup companion while Linda videos him

Bas checks out his temporary fur seal pup companion while Linda videos him

Other critters were present too, including some elephant seals – one of whom came close enough to decide we were not something it wanted to spend more time with.

An elephant seal juvenile came in for a look at us, but ended up leaving again

An elephant seal juvenile came in for a look at us, but ended up leaving again

We also found two species of penguins – Gentoos and Kings. Watching the interchange between the seal fur pups and penguins was comical, with the fur seal pups being playful and the penguins being a bit disconcerted and huffy about the whole thing.

This Gentoo penguin appeared a little out of place when it came out of the water and found itself surrounded by curious fur seal pups

This Gentoo penguin appeared a little out of place when it came out of the water and found itself surrounded by curious fur seal pups

We spent a couple of hours on shore, completely soaked, but also very happy we had visited, and even happier we had not done the long hike.

Our King penguin greeting committee wishes us a good journey to our next stop in South Georgia

Our King penguin greeting committee wishes us a good journey to our next stop in South Georgia

More photos and larger version of those above can be found on my Flickr pages.

 

Escaping Into a Blizzard on a Zodiac (with Video)

February 21st, 2010 at 9:08 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The snow continued to come down. After leaving Larsen Harbour we returned to Cooper Bay. At Cooper Bay, the conditions had gotten worse, with swells making the boarding of Zodiacs pretty much impossible unless you wanted to be very cold and wet, and possibly even fall into the ocean. However, we were able to see a plethora of fur seals, elephant seals, and king penguins (they are HUGE – twice the height, at least, of the other penguins we’ve seen so far) on the distant shore, through the snow.

So we returned back to Larsen Harbour, and after lunch an announcement rang out that hardy souls could take a Zodiac tour of Drygalski Fjord if they wanted to. I looked out of the windows, and seeing snow coming in fast and rapid, and nearly horizontal, immediately grasped the opportunity. My more sedate (and possibly more intelligent) family members deferred, preferring for some strange reason to stay aboard the Explorer with all the comforts of home (warmth, dryness, etc.).

I bundled up tight – underwear, two layers of long underwear, trail pants, and waterproof pant covers on the bottom, three layers plus a heavy two layered parka over my torso, a balaclava and my dorky but very warm winter hat and Oakley sunglasses on top, along with a neck warmer for extra insurance. My feet had nearly knee-length SmartWool socks, and the great Arctic Muckboots on them. And my hands had three layers of gloves. Toss in a life vest for good measure and I was ready to face whatever mother nature would whip at me.

First there was Nanuck of the North, and now there's Jake of the South

First there was Nanuck of the North, and now there's Jake of the South

My first reaction to the snow falling (whipping) at me when I entered the Zodiac was “Ow!”. That’s because it was not snow – it was hard little ice pellets. But I was man enough to stand the pain, and off we went, zipping into the miniature hail storm, glad to finally be free of the confines of the ship after being cooped up in it for nearly two days.

The scenery, what little of it we could discern between fogged up glasses and falling icy snow, looked pretty impressive, and hardy little fur seal pups swam in the water between the large masses of kelp to check us out.

I wisely had not taken any of my nicer camera gear (none of which is remotely waterproof) and instead relied on my Olympus Stylus Tough 8000 everything-proof point and shoot, and Bas’ Sanyo Xacti waterproof video camera (which rapidly ran out of batteries). Better yet, I had thought to bring along a short plastic monopod which I attached to the bottom of the Olympus and then used to shoot underwater video of kelp. Worked surprisingly well (although my editing software had fits – more on that in another blog I write for, later).

Here's what my underwater video camera rig looked like

Here's what my underwater video camera rig looked like

One special thing that did happen while we were out was that the hotel manager Henrick and chef Daniel, along with their Zodiac driver Oscar, were personally delivering Swedish Glog (similar to Glühwein – a spiced, mulled, hot wine which is wonder in cold weather) to all of us braving the fierce weather.

The restaurant staff came out to recharge our batteries with some Swedish Glog. Yum.

The restaurant staff came out to recharge our batteries with some Swedish Glog. Yum.

There is a bit of irony in the fact that the worst weather we’ve experienced on our Antarctic voyage has been at the northern most stop of the trip so far.

I returned back to the National Geographic Explorer about an hour later, feeling great, at least until I realized my waterproof pant shell was not so waterproof, and the reason my buttocks were cold was because I had been effectively sitting in a puddle of freezing water for some time.

The deckhands did not have a fun time getting folks in and out of Zodiacs

The deckhands did not have a fun time getting folks in and out of Zodiacs

Lots more photos from the afternoon, including Glog photos, are on my Flickr page.

There’s a video below with highlights of the trip, including underwater kelp shots below:

 

Penguins and Fur Seals Everywhere

February 20th, 2010 at 2:56 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Yesterday afternoon we arrived at the western end of the South Orkney Islands, more particularly at Coronation Island and the area known as Sandefjord Bay. And all this is still in what is officially deemed by treaty to be Antarctica.

As I previously related, the waters were alive with Chinstrap penguins, porpoising out of the water non-stop. Well, there was a reason for that. The land around the bay is teeming with life, mostly in the form of perhaps a half million Chinstrap penguins and thousands of fur seals.

In fact the land was so heavily populated that we had no place to make landfall, and instead took an hour and a half Zodiac tour of the area.

To give you an idea of how populated the bay was, below is a panorama of 11 photos of just one small part of the bay.

A panorama of a small part of the land around Sandefjord Bay in the South Orkney Islands featuring hugs numbers of Chinstrap penguins and fur seals

A panorama of a small part of the land around Sandefjord Bay in the South Orkney Islands featuring hugs numbers of Chinstrap penguins and fur seals

This small image, however, doesn’t easily show the tens of thousands of penguins on the rocks. To see those you really need to click on the above image, at which point you will get to a Flickr page where you can see a larger version of the image (still not enough good detail though). From there, click on the “original” link and you will be able to access the original panorama, which is 13,447 pixels across (about 11-13 times the width of the average computer display these days). Or you can click here for the Flickr page giving you that option.

Either way, if you do look at the detailed image look closely at the tops of the tall hills on the right side of the image. The little bumps on it are also penguins. No idea how they got up that high, but they are everywhere!

It’s a really rocky day here at sea as we head to South Georgia today, but we’ll try to get a few more posts up later today.

 

Visiting Pourquoi Pas Island in the Antarctic

February 19th, 2010 at 11:19 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Monday, February 15th – It was the second day on the Antarctic Peninsula so far, and we had an early start as Bud, our expedition leader, decided we should visit Pourquoi Pas Island as we headed back north.

In addition to both the regular shore visit and a Zodiac tour, we were also given the option of kayaking in the area, so that’s what we all did.

The National Geographic Explorer includes an easy to assemble kayaking platform which floats in the ocean

The National Geographic Explorer includes an easy to assemble kayaking platform which floats in the ocean

We were in the Group B kayak group, meaning we left the National Geographic Explorer at 9:15am by Zodiac, getting to a special floating kayak launch platform in the open seas, and then getting in two-person kayaks. Bas and I were in one kayak, and Linda and Krystyana in another.

Krystyana and Linda in a kayak at Pourquoi Pas island

Krystyana and Linda in a kayak at Pourquoi Pas island

We spent about an hour paddling around, looking at the floating chunks of ice, the glacier cliff, and various critters on bits of land (and a penguin on one of the ice floes too).

Another gorgeously colored glacial ice berg

Another gorgeously colored glacial ice berg

The bits of ice in the water ranged in size from the size of a pack of cards to larger than our house. We were warned during our briefing to stay away from anything taller than us because they were dangerous and unstable.

One small iceberg had an Adelie (pronounced “Ah-Dell-Ee”) penguin on it, and on a nearby rock outcropping we found a group of fur seals.

Fur seals line the rock outcroppings at Pourquoi Pas Island

Fur seals line the rock outcroppings at Pourquoi Pas Island

I also took the opportunity to approach a smaller “berg bit” and break off a chunk of ice to taste it. I was surprised to find that it tasted pure – not a bit of salt. Apparently, with glacial ice, even floating in the water, the saline of ocean water does not penetrate beyond the surface of the ice.

After our kayak workout, we were taken to shore at nearby Bongrain Point, a landing on Pourquoi Pas Island, where we found numerous small groups of Adelie penguins on a broad expanse of rock rubble and a glacial moraine (deposits of rock left by receding glaciers).

Adelie penguins observing the National Geographic Explorer

Adelie penguins observing the National Geographic Explorer

Penguins prefer to enter the water in groups to reduce the risk of predation of any one particular penguin

Penguins prefer to enter the water in groups to reduce the risk of predation of any one particular penguin

Adelie penguins leaping into the water to go feed

Adelie penguins leaping into the water to go feed

A swimming Adelie penguin

A swimming Adelie penguin

We found many of the rocks on shore covered by lichen, a fungal spore “plant” which can be hundreds of years old and grows very slowly. Lichen are the most populous plant family found in Antarctica, as regular tall plants simply cannot survive the climate. There’s a rare specie of grass, two flower plants, and several mosses that grow in the Antarctic, but not much else that will grow on land.

Lichen grow surprisingly abundantly in the Antarctic

Lichen grow surprisingly abundantly in the Antarctic

Close-up of the same lichens seen previously

Close-up of the same lichens seen previously

A different set of lichens on a rock at Pourquoi Pas Island

A different set of lichens on a rock at Pourquoi Pas Island

Later in the day our progress was interrupted by a pod of over twenty killer whales, and we got to spend nearly an hour following them around.

Six orcas swim together in the frigid waters of Antarctica

Six orcas swim together in the frigid waters of Antarctica

We stumbled across some crabeater seals relaxing on an ice floe while watching the orcas nearby

We stumbled across some crabeater seals relaxing on an ice floe while watching the orcas nearby

Two orcas with a glacier in the distance

Two orcas with a glacier in the distance

Our cetacean mammal researcher, Stephanie Martin, went out on a Zodiac in order to use her special crossbow and quarrels to try an obtain a DNA sample from one of the orcas, but after a half hour was forced to return to the Explorer, unsuccessful in her efforts.

Our cetacean specialist Stephanie pursues a bull killer whale with a crossbow to get a DNA sample

Our cetacean specialist Stephanie pursues a bull killer whale with a crossbow to get a DNA sample

Our day ended with what is likely to be our only passage through an ice pack. The ice pack was loose, composed of countless chunks of varying size of ice. But what was thoroughly impressive was the loud grinding noise that accompanied our ten minute passage through the ice pack.

Linda and I watched the forward progress of the Explorer through the ice pack on the TV in our cabin, and the trailing progress from our balcony at the rear of the ship. Pretty amazing.

Each cabin on the National Geographic Explorer has a TV on which the view from a forward mounted camera can be seen - here we are in a loose ice pack

Each cabin on the National Geographic Explorer has a TV on which the view from a forward mounted camera can be seen - here we are in a loose ice pack

This is what the loose ice pack looks like - it was not cold enough to freeze solid while we were there

This is what the loose ice pack looks like - it was not cold enough to freeze solid while we were there

The National Geographic Explorer's wake through the ice pack it is breaking through

The National Geographic Explorer's wake through the ice pack it is breaking through