What Does Catastrophic Molt Look Like on Elephant Seals and Penguins?

These fascinating photos show what's known as a "catastrophic molt." It's a dramatic variation on the more gradual molting process that some animals undergo to replace old feathers, fur, hair or skin. The first two photos, taken by our friend Jenny Varley, a British photographer and conservationist, on the Islas San Benito off Baja, show Northern elephant seals losing their old skin and fur. This is happening with the females right now. The seals must haul out and stay ashore for nearly a month, unable to enter the water to feed because of temporary sensitivity to temperature change. (Elephant seals are unusual in this way; most other seal species can replace their skin and fur gradually while in the water.)

Northern elephant seal molting on the Islas San Bonito. (photo by Jenny Varley)

Photo by Jenny Varley

Pamelia and I were amazed to see thousands of king penguins undergoing a catastrophic molt (third photo) on our awe-inspiring recent trip to Antarctica (http://www.thenaturalistsnotebook.com/our-blog/on-a-beach-with-200000-king-penguins-and-thousands-of-elephant-seals). They too had to stay out of the water, unable to feed, for weeks.

King penguin molting at St. Andrews Bay on South Georgia Island. (photo by Craig Neff)

King penguin molting at St. Andrews Bay on South Georgia Island. (photo by Craig Neff)

Molting animals can look unusual—feel free to share with us any shots you take of interesting ones. And if you want to see more of Jenny's wonderful wildlife photography, check out http://www.jennymvarley.co.uk/ Thanks, Jenny!  —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Come Along On a One-Day, Three-Stop Antarctic Wildlife Adventure

Dessert first, anyone? Never before had I wolfed down freshly baked butterscotch-chip cookies and coffee for breakfast, but trust me, it's not an unpleasant way to begin a day in the Antarctic (or anywhere else, I suspect). It's also a rapid way to fuel up if it's 4 a.m. and you're in a hurry to pull on boots, gloves, a hat and four layers of warm clothing and climb into a Zodiac boat for the first of three—three!—expeditions in the same day at major bird and seal breeding grounds on the remote, remarkable wonder of the world that is South Georgia Island. 

We arrived at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island in time to watch the Sun rise over a vast expanse of king penguins and elephant and fur seals.

Those of you who already have been following our three-week trip to Antarctica aboard the Russian oceanographic vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov (and if you haven't been following, please feel free to scroll down or look at the index on the right to find earlier posts) have seen amazing photos from Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, the open ocean and parts of South Georgia Island. Prepare for more.

On this day Pamelia and I and our shipmates would wander through the beautiful landscapes, wildly changing weather and extraordinary wildlife at Salisbury Plain, Prion Island and Elsehul, three of the gems of South Georgia Island. We would see a total of 25 animal species, including four types of albatrosses, three kinds of seals, and a trio of penguin varieties. It would be another day-of-a-lifetime, of which this trip had provided several already. I will let the pictures below tell the story. 

The king penguins and their brown, fluffy chicks filled the plain around us in every direction on South Georgia Island's largest coastal plain.

Salisbury Plain is home to South Georgia's greatest king penguin colony. See our previous posts, below, for more on these regal, remarkable animals. 

Waves of king penguins came ashore and joined the masses on the plain. The ocean is home to these penguins for most of their lives, during the months when they're not breeding or molting (as many of them were at this time).

Fur seals popped up between the clumps of tussock grass. I had learned the hard way about the aggressiveness of these seals (see our post "Don't Mess With a Fur Seal") and would hear several weeks later about a bloody encounter: A passenger on another Antarctic voyage soon after ours suffered a severed artery when bitten here at Salisbury Plain by a fur seal. The injury required the ship to rendezvous with a British Navy vessel at sea and transfer the man for emergency surgery in the Falkland Islands.

Southern giant petrels scouted the plain for prey, specifically penguin chicks.

The eyes and bill of the Southern giant petrel are equally striking. Note the tube on the bill, part of a system that seabirds have evolved over millions of years for excreting salt from the sea water that they drink.

Pamelia spent one-on-one time with certain king penguins for ink studies that she would paint later. We'll soon share more of those studies and her time-lapse videos of herself painting them.

Once again we felt we were standing in one of the most breathtaking places on Earth.

As many of you know, we've brought the young Charles Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook and he was with us, enjoying his first voyage to the Antarctic. He's been writing his own blog about his trip. 

The weather took a dramatic shift as we prepared to board the Zodiacs and return to the ship for a brief rest before heading to our next landing site, Prion Island. It was still just 7 a.m. 

Soon we were on the rough seas in a Zodiac again, this time bound for Prion Island, home to wandering albatrosses on the nest and—at long last—rare South Georgia pipits for Pamelia and me to see.

Soon we were on the rough seas in a Zodiac again, this time bound for Prion Island, home to wandering albatrosses on the nest and—at long last—rare South Georgia pipits for Pamelia and me to see.

A male Southern elephant seal stood sentry along the narrowing channel we had to negotiate to reach Prion Island.

We caught our first good glimpse of a leopard seal—a species that can grow to more than 11 feet long and is second only to killer whales among Antarctic predators. He was resting and presumably waiting for a chance to devour one of the gentoo penguins that were nesting and swimming nearby.

We ascended an icy wooden observation walkway (the only such visitor trail we would encounter on our three-week Antarctic voyage) to get a look at the wandering albatrosses nesting in the tussock grass.

Wandering albatrosses are extraordinary birds. They have the largest wingspan of any avian species (up to 11-and-a-half feet) and can live for 50 years if not done in by getting snagged on baited longline fishing hooks, which kill about 100,000 albatrosses of all kinds each year. 

The wandering albatrosses that we saw on the nests were seven-month-old juveniles. Our ship ornithologist, Simon Boyes, affectionately called this one Albert. Young Albert had been waiting for days for his parents—amazing long-distance flyers, as all albatrosses are—to return from a 3,100-mile flight to the waters off Brazil to gather food that they would regurgitate to feed him.

Wandering albatrosses flying along with a ship have always been thought of by sailors as a good omen—a mythology made famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the mariner shoots an albatross that has just led his ship to safety from an Antarctic ice jam. The mariner and his ship suffer the consequences. We don't believe in omens, but seeing Albert certainly felt like a lifetime moment of good fortune.

Nearly as thrilling as standing a few yards from a wandering albatross was finding and photographing a South Georgia pipit, a species that had been endangered by the invasive brown rats in South Georgia. (See our previous Antarctic post for more on the extreme efforts underway to eradicate the rats.) These pipits hover in the air before diving into the tussock grass to catch insects. I was able to watch this one wandering and hunting in the grass for several minutes.

After a few hours back on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, we embarked on our final expedition of the day, to Elsehul, home to breeding gentoo penguins, fur seals, gray-headed albatrosses and light-mantled albatrosses. And also a macaroni penguin colony—that grayish patch within the green on the mountainside. 

Here's a (blurry) closeup of the colony. Macaroni penguins are closely related to rockhopper penguins and share the ability to climb up steep rocky hills to reach seemingly inaccessible spots like this.

Some of the macaroni penguins were swimming.

Pamelia and I were bundled up again the strong winds and pelting snow.

Fur seals were watching us. Often visitors are not allowed to go ashore at at Elsehul because the breeding male fur seals are too aggressive (or because the waves and weather make landings impossible). Throughout our time at Elsehul, we had to be extremely careful not to intrude on the fur seals' space—and there were a lot of them around, often blending in with the rocks.

We headed off on a rocky climb.

Seal (and skua and petrel and penguin?) bones littered the ground—so many of them that one of the expedition members, noted wildlife filmmaker Peter Bassett, later put together a comical mock horror film in which the nesting gentoo penguins were bloodthirsty killers responsible for turning Elsehul into a boneyard.

We were on our way through muck and tussock grass to see penguins and albatrosses.

We soon encountered more gentoo penguins stomping around with their webbed, peach-colored feet.

Gentoos are playful, long-tailed penguins and, at 30 inches, the third-tallest of all penguin species.  

Yes, this gentoo's nest was made mostly of bones. Cue the horror music! 

Most of the nests were made of mud and stones. Male and female gentoos take turns on the nests (which contain two eggs) for a month, trading places every one to three days. 

A nest builder in action.

Sometimes it was hard to believe that we were on one of the world's most remote and wildlife-rich islands watching these amazing animals.

The penguins and fur seals shared some of the same ground, though the penguins quickly moved aside if a fur seal charged through.

The albatrosses were nesting on the cliffside ahead of us.

Our first look at a gray-headed albatross, a threatened species whose numbers are continuing to decline. 

A nesting gray-headed albatross like this one lays one egg in a year. If the chick survives, its parents will take a year off before breeding again. In that year, these remarkable flyers might circle the globe more than once.

I had seen a light-mantled albatross once before on the trip (see earlier post), but not this close.


As we started to make our way back through the nesting gentoos, the fur seals again watched us and sometimes rumbled threateningly in our direction.

This shot gives a feel for the density of gentoo nests we saw.

There's a glimpse of that long tail, a distinguishing trait of not just gentoos but also two other types of penguins (chinstraps and adelies).

On the Zodiac ride back to the ship, we again watched the swimming macaroni penguins and steered close to short to revisit their hillside colony.

By dinner time on this mid-November Monday at the bottom of the world, Pamelia and I were back on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, once again energized and exhausted and exhilarated. We had been phenomenally fortunate over the previous few days, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the One Ocean Expedition team and the Russian captain and crew. Visitors to South Georgia Island—and there aren't that many of them—sometimes are able to go ashore only once or twice (or not at all) because of waves, weather and breeding-season restrictions. We had gone ashore at an unheard-of seven spots on the island.  Seven. All of them unforgettable. 

Let by Mark Carwardine, the renowned British wildlife photographer, zoologist, conservationist and writer who had set up this entire trip, we and our fellow adventurers raised glasses of champagne in a toast to all we had seen. And to the final, crowning destination ahead.

"Next stop, Antarctica," said Mark. . —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Stuck at Sea In the Antarctic With A Rescued Bird, A Paintbrush and a Stowaway

At 6 a.m. we had a problem. Waves and 45-mph winds were swaying our Russian science-research ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, as it cruised along the coast of South Georgia Island. Would our group of Antarctic expeditioners still go ashore by Zodiac at 7:30 a.m. as planned? Would we be able to explore yet another extraordinary part of South Georgia, the vast penguin and seal colony at Salisbury Plain?

Not on this day. The winds would soon top 50 knots (close to 60 mph), making Zodiac travel impossible. Instead, as the Vavliov searched without luck for a landing spot anywhere on South Georgia, we explored the Antarctic on board, through lectures, books, binoculars, conversations and, in Pamelia's case, art.  

So close yet so far: On a day of wild waves and constantly changing weather—including sideways-blowing snow and brief explosions of sunshine—we couldn't reach the spectacular South Georgia shores in front of us. 

The ever-fun One Oceans Expeditions team and trip organizer/zoologist/wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine had prepared us for high-wind days with a slide show earlier in the voyage. This was one of my favorite slides.

Even in rough conditions, our cabin window afforded Pamelia a good view for photographing birds and other sights.

Having passed the Antarctic Convergence (where cold and warm ocean waters collide and the Antarctic climate and ecosystems begin) we were seeing icebergs more regularly. They glowed blue from the light hitting an exceptionally clear, dense, air-bubble-less type of ice that absorbs every color of light except blue. It's air bubbles that make ice look white.

The ship brought us within sight of the abandoned Stromness whaling station. This is where the remarkable explorer Ernest Shackleton, desperate to find help for his stranded crew, arrived in May 1916 after surviving not only months with his ship locked in sea ice, but also a journey to desolate Elephant Island, an 800-mile open-water voyage to South Georgia in a lifeboat and finally a nonstop, last-ounce-of-energy crossing of the mountains shown here. We would be visiting Shackleton's grave soon. 

A few hearty souls ventured onto the bow during lulls in the winds.

This stranded-at-sea day had another surprise twist: Two stowaways were on the ship. One was in a cardboard box in a gear room on a lower deck. The other was our cabin, soon to be seasick. 

The stowaway in the box was a common diving petrel. The ship's ornithologist, Simon Boyes of One Ocean Expeditions, had found it during his daily check for any birds that had accidentally flown into or been blown into the Sergey Vavilov.

The petrel was not injured, just stunned. Whether he had been attracted by lights on the ship we couldn't know, but for days we had been required to darken all windows (and the ship had minimized its lights) to avoid just such an occurrence. Some of us gathered to watch as Simon released the fully revived bird—which would soon be back to its routine of diving up to 200 feet underwater to feed on crustaceans—early in the afternoon.

Simon Boyes held up the web-footed common diving petrel for all of us to see before releasing it from the side of the ship.

Just a handful of people on the Sergey Vavilov knew about the second stowaway. Pamelia and I had smuggled him on board in Ushuaia, Argentina, the day the trip began. Those who had seen him had reacted positively. "Good to know he's here," voyage organizer Mark Carwardine, the British zoologist and conservationist, had told us after meeting him. "We might call upon him if we need another after-dinner speaker one night."

The stowaway—whom One Ocean Expeditions trip leader Boris Wise referred to with a smile as "the ninety-ninth passenger"—was the fellow shown here:

Yes, Charles Darwin was on board.

Say what, you ask? History's greatest naturalist? The one who died in 1882? Well, nearly a year ago we brought Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook—see the Darwin Lives! header at the top of this page—and we have been traveling with him ever since. Taking him on this voyage made perfect sense because he had visited Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands in the 1830s while aboard the Beagle and both stops had helped him gather evidence that culminated in his world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

Charles was so excited about revisiting parts of his Beagle route that (with some coaxing from us) he even began writing Charles Darwin's Blog (click on bold letters to read) at the start of this trip.

Here's Charles Darwin with us in May 2015 at his home, Down House, in England. This is the famous Sand Walk on which he took his daily strolls with his beloved dogs back in the 1800s. Darwin called it his "thinking path."

You'll see more of Darwin before the voyage is over, but for now I'll leave you with one image that illustrates how the great but seasickness-prone adventurer was feeling on this day:

As we rested with Darwin in our cabin, Pamelia took out her paint brush and inks and began a series of time-lapse penguin paintings, which some of you have heard about. For those of you who missed it, Pamelia began sketching penguins in order to get to know and identify them better. She held her pink iPhone in her left hand and taped time-lapse movies of herself painting with her right hand, all on a swaying ship. It was amazing to watch.

She said that the phone sometimes blocked her view as she was painting.

Check out the short video above to see her king penguin time-lapse, the second in her penguin series. We'll be posting others soon. If you missed the first time-lapse (painting a chinstrap penguin), scroll down and you'll find it. Or click on this link: https://youtu.be/8_0xjyI4sr4

In our cabin, the gallery of Pamelia's penguin and Falkland Island bird studies was growing. That large study in the middle was her second time-lapse attempt at a king penguin—and still she felt that she did not get it right. But that's why you do multiple studies.

For fun, Pamelia and I also made a 22-second time-lapse of activity in our cabin on this day at sea, below. Darwin's even in it (sort of)!

By early evening, the weather was looking more promising. The revised expedition forecast called for at least two landings, a big dose of history and wildlife galore on South Georgia Island the next morning. We Antarctic adventurers were back on track, and even Charles Darwin was feeling better.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Sunset over South Georgia Island.

Coming next: Whaling, rat patrols, rare ducks and 10 a.m. whiskey?

Time-lapse Painting a Chinstrap Penguin on a Ship in the Antarctic

While in rough seas aboard the Sergey Vavilov, Pamelia began a series of time-lapse ink studies of penguins. Here is the first, of a chinstrap penguin: