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Photographing the wandering albatross of South Georgia

South Georgia boasts 25 per cent of the world’s wandering albatross breeding population. At the Bay of Isles and Prion Island, the magnificent birds await us.

  • Nov 10, 2015
  • 565 words
  • 3 minutes
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Once a fledgling albatross leaves its nest, it takes five years to return to its birthplace. The wandering albatross, known for its record-holding wingspan (they can reach 3.5 meters long) spends most of its life flying, which costs only a bit more energy than sitting on a nest, returning to land only to find a life partner and breed.

South Georgia boasts 25 per cent of the world’s wandering albatross breeding population and as we head down the island’s east coast towards a nesting ground, the sea is unusually calm. At the Bay of Isles and Prion Island, the magnificent birds await us.

The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust has built a boardwalk here, which seems out of place in this wilderness, but the South Georgia albatross population is declining and the boardwalk is to prevent a smattering of trails being created up to the nesting grounds.

When we get to the viewing platform we are in luck and a seven month old wandering albatross chick is on its nest, made from a mound of grasses and moss. It must wait at least another month before it will be strong enough to fly. This fledgling does not disappoint the photographers, providing a great sequence of poses.

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A young wandering albatross poses for the camera. (Photo: Rob Stimpson)

Following the albatross excitement, our ship heads southward to rendezvous with the New Zealand mountaineering team that we’d dropped off three days earlier at King Haakon Bay on the west side of South Georgia.

We enter the bay with 60 kilometer winds and blowing snow obliterate our views of the beach. One Oceans assistant expedition leader, Nate Small, gives the team a call on the sat phone. They are at the top of a waterfall, where the winds are gusting at 70 kilometers, making it extremely difficult for them to stay upright. Almost 90 minutes pass before they come into view on the beach. A Zodiac is dispatched with the ship’s doctor. A half hour later, they climb up the gangway, greeted by the cheering passengers.

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The mountaineering team arriving at Stromness Beach in a snow storm. (Photo: Rob Stimpson)

The next day, a cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine greet us as we anchor off St Andrews Bay, a complete reversal to yesterday’s weather. Its long c-shaped beach is totally exposed to the ocean. No headlands here to protect it from ocean swell and large waves, but luck is on our side as the wind is taking the day off. We land on the beach, welcomed by 300,000 king penguins and big 3000kg male elephant seals aka, “beach masters”. Each commands a section of the beach, defending its harem against other males.

It is overwhelming. There are birds and mammals everywhere you look. How does one capture this with a camera? Where does one begin? The challenge is overcome quickly; the sound of clicking shutters is a testimony to that. Our time here passes quickly and soon we are sailing down the coast to our next destination.

Rob Stimpson is a Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He is sending dispatches from a One Ocean Expeditions’ Antarctic cruise.

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The St Andrew Bay landscape. (Photo: Rob Stimpson)
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The St Andrew beach dotted with elephant seals and king penguins. (Photo: Rob Stimpson)

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