Posts Tagged ‘snow’

Wild Reindeer and More in the Sub-Antarctic

February 24th, 2010 at 8:13 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We anchored last night in the protected and calm waters of Jason Harbour (or maybe it’s “Jason Harbor”?). Wet snow was once again companion – it had started snowing last night, and had not let up much since.

From our balcony, which faced our anticipated landing spot, we could see penguins (King penguins mostly), fur seals, and off in the distance, a herd of about 15-20 reindeer.

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Part of the herd of reindeer we saw this morning - note a couple of bucks still have dangling bits of velvet on their antlers

Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia several times between 1911 and 1925 – only a couple of dozen total, but they have ultimately thrived, and it’s estimated that there are around 2,000 reindeer now spread throughout South Georgia. They are perhaps among the most destructive introduced species on the island, as they destroy young vegetation as well as certain lichens and herbs that would otherwise flourish. Their diet ultimately also causes soil erosion, which leads to other issues in the ecosystem.

After landing, we followed one of our naturalists, Steve MacLean, through the bogs lining the shoreline towards a large ridge inland. There we caught our first close glimpse of reindeer.

The interesting thing to observe was the interaction between the reindeer and fur seals, where at one point they would simply be hanging out harmoniously (or apparently so), and then some rambunctious male fur seal would take it upon himself to charge at the reindeer and scatter them off. It may not be obvious from their physique, but fur seals can run outrun a running man, so they are also able to give reindeer a good chase.

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Fur seals chase reindeer out of their perceived territory

Steve also explained how antlers grow, in contrast to horns. Horns last a lifetime, whereas antlers are seasonal – they are cast off at the end of the summer and regrown anew starting in the spring. During growth, antlers are covered by a skin called “velvet” (due to its texture). Velvet is filled with blood vessels which help feed the growth of the antlers (which are effectively bone). Once full antler growth is achieved, the velvet ends up coming off – either by getting old and drying and falling off or during fights between reindeer. Notably, reindeer of both sexes grow antlers.

And, as luck would have it, we saw two reindeer bucks, both with tattered velvet hanging from their antlers, get into a tussle, and that caused a large piece of velvet to get ripped off. After the reindeer had moved on, we found the velvet – pretty amazing stuff.

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

A piece of freshly discarded velvet with blood vessels and tissue showing

And near the velvet was a skeleton of a reindeer, which Steve estimated to be about two years old based on the fact that cartilage was still in place in a couple of the joints as well as the wear on the teeth in the jaw bones we found. Also, because the skeleton had a full rack (antlers), it probably died in about the same time of year as now – the end of the southern summer.

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

The skeleton of the reindeer buck we found

Steve also showed us the teeth in the jawbone, which are multi-layered, and in reindeer they do not continue to grow after maturity.

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple=

The tops of the teeth in the reindeer jaw bone we found - note the multiple layers of enamel and dentin

Moving on, we came across a number of elephant seals, including a group of young males molting, a much larger male by himself, and a “weanie” – an elephant seal pup that has been recently weaned. They all had large doleful, almost alien, eyes, which Steve indicated was the result of their need to be able to see with even the smallest bit of ambient light at the extreme depths that they typically dive at to find food.

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

A group of elephant seals during their molting phase

An elephant seal 'weanie'

An elephant seal 'weanie'

We ended our walk along the beach, where a large variety of kelp had washed up, and some King penguins could also be found.

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

A pair of King penguins bids us adieu

We considered the morning to a splendid one – full of discovery and enlightenment, even though all of our outer clothing was thoroughly soaked from the never ending wet snow.

More photos as well as larger versions of the ones above can be found in 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:

 

It’s Snowing Snow in South Georgia

February 21st, 2010 at 10:03 am (AST) by Jake Richter

After about 30 hours of moderately unsettled seas we arrived at the island of South Georgia this morning, around 7:30am. We were informed during one of the several fascinating lectures yesterday to make sure to call it South Georgia or “the island of South Georgia”, but definitely not “South Georgia Island”.

The mountains and glacier ice in the Drygalski Fjord are stunning, as a lone albatross flies past

The mountains and glacier ice in the Drygalski Fjord are stunning, as a lone albatross flies past

The other thing pointed out to me in the last day by Tom Ritchie was that while South Georgia is down around 55º south latitude (over 5º north of the area defined by the Antarctic Treaty to be Antarctica), it is still in the Antarctic Convergence. The Antarctic Convergence is a climatic zone which surrounds the Antarctic continent. While not universally agreed upon, there is a belief that islands within the Antarctic Convergence are also part of Antarctica.

However, whether South Georgia is part of Antarctica or the Subantarctic region doesn’t really matter much to us – what’s important is that it’s an island rich in wildlife and nature protection instituted after centuries of slaughtering seals and whales, and thus has an amazing natural and cultural history.

South Georgia is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, and is administered by the governor of the Falkland Islands. Money to support a small governmental presence on South Georgia is funded by strictly controlled fishing licenses in the waters surrounding South Georgia out to 200 miles (a prime location for Patagonian Toothfish, also known as Chilean Seabass) as well as eco-tourism.

South Georgia does a pretty amazing job to educate visitors about its efforts to preserve and restore the ecology of the area, requiring all visitors to review a video about the preservation efforts as well as the rules of visitation. Visitors must also sign a form which acknowledges they have seen the video as well as have disinfected and cleaned all their gear to avoid any foreign contaminants like seeds, stems, or food, from getting onto South Georgian soil. The packet of information the government of South Georgia provides to visitors is excellent too, including a detailed map of the island and key historic sites, a history of the area, information on the wildlife, and, of course, the list of rules of behavior.

Our view at breakfast - snow falling on the windows with beautiful fjord waters just barely visible in the distance

Our view at breakfast - snow falling on the windows with beautiful fjord waters just barely visible in the distance

In any event, our arrival this morning did remind us that we are definitely in cold climes – be they Antarctic or sub-Antarctic, as the air temperature was just above freezing, and for the first time on our voyage we actually saw snow. Lots of snow. And four hours later the snow shows no sign of abating – if anything, it has gotten heavier.

Snow on the rocks looks almost like powdered sugar

Snow on the rocks looks almost like powdered sugar

Snowflakes fall on the railing of our balcony

Snowflakes fall on the railing of our balcony

The snow makes for some great views of the area, but is heavy enough to prevent us from safely going out for a landing or even a Zodiac cruise. We cruised all the way up into the Drygalski Fjord this morning with some spectacular but snow-obscured scenery and are now heading into Larsen Harbour in the hopes of finding a better anchorage. However, because the land around Larsen Harbour has been designated a vermin-free site (rats being an invasive species here), no landings will be possible.

Bits of glacier dot the water

Bits of glacier dot the water

Some immediate differences we noticed from the land and islands of the Antarctic Peninsula, however, are an abundance of kelp in the water (a variant grows in the area of the Antarctic Peninsula, but not heavily due to the benthic scraping of icebergs) and lots of green plant life on the rocks, including lush grasses and tussock grass.

Kelp grows here in large quantities compared to the little there is at the Antarctic Peninsula

Kelp grows here in large quantities compared to the little there is at the Antarctic Peninsula

Another difference from the Antarctic Peninsula - an abundance of green vegetation, including tussock grass

Another difference from the Antarctic Peninsula - an abundance of green vegetation, including tussock grass