Antarctica: Retracing Shackleton's Journey travel blog

Friday, February 6

Day 10

South Georgia Island - Gold Harbor & Cooper Bay

We spent two days crossing the Scotia Sea from the Antarctic Peninsula to South Georgia Island, a 105 mile long stretch of craggy mountain tops and jagged shoreline. What was once an active whaling industry, manned by young Norwegians until 1960, is now only evidenced by ruined and abandoned factory buildings and dormitories. Looking at a map of elevations and sea depths, it’s apparent that the Andes mountains running down the west coast of South America begin to break up and submerge in an underwater eastwardly spiraling curve at the North Scotia Ridge, which then crests above sea level at South Georgia. These waters are known at the Antarctic Convergence, where the oceans of the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Antarctic all mix to create an environment rich with plankton and marine life. In 1916, Sir Ernest Shackelton and five other men sailed in the life boat The James Caird from Elephant Island across 800 miles of the Scotia Sea to South Georgia, by dead reckoning, in a do-or-die attempt at survival.

Our first landing at South Georgia Island, however, would not be a homage to Shackelton. Rather, we had a 4:00 am wakeup call for a dawn landing at Gold Harbor. This was our introduction to King Penguins, which stand about 3 1/2 feet tall and incubate their eggs and care for their young in brooding pouches of heavy down above their feet. We saw some very comical behavior right away upon landing when four young penguins stopped in their tracks and started batting each other with their wings, just like little boys in line at school who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Mixed in with the King Penguins were Elephant Seals and Fur Seals, who have ears like our California Sea Lions. We learned quickly that, cute and puppy-like as the fur seals appear, they could get very aggressive and start romping at us with teeth snapping. We didn’t turn our backs on them for a second. In the water, though, the fur seals would play in the surf and porpoise as they rode the waves.

We saw, probably, 30,000 pairs of King Penguins at every stage - parents patiently sitting on their egg or warming their chick; Oakum Boys, the fat balls of brown feathers wobbling along looking for parents to feed them; molting Oakum Boys whose yellow feathers were beginning to show on their chests; and molting adults who were sprawled on the beach waiting for their new plumage to grow in before they could go out to sea for the next eight months or so.

We were pretty exhausted from the early 4 am wakeup call, which was really an hour earlier than that because we had to turn our clocks back one hour the night before. So we collapsed in a mid-morning nap, but others went back onto the beach until we sailed at noon.

After lunch, we arrived at Cooper Bay. We were taken on a short zodiac tour of “spaghetti kelp,” long ropes of brown kelp dangling from the rocks and undulating with the rhythmic waves. Every now and then, a little Fur Seal pup would pop up its head from a little bed in the kelp, and we saw a swimming pool full of the little guys frolicking and chasing each other.

From the beach, we went for a “scramble,” which we came to learn means a pathless hike uphill, over slippery rocks and dense tussocks, or clumps of long grass-like patches. Everywhere we looked as we scrambled up the hill we found tiny Fur Seals waiting for the moms to come home and feed them. We even saw a gigantic Elephant Seal humping its way uphill, god knows why.

Our destination was to get a closer look at the Macaroni Penguins. These are smaller than the Kings, more the size of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. They are marked with these tufts of long yellow feathers around their head. They were named by British explorers in the 17th century as sort of a cockney for Italians (Italians eat macaroni, or pasta). Apparently, at that era, it was Italian fashion for men to dye the tips of their hair yellow. Our American song, “Yankee Doodle,” refers to a “dandy,” or a young English gentleman, who tied a (yellow) feather in his cap and called it “Macaroni,” just like these penguins. We got a good view of the Macaroni’s and of the bay, and I was really glad I had my walking stick with me for balance on the scramble downhill.

That evening, we saw Blue Whales as we were sailing away from Cooper Bay. There was at least one mom and calf and another adult. Some of the naturalists thought there may have been twice as many. These are the largest animals that have ever lived, averaging 82 feet in length and 90-144 tons. But there have been individual Blue Whales that measured 100 feet and 196 tons. The naturalists can spot them because of their distinctive double blow, which reaches higher than any other whale.

At dinner, we cruised by some spectacular ice bergs. One formation was like a boulevard between two mile-long tabular blocks, and in between them was an organic form like a rubber ducky. It made me think of something Jeffrey Koon might have made, like his giant “Puppy” topiary in front of the Frank Geary Bilbao museum of modern art. If only I had run upstairs to get my camera!

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