Travel

Dispatches from Antarctica: South Georgia

  • Dec 10, 2012
  • 758 words
  • 4 minutes
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I am 20,000 kilometres from home. The Southern Ocean stretches out in all directions as we approach the island of South Georgia. This speck of land, rugged with its high craggy snow-covered peaks, sits 1,350 kilometres from Argentina. The weather is unrelenting here — wind, rain, fog and snow make this isolated island an unforgiving place. Only accessible by ship, and with only about one in nine days of “pleasant” weather, you take what you can get. Just over 160 kilometres long, it is a mecca for wildlife. Home to a million nesting pairs of macaroni penguins, four million fur seals and almost a half million king penguins. Four species of Albatross also nest here. There are also brown rats, a not so nice souvenir left over from the long gone sealing and whaling days. These unwelcome rodents have decimated the bird populations by the millions. The most ambitious rat eradication programs anywhere in the world are now underway on South Georgia. This will take a few years to complete—check out at www.sght.org.

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King Penguins out for a walk at Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Photo: Rob Stimpson
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Female fur seal sleeping on the Tussock Grass at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Photo: Rob Stimpson
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Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken, South Georgia Photo: Rob Stimpson
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Moonrise over Stromness Bay, South Georgia Photo: Rob Stimpson

Our first landing is Salisbury Plain — a large beach surrounded by mountains and glaciers, inhabited by 250,000 king penguins and what seems like the same amount of Antarctica fur seals. This is the mating season; the “beach masters,” a.k.a. the male fur seals, guard their territory with a zealous enthusiasm — 400 pounds of fur, flippers and large teeth making sure no one gets close to their harems. We need to run the gauntlet up the beach so we can establish our territory — no easy task. Our naturalist comes across a black melanistic king penguin. The only one here, it made it to YouTube a few years ago.

It is snowing lightly as we arrive, clouds hang low giving the beach a monochromatic look. Tussock grass hides both the penguins and seals up higher, caution must be exercised as to not get too close to the fur seals. The photo opps bombard us — nothing like a quarter of a million penguins all crowded on one beach to inspire some good visuals. About two hours after landing the curtain of cloud lifts revealing the other participants on the landscape: the mountains of South Georgia. The light turns what was a black and white landscape a couple of hours earlier into a canvas of soft pastel colours.

Soon after we are heading into Fortuna Bay, the sky is a stunning ice blue, light winds blowing, we land on a beach with, again, an abundance of wildlife. We are not quite sure what we have done to deserve such weather.

The day ends with a barbeque on the stern deck of the Vavilov at Stromness Bay. This is the place where Shackelton finally arrived after his seventeen-month odyssey in 1916. A full moon rises over the bay putting an end to a perfect day.

We are now headed to Grytviken, the only place on the island with a human presence. The old remains of the whaling station have been dormant for decades — the rusting hulks of boilers and sheet metal buildings slowly disintegrating. Up on a hill, Sir Ernest Shackelton’s final resting place overlooks the mountains of South Georgia. To his men on the ill-fated 1914 Endurance expedition to Weddell Sea, he was known as “the boss.” We explore the museum and church and mail a few postcards from the local post office. Not sure how long it will take to get their destination — no important messages sent here!

We end our stay by a visit to Larsen Bay just off of Drygalski Fiord. This provides us with a look at the three endemic species of birds on South Georgia, a bird called the pipit, the South Georgia Pintail and the South Georgia Shag, a member of the cormorant family. The birders on board are ecstatic to sight and photograph such rarities.

The glacier and mountains of Drygalski Fiord catches the last of afternoon light as we sail out to continue our journey south to Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions.

Rob Stimpson is a professional photographer onboard a cruise to Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions.

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