notes from the field

No. 1 - Jurrassic Park

We visited Jurassic Park today - the real one.
It was named Seal Island years ago by Yankee sealers who came to the islands along the Antarctic Peninsula to kill fur seals and sell their dense pelts to the clothiers of unsuspecting Victorian yuppies.
Seal Island is really an archipelago of ice-free rocky islets jutting vertically out of the sea about 10 miles north of its big brother, the more well-known Elephant Island (where the famous English explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men were shipwrecked for 6 months in 1913). We landed on the largest of the islets after working our way through fog, clinging rain, submerged rocks, and breaking waves.

On this small piece of inhospitable real estate are crammed:
  • 40,000 pairs of nesting chinstrap penguins and their chicks living where any slope is less than vertical,
  • 500 pairs of macaroni penguins located in a space somehow wrested free from the chinstraps,
  • 300 lactating fur seal moms and their pups occupying a small area of rocky tide pools,
  • 200 pairs of cape petrels jammed into the cliffs,
  • 200 pairs of sheathbills (a sort of Antarctic garbage collector with disgusting habits),
  • 50 pairs of skuas (very large predatory birds) occupying the highest peaks -
and the assorted transients:
  • female elephant seals fasting while they molt their skin,
  • Weddell seals hauled out for a break,
  • a leopard seal or two digesting his latest kill,
  • gangs of horny young male fur seals jumping on anything that moves,
  • and giant petrels looking to nab an unprotected chick that would become food for their own young.

It is the Calcutta of Antarctic breeding colonies - visceral, prehistoric, and breathtaking (in more ways than one).

We have maintained a seasonal field camp here for 10 years, but the island has become unsafe for humans - not because of the animals that must give us a little space to set up living quarters, but because of the rocks themselves. The island is crumbling into the sea and threatens to bury our camp site located at the base of a cliff. We won't abandon the place completely, but we have reduced our stays to a couple of weeks each year - long enough to count chicks and pups and to see if any of the animals we tagged have returned to breed. We landed today to open the camp and see how well it fared the winter, and to put some supplies ashore for a later visit when the chicks are ready to fledge and go to sea for the first time. The 3 camp buildings (a combo lab/bunkhouse/kitchen, a storage shed, and an outhouse) were still standing, although rotting like everything else on the island that doesn't move.


next episode: Connecticut Suburbs.