Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Gold Harbour, S.Georgia and Once in a Lifetime Wildlife Experiences

King Penguins with their chicks at Gold Harbour
     You may have seen video clips on the internet of some lucky tourist sitting in full gear on a cold beach, with a seal pup on his or her lap as everyone ooooohs and aaaaahs and takes photos.  I know I saw one, taken on Elephant Island, and wanted to go there immediately.  But, the thing is, it is pretty hard to get to, and as I said in a prior post, the itineraries that included that island had loads of days at sea and lots of risk we couldn't even land at places due to limited windows and unpredictable weather.  Lucky for me, though, elephant seal pups (which most such "seal on the lap" videos feature) are also on S. Georgia.  In one of the "vomitorium" briefings one super experienced guide said that these seal pups, "weaners," have finished their 23ish days of nursing from mom and mom has departed, and they are seeking companionship and if you sit still, all 120ish pounds of them will get up on your lap.  Well, you don't have to tell ME twice!!!!!!!  I am a person who 100% respects all the rules, but there is no rule against a seal pup coming up to me if I am just sitting there (and I don't touch it).
     The morning of Nov. 7 we were supposed to have a super early landing at St. Andrews Bay, a famous and huge colony site, but due to bad weather (no longer a surprise) we could not safely land there.  So instead we headed to Gold Harbour, beach with loads of King penguins and loads of elephant seals.  This was a great, great, awesome, super cool landing - despite the really windy, snowy, cold, and terrible-for-photography conditions.
A penguin chick gets a meal from its parent; they find each
other by their calls, despite the many penguins
   For one thing, it was the first landing where I saw King penguin chicks, called Oakum boys, a name from days gone by which refers to a kind of tarred fiber used in shipbuilding, which apparently the fuzzy brown chicks look like.  The penguin species do not all breed/hatch at the same time, and King penguin chicks take a long time, over a year (14-16 mos.) to mature.  So in November, we were seeing last year's chicks, and the other penguin species had not yet laid eggs, but were courting and nesting.  The Southern Ocean has a really limited window for animals to breed, and each week matters, so the time of year we were there, elephant seal pups were mostly born and nursing or weaners, fur seals were not get aggressive and mating, King penguins had one year old chicks, and Gentoos were making nests. 
Two "Oakum Boys" King Penguin chicks in the snow
     This was the first landing where my husband and I did the same thing: hung out on the beach with wildlife.  No hiking, no separate activities - so that was cool in and of itself.  I had to try out the waterproofish "bag" I brought for my camera and the lens hood to try and keep snow and wet off the camera.  It was super cold and windy and at times I just had to turn my back to the wind and wait, then continue on the beach when the wind died down.  The light and conditions in general sucked for photos (maybe some professionals knew tricks to get around this, but I didn't).  But it was still G-R-E-A-T.
     Although I am tragically bad at video, I wanted to try and capture the way these fat chicks (often bigger than the adults in their girth) walk - or waddle.  This super brief clip gives you some sense of sound and movement.

      After walking the length of the beach and seeing the amazing numbers of seals, penguins, and penguin chicks, I sat in the sand and low and behold - you betcha - a weaner elephant seal pup came up to me.  The approach was slow, the rolls of blubber flopping my way in the sand, the seal pup sniffing in my direction.  He (or she) called to me, had a kind of snotty nose, and seemed really interested in milk, nudging me the way a nursing critter does to try and release milk.  I sat still and savored the moment. 
Sitting in my Adventure Barbie/Michelin Man hideous pink
clearance price raincoat, waiting for the elephant seal pup to
check me out
     I felt bad for the pup.  I would have loved to hug and cuddle him or her and offer them a warm place to stay and treats - but in nature, one does not interfere.  Touching is not appropriate.  I cannot offer this seal a thing, except a temporary curiosity on a cold beach.  So I sat, as the seal pup investigated me, and my husband took photos.     I am not a selfie person and I hate photos of me, and my husband is not a photographer and hates taking pictures.....but I really, really hoped that he would capture this moment so when I am old I can look back on it.  The sounds of seals and penguins all around me, the sound of the wind, and the time I looked into those seal pup eyes - hoped the best for the little pup, and felt honored to be so visited.
     And the little bugger decided to sample-taste my polar boot.  That boot is tough so I never felt a thing, really.  Apparently it did not taste like milk, so the pup moved on.  I hope that he or she is still alive and well, and enjoying the southern ocean and all the things elephant seals like.....but I will never know.
Elephant seal "weaner" sampling my polar boot
     My husband is not as quick to jump into wildlife encounters, and doesn't seem to crave them in the way I do. He likes animals, but he doesn't have the same relationship with them that I do.  He likes wildlife travel, but I think it is a different experience for him than it is for me.  He didn't seem overly eager to have a seal pup in his lap....but then, he sat down.  And he got two of them - the first giving him a brief visit, as I had gotten from "my pup," and the second, which lingered.  And lingered.  And nudged.  And investigated.  And nosed.  And smelled.  And generally seemed enamored of my husband.  I took lots of photos.  And I had the same jealousy I have when one of my cats decides to cuddle my husband and not me.  It's unfair.  And I should not be jealous.  And I was genuinely happy for my husband.  And yet, why couldn't *I* get the seal that lingers?   Ah, such is life.  It is what it is.  And so, my husband and "his seal pup."
A "weaner" pup literally on my husband's lap
     The beach was long, with the penguin colony on one far end.  The trip passengers spread out, each doing their own thing, so although you could look up and see other people here and there, it was mainly like being alone with the animals, dropping in on them as they went about their business.  I saw penguins molting, seals nursing, penguins exiting the surf and making their way to the colony through a thick barrier of seals.  It snowed the entire time we were there, making photography very challenging indeed.  Every photo from this landing has snow flying through it.  I struggled with the plastic bag covering on my camera and the lens hood.
   I made my way to the colony and spent time there trying to get a good photo of one of the chicks - which was quite challenging.  This is my favorite close-up image.
I wonder where this little chick is now?
     At one point when I was near the middle of the beach, a huge male elephant seal decided I was too close to him or his harem and he raised himself up, taller than me, and bellowed at me, steam coming out of his mouth as he balanced on his flippers.  I did as instructed and backed away from him, with one of the staff telling me how many steps I could take before tripping and falling over another seal.  I wasn't afraid, I thought he was warning me to back away and I was, but it was super handy to have someone telling me what was behind me as I backed up. I could see myself falling on another seal or stepping on a penguin, neither of which I would ever want to do.     
There is no good way to capture the density
    After about 3 hours or so, the weather deteriorated such that we needed to get back to the ship.  Despite the fact we all wanted more time with the animals, everyone cooperated with getting lifejackets on, grouping into zodiac sized lines, and loading up for the trip back to the ship.  The zodiacs staggered themselves so that we could unload without waiting around, and by this time, I was getting the hang of the boarding and unboarding enough that - although always cautious - I was no longer actually expecting a dislocation or injury.  Everyone lined up for the disinfectant dip and very efficiently, in what seemed no time at all, everyone was back on board and warming up with lunch.
Male elephant seal looking over the beach at Gold Harbour
   As I said, not a birder - but two photos from this landing I couldn't help but take were a skua and a giant petrel.
Giant petrel

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