Are you ready to explore the island of South Georgia? Come with us
What is it about penguins that makes people laugh, cry, go weak at the knees and brave crossing the roughest sea in the world to stand in a freezer just to be near them? Everything. They’re funny, loyal, curious, brave and caring. But they’re also much more. Penguins are the marine sentinels of the south.
“By observing the population of penguins, it tells us what’s happening in the ocean,” says Catie Fooley, a young research scientist with Oceanites, a non-profit organisation committed to studying the Antarctic region. “Penguins spend time on land with their chicks so they’re easy to spot.” So how do dedicated researchers like Fooley work out how many penguins there are? They count them.
We’re standing overlooking Fooley’s next mathematical challenge. Speaking above the cacophony of humming, honking, whistling, whirring and squawking is impossible and the stench of “eau de guano” fills the still air like day’s end in a fish market. No one complains. It’s what we’ve come for. My eyes stretch to the ice-tipped mountains framing rolling verdant hills tumbling to the sea. Winding through the tussock grass is a ribbon of black and white, accented with mini sunbursts of gold. It looks like a river. But not of water. This is Salisbury Plain, South Georgia — the largest king penguin colony on the planet.
The Serengeti of the south
South Georgia may not be on everyone’s radar. A wisp of land of unparalleled ruggedness and isolation in the sub-Antarctic waters of the Southern Atlantic, 1300km from the closest hospital, shop or wifi connection, it’s a British overseas territory and summer outpost for a handful of hardy scientists.
Although virtually unheard of in today’s world, its history is blazed across the formidable landscape — in each droplet of water trapped in prisms of electric blue, on gravestones of adventurous souls who perished far from their birthplaces and in the trusting eyes of animals that verged on the brink of extinction. South Georgia was once the centre of southern whaling and sealing and the scene of one of the greatest maritime survival stories ever told.
Speaking above the cacophony of humming, honking, whistling, whirring and squawking is impossible and the stench of “eau de guano” fills the still air like day’s end in a fish market.
After it was put on the map in 1775 by Captain James Cook, who thought the “island of ice” wasn’t “big enough to make a toothpick”, the published account of Cook’s voyage sparked a stampede of seal hunters to the island. When the fur seals were depleted, sealers turned to whaling and started what was to become a massive industry. Between 1904 and 1965 the population on the island peaked at 1500, and 175,000 whales were taken from the South Georgia waters.
Since then it has been a matter of recovery. For the whales. For the penguins. For the seals. For the sea birds. For nature. For this speck in the ocean holds the most wildlife per square metre of any place on earth.
A few days earlier our voyage started in Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, a small picturesque slice of Britain bravely coping with the underlining scars of the 1982 Falklands War. Although not technically the notorious tummy-turning Drake Passage, we cross the Antarctic convergence, with the potential to whip into a “Drake shake”, as the freezing waters of the south meet the warmer northern waters. But Lady Luck sails with us.
The 48-hour crossing on-board One Ocean Expeditions’ Akademik Vavilov, an ice-strengthened research vessel, passes quickly. Between presentations by scientists and historians we stand on deck marvelling at the masters of the southern skies: wandering albatross. With the largest wingspan of any bird, they glide effortlessly alongside the ship, their wing tips creating reflective patterns as they skim the steely water. Petrels and shearwaters follow, our wake bestowing easy pickings of tasty morsels to savour.
While several vessels visit the island, One Ocean Expeditions (OOE) is one of the few companies offering an exclusively South Georgia itinerary. The 14-night cruise gives a possible eight days (depending on conditions) to explore the island. “We try to make two landings each day,” says Boris Wise, our aptly named expedition leader. “But for that to happen, we need to be flexible. Our game plan is guided by nature.”
Managing expectations is one of the hardest parts of his job, but 92 guests from nine countries and ages ranging from 13 to 86 understand. No matter what brings each of us to South Georgia, our lives are now entwined and each moment on shore is one to treasure.
To maintain the pristineness of this fragile environment, before (and after) each landing we go through bio security. Scrub boots, empty pockets, vacuum Velcro and zippers. “Even a tiny seed could change the whole ecology,” says Steve Bailey, an ornithologist who has seen a staggering 67 per cent of the world’s bird species. As a positive sign, we’re privileged to observe the reverse — the result of a giant conservation effort.
“Over the past few years, the largest rat eradication program ever undertaken has been here,” Bailey explains. The approximately AUD 20 million project saw three former air ambulance helicopters with a strategic team (including ground support from OOE) working in rotation to scatter pellets baited with poison over areas where the rats and mice lived. About 95 per cent of the birdlife disappeared as a result of the rodents, which were brought by seafarers.
My eyes stretch to the ice-tipped mountains framing rolling verdant hills tumbling to the sea. Winding through the tussock grass is a ribbon of black and white, accented with mini sunbursts of gold. It looks like a river. But not of water. This is Salisbury Plain, South Georgia — the largest king penguin colony on the planet.
Although it might take decades for a full recovery, now that the island is rat free, bird numbers are increasing at a staggering rate. “Of great significance is the return of the pipit and pintails, both endemic to the island,” Bailey says. The sweet sound of the pipit, the most southerly songbird, adds a refined tone to the South Georgia orchestra and we also spot several pintails bobbing in the shallows, their distinctive yellow beaks juxtaposing the speckled feathers.
Each day brings its own challenges and highlights as we’re immersed in the magnitude and sheer beauty of the island. Weather conditions change faster than a porpoising penguin. Rain, sleet, snow, sun and the greatest enemy — wind. “Katabatic winds are the worst,” Wise explains. They are created by cold air masses coming straight off the glaciers and there’s nothing to stop them. “They’re hard to predict and totally localised.”
But we’re in experienced hands. Captain Beluga has sailed these waters more than any living sea captain. When launching the Zodiacs to go ashore is impossible at one beach, we simply sail to another. One morning, we even manage to land on a beach immortalised in polar history.
In Shackleton’s footsteps
“In my 50 years of research in this region, this is the first time I’ve stood here,” says dual Polar Medal winner and historian, John Dudeney, his words sliced by the wind. Squinting through the driving sleet pounding off my jacket like ball bearings, it’s hard to believe the significance of this scrap of a beach — King Haakon Bay. “This is where Sir Ernest Shackleton landed the James Caird more than 100 years ago,” Dudeney explains.
The Shackleton story is soul-stirring stuff, a maritime miracle that was at every stage against the odds. It was a daring mission to cross the Antarctic continent sea to sea, with the Endurance stuck in ice, a scramble by lifeboats to Elephant Island, followed by Shackleton’s decision to split his crew and take five men with him in the hastily modified lifeboat, navigating 1200km across raging seas with nothing more than a sextant to guide them to South Georgia to seek help. “But even when they landed here, there was another problem,” says Dudeney, pointing to the insurmountable-looking mountains towering above. “Those.”
Although they’d pulled off the near impossible by landing at King Haakon Bay, the whaling stations were on the other side. So, running on what could have only been pure adrenaline, they scaled the glaciers, slid down the icy slopes and battled frostbite and starvation to make the 50km trek to Stromness and safety. A brave feat. The 17-month ordeal was over without any loss of life to 28 men who’d in 1914 answered Shackleton’s recruitment notice stating: “Men wanted for hazardous journey … Safe return doubtful.”
Although virtually unheard of in today’s world, its history is blazed across the formidable landscape — in each droplet of water trapped in prisms of electric blue, on gravestones of adventurous souls who perished far from their birthplaces and in the trusting eyes of animals that verged on the brink of extinction.
A few days later we stand at Shackleton’s final resting place in Grytviken. It’s an evocative scene: a white picket fence around a tiny cemetery amid the rusted derelict industrial machinery of the former whaling station — the hunters and the hunted. Led by Dudeney, we pay respects to Shackleton who, after surviving the ill-fated expedition, returned to South Georgia on another expedition five years later and died of a heart attack. “Here’s to The Boss,” says Dudeney as we clink plastic mugs filled with snifters of whisky. “Shackleton wasn’t a man who did small things. He was a man who reached for his dreams.”
In a way the same can be said for South Georgia. I glance across at two juvenile elephant seals smashing their blubber together in a mock fight, the fur seals clambering over relics that were once the demise of their ancestors, penguins en masse poking around the foreshore. It’s a humbling sight. Protected and free. For this smidgen on a map is a good news story — testament to strict regulations, conservation and planning. This is an island of survival.
Experience South Georgia
Around 165km long, 2–35km wide, South Georgia lies in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately 1300km south-east of the Falkland Islands.
There are no words or pictures that could prepare you for the magnitude of South Georgia; however, a few tips never go astray. A level of agility is required for getting on and off the Zodiacs — there are no docked landings anywhere on the island. To reach the best vantage points, you’ll need to hike over uneven terrain and “manage your ballast” (there are no loos and free peeing is an absolute no-no). All outer layers in the form of top-quality Gill suits and gumboots are provided by OOE. You’ll need good thermals, gloves and a hat. All on-shore activities are guided and walking poles are available. It’s also possible to join the kayaking program (extra cost), if weather conditions play fair, and see the island from water level.
The season for South Georgia runs from late October to late February. First light in October/November is when you’ll see the colossal bull elephant seals fighting over the females, the courting rituals of the seabirds and the king penguin chicks in their brown fluffy down best. In December/January, the days are longer and temperatures slightly warmer. Elephant and fur seal bulls have usually returned to the sea, leaving space for feisty fur seal pups to flex their muscles, and king penguin chicks stand together in large crèches as their parents go fishing. February/March brings the whales to the area and the king chicks are starting to transform into adult feather-hood.
A common quote among the guides is that they can tell if someone has been to South Georgia because you can see it in their eyes. It pares you back to basics and refills you with humility and a child’s sense of wonderment.
South Georgia can only be accessed by ship as part of a guided voyage. One Ocean Expeditions, a 14- or 16-day South Georgia In Depth itinerary (round trip from Punta Arena, Chile, with a flight to Stanley, Falkland Islands, included in the cost) on board the 92-berth Akademik Vavilov. Other Antarctic itineraries that incorporate 2–3 days in South Georgia are available and usually depart from Ushuaia, Argentina. Visitors to the island are strictly controlled (100 in most places and 50 in some) and a code of ethics needs to be adhered to as part of each landing. The only people you’ll see (apart from the curator at the small museum at Grytviken) are your fellow travellers.
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