12 Weekly News 23 January 1999

Dear all,

Summer continues to throw all her variations of weather at us this week. Today, Saturday, was the first day for almost a week when we didn’t get at least a snowy shower, though none of it really settled down here at sea level. That which did settle higher up made the mountains and hillsides much prettier by picking out all the textures in the striated rocks, the rock folds and scree slopes. Most days started grotty and improved so we had a good excuse for a few lie-ins, much needed due to late nights spent socialising.

We managed to get a couple of afternoons out in the Husvik cemetery. The fence there is already a post and chain one and only one post needed digging up and straightening. Pat ground off the welded hooks of the posts as they were getting thin and weak, and drilled holes for the new hooks which are now bolted in. The chain Sarah carefully sorted in Grytviken last year hangs neatly all the way round. Sarah, meanwhile has been digging around the graves to tidy up the overgrowing grass, and preparing the surfaces of the monuments for repair and painting.

On Tuesday evening red sails could be seen tacking slowly down the harbour towards us and eventually the historic yacht Wanderer III arrived. This 29 foot wooden yacht was originally owned by the Hiscocks, well known as early pioneers of the cruising lifestyle. Current owners, Thies and Kicki Matzen, were married in Grytviken church last week and are now spending their honeymoon sailing around the island. We enjoyed their company for the next three days and nights exercising our legs during the days and our drinking muscles in the evenings. Pat walked with them up to Gulbrandsen Lake which is filling up as the summer progresses. The lake is about an hour’s walk inland and fills up in a valley which is closed at the lower end by the Neumayer glacier as it flows past. Lumps of ice, some bigger than a large house, fall into the lake and float around to be stranded at some point in the year when the lake suddenly drains away. We guess that it gets to a certain depth and the glacier then starts to float, allowing the water to disappear underneath it. Once the party got there the snow cleared and the sun came out, prompting a long photographic session with Thies and Pat goading each other on to get arty shots. It is art when it’s out of focus isn’t it?

On Friday all four of us set out with tally counters and paint pots to carry out the first part of a fur seal pup count along the Tonsberg peninsula, which separates Husvik and Stromness Bays. Pat and Thies put a white spot on every pup we could see while Sarah and Kicki kept count. We delayed departure for an hour or so and drank coffee on board the yacht, waiting for the weather to decide what it was going to do. Finally it looked as though it was clearing, the snow stopped, and we set off. Six hours, and 1109 white spotted pups later we were out at Tonsberg Point point enjoying a well earned cuppa and slice of Sarah’s fruit cake. Yummo! We were treated to a wonderful collection of seabirds. White chinned petrels, light mantled sooty albatross, giant petrels, gulls….and the best of all a few snow petrels, which were feeding on the surface of the sea in front of us. These are beautiful birds, pure white except for black eyes, beaks and legs. Further out to sea were a couple of icebergs, driven up from the Antarctic by the southerly winds that have been bringing this snowy weather

Wanderer has now departed for Leith leaving the two of us to go back over the route counting spotted and unspotted pups. By careful massage techniques in a computer the ratio of unspotted to spotted pups that we, er, spotted today can be used to tell us that there were about 2,400 fur seal pups born this year along the five kilometer stretch of beach. Extrapolate that to the amount of beach on the island and you get a fast growing population which has more than recovered from being hunted all but to the point of extinction last century. People who lived here in the 50’s and 60’s tell of everyone at KEP downing tools and going out with cameras on the very rare occasions that a fur seal popped out onto the beach for a short visit.

We are now much more experienced at confronting fur seals and can bravely face down all but the most stubborn of the bulls. It’s all about bottle – if you look brave and stand your ground they back off despite being bigger, stronger and better armed. Of course the occasional thug hasn’t read the rules and we resort to cimbing up into the tussac grass to go past at a bit of altitude.

Some young adults, like typical teenagers, have a good game with us as we walk along the beach. They come whizzing out of the sea as fast their little flippers can carry them. It’s a bit ungainly for them as their back legs are not only stunted but are also joined together rather than having two separate legs worth of skin. A bit like a sack race contestant or a girl in a long tight skirt trying to catch a bus. Once they get to within a metre or so they stop suddenly, growl, and look up to see if you flinch or run. If you do then you get chased. If you stand your ground they do too but if you take one small step towards them they turn round and run back into the sea. There are quite a few groups of king penguins standing around on some of the beaches moulting. One of these saw off one such seal with a sharp peck.

The pups are much braver. They stand their ground and bleat/growl even as you try to get your stick with a paintbrush on the end round to the back of their heads.

Thies and Kicki have kindly taken a couple of rucksacks of gear around to Leith for us. We follow on foot tomorrow to spend three days or so (weather permitting of course) finishing off the painting at the cemeteries. We had hoped to avoid this task and get the Norwegian visitors to do it a couple of weeks ago but no such luck, but they did bring the extra paint we needed to do the second coat of masonry paint on the headstones, and hammerite for the fence posts.

Well, time to sign off so that we can enjoy one last night in front of the fire before returning to the garret at Leith for a few nights. Fingers crossed for good weather so that we can get the painting out of the way. It’ll be back to tinned food again, quite a wrench after we have been enjoying reindeer meat this week. So tender it just melts in the mouth. The skuas are enjoying it too. They can reach the forelegs as it hangs on a frame behind the shed and have been devouring their share all week. They can hardly fly any more.

Cheers for now,

Love Pat & Sarah

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