Antarctica Cruise: Part 2 – South Georgia Island

After two days at sea travelling through unbelievably calm waters with low winds, the Island of South Georgia came into view.  We spent a total of four days exploring this icy paradise, home to millions of sea and land birds, penguins, and seals. History came alive as we walked in the footsteps of explorers of the past.

We were blessed with consistently good weather during these four days allowing us to enjoy two daily excursions.  It is common for ships to be limited to only one or two excursions in total because of inclement weather such as high winds, large sea swells, or blizzards.  Kayaking in South Georgia is rare; yet our group enjoyed two kayaking excursions!  In case you were wondering, we did not kayak during this trip.

The kayaking group was limited to 16 people and all the spots were filled by the time we bought our tickets. There was one cancellation and Chris and I discussed whether or not one of us should go for it. Since we both wanted to do it, and we would both be very jealous if the other one did it, we decided for the sake of marital harmony we would both decline.

Before stepping foot onto South Georgia, all passengers were required to follow stringent biosecurity procedures designed to ensure we did not inadvertently transfer plant life from one location to the next.  We attended vacuum stations where our packs and outer clothing were scrutinized and vigorously cleaned.  Every time we left the boat, we walked through a disinfecting solution and every time we returned to the boat we were required to scrub out boots and lower pants as well as any equipment that may have touched the ground such as tripods or walking poles.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the memorable moments and highlights of the places we visited on South Georgia.

By zodiac, we cruised the calm waters in the Bay of Elsehul, on the northwestern extremity of South Georgia, and were rewarded with terrific views of three species of albatross birds (black-browed, grey-headed, and light-mantled sooty), three species of penguins (king, macaroni, and gentoo), as well as blue-eyed shags, several species of petrels (including giant, cape and lesser snow), prions, southern elephant seals and fur seals. The haunting wails and piercing cries of the medley of wildlife formed a symphony of sounds that will forever be in my memory.

Our first sighting of king penguins – what a thrill!
And look at all those fur seals.

On the beach: elephant seals, fur seals, king, macaroni and gentoo penguins.

Video:  Nature’s symphony

Salisbury Plain, on the southern shore of the Bay of Isles, 50 km from the western tip of South Georgia is home to the second largest king penguin colony on the island with an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs that swells to about 250,000 individual penguins during the molt.  This location marked our second excursion and our first real introduction to king penguins, certainly on such a massive scale.  Immediately upon landing, there were king penguins as far as the eye could see.  In the distance the full colony stood in all its glory.

But first, we had to manoeuver our way through vast groups of fur seals who were not always happy to see us.  The pups were absolutely adorable, inquisitive, friendly and very playful, and entertained us to no end.  In contrast, the male fur seals were very territorial and could be vicious and quite aggressive; we were chased more than once if we happened to unwittingly venture into a male fur seal’s domain.

Video:  All the action on Salisbury Plain

The sight and sounds and yes, even the smell of so many king penguins in one location was thrilling and awe inspiring.  But nothing compared to the experience of sitting quietly on the ground and having a small group of penguins come up to check you out, often pecking at your boots or your pants.  These wondrous creatures exhibited no fear of humans, but seemed to be as curious about us as we were of them.

Video:  Chris bonding with the chicks.

Chicks marched about in search for their mother, squawking incessantly as if to say: I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I want my mommy now.   And the mothers (or fathers for that matter as both are responsible for the chick) once found (a seemingly miraculous feat in and of itself), seemed quite unaffected by their chick’s plaintiff cries, often walking around for some time, with their little chick trailing behind squawking at the top of their lungs.   She would feed her chick in due time, when she was ready and not a moment sooner.  We learned later that this behaviour served an important purpose; as the chick chased after its parent for food, it’s wings and legs were strengthened, preparing it for life at sea.

The colony was going through the molting period where they shed their feathers and replace them with new ones.  Molting occurs once each year, usually after the breeding season.  This is an essential function because feathers wear out during the year; they become worn out when penguins rub against each other, come in contact with the ground and water, and regularly preen (clean, rearrange, and oil) their feathers.  The new feather grows under the old one, pushing it out. The old feather does not fall out until the new one is completely in place. The molt is patchy and can give individual penguins a scruffy look.  During the molt, feathers lose some of their insulating and waterproofing capabilities, and penguins stay out of the water until their plumage is restored to optimum condition.  Because penguins don’t enter the water to feed during a molt, they fast. Before their molt, they build a fat layer, which provides energy until the molt is over.   The younger chicks looked cute and adorable cloaked in fluffy brown feathers like a fur coat, but the older chicks and juveniles looked downright ugly.  Lucky for us, the colony had swollen in size because of the molting period. 

Prion Island is a site of high environmental sensitivity and exceptional conservation value as it is one of a few rat-free tussac islands remaining along the rat-infested South Georgia coastline.  Rats were inadvertently introduced hundreds of years ago and surprisingly have thrived in this harsh climate.  They are a huge threat to bird populations.  South Georgia Heritage Trust is a non-profit organization involved in many projects on the island, including an ambitious rat eradication program, that if successful will result in a restoration of bird populations by 10-100% in coming years.

South Georgia Pipit

This was the site of our third excursion.  Following a slippery boardwalk through the tall tussac grass, mindful of the many fur seals in our path, we reached the breeding site of the wandering albatross and were delighted to see several beauties sitting on their nests close by.  One bird opened its expansive wings giving us the opportunity to admire the beautiful 3-4 m wing span up close.  These birds are huge and it is rare to see them in such close proximity.  We also saw our first endemic South Georgia pipit which looked much like a sparrow.  The pipit is the Antarctic’s only song bird, and South Georgia’s only passerine, and one of the few non-seabirds of the region.  While this bird didn’t really look all that special, it is threatened mainly because of the high rat population.  So it isn’t surprising that the South Georgia Heritage Trust chose this little bird as their poster bird in their campaign to eradicate rats.

The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any
living bird,  averaging from 2.51–3.50 m (8.2–11.5 ft),
with a mean span of 3.1 m (10 ft) in one colony.

Fur seals amidst the tusac grass bordering the boardwalk.

A young elephant seal on the beach.

Fur seal pup – isn’t he a cutie!

A zodiac cruise around Hercules Bay, located 2.5 km northwest of Cape Saunders, offered spectacular views of the towering cliffs that encircled this miniature fjord.  The kayakers had the opportunity to explore the bay at a more leisurely pace.  We saw plenty of macaroni penguins along the rocks that hugged the base of the cliffs and fur seals and elephant seals covered the beach.  But no reindeers were to be seen that afternoon.

Our visit to Stromness, an old whaling station, began at Fortuna Bay.  As we hiked 5.5 km to Stromness, we paused now and then to listen to Damien our historian, read passages describing the historical crossing by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his small team in 1915.

For those of you not familiar with this piece of history, this is basically what happened. Shackleton and his crew were on their way to Vahsel Bay where they were going to attempt the first ever land crossing of Antarctica,  an epic transcontinental voyage through the South Pole.  His ship, Endurance, became stuck in the ice and eventually sank by the crushing ice.  Shackleton and his men spent months in makeshift camps on the drifting ice, until they were able to reach the inhospitable, uninhabited Elephant Island by lifeboats (we visited this location later on).  Shackleton and five of his men travelled 800 miles to South Georgia in a small vessel (the replica was in the South Georgia Museum in Grytviken) where they landed at Fortuna Bay.  We sailed these same seas and I have no idea how Shackleton found South Georgia, let alone Fortuna Bay – it would have been like searching for the proverbial needle in a hay stack. Once they landed at Fortuna Bay, cold, tired, and starving, they then traversed the frozen land (it was winter) and found their way to Stromness.  From here they mounted a rescue party and went back to rescue the men waiting on Elephant Island without a single loss of life.

Rainbow over Fortuna Bay

As we made our way up to the mountain pass through which we would get to Stromness, a perfect rainbow arched over our ship in the bay. At the top, the fierce wind was was strong enough to knock you down.  Approaching Stromness, an old whaling station, we saw our first herd of reindeer, which had been introduced at the turn of the 20th century as game for hunting.  The reindeer are considered a nuisance and will also be eradicated as part of the rat eradication program described earlier.

Where’s Chris and Chris?

Christina (right) and fellow passenger, Gail, lagging behind
the group as we head for the mountain pass. 

Hiking the rather steep path down into Stromness.

The remains of Stromness whaling station are now home
to a myriad of wildlife: king penguins, fur seals,
elephant seals, and a large variety of birds. 

It was a warm day for the hike, so I wisely decided to
wear lighter clothing rather than the yellow, Quark-issued
parka, which, by the way, was ours to keep.

Grytviken is home today to a small research centre, a museum and it serves as the UK administrative centre for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.  But ghostly remnants of the past are visible everywhere. This was the location of a large whaling station which operated from 1904 to 1966.  Today, all that remains are the rusted out remnants of the equipment and buildings as well as a few shipwrecks in the bay.  At its peak, the size of operations was surprisingly (at least to me) large; sadly, it was hugely successful, with 195 whales taken in the first season alone. The whaling industry of South Georgia grossly overexploited stocks and had cruel methods of killing. According to the South Georgia Heritage Trust, in the whole of the Antarctica region some 1,432,862 animals were taken between 1904 and 1978, when hunting of the larger species ceased. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was taken at South Georgia; it was a blue whale processed at Grytviken in about 1912, with a length of 33.58 meters.

South Georgia Museum in Grytviken

The South Georgia Museum at Grytviken offered a glimpse into the past with displays covering a variety of subject areas such as the discovery of the island, the sealing industry, maritime and natural history, as well as the 1982 Falklands War.

Dahlia (from Toronto) is standing below
a wandering albatross at the entrance of the museum.

Shackleton’s grave is found in the cemetery at Grytviken.  On November 27, 2011, the ashes of Frank Wild who was Shackleton’s “right hand man” were interred on the right hand side of Shackleton’s grave. We paid our respects and homage to these courageous explorers of the past with a toast at their graveside.

Shackleton’s grave

Engraved on the back of Shackleton’s grave,
is a quote by Robert Browning:
“I hold that a man strive to the uttermost
for his life’s set prize.” 

On our final day in South Georgia, we awoke to brilliant sunny skies and calm seas which made our trip to Gold Harbour all the more memorable.  We visited another colony of king penguins – about 25,000 breeding pairs in total, and a much smaller colony of Gentoo penguins – about 300 breeding pairs in total.  Elephant seals dominated the beach landscape.  These huge, blubbery animals were quite a sight to observe.  It took an enormous amount of energy for them to move their bodies a few feet before they would collapse in seeming exhaustion.  Similarly, they sparred vigorously and often violently with one another for a few minutes, only to suddenly collapse onto the sand unable to sustain their effort any longer.  It was actually quite comical to observe.

Fur seal tangled in a blue fishing net. Our guides tried to get the
net off the seal, but didn’t succeed; the little guy
kept running away frantically.

 Elephant seals on the beach with king penguins in the background.

Molting king penguins.

Molting king penguin up close.

Video:  Elephant seals sparring

Southern giant petrols patrolled the beaches in search of feeding opportunities. One such opportunity presented itself as a king penguin inadvertently exposed her egg allowing a quick thinking and quick moving petrol to swoop in and knock the egg away from its mother before proceeding to crack open the egg and eat the contents.

King penguin checking its egg.  

I found it interesting how we humans seem to be emotionally attached to the penguin and not sympathetic at all to the needs of the petrol.  He has to eat too, you know.

As the day progressed the weather deteriorated raising concerns that we might miss our final excursion planned at Cooper Bay, located at the southeast extremity of South Georgia.  Luckily we were able to visit this location, both on land and via zodiac cruise, affording us a rare close up view of a macaroni penguin colony, as well as the chinstrap penguin, so named because of a thin black line below its chin.  The kayakers were even able to get out for a second time to explore the rocky shoreline.  The color and formations of the rocky cliffs were outstandingly beautiful.

Macaroni penguin

Chinstrap penguin

We caught our first glimpse of ice bergs just before we left South Georgia as our ship entered the Drygalski Fjord which was shrouded in mist and low lying fog.  A sudden blizzard added to the mysterious landscape.  We lamented the poor visibility that prevented us from seeing majestic glaciers and ice capped mountains, shadows of which we could detect beyond the fog.  Just as we reached the end of the fjord, miraculously the fog lifted to reveal the true beauty of the fjord.  This was a taste of what was to come.

Drygalski Fjord

Category: Antarctica
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5 Responses
  1. Marc says:

    Wow what an amazing tour! Really impressive, both pictures and videos! Great work guys (although it’s more pleasure than work I’m sure!) I think I even saw Austin Powers in there – second video about 3 minutes and 50 seconds in! If you saw the movies, you’ll know what I mean!


  2. Jolana and Kaj says:

    I so love Penguins – this is AMAZING!!!


    • chris says:

      Hey Jolana!

      It was amazing to just sit down, wait patiently, and have their curiousity draw them to you… just glad we didn’t get pooped on!!! I could have watched them for hours!


  3. Angus says:

    More penguin? At least you got your fill of them for a lifetime. Pretty amazing how they just stroll by the battling sea lions without even blinking (can penguins blink?)

    Love the photos and videos, looks like an amazing experience.

    • christina says:

      You’re absolutely right – I don’t think I need to see another penguin for a while 🙂 And yes, penguins do blink – sometimes tricky business getting a picture of them with their eyes open!