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Giant Petrel

Giant Petrel

The iconic "glutton" of Antarctica!

What you need to know about the Giant Petrel

Our Expert Says… "Although they are difficult to tell apart, because they follow the ships so closely you will often get a good enough view to spot the red bill tip that means it's a Southern Giant Petrel or the green tip that tells you it's a Northern Giant Petrel!"

The Giant Petrel is one of the iconic Antarctic seabirds. These powerful, aggressive predators are also consummate scavengers, and are sometimes known as “Stinkers”! Southern Ocean whalers used to call them “Gluttons”.

There are two species, the Northern Giant Petrel and the Southern Giant Petrel - although they were only classified as separate species in 1966. The Northern variety range throughout the Southern Ocean north of the Antarctic Convergence Zone, through Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and half of Australia. The Southern species range from Antarctica through to the subtropical regions of Chile, Africa, and Australia.

Often confused with albatross, the Giant Petrel is a large bird with a wingspan of up to 2.1m (7ft) and weighing in at up to 7.7kg (17lb). The Southern Giant Petrel is generally larger than the Northern Giant Petrel, but they are otherwise hard to tell apart. Your expert naturalist guide will be able to identify the correct species for you should you encounter them at sea.

Characteristics both giant petrels have in common are dark, mottled grey-brown feathers and a slender, orange, hooked bill, ideal for holding on to slippery prey or picking at carrion. One interesting distinguishing feature is that around 15% of the Southern Giant Petrels display a genetic trait whereby they are almost completely white.

Petrels are aggressive feeders, and they will hunt for food both onshore and out to sea. On land, they can be aggressive hunters of unprotected chicks, as well as sick or dead adult animals, particularly penguins. They will often brutally kill the chicks either by deliberately drowning them or beating them to death. They will also fight over the carcasses of dead animals, and they use their wings to try and shield “their” carcass from other petrels.

At sea, they can be seen feeding on fish, squid, and Antarctic krill. Giant petrels will usually follow any boats or ships they see in the hope of getting any discarded fish or other waste.

In common with all petrels, Giant Petrels produce a waxy stomach oil which they use as a food source for chicks or to sustain them on long over-water flights. However, if threatened they can projectile vomit this foul-smelling liquid to deter any predators.

Giant Petrel: Interesting facts

Giant Petrels often follow ships, inquisitive birds often coming right up to the stern. But they are very wary on the nest and it is very important to keep to the guidelines, listen to staff, and keep further away from nesting giant petrels. A minimum of 25m to 50m compared to a minimum of 5m to 10m from a penguin rookery.

Both species breed on South Georgia, but only Southern Giant Petrels breed throughout the South Shetlands. The latter also breed at locations in the peninsula, but there are other locations where they regularly turn up to scavenge, but do not breed.

Giant Petrel: Pictures & Videos

Giant Petrel
Giant Petrel

Spots where the Giant Petrel can be observed

Bleaker Island

Bleaker Island (known as Isla Maria in Spanish) has had at least 3 changes of the name since the Falkland Islands were first discovered and colonized.

It was first named Long Island - a rather unimaginative title because that’s what it is, long and thin. Its name was changed to Breaker Island and it appeared like this on maps and charts until 1859, when a new chart was published with the name changed to Bleaker. What was probably a printing error has stuck ever since!

There was evidence that sealers had been using Bleaker Island as a base, but there was no permanent settlement attempted until 1880 when a house was built and a sheep farm set up. The island has been used for rearing ship ever since, and now has some cattle as well. It’s run as an organic farm and tourist destination, with stewardship of the land to allow both commercial farming and wildlife preservation at its heart.

A formally-designated Important Bird Area (or IBA), Bleaker Island is home to a large breeding colony of Imperial Cormorants more than 16,000 strong. Other species to be found here include Gentoo penguins who nest on the appropriately-named Penguin Hill above Sandy Bay. There are also Southern Rockhopper penguins to be found near Long Gulch and Magellanic penguin burrows are widespread.

There are also many smaller bird species here, including Falklands grass wrens and pipits, black-chinned siskins, and dark-faced ground-tyrants. There are also some birds of prey including southern caracaras.

Grytviken, Fortuna Bay

Grytviken only exists because of the whaling industry. It was opened as a whaling station in 1904 because Fortuna Bay was considered to be the best natural harbor in South Georgia. The site operated for almost 60 years and over 53,000 whale carcasses were landed and processed here.

Although founded by a Norwegian, the name “Grytviken” is actually Swedish! It means “Pot Bay” and was named by the Swedish survey expedition of 1902 because they found several old British try pots here - large vessels used to render down seal blubber.

The whaling station was abandoned in 1966 as uneconomical after stocks of whales in the region had dropped to critical levels due to over-hunting, and there are no permanent residents. However, a few officials do live here during the tourist season to manage the South Georgia Museum and the post office which is located here, that is fascinating place to visit, and even purchase some souvenirs

There is more famous Antarctic human history to discover at Grytviken. Just outside the settlement lies the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, who died here from a sudden heart attack in 1922. There is also a marker next to his grave marking the spot where the ashes of his key crew member and fellow explorer Frank Wild were interred.

As well as the museum, Grytviken also has a church - remarkably still used for occasional services.

While most people come here for human history, the area is also great for wildlife and natural history doesn’t disappoint. Fortuna Bay is known for its large king penguin colonies and is a popular haul out for many elephant seals, as well as innumerable seabirds. Just watch out for the fur seals that may be resting amongst the whaling era debris.

half moon island
Half Moon Island

Half Moon Island is rugged and rocky and lies just off the Bergas Peninsula in the South Shetland Islands and it is a very popular spot as the either the first or last landing on an Antarctic Peninsula cruise. One side of Half Moon Island has steep, scree-covered slopes and cliffs down to the water, an ideal home to many Antarctic sea birds. The other parts of the island are characterized by pebble and boulder beaches leading to shallower slopes.

Visitor numbers are strictly controlled to ensure that the resident terns, gulls, and penguins aren’t disturbed, especially during their breeding seasons.

Your landing site is a cobbled beach where the remains of a whaling dory (a type of shallow, planked boat) can be seen.

As well as penguin colonies close to the shore, your Antarctic exploration guides will show you the Half Moon Island chinstrap penguin nesting sites near a navigation tower at the top of the hill, as well as the amazing Wilson’s Storm Petrel burrows that have been dug into the scree slopes here. Half Moon has also had a lone Macaroni penguin for a number of years, and others occasionally turn up here.

Your guides will also show you the areas where you can roam freely, always keeping an eye out for Fur Seals whose colors camouflage themselves against the rocks.

Half Moon Island is also home to the Argentinian Summer Antarctic Research Station. You may well spot scientists undertaking important surveys and research work during your visit.

The is also the stunning backdrop of the snow covered and rugged Livingstone Island with the tumbling glaciers.

The Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas) is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most people may be familiar with them because of the conflict that was fought here by armed forces from Argentina and the UK in 1982, but there is so much more to the Falklands.

Inhabited since 1764, these remote islands have been colonized and claimed by many countries - France and Spain have claimed them (and Argentina since its formation and former Spanish colony) although it’s the British descendants who make up the majority of the islands’ 4,000 population. As a British Overseas Territory, the Falklands are self-governing, but the UK is responsible for defense and foreign affairs. Argentina still disputes the sovereignty of the islands they call the Malvinas.

Made up of two large islands (East and West Falkland) and over 700 smaller islands and islets, the Falklands are as beautiful as they are rugged and remote. Despite its history as a base for South Atlantic whalers and sealers, and more recently extensive sheep farming, the Falkland Islands have retained great biodiversity, and modern conservation has ensured many previously struggling wild species are now returning.

The Falklands is home to important populations of albatross, having some of the largest breeding sites in the world. They are also home to the rare striated caracara, 63 species of nesting land bird, and 5 penguin species. Seals, whales, dolphins, and other marine life are also abundant. Finally, the rugged landscape itself has a stark beauty, and the islanders, although hardy, offer everyone the warmest of welcomes, usually accompanied by a hearty Falklands Tea.

Fishing and farming account for the vast majority of the Falklands Islands income, although tourism is increasingly important. Many of the farms on the islands are now managed with wildlife conservation in mind, and the Falklands is a wildlife management success story.

Although most ships visit Stanley (usually for a day), the main focus on 'expedition' cruises are the outer islands with all the wildlife, and some of the special breeding birds like Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins and some Patagonia specialists like the Striated Caracara. Also bear in mind, with cruises that also go to South Georgia and the peninsula, only 2 or 3 days are normally spent in the Falklands, although some cruises spend longer here.

Our trips to spot the Giant Petrel

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