January 19, 2000

Blue-eyed shags and chicks at Cormorant Island. Mt. William in the background.

The morning saw the wind calm down. Steve and I checked in with Polly Penhale, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Representative and biological sciences program manager who is on Station. Polly had mentioned that she would be happy to take us out to restricted islands for recording. She had a few hours free from working, via remote, with the NSF home office in Arlington, Virginia and we decided to pay a visit to Cormorant Island. With such an opportunity being a real premium, we also invited U.S. News and World Report photographer, Jim LoScalzo, to join us, along with Mimi Wallace, our resident Teacher Experiencing Antarctica.

Polly Penhale on Cormorant Island.

Jim has been savouring working around wildlife and discovering the nuances of light in the austral summer. In a few weeks he returns to the media frenzy of Washington and the presidential campaign trail! What a different world... Mimi has been gathering samples, taking photographs and writing entries for her website: a valuable aspect of learning and a virtual extension of her classroom. Her students at Montwood High School in El Paso, Texas have had the opportunity to follow Adelie penguins on feeding forays from Humble Island--via the transmitter data that Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson gather on a daily basis. They are also engaged in analyzing field data from other aspects of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project.

Jim LoScalzo...on assignment.

The sea was like glass as we passed by Stepping Stones and Christine Island. Distant booms of calving ice from the Marr Ice Piedmont resounded across the water: cracks and dull thudding, thumps of thunder like an approaching storm. Mt. William could be seen and Steve looked wistfully off, in the direction of her slopes--they were an invitation for a climb! We set ashore and made our way up to the nesting shags. I noticed that mosses and grasses have come in fully as we scrambled up the scree. The birds noted our presence with little concern.

Blue-eyed shag chicks.

It has been exactly a month since our last trip to Cormorant Island (see the December 19, 1999 journal entry). The island is home to two colonies of nesting blue-eyed shags. The chicks were then little more than peeping balls of fluff. The summer has passed quickly; fledging time is nearing. The birds have grown exponentially--some surpassing their parents in size. Their plummage is coming in with primary and secondary coverts gaining definition: no longer grey, but brown and beige. As the young stretch and test their wings, down and fluff drift into the air, catching a breeze--like dandelion seeds on a summer's day. The nests were once deep structures of seaweed, mud with a guano adobe crust for a finish. Now the nests perimeters are mashed down, as two and three birds crowd into them. Parents, mindful of those straying too far, chase around the colony rounding up errant children who have gone too far afield. I have noticed that this is also a rather tense time and, as with Adelie penguin colonies, chicks who wander where they are unwelcome tend to get pecked ferociously by malevolent neighbours.

Steve and I settled down to record, while the rest of the group took a tour of the Adelie penguin colonies and explored other parts of the island. The chicks were bold and sauntered right up beside me. They played with the microphone cables and enjoyed knocking the microphone and windscreen around. Their voices are changing, with pleading peeps developing into calls.

My "field assistant" lends a helping beak.

After a half hour of recording, we waved our colleagues over to take some pictures before returning to the boat. Polly wanted to stop by one side of the island to take a few pictures--documenting the appearance of a rocky outcropping which is an extinct blue-eyed shag colony. One of her earlier visits to the island in 1989 came in the wake of the wreck of the Argentine vessel, the Bahia Paraiso. Polly, along with several other researchers, suspects that the diminishing shag numbers are one of the tragic legacies of oil spilling from the wrecked ship. Back at Station, she showed me a photograph of the area, as it once was: a thriving community of birds.

We headed off in the direction of Hermit Island, in hopes of seeing some whales. The sky was filled with varied shapes and sizes of clouds and big blue gaps through which the sun poured, shedding fingers of light on distant mountains and on the waters. We passed by a small skerry, Hellerman Rocks, populated by two itinerant Adelies. Their flippers extended and they eyed the water apprehensively. We soon saw a leopard seal rear its head, right next to the boat. It bobbed up, dove, and resurfaced on the other side--checking us out from all angles. Their pelage is a mottled mix of grey, slate and blue. Their heads are massive and reminiscent of a mastiff. "A Tyrannosaurus Rex with flippers," as Carsten Kooyman, a penguin researcher, once described them to me. We have seen quite a few patrolling off the Adelie rookery at Torgersen, and hauled out on pieces of ice in Arthur Harbor. This was the closest glimpse yet.

A leopard seal takes a look.

We circled about the area and had the good fortune to see a passing Minke whale--quietly lumbering through the sound not more than 50 metres from us. In the stillness, we could hear the blows and take in the sweet ocean smell from its breath, which lingered in the air and swept over the zodiac. Minke whales are rather silent. I lowered the hydrophone and listened. The creature glided through the water with such ease that I could not even hear trails and eddies of water from her fluke--and no vocalizations. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful experience!

On the way back to Station, Polly suggested we take a spin about Torgersen Island, just to see what kind of leopard seal actvitiy was afoot. It was getting to be late in the day--feeding time, when many Adelies are returning from krill foraging. Sure enough, we spotted several animals cruising just offshore amidst porpoising penguins. One particular individual, a rather large juvenile, became quite intrigued by the boat and followed us on a complete circumnavigation of the island. While Steve managed to keep ahead and out of harm's way, the seal did lunge at one of the sternmost pontoon parts. Ross Hein, the boating coordinator, popped into the galley this morning, "Hey, Tasty Treat! Did you see your boat?" Old zodiac #3 was looking woeful--hauled out, partially deflated to port, with a set of teeth marks and a canine puncture. Luckily, we had gotten ashore before this posed a serious problem!