Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cooper Bay, S. Georgia: Macaroni & Chinstrap Penguins

Three young fur seals at Cooper Bay
    The next day we were landing at Cooper Bay, which we were told would be the only chance for us to see Macaroni penguins on this voyage.  The government of South Georgia had put out a booklet about what you can expect to see on S. Georgia which was several years old.  According to the information in that book and the photos, Macaroni penguins were by far the most prolific and easiest to see penguin on the island, with multiple huge colonies.  Yet, in 2015, there was this one place to see them on S. Georgia?  And it was not a huge colony.  The huge colonies were now King and Gentoo.  There was only one chance to see Chinstrap penguins as well, and it would also be this day. We would not be able to land near the chinstraps, however, as there had been some disease in their colony (avian cholera) and it would be an unacceptable biological risk to land and possibly spread it elsewhere despite precautions.  I was more than happy to comply with such a rule and glad it was in place, but it was weird that the numbers of penguins and their locations were changing so rapidly.
     Why?  Global warming has impacted the available krill, which is a major food source for penguins and many other animals in this part of the world.  In addition, krill is being harvested commercially for factory farmed fish and for extraction of oil.  There is insufficient regulation, using outdated data, of the amounts than can be harvested.  The net result of all this is far, far less krill in the southern ocean, and visably fewer penguins and whales, which rely heavily on krill.  A recent article in the NY Times explains these issues well.  On all of my wildlife trips I see impacts of global warming, and they are always depressing.  It is even more depressing that people still refuse to recognize the dangers, and that as a species we are not working together to do everything we can to slow it.
     The guides who had been coming to S. Georgia and Antarctica for years had taken photos over the years and shared in slide shows their personal observations - glaciers shrinking, ice melting, colonies of penguins shrinking, locations of penguin colonies changing as they seek colder water and more available krill. Yes, another layer of depressing on this trip on which there was no shortage.  Mankind is deeply and perhaps already irreversibly altering a critical part of the world ecosystem and all the species therein, yet little attention is being paid.  Scientists try and warn us, but most people are not that informed, and certainly not demanding action from their governments on the issue.
     Trying to focus on the one chance to see Macaroni penguins rather than all the depressing reasons I would not be having more chances than one, I geared up for a landing at Cooper Bay.  The briefing mentioned that there was a somewhat steep and difficult climb to get to their colony, and urged caution.  Apparently, it was at this landing spot on a previous trip where someone broke a leg and the ship had to go to the Falkland Islands hospital - ending the trip for all.  I renewed my commitment to try and be aware of my physical self, and to be careful and not get injured.
    A few of the guides/staff marked out the
Zodiacs landed on the small beach;  this is taken from above,
near the Macaroni penguin colony
route to the colony so that we were not making more than one trail, marking it with small flags.  The snow was quite deep, about 18-24 inches, and each step was very challenging as a result.  These "post holes" that occur from sticking a leg into the snow can be death to penguins as a penguin can fall into one and be unable to get out.  Therefore, we tried to step in one another's steps to make as few as possible, and we filled each one in with snow. Before returning to the ship, staff removed the flags and checked to make sure the post holes were filled in.  Again, I can't say enough good things about Cheesemans Ecology Safaris due to their attention to these kinds of details. 
Overlooking the Macaroni colony, which is on a bluff
     I really need to concentrate not to fall - I am hardly coordinated in regular gear, let alone 5 layers and giant, heavy polar boots (I was wearing men's size 11.  Huge.)  As a result I waited until most of the people had made the climb so I could go slower.  I made it to the colony and took this photo showing the tussocks, the snow, and the penguins overlooking the ocean.  Then I spent an hour or more trying to get a close up of a Macaroni.  Although I laid in the snow and tried several positions, I was never happy with my shots.  First, the grass often screwed up the focus, and there was also blowing snow, which ruined shots. 

Attempted close up of a Macaroni penguin
    If I were a serious photographer I am sure I could have managed it, but with the point and shoot, as much as I love it, most of the shots were throw aways.  I know my fellow travelers were able to get some lovely shots (of which I am jealous, but I am happy for them).  However, I never was able to get the shots I wanted here. 
     Even if you are wearing five layers, sitting or laying in the snow does make you cold - so I tried to move around enough to try another location.  The snow was sometimes so heavy I couldn't get any shots, and while usually we all spread out and didn't bother one another, here there was really only one vantage point of the
This is probably my favorite shot, and still not great.
colony and so everyone was clustered together trying to get photos.  Luckily this was a very polite group to travel with.  All the same, it was awkward jockeying for a way to take photos.
   As I previously mentioned, I am very inexperienced with taking video and I very, very rarely do it.  All the same, I wanted to try on this trip to capture a bit of the sounds of the animals and a little bit of their movement.  Here is a very short video of a macaroni penguin who has made his way up to the colony and is walking through it.
     The way most of the penguins got to the colony was around the corner from the small beach the zodiacs were landing on.  I visited it by zodiac - you can see the line of penguins here making their way up to the bluff and the colony.

Macaroni penguins make a steep ascent
     When I was ready to descend, having gotten cold and given up on photos, I encountered an elderly woman who was struggling to get to the top, so I gave her a hand.  With all the layers of clothing I don't know who she was, but I remember thinking that I really hope when I am her age I am still taking these types of trips and making the effort to see something amazing even if it is hard.
     I decided that there was no way I could safely descend on foot.  I was falling and tripping and it was taking forever to fill in post holes.  I was exhausted.  So I decided that I would sit down and slide back to the beach.  It was safer to slide than to try to climb down.
Fur seals curled up look just like rocks - this one is upright
    I sat down and began to slide down towards the beach, with my boots out so I could push off rocks as needed.  Unfortunately, I then discovered a problem.  Fur seals look like rocks when they are curled up, and there were a lot of them curled up along the route to the beach.  When you are tall, fur seals will leave you alone vs. attack, which is why you are supposed to raise your arms if they are attacking you and they back off.  I was sitting.  As the fur seals became aware of me sliding near them, several came for me.  They bark before/as they attack and give you a warning.  All of a sudden I had several coming for me.  I decided to try and speed up as much as possible vs. stand.  I was betting on the fact I wasn't bothering them that much and they were just giving me warning barks to stay away.  If they wanted to catch me they certainly could.  But if I stood for each one, I'd never make t down.
     Sliding down as fast as I could, trying to both be quick and not get injured, and trying hard not to get bit by a fur seal, I thought about how this was a most interesting and challenging vacation.  I hadn't expected this particular experience.  I was very relieved when I got to the beach unbitten and uninjured.
A large fur seal on the beach, which attacked one of the staff,
and was successfully tamed by a stick tickling his whiskers. 
I had to see it to believe it worked.
     At the beach, I took a zodiac over to see the chinstrap colony and the other wildlife in the area.  As we couldn't land at the chinstrap colony, it was very hard to get any photos of them from the bouncing zodiac full of photographers.  The guides did their best to give everyone a chance to see them, and I did see them - but once again I wasn't really happy with any of my photos.  Too much bounce and movement and I couldn't just sit and wait for shots - it was more of an aim, point, shoot, hope situation.  I managed to shift from one zodiac to the another on the water without incident to get a few more chances.  I did not end up with a close up I loved but here are the best of the shots I could obtain as well as a couple of the area from the zodiac.
Chinstrap penguin
Chinstrap penguin
      Overall, it was a really interesting morning, and I was happy to get back to the ship uninjured, warm  up, and get ready for the afternoon.  I was learning that many of the landing sites could not be made due to weather, but the guides and crew were always working to try and make something possible, even if not where planned.  Itineraries mean nothing and weather means everything, so you just have to wait for openings and take them when you can.  Although there are never guarantees in wildlife travel, on this kind of trip you really need to realize that you will not see everything you plan to see and that's life. 
     In planning the trip, I had considered a voyage that stopped at a lot of islands including the Sandwich Islands and Elephant Island.  I ended up not booking that trip due to concerns about the number of days at sea between islands and the fact that there was one chance to land at each place and if weather prevented it, I'd miss it.  Now that I saw what the weather was like in this part of the world I was really glad I picked an in-depth S. Georgia trip instead.  Even though we missed some landings, we had a lot of chances, not just one, to see more of the wildlife on the island, and no real time at sea after arrival at S. Georgia.
A small iceberg near Cooper Bay
A shag or cormorant (I forget which) in Cooper Bay


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