Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions

Archive for March, 2011

Antarctica – Ice, Ice, Baby!

Fish Islands, Antarctic Peninsula

Fish Islands, Antarctic Peninsula

Blue skies to the north, mirror-like waters reflecting the landscape, numerous glaciers pushing towards shore, and all around us,  jagged mountains cloaked with thick cakes of ancient ice.
The Antractic Peninsula – a land of extremes, full of life, and endless photo opportunities.

With a plethora of visual stimulation, and my camera’s meter showing considerably more light than I’ve ever experienced anywhere on this planet, powerful photo compositions were everywhere, and easy to capture. If that isn’t enough, there were plenty more distractions – the occasional Snow Petrel flying over a family of Humback Whales, calving glaciers abruptly crashing into silent waters, a cliffside dotted with Antarctic Shags, small blue floating bergie-bits, some with resting Crabeater Seals, and dancing Wilson’s Storm-Petrels darting around our zodiac.
Yet, many of us were eager for the main attraction – A Gentoo Penguin colony. We saw them even from a distance, the low exposed outcroppings jutting into the bay, krill-pink from layers of Penguin guano, and thousands of dark-&-white birds standing or marching to/from the frigid water.
Getting to land was a process in itself – a well choreographed dance of tiny zodiacs, executed with military precision, from the gangway to a beach full of curious fur seals. Once on land, we usually had options – go for an energetic hike, meander through the colony while trying to avoid disrupting active penguin nests, or just wait for the wildlife to come to you – all difficult choices, each with their advantages.

FishHarbour003

Zodiac on opposite side of "Bergie Bit" archway

Then there is the luxury of just wandering around the bay, amongst the icebergs, on a zodiac cruise… a scenic drive through an ever-changing exhibition of natural sculptures, lines and patterns, endless and unimaginable beauty in the form of deep blue ice. Occasionally, these “bergie bits” provide refuge to life forms such as Adelie Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, South Polar Skuas, Giant Petrels, immaculate white Snow Petrels or even a Leopard Seal. With luck, the wildlife will even come close. On one occasion, we were graced by an Adelie Penguin jumping onto the pontoon of our zodiac. Imagine the thrill of a Humpback Whale swimming below, its features clearly visible in the crystal clear waters. And, you just never know what lies around the corner. Each moment was a new chapter into an icy blue wilderness.

Snow Petrel

Snow Petrel

Gentoo Penguins

Gentoo Penguins

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Ancient Blue Ice

Ancient Blue Ice

On the Shores of South Georgia

King Penguins pair bonding

King Penguins pair bonding

Warm amber halos skirt the mountains to our east. Golden beams break through the peaks, cascading down to a dark gravel beach. Deep trails in the emerald moss carry troops of trumpeting King Penguins, waddling their way to the shore. Processions cautiously sidestep feisty Antarctic Fur Seal pups, aggressive and annoying obstacles blocking a clear path to the ocean. In the icy waters, waiting to come ashore, hundreds of penguins splash through the shallows, shiny and colourful as the sun enhances their contrasting orange, black, and silvery-blue plumage. Marauding Brown Skuas persistently circle overhead, quarrelsome and opportunistic, ready to scavenge any innocent casualty. The piercing aroma of ammonia cuts sharply through the morning mist – a stark reminder that you’re walking beside a colony of King Penguins, hundreds of thousands strong.
Such is the dawn on the Salisbury Plains of South Georgia.
This remote location in the Scotia Sea of the South Atlantic, north of the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, is relatively untouched. It’s a sanctuary for an abundance of sea life, mainly penguins, albatross, petrels, Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals. Recent estimates tell of 30 million individual birds breeding here.
For the photographer, it’s a gold mine, revealing dramatic and beautiful images around every corner.
For the birder, the island provides glimpses into the lives of rarely seen creatures, some breeding in enormous rookeries, plus two endemic species to the archipelago.
Most encouraging was to learn of conservation efforts. The South Georgia Heritage Trust is involved in a massive project to eradicate the invasive Brown Rat – stow-aways arriving here on old whaling ships. The rats have since dramatically reduced native bird species by ruthlessly preying on chicks and eggs.
The endemic South Georgia Pipit, a tiny streaked songbird that has vanished from most of it’s limited range, is expected to be one of the first indicators revealing the success of this project.
For more information about South Georgia, and conservation efforts, visit this site: http://www.sght.org/
The abundance of life, the rugged scenery, the unrelenting weather, the tenacity of fearless creatures, the warmth of courting birds, and the effortless grace of gliding albatross – South Georgia is a wilderness spectacle unparalleled in this world.

King Penguin rookery - Salisbury Plains

King Penguin rookery - Salisbury Plains

Antarctic Fir Seals - mother and pup bonding

Antarctic Fur Seals - mother and pup bonding

South Georgia Pipit

South Georgia Pipit

Subantarctic (Brown) Skua

Subantarctic (Brown) Skua

male Southern Elephant Seals in territorial dispute

male Southern Elephant Seals in territorial dispute

pair Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

pair Light-mantled Sooty Albatross