Our days are sufficiently different that there is always something new to contend with. Waking up one morning with the usual caffeine craving and bodily needs after being in a tent for 12 hours, to find that during the night a series of obstacles have been placed in your way. The first comes in the form of a noise immediately outside your one and only exit from the tent. It sounds like the kind of snoring that only comes from a very large seal that is very much asleep. This one thought that my tent was a great windbreak and decided to move in. Trying to poke a seal awake with a boot merely results in the seal opening an eye and looking at you. Poke a bit more, and he gets the message that he isn’t welcome, yet in his eyes he is much bigger than the small boot protruding from the tent. Adult male fur seals will try to avoid fights which can result in serious injuries, and in a confrontation the smaller of the two combatants will normally back down. Unfortunately, the combatant connected to the small boot needs a pee, so he isn’t backing down. After a lot of snorting, growling and poking at each other, the seal begrudgingly moves just enough for me to get out. Obstacle #1 complete. Seals in front of the cooking tent coupled with frozen water provide obstacles #2 and #3 which are overcome on a daily basis, allowing us to start the day.
Every morning at sunrise there is a procession of many thousands of penguins walking in an orderly fashion along the beach, heading to sea for the day. The sight is incredible, and reminds me of city workers heading to work in the morning. They are quiet, rather sullen, and they aren’t quite awake. But a seemingly never-ending stream of penguins walks off the ridgelines around the island, down onto the beach and follows the water’s edge. The procession goes straight past the campsite, up over an ice ridge and out of sight towards the ocean. A traffic jam regularly occurs at the bottom of the ice ridge, with some penguins in front sliding back down a few feet, which causes chaos and a beak-to-back traffic snarl common in rush hours all over the world. Rush hour ends, and the beach road is empty again until about 7pm, when they all come back to land along the same route back home. The difference this time is they are inflated like footballs, brimming with food (mainly krill) for their chicks. Krill oil is bright red, and some of these penguins are covered head to to toe in it, giving them the look of having fought a war at sea – just how big ARE some of these krill they are taking on ?? Evening rush hour lasts another hour, then the beaches are clear of penguins again as the parents take to feeding their chicks and settling down for the night.
There are over 2,000 seals on the beach on which we camp, and we have to walk through them every time we want to go check the penguin colonies where the instrumented birds are. Some will merely look at you with one eye, growl, and go back to sleep. Others will try and chase you in order to dominate you and guard “their patch”. Some will run at the sight of you, causing a stampede of seals into the sea and clearing the beach of animals that we wanted to work on in the afternoon. Simply travelling around requires concentration and observation – “is this seal going to really charge me or is it a fake charge ?”. Some of the younger seals see you as something that might be fun to play with; “playing” usually involves practice-fights which while not damaging to their opponents would certainly require medical treatment if we were to try and join in.
Having a conversation with my girlfriend on the phone, and I received a report from a colleague that a penguin had just come ashore with a transmitter on. The issue was, the colony was on another island that could only be accessed at low tide – which was 2 hours ago. “Sorry love, I’ve got to go and grab a penguin, talk to you later, bye !”. This struck me as a perfectly normal and correct thing to say, however it wasn’t until I was reminded in an email from her that no, this isn’t what normal partners say normally to each other during the working day. Seemingly small things like this are normal in the situation we find ourselves in, yet it is only when we relay these things to people in the outside world that we realize how what is normal for one is bizarre for another. Living in close proximity with, and working on, so many animals makes every day a challenge, and no two days the same.