Reporting from South Georgia: Penguins, Seals and Core by Melanie Leng

Me on the beach
I arrived on South Georgia a little over a week ago. It was a dramatic exit from the German research vessel, the Polarstern. The coring raft and a small inflatable boat were loaded up with our gear and the 6 team members and we were craned over the side of the ship. The apparent calm waters from the ship seemed a little more challenging in our small vessels. We motored the mile to shore as the Polarstern left us to continue its journey to the South Sandwich Islands. We entered Jason Harbour and landed close to Jason Harbour hut where we set up camp on the shingle beach due to the lack of flat lying land anywhere else in the bay. The hut is a relic from the whaling industry and is about the size of a garden shed and rather dark and dingy inside. Nevertheless we use it to shelter from the worst of the westerly winds that constantly thrash the island. Neumayer Glacier reaches the ocean farther up the fjord and westerly winds travelling from that direction tend to be bitterly cold. 

Jason Harbour camp, South Georgia
Our camp ground is the usual over nighting area for some of the rather extensive population of fur seals, so we often find seals tucked between our tents especially in the mornings. Below 200 m altitude there is about 1 seal every 2m, in our small bay there are literally thousands of the animals. The seals are mostly juveniles and calves with pups, and are generally quite friendly on the beach although inland they can be fiercely territorial, which is quite an issue given the density of the population. We also share this bay with a few elephant seals, which wallow in small depressions full of rotting sea weed on the beach in groups 2 or 3 while they moult their hair and skin before heading out to sea for the winter. We also have a few colonies of penguins, mostly king and gentoo. The penguins find humans particularly interesting and if sitting on the beach they will sidle up to you to stand close by. Flying birds are also abundant, especially giant petrels, terns, albatross, skuas, prions and shags.

King penguins in Jason Harbour bay
A fur seal calve and pup

The sampling is going well, so far we have taken a 10 meter long sediment core from the lagoon and expect this to represent around 5,000 years of sediments accumulated on the floor of the lagoon. The lagoon sediments are thick dark grey and black muds and contain many remnants of plants and animals which we will use to reconstruct the environmental history of the island.   We have also collected many rocks to date the various glacial advances and retreats.

The weather has been mostly very good so far, with cool but bright sunny days, although we have sub zero overnight temperatures. One particularly exciting moment came this morning when a sudden gust of wind swept the camp, flattening the tents and scattering our equipment. My dome tent, containing all my gear and personal possessions, was caught by a sudden gust of wind and several of the tent poles snapped before it rolled off like a giant egg. Fortunately we managed to grab it a few meters from the sea. Our task for later today is to rebuild the camp and secure the tents better! On the plus side the storm brought in many icebergs into the bay which we were able to collect large fragments to supplement out supply of fresh water which we had to bring from the ship. 

Melanie Leng is on an expedition to South Georgia, see her previous blogs, and follow her on twitter @MelJLeng (she will be back on line very soon)


hajjandumrah said…
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