Three months of adventure, penguins, tinned food and no showers on the incredible Nightingale Island

Late last year I had the privilege of collecting field data for my Conservation Biology MSc thesis on Nightingale Island. I kind of shot myself in the foot a bit with that because it meant I had 3 months less time to write up than all of my classmates. I have little to no experience writing up scientific papers, and although I have good writing skills in general I’ve learned that scientific writing is a peculiar beast which requires weeks of sweat, blood and tears (oh, so many tears!) to wrestle into submission for those who have not encountered it before. I’ve had to get an extension for my write-up – I am very lucky that my supervisors are so kind, supportive and helpful – but living on Nightingale and working with the penguins was worth all of the trouble a thousand times over.

Oddly enough, I’ve never been interested in single species conservation. I wanted to do a project on sustainable agriculture or climate change, and the only reason I am now writing about the breeding biology of Northern Rockhopper Penguins is because there’s still a part of me that’s the little girl who lived for books like Robinson Crusoe, the Famous Five and the Swiss Family Robinson. Apparently 27 isn’t too old to desperately want to have adventures on a remote deserted island with buried treasure and exotic wildlife. I never realised I would fall in love with my study species and the island itself, but just look at this place:


Middle Island and Stoltenhoff from Nightingale Island


The only toilet in the world from which you can watch endangered penguins go by


A Northern Rockhopper Penguin and chick with a pipping egg. My fieldwork involved measuring and weighing eggs and chicks.


Hello in there!


The amount of fuss the chicks make when you catch them is hilarious considering how they seem to enjoy sitting on one’s lap while waiting to be measured…


Half of my penguin study chicks disappeared down this hungry skua chick’s gullet… I’ve never seen such a gigantic mouth on such a small thing!


Mum or Dad skua, getting angry with me for daring to take their picture


One of the rarest birds in the world, there are only about 100 pairs of this Wilkins’ Bunting


The Nightingale Bunting is similar to the Wilkins’ Bunting, you can distinguish them by their beaks.


A yellow-nosed albatross in flight


Almost the center of the island…


Courting yellow-nosed albatrosses


This island actually is supposed to have buried spanish pirate treasure… I reckon if it exists it’s hidden in one of the caves around the island. If only I hadn’t been so sea-sick I could have investigated properly…


This is a prion, a bird which is active at night. If only they hadn’t been nesting behind my hut! They are the noisiest birds I have ever met, and their technique for getting back to their nest involved crash-landing onto my tin roof and dragging their claws down it to make that classic nails-on-a-chalkboard noise. I did get used to it after a bit though.


A view of the SA Agulhas II from my hut


Home sweet home…


Nightingale Island from Middle Island


A seal, with Tristan in the background


Sadly no treasure in this cave, just a beautiful view of Tristan.


Parents and chicks


Phylica forest, habitat for the Wilkins’ Bunting


Imagine having this sort of traffic when you go down to work in the mornings!


Antarctic terns in synchronised flight, part of their courtship ritual




The sweetest little things in the world


A pair of common brown noddies


What a handsome seal pup


Kelp forests (from snorkelling)


A yellow-nosed albatross and chick


A creche of older Northern Rockhopper Penguin chicks – the one with purple on his front is one of my study chicks




On one of the last days I went on this most exciting hike, traversing a sheer cliff while hanging off tussock and hoping and praying it wouldn’t get uprooted…


… But worth it all to find this sooty albatross nesting on High Ridge


Saying goodbye to my penguins

I will never forget it, and I am so incredibly lucky to have stayed there. If you want to see more, Otto Whitehead has made a really beautiful video from his time on the island

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