Wildlife in Antarctica

A series of short stories by Mark Stratton

Antarctica is an IMAX experience of biodiversity on an epic scale, where the battle for survival in mighty seas and surreally beautiful glacial landscapes can be visceral, comical, and most certainly for all who experience it, life changing. I recently boarded Polar LatitudesIsland Sky, an elegant and small ice-strengthened vessel for my fourth expedition to the 7th continent. Nineteen days at sea on a 3747 nautical-mile odyssey through the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. This is my wildlife journey told through short stories.

Why do seabirds follow cruise vessels?

It wasn’t long after slipping out the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia into the Southern Ocean before an entourage of seabirds began following our vessel. It often begins with black-browed albatrosses and the region’s persistent scavenger, giant petrels. During onboard seabird surveys, we would count fifteen species swirling around Island Sky, rising and falling effortlessly on the ocean currents. Tiny Wilson’s storm petrels dance above the waves while flocks of dappled cape petrels flutter delicately like a light snow flurry. But why exactly do so many seabirds follow the vessels?

“It’s not known for sure,” says Lisa Lapointe, our onboard naturalist. “It could be seabirds are attracted by the smell of dimethyl sulphide (DMS), which is present in phytoplankton and released into the air when our ship passes over it. This brings them to food sources of krill,” she said. “Or perhaps, they’re just curious about our presence”.

How many penguin species will I see?      

Penguins are what travellers to the Antarctic region crave. Depending on who you ask, and even penguinologists are divided, there are globally sixteen to eighteen species. With certainty you’re sure to meet plucky gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni, in Antarctica, and even further south in latitude, you’ll meet Adelie, their all-black heads faintly reminiscent of a medieval executioner. Our voyage offered extra possibilities to boost that tally. Our Falkland stopover at Gypsy Point, revealed burrowing magellanics, while southern rockhoppers, which look quaintly mad with yellow-and-black mohawks, bounce around the clifftops. But it’s the king penguins most want to see. There are Falklands colonies, but two-days further sail to South Georgia presented one of the great wildlife spectacles on earth. in control of its ecological destiny, left me humbled.

What’s it like to see a million penguins?

Speeding into St Andrews Bay in eastern South Georgia Island on an inflatable zodiac, first it’s the acrid pong of guano that assailed my senses before, what another guest described as hearing ‘an orchestra of kazoos’, the volume of the colony became deafening. The sound of one million king penguins – tall and elegant with golden patches along their beaks and heads. We splashlanded onto the gravel shoreline where for kilometres along the cold ocean front the kings either entered the sea to fish or were returning, bellies full of krill to feed their squeaking chicks who loiter in brown downy coats.  The beach wriggled with fur seal pups during my short walk to a tussoc grass mound where the full majesty of the colony was revealed. Hundreds of thousands of kings. The collective power of feeling nature is so in control of its ecological destiny, left me humbled.

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The Southern Ocean’s only songbird is back from the brink

On South Georgia, a sweet chirruping of a songbird momentarily caused me to wonder if I was still in my back garden. Meet the wonder of South Georgia. The endemic pipit, the island’s comeback king. We see these delicate little striped songbirds with a hint of Dijon-mustard-yellow plumage hopping around the slippery black rocks of the shoreline, in between the kelp, foraging for morsels.

Before 2011 this little songbird was plummeting towards extinction because a rat infestation brought to South Georgia by centuries of mariners. The rats consumed the eggs and chicks and left the pipits existence in doubt until only a few breeding pairs clung to little offshore rat-free islets. But then in 2011 a rat extermination program began using helicopters and 6 years later South Georgia was declared rat-free. “I never used to see or hear them,” said Polar Latitudes expedition-leader, Sarah Scriver. “But just one season after the rats were declared gone in 2017, the pipits’ population began to explode”.

How the chinstraps saved Shackleton’s men

Our voyage took us along the route of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s great escape between Antarctica to South Georgia, albeit in reverse. Just north of the Antarctic Peninsula tip, we came to the mountainous yet foreboding Elephant Island. The Ship’s captain steadied us offshore of Point Wild in a boisterous swell to view where in 1916, twenty-two men were left behind exhausted and near starving under two upturned lifeboats in freezing conditions, whilst Shackleton made his epic voyage in the James Caird to South Georgia to get help. With most provisions exhausted, how did they survive 4months in such a hostile environment?

The answer was chinstraps. Aesthetically, not culinarily, they’re my favourite penguin. A pretty little black-and-white penguin with a line running around their neck lending them their name. Alongside seal meat and foraged limpets, sadly chinstraps formed the bulk of the hungry Shackleton crew’s diet and kept them all alive. As the vessel bobbed offshore, I saw the chinstraps passively standing around the shoreline. I’ve no idea if penguins possess hindsight but I could imagine them seeing us and thinking: ‘they’re back, let’s get out of here’.

The stealth hunters

First experiencing the 7th continent amid the fractured archipelago of the Bellingshausen Sea is a wondrous moment. Not unlike stepping out of CS Lewis’ wardrobe to be bedazzled by Narnia. Everything is pure, white, and shimmering, whilst life teems everywhere. But behind the beauty furious struggles for existence are underway, with magnificent leopard seals one of Antarctica’s most ferocious predators.

Previously I’d seen these lithesome powerful seals grab hold of penguins and literally remove them from their skins by continually thrashing them against the sea surface. It’s brutal. Yet this time, I enjoyed my finest experience with them and not a drop of blood was spilled. After dinner one evening, we left the ship at Cierva Cove for a late zodiac cruise and a sublime encounter with a three-meter-long leopard seal. Clearly well-fed (assumed because of its obliviousness to penguins porpoising past), the seal lapped around our inflatable and with repeated playful sweeps dove beneath us performing rhythmic figures-of-eight. I shuffled back-and-forth trying to video the spectacle, mindful not to capsize in case the seal’s appetite returned.

Wings of desire

If you’re a penguin, you’d be sick of the sight of skuas and giant petrels. Both are the archetypal villains on land. I’ve seen giant petrels nab penguin chicks with their dinosaurian bills while feisty skuas aren’t shy of rolling an egg away from penguin parents and feasting upon it. Times, however, are a little leaner this season for this devilish duo. We landed at two gentoo penguin colonies during this voyage, in Mikkelsen Harbour and an ever-present favourite on cruises, Neko Harbour, where a large calving glacier peels off at will with uproarious crashes. At both these sites the gentoo were trying to nurture chicks likely too late in the season to survive. Some still sat on eggs and only a few tiny fluffy chicks had emerged. “Mid-January should not be snowy, but wetter and warmer so they can nest on rock. If they lay eggs on ice they will freeze,” explained Dr Annette Bombosch, our expedition scientist. Climate change she suggested is big threat to penguin breeding and ergo to the persistent predatory birds dining plans. Yet still the giant petrels and skuas watched on patiently, ever hopeful of an easy meal.

The biggest orca on the planet