After a days delay while we took part in an exercise involving the French Navy, we finally sighted the Crozet Islands as the sun cast its water rays over a cold deep blue-grey sea. Suddenly the bird life around the boat changed from the occasional white-chinned petrel and wandering albatross, to flights of little prions, giant petrels, and positively hoards of wandering albatross.
But possibly the most extraordinary thing that catches your ears and eyes immediately is the whistling of king penguins, then you catch sight of them popping the cheeky little heads out of the water, and gaggling and splashing for their morning ‘ablutions’ in the sea around the boat. We arrive in the middle of Baie du Marin, also home to several thousand of the beasties, and they seem to look at us with curiosity rather than fear or annoyance.
These islands have their own version of a weka, the Sheathbill, a curious, yet somehow grotesque pigeon sized creature, which spends its life living off the left-overs of other animals. They were present in numbers around the penguin colony. I’d been warned in advance to not put anything small and portable down on the ground, like gloves, lens-caps or food, lest it fall prey to these rather unadorable creatures. In terms of character, these guys rate around 8/10, possibly above the rather cuter King Penguins (7/10 for good looks, funny behaviours, and overall characterfulness).
We make our way up to the base, after the obligatory 50 cheek-kisses and hand-shakes, via the only road vehicle on the island, a four-wheel drive ute. The base houses 30 or so people in the summer time, and has modern buildings (bedrooms complete with en suite bathrooms – luxury) as well as some more ‘original’ tractor sheds and work areas. Research bases in these far flung corners tend to be a mixture industrial and commercial looking architecture, but inside, they are really quite homely.
The landscape is desolate, yet somehow strikingly beautiful, with light playing on the grass and moss swards as thin slivers of milky sunlight make their way through patches in the clouds. The silence, or rather rustling of the wind still seems surreal after the constant hum of the vessel over the last week. The dominant plants are mosses, with Aceanas and other low growing herbs providing colour.
Our next day is at the Base getting prepared for our field work, then we make our way over the hills to the point at the north of the island and its little field hut called Point Basse.
This is home to one of the best studied albatross populations in the world. Our lack of tele-connection to the outside world may mean that blogs from there are fairly sparse! However, we may have enough visitors during our 5 week stay to allow me to send some more updates as the study progresses.