Monday, February 24, 2014

South Georgia first day - Salisbury Plain and Fortuna Bay

South Georgia is a place few visit but with abundant wildlife, hence its location as the headquarters of the animal catastrophe we call whaling.  At least that is now in the past.  What we did learn though is that, apart from the licensed fishing which generates the government's budget, that the government of South Georgia is working to return the islands to their original state.  This means a massive rat eradication programme to eliminate rats from across the island which is ongoing and will have a hugely positive impact on bird populations.  In addition they are also eliminating the introduced reindeer, so a large part of the island was closed while the killing of these animals occurs, so our schedule had to be adjusted accordingly.

Given these circumstances our first stop was to be Prion Island with a follow-up landing on Salisbury Plain.   Prion Island however was enjoying 40 knot winds and the exposed anchorage meant we had to land first in the shelter of Salisbury Plain.

On landing at Salisbury Plain I saw my first Gentoo Penguin, in the water:


There are lots and lots of South Atlantic Fur Seals, estimates are the population has recovered to some six million animals now the persecution of them has stopped too, though they don't know what effect the fishing is having on potential populations, and I got the impression they weren't in a hurry to find out either given how much cash it generates.

The pups are amazingly inquisitive and cute:


The adults tend to cluster in groups and are very vocal together.  They sound a bit like chickens though, while the pups do at least have a bark:


The principle inhabitant of Salisbury Plain though is the King Penguin:


As well as the Penguins there are always attendant predators.  Here you can see a Giant Petrel feeding on the carcass of a just-dead fur seal, working on the tail.  On the head is a Brown Skua, presumably going in through the eye socket.  The seals die due to the stresses and strains of the breeding season, displaying and the jockeying for social status:


The Giant Petrel continued displaying while eating.  It had chased off three or four other birds and was in no mood to surrender its dominant status with the food:


As well as fur seals there were also some Elephant Seals, hauled out while their outer fur moults:




Big smelly clumsy things.  Fur seal pups however are just so cute:



Some of the adults can be very endearing too:


Salisbury Plain is quite a big place, and hosts a good number of King Penguins:


They have a range of colours from yellow to orange and pink on the mandibular plates, while the adults show a yellow to orange throat and orange head patch, magnificent plumage:


Which takes a lot of maintenance:





The colony extends up to the highest vegetation-free point, which is the first to clear of snow after winter:


The sun crested the adjacent mountains:



Watching the birds emerge from the surf was fun, though it is a hazardous time for them.  Occasionally a Giant Petrel decides it wants to feed and if there's nothing easily accessible we saw them land on a healthy adult, be joined by others and very quickly the penguin is dead and food:


The King Penguins really are a delight on the eye and here you can see all the major plumage details:


They tend to walk in file, leading to groups or lines of Penguins:


Though an Elephant seal moving on the beach throws everything into confusion, you don't want to be rolled over by three tons of itchy blubber:


At one point I found a pair of Brown Skuas eating regurgitated krill, no doubt having hassled the bearer which was on its way back to feed a chick:



Penguin pair bonding and general interactions are also a delight to watch:


On odd find on the plain was this leucistic seal pup, having a nap:



The seals share the shoreline and the plain with the Penguins:




Though from time to time things get fractious when the species get too close together, particularly with boisterous seals disturbing Penguins moulting or loafing: 




Back out to sea a Giant Petrel was using the wind generated by the passage of our boat, which meant it got very close hence it filling the entire frame of this image.  You can tell by the red end to the bill it is a Northern Giant Petrel:



We sailed on to Fortuna Bay, a much extended passage, as Prion Island remained too dangerous and the usual stops along the central parts of the island were closed for the reindeer killing, and got in place for the following day's landing.

Although I tend to concentrate on the wildlife, the landscape and geography of South Georgia is also breathtaking, here is a selection of some of the images from that first day:







I really enjoyed landing on South Georgia and my introduction to the wildlife of the island.  Three more days to go!

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