10 Apr 2018

10 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Thirteen: Gough Island

There was an early morning wake up call for those who weren't already up to confirm we were sailing back in close to Gough Island to take another close look at the island.
The weather was also misty due to the impact of some overnight rain
However, there was also disappointment for most of passengers as it also confirmed that although the wind had dropped a little, the swell was still too rough to allow us to safely get into the zodiacs. As as result, we were going to get another Plancius cruise around Gough Island: but no zodiac cruise.
Early morning gloom: This didn't just apply to the light, as we all upset to miss out on a zodiac cruise
Another waterfall: There were a number of active waterfalls indicating Gough Island must get a fair bit of rain
The weather took some time to start improving
There were a number of these isolated rock stacks
Tristan Penguins were one of the species I was really keen to see. They only breed on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands in the Atlantic, as well as, St Pauls & Amsterdam Islands in the Indian Ocean. We had seen really distant scope dots on the previous afternoon of one of their colonies: which hadn't been very satisfactory. So it was good to see some Tristan Penguins in the water this morning.
Tristan Penguin: They are also known as Northern Rockhopper Penguin or Moseley's Rockhopper Penguin. This was my third Penguin Tick for the Odyssey. I've got just three left to see now: Galapagos Penguin, Adelie Penguin & the difficult Emperor Penguin
Tristan Penguin: A close up to show how extensive the yellow feathering is
Tristan Penguin colony: This is a fairly reasonable sized colony
Tristan Penguin colony: It looked more of a long hop up to this colony
The Edinburgh: A Belize registered & based fishing boat was also taking shelter around Gough Island & showing how rough the seas were for this 12 metre boat
At some points the sea became really rough when the seas were exposed to the wind
The water was being lifted from the tops of the waves
Finally we found a more sheltered bay & the conditions had improved. To our surprise we were called to the observation lounge & told the Expedition staff & the crew, reckoned they had a sheltered enough position to put a couple of zodicas in the water. This worked out OK & we were going to get a zodiac cruise after all. It still looked quite choppy & I decided to skip taking the cameras. In hind sight, it would have been alright, but I had already managed to get a Tristan Penguin photo from the ship & I was happy. So there are none of the better photos of the Tristan Penguins that some of the other photographers took & none of the Subantarctic Fur Seals on the beaches that we saw. However, not focusing on the photography gave me chance to keep scanning the rocks & I was pleased to be the first to see a Gough Bunting. There are only a few hundred pairs of this olive coloured Finch that is restricted to Gough Island. It seems likely that it originated from one of the South American species, as they superficially resemble Yellow-bridled Finches of Tierra Del Fuego. The others in the zodiac weren't so happy, as it flew & dropped out of sight as I called it. However, we went on to find two or three others feeding on the rocks just above the beach & all who wanted got to see them. Not the behaviour I had been expecting. However, I guess there is more food here & like the South Georgia Pipit, Gough Buntings are happy to exploit any food source. They are found on the island up to 800 metres elevation.
Another rock stack
The weather & light were finally improving
By late morning, we were back on the Plancius & the zodiacs were reloaded. It was time to complete the journey around the coast, before turning North West toward to Tristan da Cunha: a day's sailing away. Given it was now late morning, we wouldn't arrive at Tristan da Cunha till late morning the following day. But the zodiac cruise was a real bonus & a couple of my mates on our trip, Richard & Mike, had rebooked on this trip as they had been unable to do a zodiac trip on their trip in 2016. That wasn't their only reasons, but was a major factor for both of them. In Richard's case, his wife Bridget had been unable to do the full trip, so they had rebooked to do the cruise together. Opportunities to experience Gough Island aren't guaranteed, so we were all elated, especially after seeing the Gough Buntings. The weather & sea conditions are such a crucial factor & not having long in the schedule to wait for the weather to improve, it is just lucky if trips get the chance of a zodiac. The 2014 Odyssey missed Gough Island completely due to a medical emergency, as the Plancius had to visit the Falklands after South Georgia & they bypassed Gough Island completely. I think we were all feeling very lucky given all our landings & zodiacs in South Georgia & Gough Island had been successful. However, I was also aware that at some point this luck was likely to run out before we reached the calmer tropical waters. But as we were sailing away, there were still plenty of Birds to look at as we were leaving Gough Island, while I quietly contemplated when our luck would change.
Sooty Albatross: Adult
Sooty Albatross: Adult
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Subadult
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Another photo of the same subadult individual
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Another photo of the same subadult individual
Southern Giant Petrel: Gough Island is the most northerly breed population of Southern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
Great Shearwater: We saw several large rafts of Great Shearwaters on the water as we were leaving Gough Island
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: One of the white-bellied melanoleuca subspecies of Black-bellied Storm-petrel that breeds on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Another individual
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Another photo of the previous individual
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: We sailed past a feeding flock of at least 25 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrels, along with a few South giant Petrels 
Southern Giant Petrel & 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Note, the Southern Giant Petrel from the previous photo has a yellow ring on it, but the photo is not good enough to read the ring number
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Three of the flock
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Another two
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Five more
Brown Skua: This Tristan Brown Skua briefly circled the Plancius
Antarctic Tern: They breed on all the major Subantarctic Islands in the Southern Oceans. This is the tristanensis subspecies which occurs on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands, as well as, St Pauls & Amsterdam Islands in the Indian Ocean
Antarctic Tern: I had seen them in South Georgia, but they were never close to the Planicus
Since I've got back I found this really interesting RSPB website about their work on Gough Island. As it is a British Overseas Territory, the RSPB are an important conservation body working on the British Overseas Territories. There is a good blog on the website as well, although it doesn't get too many updates given they probably have a very slow satellite connection to the outside world. But it does allow the small RSPB team to write about life on Gough Island & the pressures on the Seabirds. You would think that life for a Seabird on a remote outer island of the remotest inhabited island group in the world (Tristan da Cunha) should be great. However, Gough Island, like many of these remote islands is suffering badly from introduced Mice, which have grown to three times the size of their European cousins. They are currently causing havoc & are a major threat to both the Tristan Wandering Albatross which are declining at three percent a year due to the impacts of the Mice predating chicks & the Gough Buntings which have declined to 400-500 pairs (compared to around 1500 pairs in 1991). Again the Mice are the main threat to this Critically Endangered single island endemic passerine. Additionally, Gough is the only breeding island for Atlantic Petrels & it is an important island for the newly discovered MacGillvray's Petrel: although time will tell if this is related to the MacGillvray's Petrels in the Indian Ocean or a separate species. Additionally, the island is home to the Gough Moorhen, although a population has now been successfully re-introduced on Tristan da Cunha, after the original Tristan population were wiped out following the arrival of humans there.
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Subadult. One of the species that would benefit from clearing Mice from Gough Island
To help safeguard the Seabirds & Gough Bunting, there is a plan to eradicate the Mice in June - Aug 19 during the Southern Winter. There is an appeal to raise the final two million pounds to fund this eradication plan. This is something that specialist teams are getting well practiced at successfully clearing these large islands of introduced Rats & Mice. Earlier in the trip we saw the increase in South Georgia Pipits on the mainland following their successful Rat eradication project. So the plans are now being put in place for Gough Island. Anybody, who would like to contribute can find more information about the plans & how to contribute on the RSPB Gough Island website. I will be making a donation once I'm back in a contract again.