Marion Island, Sub-Antarctic Expedition 2012-2013

#1 Marion Island Over Wintering Team 69

Annually since 1948 South Africa has been sending teams to Marion Island in the Sub-Antarctic (46?53’S, 37?45’E).

Marion Island is arguable South Africa’s remotest outpost; found roughly 2180 km South East of Cape Town and only accessible from the deck of the SA AGULHAS, South Africa’s Polar Research Vessel via helicopter or with powerboats if the weather does not favour flying.

Marion Island has a total surface area of 45km² with its highest peak, Mascarin standing 1230 meters above sea level which on a clear day can be seen from the deck of the SA AGULHAS as it lies anchored in Transvaal Cove during take over. The plateau is separated from the coastal plains by slopes and several volcanic conical hills towards the interior, with of the coastal plains terminating on 15meter high cliffs dropping into the Southern Ocean below.

Found within the “Roaring 40’s” or the 40 degree Latitudes Marion Island is known for its extreme weather with winds gusting up to and over 100 km/h and temperatures varying from 5 to -15 degrees Celsius in the past.  The variations in weather, topography and the islands location result in ever changing climatic conditions leaving Marion Island covered with clouds for most of the year with winds present for up to 100 days of the year and snow periodically covering the mountain slopes, scoria cones and coastal wetlands.

This blog over the next few months will hopefully provide you with some insight into the beauty of one of South Africa’s Special Nature Reserves  (declared in 1995), RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance (declared in 2007) and to be proclaimed Marine Protected Areas ( ).

For more information on Marion Island and specifically the SANAP Program please visit the Department’s website.

John Lucas

Please note that John Lucas is part of the Marion Island M69 Expedition as part of the official SANAP Team and will be updating this his personal blog when time permits.

Please note that the Educational Partners and sponsors listed on the website are that of John Lucas and Explore4Knowledge.

# 2 MARCH 2012 – The Team Meeting

The end of March found the new team coming together for the first time at the SANAP offices in the V&A Water front in Cape Town South Africa, with great anticipation we all gathered from across the country to commence our team training, our first step together of our 14 month expedition as Marion 69. It is truly a strange feeling sitting in a lecture room and looking out the window at the SA AGULHUS knowing that in a few weeks’ time we will be living on board this iconic vessel of South African Exploration of the Southern Oceans.


Wide eyed and bewildered not knowing what to expect we were introduced to one another and the SANAP team who would be facilitating our team training before our departure and the expedition logistics.

The weeks on training seemed to drag on forever but with us doing last minute shopping and the team training covering a wide range of topics relating to first aid, policy, structural fire fighting, cooking and our physiological well-being both for the departure and return to South Africa we were kept really busy.


Looking back the time actually flew with some lessons learned more valuable to some than others but at the end of it all we had grown together as team M69 got to know one another and are all looking forward to the great unknown ahead of us.

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# 3 APRIL 2012 – The Departure

“Time to say Good Bye….” was what most of the tourist in the V&A Waterfront heard softly floating across the gentile afternoon breeze as the SA AGULHAS left it quay at the Cape Town docks on the morning of the 12 April 2012. After M69 boarded the vessel on its final official voyage to the Sub- Antarctic after almost 34 years of service, making this voyage even more special is that her final voyage will be to the same destination as her maiden voyage over three decades ago.

So with tears rolling for the family members left behind on the docks and the family members on board the vessel the SA AGULHUS greeted Cape Town and the tug boats turned away from us as we set off towards the east.


The SA AGULHUS will be replaced by the SA AGULHUS II which is scheduled to arrive in early May 2012. This new state of the art Polar Research vessel will play a key role in South Africa’s efforts in the Southern Oceans, especially since Cape Town is regarded as the Gateway to the South, with South Africa having permanent residence on our own island Marion Island, the British Owned Gough Island and our SANI Base found in Antarctica.

“12 April 2012 – Night 1 SA AGULHUS

….As the SA AGULHUS leaves I cannot help but notice Table Mountain in all her splendour on an open day without a cloud in sight. It is as if she has lifted the table cloth just to remind me as a Capetonian of her beauty which is so often and easily taken for granted. We move down the side of the 12 Apostils and onward towards the East.  The land mass we know as home which I love and have enjoying exploring grows smaller and smaller and the sky grows darker… the divide between the sea and the sky soon fall away and all that is left before us is a magical darkness as the starlight reflects on the ocean below, the only visible divide can be seen as lighthouses shine their lights standing like sentinels along our coastline warning others of the dangers ahead. I cannot help but smile thinking Africa was once thought of as the “Dark Continent” and here I am sitting on our Polar Research Vessel looking out over the “Dark Seas”….”

## Photo, Table mountain and SA AG ##

“14 April 2012 – Night 3 SA AGULHUS

…. The tossing and turning has taken some getting used to, as the hatches are closed and the waves break against the hull of the ship. We sit in the common room/ bar and my mind moves to the paintings on the walls of old wooden ships hanging on the walls. Ships like that which took Explorers such as Scott and his crew on his journey to the South Pole. Braving these waters in wooden ships, sleeping in hammocks and navigating by starlight that must have been something to experience. Sitting listening to the waves pounding on the hull I wonder what it must have sounded like with no diesel engines humming in the back ground, just the sound of the sea battering the wooden beams between you and the Southern Ocean outside the ship. I wonder if one would touch the wooden walls if you could feel the force of the water on the outside of the ship… I wonder what fear a starless night or an overcast night would put in the crews hearts, though tonight the stars have come to shine in all their splendour and the milky way lies across the sky like a high way of diamonds the brightest I have seen it yet, even brighter than our time spent in the Namibian Desert…. I think the night sky will forever captivate the imagination of mankind….”

On arriving on the morning of the 17th April 2012 we had reached our rather cloud covered and misty destination of Marion Island. As the SA AGULHUS moved along the coastline we were treated to the beautiful glimpse of cascading waterfalls, Albatross gliding through the sky with their magnificent 3 meter wingspans and penguins and seals swimming alongside the ship. As tradition and a conservation necessity all land going parties had to partake in the “Boot Scrub / Washing” ceremony which is essentially a cleaning of all used items such as boots and walking sticks so as to ensure that no “Alien” contaminants can be introduced to Marion Island, in the form of insects, seeds, grasses, soils or other parasites.

##Photo island # boot wash # albatross##

As we took off on our short flight from the deck of the SA AGULHUS anchored in Transvaal Cove to the Heli-Pad on the newly constructed Research Base. The size of the base and the vastness of the island dawned on us. M69 will only be the second Over-Wintering Team to spend the full duration of the expedition in the New Base. The construction of the New Base has been an on-going project since the early 2000’s and was finally finished and opened on the 18th March 2011.

##Photo of Plact##

The takeover period is hectic with all the various scientific projects teaching the new field assistants what needs to happen in the field, though it is not only the scientific staff that need to be orientated. The Meteorologists from the South African Weather Services , the South African National Space Agency and the Support/ Logistical Staff which will keep the Research Base functioning on Marion Island are shown their way around as well.  All this and restocking the base for our team with 14 months of supplies in just 3 weeks. This might seem like a long time but you need to consider that field huts also need to be restocked and all of this happens with helicopters and when the weather/ wind does not permit flights all logistical activities are placed on hold.

So as far as the description of the island goes, I would have to use the old cliché of a photo cannot do justice to this beautiful place. The feeling one gets on arrival could compare to a movie scene which has stuck with me since a little boy. In the first Jurassic Park movie when they first flew onto the island and they saw the breaking coast line leading onto the grass plains and flowing into the rolling hills. On the other hand with the island lying along the same latitude as Scotland but being on the opposite end of our planet I cannot help to wonder at the varying terrain as it reminds me of the movie The Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien was from the Bloemfontein South Africa and the scenes on Marion Island remind me of his writings and takes my mind back to the beautiful rolling hills of Lesotho and the Grasslands of the Drakensberg.

## Panno of VDB River##

Dispite the injustice given to the beauty of the island when trying to capture it through a lens, one must stop sometimes to take photographs, so as not to become oblivious to the beauty around you as it is easily missed when you are tired, out of breath or concentrating on other more important tasks.

Despite the island currently being calm awaiting the arrival of the summer migrations for breeding and moulting. The island is still alive with the ever present Southern Elephant Seals (Mirounga leonina), Antarctic Fur Seals (Arctocephalus gazelle), Sub Antarctic Fur Seals (Arctocephalus Tropicalis), King Penguins, Albatross Spp, Gentoo Penguins, Rocky Penguins and Killer Whales being present.

##Photo of spps##

I must say that despite all of the beauty one thing in particular has caught my eye recently and that is the ability of the smallest of animals to make big differences. It was amazing to be told by one of the M68 team members that the Rocky Penguins when jumping from rock to rock actually cut into the rocks as they jump on with their nails. To think that an animal as small as a penguin has such a big influence on the rocks and potentially effects erosion in areas. If you walk along the coast you can see the areas inhabited by penguins which are barren with no vegetation and only rocks scattered around the land scars caused by the arrival of tens if not hundreds of thousands of penguins in September/October each year.

##Roack Penguin##Erosion by penguins##Scratched rock##

It makes you wonder if penguins are able to have a similar effect on soil as weathering events resulting in soil erosion along the coast. Though some weathering may occur on a much larger scale than that of a penguin scratching a rock, all of it has a direct impact on the aesthetics of the islands coast line. Weathering even results in magnificent cliffs forming like these pictured below along Kaalkoppie on the Western side of Marion Island.

##Cliffs at Kaalkoppie##

Makes you wonder what could happen if something as small and insignificant as penguins are lost to the world due to Global Warming. This is possible as a small change in temperature could result in them not being able to breed on islands such as Marion due to temperatures being unbearable for them to inhabit. How would their absence impact the islands delicate ecosystem, which is something to think about.

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# 4 May 2012 – Sounds of Silence in a watery world.

“Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise?”

Morrie Schwarttz.


I recall watching Christmas movies as a young boy and observing with great joy how those glass orbs were shaken and snow started to fall all around the home in the centre of the orb. With this in mind I could not help but smile as the snow came falling down all around me and I fell into knee deep snow. Depending on where we were walking and the climatic conditions the snow/ice fall would vary between “ice pellets” moving along with heavy winds almost cutting into you as you seek shelter behind rocks to protect yourself from the passing sprawl or in the form of soft fluffy snowflakes.

It is an amazing experience to say the least walking along the coast one minute listening to the calls of birds, the breaking of the waves and the groaning of the seals, and the next having the world around you cloaked in a fine white powder. The snow falls and the first layer melts away as it touches the ground but as more and more falls the snowflakes almost seem to overpower the ground resulting in the world turning a beautiful white colour. What is even more spectacular is not the change of the world around me but the sounds, it is as if the snowflakes absorb sound and all that was once heard is now lost to the ear. It is amazing to think that the overwhelming silence around which actually causes a “humming sound” is caused by something so small, unique and beautiful. Each snow flake is octangular and completely unique in composition and structure to the next, this complexity exists merely for a moment only to be melted and washed away by ranging rivers which cut through the landscape towards the coast or melt away seeping into the mire substrate which we walk upon.

##snow flake##snow##snow rivers##

To cloak the world in silence is an interesting thought and as a person that lives in a City the concept of silence is one which I thought I understood, to be quiet, not to hear cars, not to hear televisions or music you know silence. Well after the snow fell around me, as my “tumbler” was shaken I finally understood the meaning of silence and I think for the first time in my life I heard silence. A friend once explained that snow reminded her of a cleansing process washing away the old and bringing the new seasons into full swing. Well I can say that I think it might indeed be so.


It is an amazing to think of the amount of water present on this island, though the precipitation has been seen to decrease over the past 10 years and the permanent glacier which was found on the ice-plateau (1082 meters) has reduced to almost nothing during the summer months. The coastal mires are an amazing and humbling experience to walk along, you cannot help but think that you are essentially “walking on water” with a thin layer of soil between your full weight and the watery depths below. On many occasion the surface cannot hold you and this results in you sinking in knee or waist deep, with the only option to crawl on all fours until an area is reached which is strong enough for you to stand up on again. One particular such mire is Dunlop Mire found along the East Coast of the island, this is an unforgiving stretch of coast often best known by field workers as they crawl along the 500 meter section unable to walk depending on the amount of rainfall which has occurred prior to walking. Dispite it being difficult to walk and sometimes getting stuck is inevitable, designated paths are used within these areas and field workers aim to have a minimal impact on the environment they find themselves working in.

##photo mire##photo stuck##

All this water has led to Marion Island being proclaimed as one of South Africa’s Wetlands of International Importance and is listed under the protection of the RAMSAR convention. The island not only hosts an array of migratory sea birds of which it has the largest breading colony on Wandering Albatross in the world, Sooty Albatross, Grey Headed Albatross and an array of Penguins including the northern most breading territory of the CITES Red List Gentoo Penguin (critically endangered and seen as an indicator species for climate change). It also hosts of the world’s largest breading colonies for Sub-Antarctic and Antarctic Fur Seals as well as the longest monitored Southern Elephant Seal breading population in the world. With a total of more than 68 beaches and thousands of nest sites Marion Island is truly a gem in the Southern Ocean.

What makes Marion Island even more unique is that Prince Edward Island is found next door to Marion Island a mere 19 km away and it is uninhabited by humans making it an ideal control sight to observe what the animals are doing on the island when a special scientific cruise is arranged within the management plans and protocols of the islands.

##Photo of island from boat## photo of Prince Edward##

For all its beauty Marion Island still has a side feared and respected by most. A side best depicted by her ever changing weather and gale-force winds causing one to be blown over or crawl up mountain sides. Often having to watch rock being blown past you as you try to cross over to the other side.  These elements often result in the deaths of younger animals such as seal pups and chicks. Though this is the circle of life on Marion some animals die in order for others to live.

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#5 June 2012 – Small and insignificant

“Always, and more especially on mountains, have I watched daybreak with deep awe. It is an age-old miracle which repeats itself again and again, every day the same and every day different. It is the hour of Genisis.”

-Felice Benuzzi-

Though we celebrated Mid-Winter on the 21 June we do not think Marion Island has decided to move towards summer with winds threatening to overturn little Mixed Pickle Hut and rain water being blown through the closed window and door, I write to you once more by candle light.

It seemed as if the only sure thing was to be the sunrise the next morning, an opportunity to stop and marvel at its beauty and to see the creation art work in all its splendour. Though the days were filled with the small and the seemingly insignificant beauty which is easily looked over as we do our work and move around the island. In an earlier post I mentioned the complexity of snow flakes and now wish to share with you some of the small and insignificant wonders daily seen but so easily overlooked.


A King Penguin getting its foot stuck in washed up kelp while trying to walk on the beach is somewhat comical, as he tugs and pulls but never thinks to walk backwards to free himself. A similar sight is that of a King Penguin riding the waves in from the sea and as he lands on the beach his beak is used as an “ice axe” securing itself so as not to be pulled back by the backwash. As silly as the penguins may seem to be they always prove to be entertaining.


June has seen the arrival of Gentoo Penguins at Ships Cove and various other sites around the island. These brightly coloured penguins are skittish and are believed to even be scared by their own shadows. These Penguins represent the northern most breading individuals of the large Antarctic populations of these Penguins, though not as common as King Penguins along Marion Islands coast they are regarded as a climate change indicator species and are not disturbed on the island. Photos taken of these Penguins are done with trophy cameras (motion trap cameras) or SLR’s with 200mm or 400mm lenses.


Besides the Gentoo Penguins, Ships Cove has played host to another rather special guest under rather upsetting circumstances. A dead Sperm Whale washed up onto the beautiful Ships Cove Beach. This 20 meter long animal is magnificent and despite us not being pleased at the conditions under which we found it we were all amazed by it.


I was amazed to be able to walk alongside it in the water towards its tail feeling how its textures changed and as I picked up the corner of its tail I was amazed to see and feel that it was almost like shattered fiberglass. It felt as if it were fibres mixed together to form its tail, what an amazing experience. Though staying with the whales, the Killer Whales have been showing off around base as some put it and with true killer spirit, as you get your camera out they just vanish.

During an afternoon session along Rock-Hopper Bay, I could not help but think of going back to base to get my camera. As I looked to my right there next to me were two Killer Whales not 6 meters from where I was standing, it is the most amazing feeling seeing their fins and heads come out of the water. We refer to the feeling as “Killer Fever” and it is so true everything seems to stop and all that we can think of is the amazing animals before us. At one point they seemed to stop and just look at a seal in the water, I do not know if they were teasing the seal or the seal them but the stare down continued for a while before the Killer Whales moved off. On later discussion we believe that the water in which the seal was swimming might have been too shallow for the Killer Whales to move into.

The Elephant Seals have slowly begun to move away from the beaches around Marion Island as they forage at sea and prepare for the breading season hall-out which begins Mid-August.

So by the July the M69 team will be one third into the expedition. Winter has come and we have celebrated its mid-way-mark but I do not think it’s going anywhere at least not just yet. I have mentioned to some that the sun puzzles me on Marion, we have amazing African like sunsets but with no warmth.

I have also come to notice that the sun does not pass directly above us either, it was the most amazing moment when at mid-day I looked for the sun above me only to realise that it was too the side as the sun arches to the north of us. Seeing this for the first time was amazing, you come to realise something that has changed your perception on the world forever.


So all in all June has been amazing filled with ups and downs but more importantly it has been filled with the opportunity to choose how you see things. To see all things both big and especially small as miracles and appreciating all that you get to experience and learn on a daily basis both about yourself, others and the environment you find yourself in.

Keep warm and please travel safely during the school holidays.

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#6 July/ August 2012 – Lay of the Land

“Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu – A person is a person through other people”


Now sitting at the end of July putting pen to paper once more I am truly amazed at how time has flown, it seems like a blur and so winter is drawing to its close with only one month to go till September and Spring. Though I doubt this year’s spring will have the warmth of an African Sun to tell of, more likely the chill or bite of a Marion Breeze!

One of the more memorable moments for the M69 team this month was the two fold celebration of firstly our 100 days on the island and secondly on the same day the arrival of the SA AGULHUS II as it returns to South Africa from its inaugural voyage to the Antarctic Ice Shelf, after its delivery in early May 2012. So on the 28th July 2012 the SA AGULHUS II made Radio Contact with the Marion Island Communications Room as it came into sight on the Eastern Side of Prince Edward Island and arriving at Crain Point in the Transvaal Cove of Marion Island at 16:00. She has come to the island to deliver logistical equipment as well as some personal packages which have been sent to the M69 team members with the permission of the various authorities.

It is truly something special to receive gifts on the island, it is something that cannot truly be appreciated if you have not been in complete isolation from a diverse group of people before. It is not only the reconnection with home and loved ones you cherish but to be able to open packets, feel different textures, small new or familiar smells and just the excitement of it all for the team was something we all cherished and a morale booster.

##SA AUG II##Crane Point##

I would like to personally thank my family, loved ones, friends and sponsors for sending random items as well as letter. Thank you, it is truly special to know that one is thought of and it is appreciated.

So now to tell you a little more about the lay of the land on this Sub-Antarctic Wonderland, Marion Island.

Once more the world before us is transformed with a deadly silence as snowflakes fall and strong winds prevail from the interior of the island altering the ever changing landscape and forcing the fieldworkers to be hut bound for a day. Though the trek northwards around the island is a spectacular one starting at the “Butter Nut Hotel” or better known as the Research Base and moving on towards the first hut, Repetto’s. The interior route takes one via Hoppie’s Hell, 3rd Sister, across Long Ridge, a slippery decend to Goney Plain, through the Prinsloomeer and along the contours towards the foot of Repetto’s Hill and the Repetto Hut.

##Photos along Route##

If the snow is too deep or work is required to be done along the coast the route travels along the coast from Rockhopper Bay to King Birdhead, along the cascading cliffs of Ships Cove and towards the foot of Long Ridge, up and down “THE SHOOT”, through Sea Elephant Bay and zigzagging through Pinnacles, across King Penguin Bay, Goney Bay, Log Beach and then from Storm Petrel Bay the route turns along the river and to the Repetto’s Hut.

##Photos along this route##

From Repetto’s the route turns inland and follows the contour path past BOOT ROCK across Lou-se-Kop and through the Wild Cat Creak to Cape Davis Hut or the “Beer and Buoy” as it is named by its frequent visitors. Towards the coast from the hut there are amazing rock formation and some of the cracks in the rock walls which have formed islands in the sea are so large that they have been known to be used by killer whales for hunting in the bays along Outcrop and Sealers beach. Towards the interior from the hut there are larva tunnels which are difficult to find but have been indicated in the hut book entries as a must see.


From Cape Davis the “path” takes you inland through an ever ascending maze of black and grey larva, which to walk on unobstructed by a thick or thin layer of snow and not to fall in between loose rocks, into cracks or into holes is somewhat of a feat. Tough when snow covered, snow bridges form between larger rocks giving way as you cross and leaving you waist deep in a soft powdery snow. As for walking along the maze of black and grey larva, this becomes almost impossible hopping from rock to rock exposed above the snow it is almost as if you are playing an old game from your childhood, though it is inevitable to have to walk upon the powdery sea of white falling in to holes which sometimes lead to “caves” which seem to be large enough to swallow a man. It is amazing to see how much snow falls on the mountain sides, sometimes leaving exposed walls of snow well over 2 meters high. With the ever present interior winds battering down on you with ice pellets cutting your skin, you seek shelter behind rocks as you move along towards the destination. Sometimes it feels that all you can do is secure the Adidas Sunglasses with their snow goggles head band, pull the hood of the Hi-Tec Passat Jacket tightly closed around your face and follow the trek line on the Garmin as you make your way along the invisible line.

##Snow wall## falling into snow## ice pellets## frozen paths##

Though on a nice day you get treated to the magnificent views of Bomkop as you pass beneath it, you cross Rondekop with its amazing erosion scars on display for all to see, you traverse the contours above Laekop and summit Azorellakop before decending alongside the magnificent Triegardt Bay and on towards Mixed Pickle Hut.

##RondKop##AZorella##trigardt##view from MP to Azzo##MP hut##

Mixed Pickle is regarded as the one of the remotest huts on the island and as a second base camp for some of the field workers spending many solo nights at the hut, so rightfully nicknamed “Little Beach Cottage/ Holiday Cottage”. From Mixed Pickle the round island route continues through gratefully todays route is on relatively flat and solid ground, moving across the coast to Sickle Cove and on towards Chess Castle Beach. From Chess Castle Beach the route leads to one of the most spectacular sights on the island, the river channels cut into the KaalKoppie Scoria Cone once crossed start the assent to the Volcano Crater and the most amazing eroded cliffs dropping roughly 100 meters into the ocean below.


From KaalKoppie it is a mire crossing to get to the Swartkops Hut. This hut is unlike all the others as it is not situated next to a cliff or alongside a river, instead it is situated in the open exposed to the wind and elements. If you move over the amphitheatre and descend into Swartkops Cove you are met with the most amazing cliffs and an area which is to host the migratory penguins during the breading season.

## HUT##COVE##cliffs##amphit##

From Swartkops Hut the path travelled is the one which would seem to be the most unlikely, if someone was to tell you to aim for the middle of a lake as it was the shallowest crossing I would hope you would think twice. Though in this case it is true, you aim for the middle of the lake and cross where the two water bodies meet, before heading up over Le GrangeKop and descending into the beautiful “toffee larva” if you can find it. For those somewhat less fortunate who could not find the path the route towards Vrystaat Point and finally Rooks Hut is a never ending field of torture as the black larva cuts through your boots, clothing and skin as you fall, get stuck and miss judge the strength of the rock you are standing upon. Though getting lost sometimes pays off when you find cat hunters traps and cave shelters along the way.


Rooks Hut hosts us for the night before we head off towards the hole in the ground which has an entry hole at the bottom leading into Rooks Cave, a cave opening into the ocean which is only accessible by that one hole and is large enough to fit an average size double storied home inside. From the cave it is a steep ascent along the cliffs of Rooks Bay, across Rooks Peninsula and past the decent rock (to the peninsula, used to monitor Albatross colonies on the cliffs and seals down below on the beaches) and on towards Grey-Headed Albatross Ridge. Once on the ridge you can clearly see the new orange Grey-Headed Hut replaced during take over 2012 and out towards the magnificent Santa Rosa Valley.

##Cave##Crossing on plateau##descend of ridge## grey headed hut##.


From Grey Headed hut Good Hope Bay can be accessed when following the Grey-Headed Albatross Ridge to the Sea or if heading on towards Santa Rosa Valley one enters a maze of rocks stretching out across the valley towards the Golden Highway and on to the foot on the infamies Devils Staircase, which ascends to Water Tunnel Hut perched above Gazelle Plain and below the daunting RooiKasteel and KarooKop. The highlight of this walk must be reaching the famous Cat Hunters Sign post which is a national monument and directs travellers to numerous destinations featuring Cape Town and Antarctica serving as a friendly reminder that we are the halfway mark between the two.

##SANTA ROSA##HIGH way##devils stairs## water tunnel hut##


From Water Tunnel Hut it is considered to be the final stretch home towards the “Butter Nut Hotel” which is possibly one of the most difficult climbs on the island, due to its terrain as well as the fact that over KarooKop the winds have been known to be so strong that you physically are not able to cross over as it is like walking into a brick wall.  Once departing from Water Tunnel it is an immediate climb following one of the Water Tunnel Streams tributaries up towards the first way marker of RooiKasteel where the path turns towards the interior away from the cliffs of Crawford Bay and on towards the Feldmark Plateau where the direction changes once more as one aims for the gap between the boulder lake and KarooKop summit before heading down the scoria and on towards the river bed and the descend into Black Haglet Vally.

##RooiKasteel##Crawford bay##FeldMark##BoulderLake##Karookop## Black HAglet decent##

Once at the decent point one of two routes can be taken which would be determined by the need to stay at the Kildalkey Hut or also known as “Hotel California”. If your path is to get directly to the Base then you will descend into Black Haglet Valley find the path through the black larva hills which leads to Middlerooikop, from here you will aim to cross above Mesrug, cross the Soft Plume River and head past Freds, on across Tom, Dick and Harry and through Nellie Humps. This feels too many as if it is the longest route on the island and besides the many ups and downs along the path when one reaches the open areas after Friends Hill. This sometimes feels as if the wind is cutting into you when it blows snow from the interior across the open plains.

##Black Haglet Valley##valley## middle rooi##open plain## T/D/H##

If the route via Kildalkey is in order, then Black Haglet Valley is followed along its course and not descended at the rock. From the foot of Black Haglet Valley one aims for the saddle of Johnny’s Hill and then descends through the grey larva fields towards the valley in which Kildalkey Hut is found. From Kildalkey is is east to reach Green Hill and the Kildalkey Beach found at its foot.

##Black haglet foot##johny hill## kildalkey hut##

##panno of green hill and penguin colony##

From Kildalkey Hut the coastal route follows up towards East Cape and Archway Bay. The route passes Sealers Cave which is a beach situated at the bottom of the cliffs and ladder is used to access it which is truly a spectacular site.

#Sealers Beach Panno##

From sealers beach the route follows up to Landfall Beach, Waterfall Beach and then across Soft Plume River, which is the only permanently flowing river on the island. Then across to Killer Whale Cove and the Bullard Beaches, Tiny Beach and then finally onto Hansen Point before heading across East Cape to the Archway Beach.

##Soft Plume Panno##

## Bullard Panno##

##Hansen Panno##

From Archway it is the home stretch as the path leads across the mires and up alongside Albatross Lakes where you descend the cliffs to reach Macaroni Bay. Once you have ascended again it is off towards the fault ladder and then towards Trypot Beach. From Trypot Beach it is a flat and hard surface walk along the coast to Boulders Beach found next to the Base.

##Arch##Macaroni rocks##fault ladder## Trypot##

##Panno of boulders##

So I hope that the description of the routes as well as the photographs helped you get a better picture of the beauty of this island, I hope you enjoyed the tour as much as we do walking around and seeing all that is around us.

As a parting gesture and for some humour here are three photos of Fred, Jacquie and myself while crossing Black Haglet Valley from Water Tunnel. The snow and Ice build-up is from spending 30 minutes exposed while hiking which it remained like this for the rest of the day as conditions got worse.

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#7 July 2012 – Wanderer Article

This is a copy of the Article Written for the Wanderer Newsletter which is the official newsletter of Marion Island, Edition 3.

“The round island was amazing yet for all the time we spend working along the coast, tagging seals and ringing birds handling animals which we may never have thought existed there is still something that captivates our imagination even further, something pulling at our heart strings something we cannot explain. This something is found at that point where the coast starts to rise and the terrain starts to change. Many a time we find ourselves pausing in our stride to look inward not only into ourselves for strength to take the next step but inward towards the centre of the island. Looking towards the snow-capped peaks, towards the thick ice and towards what lies beyond, those places marked on our maps as Ice-Plateau, Mascarin, Resolution and Katadraal.

It is this area pulling at our heart strings and this area calling to us as we circle it monthly on our round islands and pass alongside it over Azorella en-route to Mixed Pickle Hut or over Black Haglet en-route to Water Tunnel Hut. Over the past few months as weather permits members of the team have taken the opportunity to detour from our census routes or make a quick dash for Katadraal Hut. On the 24-25 July it was our turn to go and seek the high ground of the island, to explore the ice sheets and snow falls of the outskirts of the heart of this beautiful island we now call home, Marion Island.

So early the morning of the 24th Christelle, Wiam and I found ourselves running around packing packs and collecting ice axes as well as crampons, what a thought packing equipment which is so foreigen to us as South Africans but yet so exciting. So with childlike excitement we headed past the helli-hanger and up towards Juniors, on towards Hendrik Fister, Tafelberg, First Red and then Katadraal Kraans and the elusive and yet ever present Katadraal Hut. It was an amazing walk and to think that for a one night “holiday” we decide to go walking as if we do not walk enough. Though it was worth every step, raising higher and higher until we walked into the cloud bank and weather along First Red.


On the side of First Red we realised that contrary to belief snow covered slopes were actually never meant to be climber, instead to be slid down. With great excitement, sometimes a little too much for the faint at heart we took on the slopes. Climbing up only to slide it down once atop, the slopes got steeper and steeper, we went faster and faster and the snow covered rocks at the bottom of the slopes seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. So slowly but surely we made our way to the Katadraal Hut.


The higher we got the more amazing the colours became and the fascinating the land forms. From ice caves, ice bridges, snow walls over 2 meters high to ice covered rocks, the world was a mixture of greys and whites it seemed as if someone had changed our outlook on life to monochrome or grey scale. It was an amazing sight and yet to focus on the world of white somehow seemed to place strain on one’s mind, to think of a world with no colour.


So our path continued to our sanctuary from the weather a little old iced in hut stuck between rocky outcrops and found under alongside a cliff. With water frozen in the drums and icicles hanging from the ceiling inside the hut we made something warm to drink before heading off to take some photos and explore. The wind blowing chunks of Ice and the snow formations were absolutely breath-taking. After a somewhat cold night of melting ice for drinking water and layering up in a cold leaking hut, we were ready the following morning for our decent. Crampons on, Ice Axes ready and jackets zipped up we passed ourselves to the first slope we found and then slid our way down towards First Red. Once at first red we decided to climb over the scoria cone and continue our decent, if you are ever told that walking on scoria with crampons is a good idea…well come let us say the idea’s success will be determined by numerous factors. Though we made it and the view from the top was a mixture of a windy mist.”


Our trip to Katadraal ended too quickly and I can tell you that the interior still calls for us when we walk alongside it, looking to its snow-capped peaks. Our heart strings still get pulled but more than that our curiosity is what draws us to the interior.

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#8 September / October 2012 – Largest Mammals

So now I put pen to paper by candle light in the “Hotel California” formally known as Kildalkey Hut. This has once more been an amazing month and once more many of us on the team have come to see some amazing sights and experiences we could have only dreamed of. Two sights that will stay with me for ever from this month was the amazing lightning storm we had for three nights during one of the weeks of August, the sky and the whole island lit up before us before being dropped back into darkness momentarily. The  other sight was of a pod of Killer Whales breaching off of Fur Seal Peninsula, Mixed Pickle Cove as I reached the top of the plateau before I was to start across to AzzorellaKop I turn around to catch a breath and saw them, “say good bye”. As for a special experience, I must admit walking back from Cape Davis with our Team Leader and Medic, Leonie was a privilege. Seeing how she was fascinated and amazed at the beauty of small things and seeing the genuine interest she has in the wildlife and nature around as was truly special. Thank you Leonie for an amazing walk and I will walk with you anywhere, any time.

##Panno photo from Azzo##

So as for this month’s writing I would like to tell you of the largest mammals on the island, for those that guessed humans we are here and we possible have the largest introduced impact but we are not the largest. For those that have guessed Polar Bear, well I regret to inform you that you are on the wrong side of our planet. Not to worry many people believe that Polar Bears are found in the South as well and Penguins are also found in the North, which are misconceptions.

Believe it or not Marion Island has played host to an array of mammals ranging from Sheep through to mice. The greatest problem mammal was the House Mouse (Mus Musculus) though to have been introduced in the early 1800’s via sailing vessels. It is though that the mice directly affect the Azorella selago a cushion plant growing on the island, by burrowing inside of it. Other than the effect on vegetation it is though that the mice compete with species such as the Lesser Sheathbills (Chionis minor) on the island for invertebrate species and possible predate upon sea bird chicks as recorded upon Gough Island.

In response to this on-going issue of mice in 1949 five domestic cats (Felis catus) were deliberately introduced to try and control the mouse problem which was at an estimate of 2000 individuals by 1975. The domestic cat’s in turn became a problem predating on indigenous birds such as burrowing petrels, resulting in a reduced breading success and in some cases such as the Common Diving Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix) are presumed to be extinct. In eradication programme for the Domestic cats was introduced in 1977 and ended in 1990. Various methods were implemented such as viral diseases, followed by night-shooting, trapping and poisoning. In 1991 the island was declared 100% domestic cat free.

##CAT hunters trap##photo of cat in museam##

Now days seeing a four legged mammal besides the occasional mouse running past you and the rumours made up by team members of mythical creatures is rather unlikely. The main mammals are those that claim Marion Island to be their home annually for their resting between foraging trips, pupping, breading and moulting haul outs. The main mammals found on Marion Island are an array of seals and of course the mighty beasts of the ocean, whales. The following is a description of the mammals found on Marion Island with photos for you to have a better understanding of what is found on the island.

What some would regard amongst the cutest animals on the island are the Sub Antarctic Fur Seal, (Arctocephalus tropicalis) pups found mainly upon boulder beaches. At birth the pups weigh between 3-6 kg sporting a black coat which they moult within 4 months of birth. Female Tropicalis Seals are ever present throughout the year and the pups remain on land. They forage for an average of 7 days before returning to the island to suckle the young for 2 days before repeating this cycle. Not all females return for whatever reason and many pups die due to starvation, though it has been sighted that pups “milk thief” from other suckling mothers and depending on how successful their lifestyle of crime is will determine whether or not they survive the year.

##PUP## SUCKling with mom##bag of bones##

Male Tropicalis Seal however only arrive between October and December guarding territories so as to control an average of 7 females during the breading season. November to January is also the Females pupping season and is a busy time on the beaches around Marion Island. The seals have also been recorded to return during February and March to moult along the coast.

##Photo of Male TROP## photo of female TROP##

Antarctic Fur Seal, (Arctocephalus gazelle) are distributed throughout the Antarctic Ocean among the many islands with South Georgia hosting 95% of the world’s Antarctic Fur Seal population. There is an evident size difference between male and female Antarctic Fur Seals with the average length of the species being about 2 meters and the weight varying between 91-209 kg. The Males are have a dark brown colouration to their fur with the females and juveniles sporting a grey pelt with a lighter underside, though pups are predominantly born black.

During the breeding season (late October – mid November) Males defend their territories along the rocky shores of the island and can defend harems of up to 20 females. The gustation period lasts roughly a year and the females give birth from mid-November to December. Once pups are born the females leave them ashore returning after foraging trips for the pups to suckle until weaned which normally occurs once the pups are 4 months old.

With Marion Island being one of the key study areas for the Southern Elephant Seal, (Mirounge leonine) it is no wonder that these giants of the ocean are welcomed to the islands beaches with great joy and caution annually. These 3-6 meter, 1.5- 4.5 tonne males are a sight to behold, dwarfing their female partners on the beaches only weighing a mere 400-800 kg and measuring between 3-4meters. The males have a massive erect proboscis (nose) while the females have a fleshy blunt nose. Other than the sexual differences and size they look the same.

##photo of mouths## photos alongside one another##

The Southern Elephant Seals prefer gentle sloped beaches with sand or pebbles, males arrive at their beaches between September and October setting up territory and preparing for the females to arrive which is fully under way mid-October. One male Beach Master can have as many as 50 females. In protecting his beaches we were able to witness a Beach Master almost drowning a female that attempted to leave the beach as he saw her move towards the sea he stormed into the water to cut her off and kept pushing her under, biting her and pinning her down until she returned to the beach.

##tripod harem##

Shortly after arriving, females give birth to a single black pup, near to the end of October the pup weans within three weeks and during this weaning period the females are impregnated by the males. Shortly thereafter the females depart leaving the pup on the beaches and go and forage, only to return between December and February to moult for 1 month. Once the majority of the females have departed the males depart for foraging, returning between February and April to moult. During the moulting period the individuals prefer to move onto vegetated areas and often move far inland along the coastal rivers. The pups depart from the islands beaches in December only to return the following year during the winter haul out March to April.

##Pup Suckling##Pup alone## Pup cute##

The mammal which without a doubt gets the most attention on the island would be the Orca Killer Whale,( Orcinus orca). Whenever one is spotted all one sees are people running out of the base, announcements being made and long lenses ready to get a shot of the magnificent hunter of the seas. Though far too often we stand at the ready awaiting them, hoping that they spy-hop before us, go for a kill or  just do something spectacular but not the killer whales of Marion Island, they take a deep breath and swim by us under water as if to say, “we know you watching us”.

None the less these magnificent creatures captivate our imagination each time they come past, we jump for joy and talk about what we saw for days to come. Moving around in pods between 2-20 individualsthey are considered to be the largest dolphins on the planet with males averaging between 6-9 meters, between 3-5 tonnes and females averaging between 5-7 meters, between 2-4 tonnes. Capable of reaching speeds of up to 50km/h it is truly amazing to see the large triangular fin arching its way out of the water, sometimes they are so large that they lean over from side to side as the large males sport their fins.

##under water## coming up##photos fins##

They are seen to be social animals with females only giving birth once every 4-5 years after a gustation period of 12-18 months. Calves will suckle for up to 12 month and remain in their mother pod thereafter. This social behaviour and structure allows for more effective hunting, a spectacular sight we were privileged to observe for half a day off of the cliffs at Mixed Pickle Cove.

##Killers hunting##

Despite the above mammals being the only permanent residence to the island this does not mean that other mammals occasionally come by or get lost and end up on the islands shores. During October we were able to have a spectacular sighting of Humpback Whales, (Megaptera novaengliae) though they were too far out to take clear photographs it is still an amazing thought to think that they were en route to Antarctica to their summer feeding grounds. These 10-18 meter, 25-35 tonne gentle giants of the deep annually migrate down to Antarctica from the warmer tropical waters along the equator to feed on fish during the summer plankton bloom before migrating north again to warmer waters. Female Humpback Whale gives births to one calve every 2-3 years following a 12 month gestation period in tropical waters between May and August. The calve suckles the female for between 6-12 months and migrates south with her during the summer feeding times.

Another less common vagrant on the shores of Marion Island is the elusive and ever grinning Leopard Seal,(Hydrurga leptonyx). Though not a common vagrant when one does arrive they never fail to impress. This 4 meter long streamlined predators have an amazing look about them. They are a true Antarctic predator and only come onto the shores of Marion if they have wondered too far north from the Antarctic Ice shelf and it is for a period to rest and then they are off again towards the South to resume hunting. Unfortunately so far during the Marion 69th Expedition we have not been able to see any Leopard Seals or Ice Bergs.

I hope that this has given you some insight into the mammals living on the island and visiting the island occasionally. As for November and December, this is the period when all the birds’ will arrive for their breading season with nests filling up and beaches changing to a constant movement of penguins. I will try my best to describe to you a little more of the bird life on the island in the next post.

Until then have a safe festive and traveling season.

The scientific information mentioned above in this entry comes from the following books:

  • The Prince Edward Islands, Land-Sea Interactions in a Changing Ecosystem. S L Chown and P W Froneman, SUN PRESS. 2008.
  • Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of Tristan da Cunhaand Gough Island. Edited P Ryan, Pisces Publications, Newburry. 2007.

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#9 Nov- Dec 2012 – Birds of Paradise 

This will look at the birds of Marion Island, as most of the bird species will arrive during November and December during their breeding season. Though many of them are off limits to team members not directly working with them in the field I will still write about them though I will not be able to add photographs to the entry.



#10 Jan- Feb 2013 –  

#11 Mach- April 2013 – 


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