South Georgia is a crescent-shaped island around 1300 miles east of Cape Horn and almost the same distance northeast of Antarctica. Over 50% of South Georgia is covered by ice and permanent snow. It has more than 150 glaciers. In the 18th century, sealers were attracted to the island to hunt fur seals and elephant seals. Then at the start of the 20th century, the whalers arrived and established shore stations for a second destructive industry - whaling. The wildlife of South Georgia is finally protected, and science has become the principal activity on the island. South Georgia has some of the greatest and most approachable concentrations of wildlife in the world. In summertime it's home to huge colonies of penguins, more than half the world population of elephant seals, 95% of the world population of fur seals, and it has the largest number of Wandering Albatross in the world. The whale population is finally showing regeneration, albeit slow, after 60 years of brutal exploitation.
22 Dec 2005, Morning
Salisbury Plain, Bay of Isles
Land ahoy! Weather is a bit cooler and snowy but we don't care ... we're gonna see King penguins today! Zodiacs dropped us off amongst a large colony of Antarctic Fur Seals who've taken up residence at the front of the entire beach. The males are pretty aggressive right now as they're protecting their harem girls, and even us tourists are seen as potential harem thieves. Must walk quickly and carefully to reach the penguin colony behind. The King penguins are absolutely beautiful with a pink strip on their long beak and brilliant golden-yellow plumage on their neck and throat. They're quite large, and have almost human-like expressions and group interaction characteristics. Some small groups stroll along, stopping here and there for a gossip with their mates. A couple walks past, cuddling together and playing all lovey dovey. A newcomer interrupts them, and the male swats him aside as if to say "piss off mate, she's mine, go find your own". A group is chatting, a fight breaks out, and 2 or more penguins have a flipper slapping match. It's an absolute hoot to watch! We're supposed to stay 5 meters away from any animals we visit, but for the most part the penguins waddle right up and seem as curious of us as we are of them. The yearlings have a thick coat of fuzzy brown down, and in appearance look like a completely different species than their beautiful parents. Most are in various stages of moulting, and are having some tremendously bad hair days. They wander around, come right up, look you up and down, maybe peck at your boot toe a few times, then basically seem to say "no, you're not my mom" and sadly move on to the next person and repeat the process. King penguins lay a single egg, but instead of building a nest, the female holds the egg on her feet under a fold of skin during incubation. Most of the brown yearlings are already weaned as the adults are now sitting new eggs. Once they lose their brown down the yearlings will head to the sea where they'll live for around 6 years until they return to this same land to mate and start their own reproduction cycle.
22 Dec 2005, Afternoon
Prion Island, Bay of Isles
Another shore landing in the midst of fur seals, but this beach is smaller so there's a higher concentration of aggressive males nearby. Group leaders are carrying long sticks in order to chase the big males away that are barking and charging at us. The Antarctic Fur Seal gets its name from the extremely fine dense fur for which the species was ruthlessly hunted. The first sealers arrived in South Georgia in 1786 and by 1825 an estimated 1.2 million pelts had been taken and the Antarctic Fur Seal was nearly extinct. The numbers have grown rapidly in the last 35 years and the population on South Georgia now numbers several million. We quickly crossed the beach and hit the hills where Wandering Albatross are nesting. The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird ... the record is 3.61meters! 4,000 pairs of Wandering Albatross live on South Georgia, but the population is declining at a rate of about 4.5% per year, mostly due to long line fishing. As the baited hooks enter the water, the albatrosses see a free meal, swoop down, seize the bait and are hooked, dragged under and drowned. Albatrosses are slow breeders, taking several years to start nesting and then produce only one chick or fewer per year, so these losses are significantly impacting their population. Wandering Albatrosses don't nest in one big colony, but instead are quite spread out in the hills. I guess when you've a wingspan of 3.6meters you actually do need a bit of personal space! Strangely the birds don't look that big, but when their wings are extended they certainly span wide. Almost looks like their wings are hinged in some way as they seem to fold in once before getting tucked against the bird's body. Back on the ship, we converted our cabin into a "beauty salon" and had a bit of a girlie night. Belinda, the South African, is a beauty therapist and gave Gordie (from Croatia), Lynne (UK) and myself eyelash tints. Didn't expect to be doing that on a ship to Antarctica!
23 Dec 2005, Morning
Fortuna Bay to Stromness Bay
On 10 May 1916, after 17 days in a lifeboat crossing 800 miles of the stormy waters, Shackleton and 5 of his men landed at King Haakon Bay on the west side South Georgia. From there he and 2 men hiked across the island, eventually arriving at Stromness Bay whaling station. This morning we arrived in Fortuna Bay on the east side of South Georgia, and plan to hike overland, hook up with Shackleton's trail, and follow in his footsteps to Stromness Bay. We passed some amazing scenery ... snow covered mountains, glaciers, lakes, horseshoe bays, waterfalls. Even saw a few herds of reindeer, apparently introduced here by Norwegian whalers in the early 1900's. In some places we tromped through lots of snow, and a snowball fight and rage of snow angels broke out. One young fella stripped and went for a quick plunge in a lake ... we're now calling him "Frozen Lake Jake". Cromness Bay eventually came into view, as well as the former whaling station. We were tired after hiking only 5 hours; we could only imagine what a sweet sight that would've been for Shackleton after hiking 36 hours. Somewhat eerie to see the old abandoned buildings, but nice to see that the place that once decimated the whale and seal population has become an animal sanctuary of sorts. Penguins waddle everywhere and the shores are lined with fur and elephant seals of all sizes and ages. Saw tons of baby fur seals on the beach. Their cry sounds just like a baby sheep. Oh my God, they're so cute! And curious too ... they wander right up, and with the most beautiful big brown eyes seem to beg for you to take them home. I'm sure I'm not the first who's contemplated smuggling one onboard.
23 Dec 2005, Afternoon
Grytviken, Cumberland Bay
South Georgia is famous for whales, yet they're now rarely seen in its waters as the whale population was all but destroyed by 60 years of intensive hunting. The first whale to be killed at South Georgia was in 1894. Grytviken was established as the first shore-based Antarctic whaling station in 1904. The first years of whaling were extremely wasteful. Sometimes so many carcasses were brought in that only the best blubber was stripped before they were cast adrift. The shores were littered with rotting carcasses and piles of whitening bones. Whale oil was traditionally used for lighting, lubrication, leather tanning and various other byproducts. The Southern Elephant Seal was also hunted, their blubber processed and oil used in much the same way as whale oil. Bones and meat were processed into meal, known as guano, and marketed for fertilizer and food supplements for farm animals. Whaling ended at Grytviken in 1965 simply because the whale stocks had been exhausted. 40 years later, Grytviken is now a pretty little settlement nestled at the bottom of a truly stunning valley and mountain range. The former whaling station has been cleaned of asbestos and converted into a museum. We started our trip ashore with a visit to the cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton was laid to rest in 1922, having suffering a fatal heart attack during a third unsuccessful Antarctic expedition. We made a special bourbon toast to Shackleton, which would've been quite sentimental had a nearby elephant seal not chosen that particular moment to let out a very loud burp, sounding quite similar to a big fart, that unfortunately ruined the seriousness of the moment. From there we walked through sunbathing elephant seals and had lots of time to wander around the former whaling station. Big drums are still standing, rusty now, but where whale and seal oil, bone and guano were formerly stored. Former whaling ships sit in the harbour. Big chains used to haul in the whale carcasses lie rusting on the shores. It was very eerie to wander around the place ... felt more like we were walking through a graveyard than a museum, and each step brought to us another visual reminder of the terrible slaughter that occurred here. After dinner on the ship, we returned ashore to sing Christmas carols in the Grytviken church, built here in 1913. The setting was lovely - little country church, lit only by candles (which unfortunately was insufficient lighting to read the song words!), beautiful tree and Christmas decorations. The first verse of The First Noel, however, wasn't at all pleasing on the ears and drove some of us outside where we wandered while they sang.
24 Dec 2005, Morning
St. Andrew's Bay
Have another date with King penguins. Apparently there are 400,000 pairs here ... 400,000 males + 400,000 females + 400,000 babies = 1.2 million penguins! Have finally figured out that if you simply sit and relax, the penguins come wandering over to investigate you, so close in fact that sometimes you couldn't even take a photo if you wanted to! Again we observed more of their strangely human-like social characteristics: the cuddling, the chatting, the fighting. They're a real delight to watch and so beautifully marked and wonderfully photogenic. Saw another small group of reindeer. Where else could you possibly see millions of penguins, elephant seals, fur seals, reindeer, and spectacular snow-capped mountains in the same frame? I cannot grasp the sheer volume of penguins here, from beautiful adults to funny looking juveniles in their thick brown down coats. The penguin colony stretches on and on into the horizon. Quite the noise ... and quite the pungent odor! Saw one poor fella with a big bleeding gash on his throat. He was likely attacked by a leopard seal, their biggest predator in the water, and likely won't make it ... down here one sees nature at its best and worst. Passed hundreds (or was it thousands?) of elephant seals when we walked back along the beach ... real sunbathing beauties.
24 Dec 2005, Afternoon
We're off in the zodiacs again, this time to investigate Gold Harbour - home of the Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross. They build their nests in the tall tussock grass that lines the hills. They have the strangest cry, sort of like a mournful cat. There are fur seals here as well, but they're nesting in the hills, which is a long way from their normal beach residence. You can sure tell they have a high "krill" diet (a shrimp-like sea creature). Krill are a bright pink color ... and the fur seal poo seen in the hill is a pretty bright pink as well! There are some King penguins here as well, and tons of elephant seals of varying size lining the shore. Some of the juvenile males, with big bulbous noses just starting to form, are practicing fighting techniques where they rear up, ram and bite each other on the throat. Full grown adult males are rarely seen on land this time of year as they're out in the ocean feeding. They can grow to 4.9meters and weight up to 4 tons! Harems average 70 females and the "beachmaster bull" fiercely defends them against other bulls. Personally I prefer the adorable big-eyed elephant seal ladies and pups. Sure, they make rude burping noises, don't smell very good, but I think they're lovely. After all the rich meals I've been eating, compliments to the ship's excellent chef, I'm starting to closely resemble one of these blubbery babes!
25 Dec 2005, Morning
Seems strangely ironic that my sisters in Calgary are experiencing 20°C temperatures - above zero that is - and a brown Christmas when I, the one who doesn't like cold weather, am headed to Antarctica, conceivably the coldest place on the planet! Arrived at Cooper Bay this morning, home of the Macaroni penguin. I had no clue there were so many different kinds of penguins down here! Did the usual "running the gauntlet" to get through the fur seal lined beach, then climbed up a steep hill to observe the penguins. They have bright yellow feathers starting in the middle of their forehead that sweep out along the side of their face. They kinda look like a Rockhopper penguin except with more yellow feathers. They also have eggs right now, but build nests and sit or lie on their eggs in more typical bird fashion. We were lucky to catch a quick glimpse of an egg as one bird stood up to stretch. My favorite chef outdid himself today, serving an amazing 7-course Christmas Lunch. There's a wonderfully festive feeling on the ship - the dining room staff are all wearing Santa hats, Christmas trees and all public rooms are brightly decorated, Christmas tunes are playing. The university students came prepared and presented everyone with a handmade origami star with a Christmas wish inside.
25 Dec 2005, Afternoon
Drygalski Fjord / Larsen Harbour
After lunch, the Captain took us for a little cruise down Drygalski Fjord. Since we're doing a nice slow pace, he even allowed access to the front bow which is normally off-limits while the ship is under way. Belinda and I thought it would be really cool to take some photos out on the bow. "Cool" was definitely the right word! Within seconds the icy wind had us scrambling back inside to bundle up in outdoor gear. The scenery here is fantastic - snowcapped mountains rise almost straight out of the sea, and glaciers run straight in. Coming to a dead-end glacier at the end of the fjord, we turned around, practically spinning on a dime (well done Captain), then took a side detour through Larsen Harbour, a very narrow channel branching off the fjord, for more stunning scenery. Mulled wine was served, as well as cakes and pastries for anyone who could possibly stuff more food down their throat, and from there we left South Georgia and headed back into open water for our journey to Antarctica.
26 Dec 2005
Rougher waters returned last night so everyone was back to taking seasick tablets. What a lousy thing to do on Christmas. Thank god I have a stomach of steel. Today's another sea day as we head to Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands. With lectures like "The Geology of Antarctic Landforms" and "Lichens" we seemed to be scraping the bottom of the entertainment barrel, but a lecture on "Seals and Sealions" and Part 2 of the Shackelton film saved the day. We were all watching "Whale Rider" after dinner when there was an announcement from the bridge that a pod of whales had been spotted. The film was immediately stopped and everyone rushed out on deck. It was too dark to see much of the whales themselves, other than the occasional quick glimpse of a back or tail, but all around the ship you could see the steamy blow of around 30 different Fin whales as they surfaced for air. Fin whales are the second largest whale, and very sleek and fast, called the "greyhound of the ocean". Everyone was freezing as we had run out of the lecture hall with no jackets, but it was such a magical moment that no one wanted to leave. Instead, like a group of penguins, we all huddled close together for warmth! Eventually the pod of whales moved off into the distance and we resumed our course. This encounter has registered as one of the most special memories of the trip.
27 Dec 2005
Another typical day at sea, but we're seeing lots of icebergs and pack ice today. Our "Little Red Ship" as she's called, slowed down and meandered her way through, doing a few sidetracks and detours when she reached areas where the ice was too thick to pass through. The clear blue sky and full bright sun has created a world of blue around us. The icebergs range from brilliant white to amazing shades of deep blue, and have been carved into beautiful shapes and designs. We saw some cute little penguins slowly float by on a large sheet of pack ice, and a few sleeping seals as well. Watched the end of the Shackelton film, but otherwise spent most of the day on deck simply watching the scenery go by. Watched "March of the Penguins" after dinner. We're disappointed that we won't get deep enough into Antarctica to see the film's featured Emperor penguin ... but we're still happy to have seen lots of their closely resembled cousins, the King penguin.
"South Georgia will be remembered as journey's end for a great British polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton; and that alone is enough to ensure it a place in history."