Tag Archives: Skua

Empty Ocean, Full Tummies

Well it’s been another two days at sea on the way from Jan Mayan to Scoresbysund in Greenland. While flocks of curious fulmars escorted us from the island, very few birds are to be seen out here in the Greenland Sea – in stark contrast to the previous offshore legs where fulmars where our constant companions along with the occasional puffin, kittywake and skua. We are also coming to grips with a new phenomenon of our arctic trip – night time! As we head further south we are starting to get twilight conditions in the early hours of the morning, a fact that certainly makes me a little nervous as I scan the horizon for ice!

So on these long, dark lonely watches without any wildlife to break the monotony you need something to lift your spirits – for us that has come to represent a warm meal at the end of a watch. It’s amazing what you can come up with in our small rolling galley provided you have a little ingenuity. We have pulled down the layers covering our noses and mouths to consume such delicacies as donuts (deep fried bagets rolled in cinnamon and sugar); wholegrain pancakes with lemon and sugar; a hearty salted pork stew flavoured with clove sauce; fresh crusty bread with blue cheese; sautéed chicken with a creamy zucchini and bacon sauce …. and my personal favourite – bacon, baked beans and eggs with toast this morning! We certainly aren’t going to waste away anytime soon!

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My first passage

After more than 80 hours of sailing and over 260 nautical miles we finally made it to Bjørnøya, a rugged, surreal rocky island between the European continent and Svalbard, our northernmost destination. For me this first passage was quite the experience – of course I spent the first day leaning over the railings feeding fish and looking green. Poor Patrick had to sail all by himself until my stomach and legs decided that a rolling ship is an acceptable place to be. After that routine soon settled in – either 4 hours on the watch, keeping the sails in position and the ship on course, or trying to catch some sleep despite constant healing and rocking of the ship and strange rattling and gurgling sounds all around you. But after my mind had finally settled in, I started to notice all the small wonders around me. The faithful fulmars which kept us company for the whole journey, the curious kittiwakes circling the windex and trying to land on deck, the vicious skuas pirating food from other seabirds, and of course the whales! Pchuuuuuh, big blow just 20 metres off the ship, massive black back, and then the tail of a huge male humpback whale disappearing in the abyss of the northern seas. And after what seemed forever, we finally spotted the land we’ve been striving towards: huge, vertical cliffs, rocky pillars, slopes covered in snow, and buzzing birds all around us. Bjørnøya!

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The cold

I love Antarctica. Its a wondrous place with abundant wildlife, stunning scenery and a feeling that etches itself into my soul whenever I find myself at the edge of the known world. It’s a heady mix of adrenalin, amazement and awe … but despite all this, standing in the freezing rain for several hours can get rather tiring. The energy levels slowly subside in proportion to one’s core temperature until you find yourself gazing listlessly at the array of breeding penguins that spread out over the slopes and raise a clamor as they squabble amongst themselves over the precious stones that are the building blocks of the castles they raise each year to keep their eggs from the snow. Even the daring raids of skuas diving into the black and white throng to steal away with an egg fails to raise the excitement it should when the extremities are a mere memory. And in light of that… I believe I will end this blog abruptly and jump into a warm shower.

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Today we pulled into Cuverville Island for our first stop of the day and I had a chance to sit down for an hour or so and watch the local skua population wreak havoc on the Gentoo Penguins. Skuas are a large brown bird related to the Northern Jaegers that constantly prowl the periphery of penguin colonies awaiting the opportunity to swoop in and steal an egg. Despite their scavenging habits and cutthroat attitude to cute cuddly penguins there is something charming about skuas. They are absolutely fearless and will wander up and stare you straight in the eye, but it always occurs to me that they are sizing you up for a meal “Are you dead yet? Can I eat you?” They also congregate around research stations where they virtually become pets despite their bad manners and killer instincts. If they are pirates then they are certainly the “Captain Jack Sparrow” kind of pirate with a bit of the rouge mixed in with a lot of charisma. The ones I watched today were happily sitting amidst the penguins which seemed unconcerned despite the various empty eggs around the colonies that had fallen victim to the rapacious birds. The skuas disdained the occasional penguin pecks to the extent that many pairs were happily consummating their relationship amongst the throng of tomorrow’s food.

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