I’m truly at a loss for words to describe the magnificence that is South Georgia Island. Rugged, remote, pristine, jaw-dropping – I’m running out of adjectives!
Both the Falklands and South Georgia Island are British Territories – part of a group of islands that includes the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is currently administered by the United Kingdom through the Commissioner based in the Falkland Islands. That just means, if anything goes wrong, it’s the UK to the rescue!
The “town” also has a museum, a post office, and a gift shop where you can buy an expensive postcard and have it mailed back home from “the end of the world”.
The entirety of South Georgia Island only has around 18 residents – government officials, scientists and support staff. The island is not permanently inhabited, and the population varies depending on the research or government work being carried out.
South Georgia has a fascinating history. Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous explorers of the 20th century, made his name on the island. In 1914, Shackleton and his crew set out on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, but their ship, the Endurance, was trapped and eventually crushed by ice. Shackleton and his men managed to survive the ordeal and eventually make it to South Georgia, where they trekked across the island to reach a whaling station and get help.
Our Quark Expedition cruise sent zodiacs out during our 4 days in the area. Previously, Colin provided us with an amazing blog post about photographing the wild life on this adventure. We landed at 6 different sites around the island including St Andrews Bay, Right Whale Bay, Salisbury Plain (where there were a gazillion penguins!) Grytviken, Fortuna Bay and Cooper Bay. Let’s take a peek at some of the highlights of each area.
Right Whale Bay – an Ignoble History
Located on the north eastern tip of South Georgia Island, Right Whale Bay is a long thin island with a mountainous spine down the middle. It was an important whaling center in the early to mid-1900s. We had an excellent couple of talks about the whaling industry and whales in general. We learned that by the mid 1950s, many species of whale, including humpback, blue, fin, minke and right whales were close to extinction. The whaling industry died probably due to loss of resources as much as any protests, but thankfully blue and humpback whales especially have recovered and their numbers are increasing well. Minke and right whales are slower to bounce back. Fin whales are starting to recover now. Seals, especially fur seals, were decimated but have recovered. The big problems now are overfishing and climate change – the fight goes on!
Because of strong winds and a few particularly ornery fur seals on the beach, we could only go around in zodiacs and not land. Actually, this was fine and gave us a great vantage point to observe the King Penguins, fur and elephant seals, while petrels skuas, gulls and Antarctic terns flew overhead.
I love the penguins! These tuxedo-clad birds march everywhere in parade-like fashion reminiscent of every David Attenborough documentary you’ve ever seen.
Salisbury Plain, South Georgia
This is a large delta area, very beautiful and expansive with massive mountains in the distance and a huge glacier which drains into the Salisbury Plain. The area contains 40,000 penguin couples plus their chicks from last year. They are almost as large as the adults but still covered in brown “fur” – fluffy feathers of course. They look very cute. We spent an hour and a half walking amongst them all.
There were many male fur seals, all strutting about defending their territory plus some females and their pups. Among all this lay the occasional Elephant seal. OMG these guys are huge and spectacularly ugly, with a long proboscis and huge eyes. They fight quite fiercely, using long 1 inch canines. Their faces, proboscises, head and neck all show scars and some fresh lacerations as a result. But they have thick blubber – 1 1/2 inches – so only very rarely do they get seriously injured. They were basically just lying around sunbathing when we were there. The males are up to 6 times the size of the females – which must make for interesting mating rituals!
The Elephant Seals spend the majority of their days lazing on the beach. There are occasional scraps but mostly, these animals are undisturbed by anyone and leading the life of Riley!
Next morning we woke up in Fortuna Bay, which was one of the last places that Ernest Shackleton found when returning from his disastrous mission in 1915. In fact there’s a 6km hike across a mountain pass that will follow the route that he took to arrive at Stromness Bay where there are the ruins of the old whaling station where Shackleton finally reached safety.
We hung around the Fortuna Bay beach area among many ornery fur seals and even more elephant seals, including males, females and pups.
The young pups are about the size of a fur seal. They only suckle for 3 weeks but gain about 7kg per day! At this point, they are deserted by their mother and must fend for themselves! Apparently, they hang around the beach for a while and then go to sea, where they specialize in deep diving and looking for squid. That’s the life of an elephant seal until they return to shore as mature adults to mate – and beat the living daylights out of each other!
Only 30% of the male elephant seals get to mate and have a harem up to 50 individuals. Males start mating at 3 or 4 years old and only live to an average of 8-10 years.
Gryvtiken – a ghost town?
Next stop: Grytviken, capital of South Georgia Island There were very stringent biohazard testing today because inspectors were coming on board. All along this trip around South Georgia we were required to get tweezers out to ensure there were no seeds or spores stuck in any of the velcro lining of our pants. Our boots had to be spotless and they were dipped into disinfectant solution with every disembarkation to go ashore and again upon our return. It was a very rigid and serious daily ritual!
Once on shore in Grytviken we started our exploration of the “town” at the cemetery where Shackleton and some of his crew mates are buried. Our on-board Scottish historian proposed a toast to Shackleton at his gravesite with some smooth Johnny Walker Red Scotch for all. Shackleton was known to be a womanizer, and his widow declined to have his “cheating” body shipped back to England. She told the seafarers to bury him right there at Grytviken.
Continuing on into the town we discovered the extensive remains of an old ruined whaling station which later operated as a ship repair dock. Interesting old ruins with 2 or 3 shipwrecks in the dock and a surprisingly large “factory where the whales were processed into meat, oil, baleen products and bone meal. Nothing was wasted!
There was a solitary church against a mountainous backdrop. Inside are wooden pews and very modest decoration, as well as the town birth/death registry. The church was less of a religious building and used more for screening movies – they received 3 per season – as well as various celebrations and gatherings.
The town was a grim place. Now it’s all in decay, invaded by terns, a few penguins, elephant seals but mainly fur seals of which there were many. They were in musk so very stinky!
The Grytviken museum had a lot of interesting artifacts including a life sized model of the James Caird, which was the modified life-boat used by Shackleton to get his party from Elephant island to Stromwell bay on South Georgia Island in 1915. The trip was in March and took 17 days. They survived by a combination of ingenuity, creativity and a lot of good luck, and returned to Elephant Island in August to rescue the crew. Fascinating story!
St Andrew’s Bay
In the afternoon we headed to St Andrew’s Bay. This is a large glacial plain, (unfortunately the glacier was hidden by fog), which supports an enormous King penguin colony as well as the usual fur and elephant seals.
Words cannot describe it. It goes on forever and has to be experienced in the flesh. The animals are everywhere for as far as the eye can see. We climbed up one of the many hills to drink it all in – just a dizzying array of King Penguins. We enjoyed at least 2 hours on shore.
While we were waiting for the zodiac back there was a flurry of elephant seal activity including one huge male attempting to mount any willing female in the vicinity – an unbelievable sight to see!
Cooper Bay, South Georgia Island
Just prior to leaving for the Antarctic Peninsula we did a zodiac trip around Cooper Bay, which is on the southern tip of South Georgia Island. It was very beautiful with a low rocky shoreline, lots of kelp and the usual animals. This bay boasts a colony of Macaroni penguins. They are cute, smaller than the king penguins, with bright yellow braids coming from their heads. They stand around in small groups looking very intelligent.
All the usual fur and elephant seals were there but the rocky environment was different and we were treated to a lot more of their water activities.
Everywhere you look, there’s another bird. . .
South Georgia Island also boasts a variety of seabirds, including albatrosses and petrels, that soar over the island’s rugged terrain. A serious birdwatcher with a decent camera would have a wonderful time.
Despite its beauty, South Georgia is not an easy place to visit. The island is incredibly remote and can only be reached by boat or small plane. The weather is also notoriously unpredictable, with strong winds and freezing temperatures. But for those who are up for the challenge, a trip to South Georgia is an adventure of a lifetime. We highly recommend it.
We went with QUARK Expeditions.
If you go: consider November/December – this is spring time in Antarctica when the temperature is warming up, the wilderness is still pristine and the smell is tolerable (100,000 penguins in one place can be putrid in the extreme!)
A King penguin out for a stroll, South Georgia Island.
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