Territory number: 202 (South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands)
When? December 2018 coming from the Antarctic Peninsula going on to the Falkland Islands
How? Expedition ship
‘When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.’
Ernest Shackleton, South: The last Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance
Now across the Scotia Sea, the eastern end of the Drake Passage, following Shackleton’s route, but thankfully in a much larger vessel. Thankfully also, the weather is mild, the sky is blue (though we’re trying to outrun some snow clouds all day) and the swell is running in the right direction.
The crew do their best to keep us entertained, encouraging us to run around the ship pursuing whale sightings (imaginary or otherwise) and then, as they peter out, lauding the antics of the sea birds wheeling in the ship’s wake. There are also a series of Antarctic themed lectures. Naturalist, Matty is one of the most infectiously enthusiastic presenters. He’s from Fareham originally, but now has pan galactic accented English, promoting his offerings by referring to his 85 year old granny’s gradings. ‘Pinnipeds (seals) are ranked presentation number 3’, he explains over the intercom. I think this is a positive.
Another balmy day, at six degrees Celsius, though another long one, with an open, gentle sea, the odd giant petrel or black browed albatross overhead and humpbacks alongside. There are more mandatory briefings (there’s a register) and bio securing in preparation for tomorrow’s landings on South Georgia. It all helps to keep us busy. Much is said about the danger of fur seals in the breeding season. The fur seal population was almost wiped out by sealers in the early twentieth century, but they have come back with a vengeance. It is believed that the fur seal population is now almost fully recovered to its nineteenth Century levels. – they are said to be fast and aggressive and prone to bite. I’m not as keen to go ashore now as I was. Though South Georgia is billed as The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth.
We are woken at 6 (which is actually 5 as the clocks have gone forward an hour) to find we have reached South Georgia and the ship is entering the stunning aquamarine Drygalski Fjord, waterfalls, razor peaks and glinting glaciers. This is reputedly where James Cook first set eyes on the island.
The wind is blustering at 60 miles per hour and it’s a struggle to stay upright and enjoy the views; the bow is off limits. Unsurprisingly, this morning’s landing at Cooper’s Bay is off (including, sadly, the macaroni penguins) and we are motoring on to look for more sheltered spots. Appropriately, the headland is named Cape Disappointment (to reflect James Cook’s mood when he realised, he had not after all, reached the South American continent).
The weather calms and we are finally decanted at Gold Harbour, one of the island’s iconic viewing spots. There are fifty thousand king penguins, adults and chicks nestling under an azure sky, bit parts are played by elephant seals and fur seals and the whole is framed by mountain peaks and a tumbling glacier. The king penguins are more dignified than the comical gentoos, who still make their presence known, waddling through from the tussocks behind the beach. The air is alive with noise -the fluffy brown king penguin chicks, puffed up balls that are often larger than their parents, whistle, the adults hum like electric grid stations and the elephant seals make farting noises.
Making our way westwards along the north coast. Another iconic spot today – St Andrew’s Point. We hike over grassy hillocks, terminal moraine and through a rushing river, to a vantage point on a ridge. Here we look down on 400,000 pairs of birds assembled in piano keyboard rows, a cacophony of noise and splendour. The king penguins are at all stages of the 14-month breeding cycle. Groups of chicks clamour for food – it’s a long time for a chick to evade predators whilst waiting hopefully, beak ever at the ready, for his parents to bring him something to eat. Giant petrel line up to sail down the river, bobbing along and then skittering into groups of astonished penguins, huge wings held aloft.
On the open grass areas, the fur seals indulge in mock battles and sexual foreplay. The males of both the elephant and fur seal species are mainly the beta boys – most of the alphas have had their wicked way and left for sea, so the betas are doing their best with their leavings. There are continuing skirmishes with the younger females who have not yet mated. The air reeks of fur seal musk.
In the afternoon Grytviken, where we toast Ernest Shackleton with whisky. His epic and aborted voyage to Antarctic ended up with him and five other men traveling from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island by life boat to get help for his crew in 1922. He arrived on the wrong side of South Georgia and had to climb the unexplored mountains of the interior to reach a whaling station to get help. Shackleton died of a heart attack on his return to South Georgia, preparing for another expedition, and is buried in the Grytviken graveyard. To be honest, I’m not clear why he was so venerated, as none of his four expeditions seems to have been very successful.
More superb mountain scenery, low snow-capped peaks and glaciers- sadly receding fast. Over scree, trying to keep an eye out for the ten thousand very excitable fur seals, each trying to protect their own five square metres of territory. There are many more males in this area, the alpha seals boisterously pursuing those errant females in danger of being lured away from their harems. They’re giving the penguins a hard time, charging through their ranks and scattering them, as they scrap. (I would say sending them flying, but they can’t.) Matty is leading the way, acting as the seal whisperer. ‘It’s ok old chap, we’re just going past’.
There are larger numbers of adolescent king penguins here, looking oddly ragged as they moult, brown fur, hanging on in patches, and revealing the glorious black white and yellow beneath. It’s only bright orange when they are fully mature. Swimming, in the many small pools or the sea, is a popular pastime for the penguins – the sea is not just a source of food. It’s single file again, into the water, sliding in on their stomachs, and paddling along in a tight flock by the water’s edge, (it’s called a raft) until the inevitable fur seal makes an appearance and they splash back to shore with significantly less decorum.
Today, the weather is playing with us again. We’ve been blown out of the Bay of Isles and past Bird Island, sadly no albatross nests then, and are heading for the Falklands early. They’ve told us to batten down the hatches. Christmas dinner is served this evening – which is too European in my book- but hey by then I’m surviving on sea sick pills and an injection anyway.
South Georgia is an island in the southern Atlantic Ocean that is part of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
It is considered part of the Antarctic, even though South Georgia Island is not part of the Antarctic continent, as it lies below the Antarctic convergence, which is the hydrologic boundary between the colder waters of the Antarctic and the warmer waters of the Atlantic. The South Georgian mountains are part of the Andes chain that does a hairpin loop from the bottom of South America back to the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. The climate is colder in South Georgia than that at other similar latitudes, due to the prevailing currents, which force cold water from Cape Horn up and around the islands.
The Commissioner of South Georgia is also the Governor of the Falkland Islands.
South Georgia is 167.4 kilometres long and 1.4 to 37 km wide and rises to Mount Paget at 2,934 metres.
The main settlement is Grytviken. A small number of scientists and support personnel maintain British Antarctic Survey stations here, on King Edward Point and at Bird Island, off the northwest tip of the island, and constitute the island’s only inhabitants other than two museum staff at Grytviken who are semi-permanent residents.
James Cook made the first landing on South Georgia in 1775, naming it after King George III. It was primarily used as a whaling station between 1905 and 1966.
Argentina has claimed South Georgia, along with the Falkland Islands, since 1927. They call the island “San Pedro”. Their primary claim is based on proximity to Argentina. They have never had any permanent outpost on the island and their claim is only recognized by a few neighbouring countries in South America. During the 1982 Falkland Islands War, Argentina sent troops to South Georgia.
South Georgia Island is the most important penguin and seabird breeding area in the world. Millions of penguins can be found in colonies around the island. King and Gentoo penguins are especially populous. There are millions of other seabirds which inhabit the island as well including albatrosses,skuas, petrels, terns, and gulls. There are also two endemic species: the South Georgia Pipit (the southernmost songbird in the world) and the South Georgia Pintail.
The island currently receives about 5,000 visitors per year, excluding military, shipping and science personnel. There is no landing strip on South Georgia, so all visitors have to come by boat. This makes it one of the least visited territories on Earth.
To see more of my photos of South Georgia, visit this page.