Friday, December 25, 2015

Stunning South Georgia (Retrospective from November, 2015)

When I signed up for our cruise on the MV Ushuaia, I confess that I really only knew two things about South Georgia.  I knew that the Falklands War in 1982 started when Argentina invaded South Georgia, and that Ernest Shackleton and his men had sailed a life boat across the open South Atlantic to safety on South Georgia in 1917.  Reading up on the island while on board, and listening to the lectures from Monika and our biologists, I realized that South Georgia has other claims to fame and infamy.  It was the centre of Southern Ocean whaling until 1965, playing a huge part in the devastation of the populations of southern right whales and blue whales.  It is also, now that whaling is a thing of the past, perhaps the most important and largest seabird nesting site in the world, featuring prominently in BBC nature documentaries such as Frozen Planet and Life of Birds. 
King penguins at Right Whale Bay
As we steamed across the huge expanses of the southern ocean which separate South Georgia from the Falklands for three entire days, I settled into a somewhat lethargic routine involving lots of time in my bunk, escaping the low-level nausea of mild seasickness by sleeping, reading and listening to podcasts.  It was only on the third day that I finally felt more myself and went out on deck in unseasonably fine weather and calm seas to watch seabirds and take picture of the approaching bulk of Shag Rock, the first outlier of South Georgia.  Finally, on the morning of Monday, November 2nd, we woke up to find ourselves at anchor off the beach of Right Whale Bay.  Our original plan had been to land a bit further up the coast at a location that sometimes has macaroni penguins in residence, but the sea had been too rough and the wind was in the wrong direction, so we had proceeded directly to our current location.  The weather was fairly awful, with snow squalls turning gradually into a full blizzard.  We lined up for the Zodiacs and were ferried ashore in groups of 9.  The beach was full of elephant seals lolling about like overstuffed sausages, with the occasional hyperaggressive southern fur seal (actually a kind of sea lion) to keep us on our toes.  Kata, one of our biologists, carried a boat paddle and used it to warn off any fur seals that looked as though they were contemplating a charge at us.  The fur seal males come ashore before the females and try to stake out a territory into which they can entice a harem of females once the females land in a few weeks’ time. 
I am too sexy for this beach
We stepped ashore and almost immediately were confronted by the sight of skuas and giant petrels pecking away at the bloodied corpse of a stillborn elephant seal pup.  Our attention, however, was diverted by our first king penguins wandering by along the beach.  They look a lot like a smaller version of the emperor penguin, with dramatic orange colouring on their beak and chest.  They waddled by singly or in small groups, often in single file, marching along solemnly past their huge mammalian neighbours.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the penguins; they make the most perfect photographic subjects.  Eventually we wandered a bit further along the beach toward the distant rookery where juvenile king penguins in their brown juvenile plumage, looking as though they were wearing their grandmother’s fur coat, were gathered in huge throngs for safety while their parents were out fishing for their lunch.  We couldn’t get very close to the rookeries, but from a distance the sheer numbers of birds, many thousands of juveniles and adults, was awe-inspiring.  A fin whale skeleton lay on the beach, its bleached bones a mute testament to long-ago whaling activities.  We filed back onto the Zodiacs a couple of hours later, feet frozen in our rubber boots and heads spinning with the overstimulation of so many sights, sounds and smells.
Sort of a king penguin Abbey Road cover
After a hearty lunch of chicken, pea soup and a delectable dessert of dulce de leche-based cake, it was time to sort through hundreds of photos, selecting the best shots, before heading off for our afternoon trip to Prion Island, a tiny offshore island where wandering albatrosses, the endemic South Georgia pipit, southern giant petrels, light-mantled sooty albatrosses, fur seals, elephant seals, skuas and gentoo penguins all compete for space.  It’s one of the few places on earth where tourists can easily see wandering albatrosses nesting, and landing parties are limited in size to fifty, so we split into two groups of 44.  There are only two boardwalked paths to follow, and we did a pretty good job of completely filling the boardwalks wherever a juvenile wandering albatross, almost a year old, sat on the ground, looking enormous and very Ugly Duckling-esque with their fluffy immature plumage.  Their parents have been tracked flying as far as the coast of Brazil in search of fish to feed their offspring, a week-long round trip.  Prion Island is one of the few islets off South Georgia never to have been infested with rats from whaling ships, so it is a safe place for ground-nesting birds such as the wandering albatross to nest.  As well, a number of South Georgia pipits, fairly unremarkable-looking birds, made an appearance, flittering around from bush to bush.  There were dozens of giant petrel juveniles interspersed among the albatrosses, some of them practicing take-offs and landings in the biting wind.  Skuas, looking predatory and very velociraptor-like, sat in pairs on the snow-covered grass. 
Juvenile wandering albatross on Prion Island

Down on the beach fur seals competed aggressively for space and Kata had to get very fierce and scary indeed with one particularly truculent male.  Some of the elephant seals had day-old newborn pups, and skuas were pecking away at them to remove the last bits of placenta.  On the beach gentoo penguins, my favourite species, waddled past the fur seals on their way to and from the water, sweeping their stubby flightless wings far behind their torsos for balance as they walked.  On our way back to the ship, I managed nearly to fall into the ocean getting out of the Zodiac in a heavy swell, ending up on my backside back in the Zodiac.  I had neglected the cardinal rule of quickly getting both feet up onto the side of the Zodiac before putting a foot onto the ship.  On the bright side, though, putting the insoles from my hiking boots into the rubber boots kept my feet much warmer than they had been during the morning.  That night, after a hearty meal of lasagne, we relived the excitement of the day’s landing in the lounge before turning in early to enjoy a night of deep, refreshing sleep in a calm anchorage.  I felt as though the main course of our Antarctic expedition had begun.
Juvenile king penguin rookery

Our second day on South Georgia, November 3rd, began with a landing at Salisbury Plain, the so-called Serengeti of the South.  As we lined up for our Zodiacs to go ashore, I realized that there were three tourists dressed in penguin suits:  Ricky and Renee, an American-Malaysian couple on their honeymoon, and Jenny, a Canadian oilsands engineer.  We found ourselves in king penguin heaven, a huge nesting colony filling most of the land area of the beach.  There were of course elephant seals in huge harems, as well as preening fur seals, and Antarctic terns wheeled in great numbers in the air.  The endemic South Georgia pintail duck was well represented on the various meltwater streams that cut the beach at regular intervals, necessitating muddy river crossings or long detours.  But overwhelming our senses were the king penguins by the tens of thousands, many walking in single file to or from fishing expeditions in the ocean.  Thousands were moulting, standing apart from the crowd as they flapped their wings in irritation at what must have been an itchy experience.  
Perfect fur coats
Tens of thousands of juveniles, almost a year old, stood in huge aggregations, some of them coming right up to us in curiousity.  They cawed furiously for their parents, and Terri and I were amazed that they could find each other in the cacophony of penguin calls.  Here and there a penguin skeleton littered the beach, victims of stillbirth or skua attack or starvation.  It really was overwhelming, and after a while I stopped taking photos and just squatted down and watched the penguins come up to us within touching distance and stare at us.  I had the same feeling as I had had twenty years before with mountain gorillas in Zaire, that I was intruding into their living room with my camera.  Eventually we pulled ourselves away to return to the ship, sated with the sensory overload of too many penguins in one place.
Ruins of Stromness whaling station
After lunch and picture downloading and sorting, it was time for a different sort of landing in the afternoon.  We sailed down the coast to Stromness, one of the whaling stations that once dotted the shoreline of South Georgia.  Monika had given us a lecture on the history of whaling in the South Atlantic, and I was amazed (and somewhat horrified) at how widespread the use of whale products was in foods, industrial processes and even tennis racquet gut until the 1960s.  Stromness had been a Norwegian station until the abandonment of South Atlantic whaling in 1964, and now lies abandoned and in ruins, with warning signs keeping us 200 metres away from the shattered buildings.  There is both a physical danger, from winds sending scrap metal flying through the air, and a biological hazard from the asbestos used to insulate the buildings.  We landed on the beach in another driving snowstorm and set off inland, glad to stretch our legs and walk an appreciable distance for the first time since Port Stanley.  A glacial valley led inland from the ruins, between glaciated peaks, and along the path small, hardy gentoo penguins strolled along.  
Gentoo on a mission, Stromness
Gentoos, despite their comical appearance and small size, are the hardiest mountaineers of the penguin world, and often establish colonies inland in order to avoid competition for space with king penguins, elephant seals and fur seals.  We followed one individual for a long way; he was completely unfazed by our presence, and despite his tiny legs and waddling gait, he set a pace that was barely slower than our own.  Eventually we gave up the pursuit, as the gentoo colony appeared much further from shore than we felt like walking.  On the way back we passed skua couples setting up nesting sites, a few more gentoos and (of course) elephant seals, a single outsized male keeping an eagle eye over the much smaller females of his harem in case a rival male should suddenly appear.  Pintails were everywhere, swimming in the meltwater ponds.  A huge steel anchor lay on the beach, a still-life memento to the impermanence of human endeavour.
Walking up into the hills behind Stromness
This whaling station has historic connotations to do with Shackleton, as it was here, in 1917, that Shackleton and his companions completed their 36-hour dash over the island in search of help from the whalers.  Looking up into the snowy mountains, I was once again impressed by their speed, determination and mental toughness, crossing unknown mountains with no equipment in a do-or-die mission.  That night at dinner, we spotted our first icebergs floating past on the currents from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Terri, Alejandro the biologist and the MV Ushuaia
Our third full day on South Georgia began after a restless night of steaming around, as prevailing heavy winds prevented the captain from finding a calm anchorage anywhere along the coast.  We departed early (8 am) for a landing at Fortuna Bay.  It was in some ways my favourite landing site, enclosed by some of the most rugged scenery seen so far.  There were, of course, National Geographic quantities of fur seals, elephant seals and king penguins all over the beach.  The fresh-fallen snow blanketing everything (it was, of course, another driving blizzard) lent an air of drama and photographic contrast to everything.  There were skuas nesting everywhere, giant petrels scavenging dead elephant seal pups, gentoos climbing high above the beach up steep couloirs and then tobogganing down, king penguins sauntering around in large groups like bus tourists on a Florida beach.  
Elephant seal love
As we returned to the boat, Terri and I saw a male elephant seal holding down one of his (relatively) tiny mates with a flipper.  Eventually he decided to mate with her, and we watched, captivated, like voyeur zoologists, as he had his way with her.  As soon as it was over, she scooted free, moving with surprising speed for such a big animal, probably relieved to have escaped.  Again I felt as though David Attenborough should have been narrating the morning’s proceedings.

As our Zodiac got close to the ship, an unmistakeable aroma filled the air.  “Barbecue!  It’s a parillada!”  And sure enough as we came around the stern, we could see the kitchen staff gathered around a huge grill lashed to the portside railings of the ship.  We started with sausages as an appetizer in the lounge, and then moved to the main course, huge slabs of grilled beef, at the lunch table.  I ate until I thought I might possibly explode; I love Argentinian beef!  By the time we had finished our delicious dessert, we had steamed into Grytviken harbour.  Grytviken had once played host to three separate whaling stations (two Norwegian and one Scottish), and is now the capital of South Georgia, inhabited by the couple who administer the entire archipelago and a handful of British scientists.  After two and half days of dreadful weather, suddenly the skies cleared and the sun glinted on the thick blanket of fresh snow that covered everything.  While our passports were being stamped (with a neat entry stamp featuring penguins), we listened to the wife of the First Family talk about the huge effort being made to exterminate every single last rat on the entire archipelago.  It’s too early to tell yet, but the first indications are that there are no rats left alive anywhere.  If that is true, it’s great news for nesting seabirds.  There are currently 55 million birds nesting on South Georgia and its outlying islands; in the absence of rats (which prey on the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds like pipits, pintails and wandering albatrosses), that number could grow fairly rapidly to a mind-boggling 180 million.  Several of our fellow passengers were impressed enough with the project to donate to the charitable trust doing the restoration work.

Terri and the Boss, Grytviken
We were eventually released to go ashore, and we spread out along the beach and through the remains of the whaling station (which, unlike Stromness, has been cleaned up enough not to be hazardous to visitors).  There is an impressive museum, staffed by a succession of volunteer curators, which has an amazing collection of objects, animals and information about the history of whaling, the Falklands War (which started on South Georgia) and Shackleton (a replica of the lifeboat he sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia lies in one building of the museum).  The current curator, a young Englishman, gave a couple of historic walking tours, but Terri and I tore ourselves away to visit the whaler’s church (where I got to play the organ and toll the bell), write postcards (South Georgia makes good money selling postcards and its own stamps) and take pictures of the elephant seals that now dominate a landscape that was once redolent of death and horror.  We walked out to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave with Oz, the 86-year-old Aussie Antarctic addict and Shackleton fan, and tried to locate the grave of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second-in-command, who was re-buried here five years ago, under the thick snow.  
Finally located under the snow:  The Boss's right hand man
The visit ended with everyone at Shackleton’s grave, drinking a toast to “The Boss” and listening to a very brief speech by Oz.  We were completely happy as we Zodiacked back to the MV Ushuaia, watching the sun play on the fresh snow atop the high peaks lining the fjord.
Peak above Grytviken
November the 5th, our last day on South Georgia, was a great send-off for us.  We finally had a great night of restful sleep in a very calm anchorage, and everyone woke up refreshed.  We got to St. Andrew’s Bay, perhaps the largest king penguin nesting colony in the world, only to find that high winds were driving waves onto an exposed, steep, dissipative beach.  After a brief confab, Monika and Agustin decided that it was too rough to land, but instead we would do Zodiac tours of the coast.  At first we were disappointed, but it quickly became clear that it was a brilliant solution.  
Leopard seal 
We had a completely different view of the animals and birds than we did from the shore, and we had a memorable encounter with a leopard seal who followed our Zodiac, showing us his huge top predator teeth.  An elephant seal swirled around in his own pseudo-Jacuzzi pool, while two other elephant seal males fought a blood-soaked duel on the beach.  
Five tons of elephant seal facing off against another five tons 
We watched giant petrels fishing offshore, and trying to take off with a comic-book series of running steps across the water.  We were surrounded by groups of king penguins fishing, wading ashore or diving into the surf.  We were in our Zodiac with Ivan and Guille, two of the Argentinian photo tour group (although Ivan is a Guatemalan), and it was mesmerizing to watch them trying to take good photos from the bottom of our violently bobbing boat.  Looking at the final results, though, I was impressed at the quality of the photos; of course, if, like Guille, you take 4000 photos in 90 minutes, you should end up with a few good shots.
Giant petrel takeoff run
In the afternoon, after lunch, we started the long sail southwest towards the Antarctic Peninsula.  Yesterday’s sunny weather was a distant memory as we detoured up the Drygalski Fjord, sailing up between towering mountains and hanging glaciers as snow accumulated on the deck and passengers had snowball fights.  We felt very small and insignificant as we got to the head of the fjord and stared up, way up, at the calving face of the glacier.  We slowly turned around and then steamed out to sea, past a series of huge icebergs, headed for Antarctica proper after four unforgettable days of wildlife encounters on the magical island of South Georgia.  It was hard to believe that we had been part of such an orgy of birdlife and mammals.  It was also hard to believe that Antarctica itself could compete with this, making us glad that we had signed up for the full three-week three destination experience.

Iceberg floating past the southeast corner of South Georgia 


  1. This is wonderful Graydon and please let us know about your trip up through Chile etc. I ams o interested to hear about everything.

  2. Graydon, you magnificent bastard! I was regaling my two daughters last night with reminiscences of our grad-school time together (& running your post-grad-school postcards website). My younger (13yo) envied the prospect of an adulthood spent travel-adventuring. Thought I'd look you up on the web this morning, and to my great joy discovered this blog. Cheers!

    1. Norm!! Good to hear from you. I still see the memorial home page from time to time (the one you set up) as it comes up if I Google myself. What are you up to? Are you a prof? I have been teaching high school physics and math for much of the last 9 years and my students now get to hear that I was at grad school with two Nobel Prize winners.