09 Nov 2015

Expedition To South Georgia Island by Maureen

12/23

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Since we weren't able to land here a couple days ago due to the high winds and swells, we came back today to experience this spectacular location. I was up at 3:45am, dressed, had a bite to eat, and was out in the Zodiac by 4:30. The sun had just risen up over a mountain and was casting a beautiful light over the beach and the surrounding mountains. Plus, we were greeted by our friends, the king penguins, as well as the elephant seals.

Top photo: King penguins at the landing site
Middle photo: Ted and Gina and the decent-sized bull elephant seal that came galumphing over to us
Bottom photo: View of the morning

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St. Andrews is home to one of the largest king penguin colonies, and the largest on South Georgia. At this time of year, we can estimate that there are over a million penguins here (though in Dec/Jan, there are almost twice as many). King penguins don't have a set breeding period and tend to breed twice every 3 years. Their reproductive cycle is breed, lay an egg, both mom and dad incubate the egg for about 55 days (each taking 2-week turns, sometimes shorter), egg hatches, and mom and dad feed the young for almost a year. (Most penguins are monogamous, but the kings have about an 80% "divorce" rate, scientists think due to having such a long breeding cycle and not wanting to wait around for the same mate to arrive.) This time of year, "single" penguins come to shore, molt, court, breed, lay and incubate an egg, and then feed the young continuously until about April; by then, the young penguin is pretty much the size of an adult, but over winter (April/May-Sept/Oct), the young fast and lose a bit of weight until the spring arrives and mom and dad bring food back on a regular basis again. Once the young are almost a year old, they molt their brown downy coats.

While the sun was out, the weather was pleasant (still cold), but the sun was warm on my face and the sky was clear. Then the clouds rolled in, the temp seemed to drop, and the wind got up. That didn't stop me from sitting atop a hill overlooking the colony for almost 2 hours.

Top photo: The golden, glowing oakum boys
Middle photo: Kings lined up to the glacier
Bottom photo: Me and the kings :-)

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I have seen photos of this area, both at this time of year (the less busy time) and during Dec/Jan when you can't even see the ground because of the penguin density, but to actually experience this place is something else. To be bundled up against the cold, to smell the odors of the seals and penguins (not all unpleasant), and to hear the cacophony of king penguin trumpets and whistles (adults and oakum boys) and bull elephant seal calls.

When the kings call, they point their head and bill skyward and trumpet in a very odd voice; the oakum boys have more of a whistle as their instrument.

Top photo: King in the sun
Middle photo: Scenic kings
Bottom photo: Marilyn Monroe pose

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Ok, I was planning to head back to the colony for a bit longer, but it's time to head back to the ship and warm up. Lunch is in several hours, then we should have the opportunity to go back to shore so long as the weather holds up.

Before loading up on the Zodiac, we did have some penguins coming and going in the surf.

Top photo: What are you looking at?
Middle and bottom photo: Coming in from the surf

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After lunch and a little nap, I headed back to shore at St. Andrews. Since there was only about an hour and a half left of the day, I stuck to the beach rather then head out to the penguin colony. I was glad I did because the bull elephant seals were full of energy, roaring quite a lot, copulating (I was too late for that, but apparently it was mostly the "sneaky bastards" mating on the sides of the harems where the beachmaster bull couldn't see), and chasing each other around the beach, including right where our loading site was.

As I've said before, the elephant seals make such a racket -- all the noises are coming from their mouths, but it all sounds like belching and farting and hiccuping to me. The males are HUMUNGOUS! We're told that the average male coming to shore now is about 5 tons. This time of year, the males and females are all coming to shore to breed. The males fight for territory and access to females. The females are coming to shore to give birth to pups, they nurse the pups for about 25 days, the big "beachmaster" male will breed with the female, and then the female heads back out to sea, leaving the young pup behind to fend for itself and grow up.

I wandered down one end of the beach, away from the colony, and hopped over to some rocks to do some tide-pooling. Unfortunately, there wasn't much interesting in the pools -- seaweed was about it. However, there were some bulls in the water and near me on shore and they were as active as the other bulls on the beach. I took some videos of the craziness going on around me (www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10153793158337072). The weather was calm when I arrived, but then the wind started up, followed by snow. Good timing since the Zodiacs were being loaded up with the last of the visitors. Shower and dinner sound good.

Today was a good day.

Top photo: Sleeping bull
Middle photo: Playing pups
Bottom photo: Talking bull