Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

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Dewi
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Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:49 pm

In the past, I've been lucky enough to spend almost ten years working in Antarctica and it's surrounding islands.

I'm going to post some stories and photos of my experiences there in relation to the wildlife and scenery. Some of the photos may not have been taken at the same time as the stories in the text, but will be used to illustrate certain behaviour or put in the correct sequence of events.

Antarctica is a place of outstanding beauty, with endless vistas, towering icebergs, jagged mountain peaks and colourful sunrises and sunsets.

As an introduction, I can do no better than show you the Lemaire Channel. A narrow passage of water between Mount Scott and Booth Island. The peak in the fer distance on the left is Mt. Francais on Anvers Island - 10,000ft high and 75 miles away from where the photo was taken.

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I've told the critters to spruce themselves up a bit. Can't have them looking scruffy on here can we?

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I'll introduce you to some of the characters that abound in this pristine wilderness.

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Soar over the Southern Oceans with an Albatross or two.

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Have a closer look at some of the icebergs to be seen there.

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Show you some sunsets and sunrises.

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And the amazing scenery.

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So get comfortable, sit back and relax and enjoy the show.

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Dewi
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Joined: Fri May 25, 2012 7:38 pm
Location: United Kingdom

Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:50 pm

Thanks everyone, glad you enjoyed the pics. \O


I wake up to the sound of roaring outside. It's a roar unlike any you have heard before. A mix of deep, guttural belches and flatulence rolled into one. A sub-adult Elephant Seal is practicing for the times ahead when he will need his best voice when challenging for territory on the beaches. I get up an put the coffee pot onto the Aga to heat through. I start to make bread by mixing the ingredients together and leave the mixture to prove before heading out to the study beach to see who is around this morning.

It's the start of Winter, so the beaches are mostly deserted compared to the hustle and bustle of the breeding season. My job is to see which bull Antarctic Fur Seals are occupying the beach over the Winter months and record attendance patterns to enable the scientists to figure out what is going on during this period. My other task is to collect samples of faeces for analyses to see what they have been feeding on. It's a glamorous job sometimes! Each individual can be reccognised from certain traits such as scars, indentations in the flippers or from previously tagged animals. Sometimes the tags are lost, but the tears caused can also help to identify them.

I head out, armed with my poo spoon and spare collecting bags and head for the study beach. It's cold in the biting wind. Squalls of snow rush in from the sea and the rocks along the beach are covered in ice which makes it treacherous underfoot.

Approaching the study beach. Cape Paryadin on mainland South Georgia in the background.

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A bull Fur Seal asleep on the bergy bits that have washed up to the beach.

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A bull swims offshore, checking that it's safe to come out of the water.

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Once he's decided that all is clear, he emerges out to find a spot on the beach to lay up and rest.

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Another bull is already ashore and growls a warning at me as I pass. He mock charges, but at this time of the year, their testosterone levels are lower, so the attack is not pressed home, so I wonder on by, smiling at his grumblings.

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Another bull is laying up nearby. He is more chilled and simply yawns at my passing.

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Like an oversized teddy-bear, a bull relaxes in the upright sitting pose so favoured by these animals. Although he looks at peace, he is constantly checking his surroundings and keeping an eye out on the other bulls nearby.

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The weather closes in, so I head back to base for that coffee which should be perfect by the time I get there and to finish off the breadmaking. I have two more visits to do this day, part of my daily routine over the coming months.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:52 pm

Winter is over and the island is ready for a new breeding season. The weather has become milder, with max temps of up to 10degC and the snow showers have become drizzle or rain. What snow remains will soon be gone, except from some of the higher peaks on South Georgia in the distance.

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Bull Fur Seals return in force to the beaches. In prime condition after feeding out to sea on krill and fish.

Some bulls have gone over the top with their feeding though....

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Whilst others are at their peak and pumped full of testosterone....

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The larger bull in the first pic was probably the biggest I ever came across. Although he has the weight, he did not last long on the beaches as he lacked the speed of the other bulls.

As each new bull comes ashore, the dominant males who have already claimed territories posture, growl and whimper at eachother. Whimpering sounds like a submissive call, but is actually a threat, telling others "Here I am, keep your distance, or else."

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Some bulls have to make do with less prime spots and set themselves up in the tussac grass at the head of the beach.

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Some set up too low on the beach at low tide, thinking they have a prime spot, only to realise their mistake later in the day, while others just sit in the shallows waiting for their chance..

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Fights break out as matched bulls battle for dominance. The fights are violent, with chunks of fur and skin flying about and some of the wounds are horrific to see, but after a few weeks at sea, they seem to heal up quite well. Occasionally though, a bull is so severely mauled, that they crawl up the beaches to die.

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All this is in preperation for the return of the cows. A prime spot on the beach is essential or the bulls may miss out on the opportunity to bread.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:53 pm

A few bulls doze on the rocky shore waiting for the cow's arrival with a backdrop of a tabular iceberg.

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Finally, the cows begin to arrive at the end of November and are crowding the beaches by the first week in December.

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Despite the attentions of the bull, who try to insist that the cows stay within their territories, each female will try to reach not only the beach on which they were born, but even the same square metre of beach where they first arrived into this world.

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The cows soon start to pup, and before long, the beaches are a crowded, heaving mass of fur. The cows mated a year previously, but although the egg was fertilised then, they have evolved to delay the implantation of the embryo to the womb for several months in order that they can raise and wean a pup then go out to sea to feed up, moult and feed again to gain strength before starting their pregnancy for the following years pup. This also means that they only have to return to the breeding beaches once a year instead of twice.

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As soon as the pup is born, the mother sniffs it carefully to determine her own pup's unique scent and calls out to it constantly. The pup returns her calls, and in this way, they learn to recognise each-others vocalisations so they can find each-other later on after the mother has been out to sea to feed. This is quite remarkable to witness as mother and pup call to each-other over the cacophany of other sounds prevalent on the beaches.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:53 pm

With the beaches full to bursting point of seals, it gets more difficult to wade through the throng to get to the study beach. The bulls are now very territorial, and charge aggressively as you pick your way through their patch of beach. Luckily for us, we can mimic the cow's behaviour by tickling their whiskers to get through safely. By using a short stick, or bodger as it was called, you flick the bulls long whiskers as he charges at you, the females "mouth" the whiskers as they pass through the harems, so we were in essence copying them. The bulls then stop their charge, a mere arms length away, which gives you time to step into the adjacent hareem and repeat the process. This is very nerve wracking when you first experience it, but after a while, you soon get to know which bulls mean buisness, and which are chilled out.

The scaffold platform over the study beach can be seen to the left of the photo.

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The pups grow quickly with the help of the rich milk provided by the cows.

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It's at this stage that the pups are at their cutest, but don't be fooled by their angelic appearance, they can and will draw blood with their pin-like teeth if provoked.

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They also mimick the adults in the way they sit upright, lords of all they survey!

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The cows come into oestrus about a week after giving birth and mating takes place.

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A pup with it's mother and dominant bull in the background.

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They are very photogenic at this age and you can spend hours just sitting on the beach watching their behaviour.

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Although most give birth to only one pup, occasionaly twins are born.

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Once the pups are strong enough to be left alone, the cows go out to sea to feed and return every few days to suckle. The pups often escape the beaches and find a nice quiet spot in the tussac grass to snooze the time away.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:54 pm

As a break from the seals this evening, I'm posting some atmospheric pics of the sunsets etc. around South Georgia.

First up is a moonrise behind LaRoche peak on Bird Island.

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Sunrise behind Cape Paryadin.

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A solar halo over Sorling Valley.

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Lenticular clouds over Cumberland Bay.

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Strange cloud formations over Cumberland Bay.

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More Lenticular Clouds over Cumberland Bay.

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The sky aflame at Grytviken.

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And the old fable of the sky falling down appears to be true.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:55 pm

The surreal atmosphere can sometimes give you the impression that what you are seeing is not real. These clouds over Cumberland Bay looked like aliens were about to land!

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The seal pups just carry on with their lives regardless of the amazing scenery and sights. They soon discover that they are, in fact, sea mammals, and not landlubbers. At first, they are afraid of the water, but that soon wears off and small gangs of hairy gremlins can be seen playing king of the castle on top of rocks in the shallows.

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They love to play in the water, and spend hours posturing and posing to themselves.

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When they realise that they are being watched, they suddenly get bery affronted and give you their best stare.

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While those out of the water challenge you, despite the fact that you are a far larger adversary than they are!

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Once out of the water, they spend lots of time sctatching themselves with their claws. We had a theory that the air trapped in between their fur for buoyancy when swimming seemed to irritate them when they dried out, and this was the reason for all this grooming?

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As a rule, most pups are born with black fur however, around one in every six to eight hundred pups (depending on region) are born blonde. This is due to a recessive gene rather than albinism.

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Although as with every rule, there are exceptions. This cutie was the only one I saw with this pattern of fur.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:56 pm

As they get more confidence, the pups spend a lot of time socialising in the pools that form in the rock platforms along the shoreline.

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Throughout January, they start to moult their black puppy fur into their silver "yearling" colours. To begin with, they appear to be balding!

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But this does not last long and they soon attain the smart shiny coat of silver grey fur above and cream below.

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Some of them obviously did not get fed as well as their counterparts.

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They love to play in the water with objects such as feathers or bits of kelp.

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I alway loved the slicked back look when they return from a swimming session.

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When ashore, they would gang up together and hurtle along the beaches chasing each other and mock fighting to practice for later in life when these skills would become important to them.

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And when things quietened down, it was back to having a good old scratching session.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:57 pm

As stated earlier, a small proportion of pups are a gorgeous honey-blonde colour. These individuals can be picked out from great distances as they stand out so well on the dark beaches. Their coats stay blonde thrpughout their lives and both cows and bulls can sport this colour phase.

A blonde yearling at Grytviken.

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A pup learning to swim in the shallows.

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A three year old coming ashore after a feeding trip out to sea.

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Grooming time.

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Crossing a small stream at Grytviken.

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Some seem to be quite shy, but others are bolder and very inquisitive.

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Or on the lookout for a playmate to get into some mischief.

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Taking a snooze in the tussac grass.

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Practicing his beachmaster stance.

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A good scratching session is bliss, pure bliss.

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And when fully mature, can hold their own when fighting for territories on the beaches.

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Dewi
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Re: Elephants, Leopards and Lions - with flippers.

Post by Dewi » Mon May 21, 2012 4:58 pm

The pups are now weaned and almost ready to head out to sea to fend for themselves.

Some last minute swimming pracice comes in handy.

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And grooming can now take place in the water.

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Some linger on the beaches, but the island is much quieter now.

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The last groups of this years young often mix with yearlings from the previous year before leaving for the Winter.

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The weather worsens daily as the season changes, but this does not seem to deter the seals, who love playing in the rough seas.

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The pools of the rock platform are eerily quiet, and it's not long before they have all left.

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They will now spend the winter feeding up before returning the following year.

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Occasionally, some youngsters will return to the island briefly from time to time, but otherwise, all is quiet until the bulls start to haul out later in Winter.

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