SOUTH GEORGIA EXPEDITION
Posted on Monday, 4 December 2017
Now that we are back home and I’m reflecting on our adventure to South Georgia I realise it is going to be a challenging task to try and convey just exactly what it’s like to experience a wildlife location that cannot be compared to any other place on the planet.
The magnitude and abundance is on a scale one cannot comprehend unless one has actually been there.
I’m not sure I will be able to do the experience justice so I have decided that, even though the trend now days is to just look at a photograph briefly and then click “like”, I am going to give this decent time and write a long account of our adventure. I know very few people will ever be able to visit here so for those of you that have not been as fortunate as I have I hope this will in some way take you through the experience over a few cups of tea.
There’s no doubt there is plenty motivation to visit South Georgia but as it is such a difficult place to get to one really, really has to want to go there. In fact it’s located in the loneliest time zone in the world!
From the time we stepped out of our front door in Cape Town till we made landfall on South Georgia it was a total of 8 very long days of travel. This included a most indirect sequence of long flights followed by a 4 day Southern Ocean sea crossing. The crossing from The Falklands to South Georgia comprised of battling constant seasickness as we would do a total of 80,000 boat rolls each way (Chris actually worked this figure out!) in the Hans Hansson which was to be our home for the next month.
The allure of 40 million sea birds, 300,000 Southern elephant seals and 5 million Antarctic fur seals all gathered together in one of the world’s most remote and far flung Islands with unprecedented access once you get there was well worth the intrepid journey.
Besides being a wildlife photographer’s dream, the biggest drawcards for me were the opportunities to see substantial colonies of the magnificent King Penguin; dueling Southern Elephant seals; leopard seal predatory behavior; close encounters with various species of albatross and just a general abundance of huge bio mass in the most intimate of ways.
20 incredible days on South Georgia awaited us…
Our group comprised of only 12 people and our Expedition leaders, Dion Poncet and Juliet are without doubt the elite of the most experienced people in South Georgia so we were very fortunate to have them looking after us. Being part of a small group, with lots of time, meant that we could be completely flexible with our choice of landings and also spend as much time and as many days as we wanted at each site. These kind of opportunities are like gold for not only photographers but wildlife lovers too. Our plan was to scope out the different sites as we moved from north west to south east along the northern South Georgian coast and after this general recce we would then select the most productive and enjoyable sites at which to spend more time on the way back up.
Right Whale Bay
I will never forget the sound of the chattering penguin colony filtering through to us as we prepared to launch in the zodiac and at the same time looking down into the water only to see a leopard seal lazily circling below. These were our first moments of our first landing in South Georgia and it was already a “wow”.
Right Whale Bay is extremely picturesque as it nestles in an almost cauldron shaped basin with very steep and sharp mountains rising up on all 3 sides. It has a colony of about 50,000 King Penguins and some pretty spectacular behavior takes place here. High numbers of leopard seals actively patrol the fairly narrow stretch of beach ready to predate on either departing or returning king penguins. King Penguins weigh in the region of 15 kg’s so this is a substantial meal for a leopard seal.
Last year Dion spent 10 days here with the BBC trying to document this predatory event and up to 40 leopard seals in the general area where counted at one time. The King penguins are most definitely aware of the mortal threat that faces them each time they head out to feed and again when they return back to the colony.
Large flocks of Kings make their way down to the beach and at the water’s edge they stand and watch as they contemplate their chances. Other members of the colony keep filing out and pretty soon there is huge pressure on the front of the flock to make a move. The leopard seal threat is so real that the previous season Dion recorded not a single King Penguin leaving the beach over a 48 hour period. With this much build up I guess it becomes a battle of wills and a wrong decision can be fatal for one but at the same time provide relief for others.
The leopard seals are extremely brazen about their presence and will as clear as daylight swim up and down in the breaking surf in the most taunting of ways. Often the leading penguins would attempt a departure only to scatter back up the beach in terror as the leopard seal made a rush for them.
The more Kings that built up at the back, the more the pressure and often this would result in a highly organized penguin march to what may be a safer launch site. Flocks of between 50 to 400 King penguins could be seen waddling along the beach in search of a safer launch site making for quite a procession. On a number of occasions Chris & I walked with the large groups that made their way from the main beach over a ridge and down into a secluded Bay. It was very interesting to me that they seemed to be very aware of what their choices were and were actively acting upon this.
In our short time there it seemed the leopard seals had more success on the returning flocks of penguins as I guess these penguins had no choice but to keep coming in. From several hundred meters out the Kings would approach in extremely high speeds porpoising high out of the water. It would seem they would have several encounters with leopard seals as they would scatter and then make radical direction changes. This situation reminded us so much of the great white shark vs cape fur seal battles that take place at Seal Island. We almost half expected to see a great white shark blasting through the flock of penguins! However, the actual predation by the leopard seal was far less impressive and almost always seemed to be sub surface. The telltale signs of a successful kill would be of a leopard seal tearing off chunks of penguin on the surface and an arrival of dozens of Giant Petrels to fight over the spoils. This in itself was fascinating behavior to observe as the extremely feisty Giant Petrels would finely balance their ability to steal morsels of penguin and at the same time avoid a potentially deadly leopard seal.
The predatory dynamic at Right Whale Bay was really fascinating to observe but another highlight was listening to the leopard seals singing underwater late at night and in the pre-dawn. The eerie wailing, which I had never heard before, was amplified through the hull of the Hans Hansson and really was quite haunting to listen to whilst lying snuggled up in a very comfortable and warm bunk.
South Georgia Whaling Stations
The following few days took us to Salisbury Plains where we were able to spend time with our first sizable King Penguin colony which is home to 250,000 King Penguin pairs.
As we worked our way to St Andrew’s Bay we took in the sights of the derelict and long since abandoned ghostly whaling stations. We were able to cruise very close to and around Leith Harbour, Stromness Harbour and finally arrived at Gritviken for an overnight stay.
These dilapidated whaling stations leave one with a sickening feeling with regards to the behavior of the human race. From about the 1920’s until 1963 a total of 175,000 great whales including: Blue, Sei, Fin, Sperm, Southern Right and Humpback whales were mercilessly hunted, killed and processed here for mostly the procurement of their oil. These are huge numbers and you really need to sit and comprehend the scale of production and destruction of these great whales. They were hunted until virtual extinction in the area and even now in 2017 the number of whales sighted around South Georgia is only a tiny fraction of what they once were. They have simply never recovered making one wonder if they ever will.
The natural habours in these bays are absolutely spectacular with tall and dramatic mountain peaks rising up from the sea and one can only imagine what it would have been like to sit and watch the blows and spouts of the many different species that had come to feed in the krill-rich waters here.
The eerie atmosphere at Gritviken easily conjures up the ghosts of both the hard-living whalers and their hunted quarry, The Great Whales. The thought of what had transpired here, comprehending the scale and numbers of whales that had been harvested, imagining the blood and oiled stained waters, the black smoke of the rendering oil and the unbelievable stench that could never be escaped left our entire group feeling deeply disturbed. I think one of our expedition members put it best when he turned to me and “Here we look and wonder how it was possible that our forefathers could participate in such a horrific and devastating industry all in the quest for whale oil and yet as we speak the current quest is for Palm Oil”. When will we ever learn? It seems the greed of humanity knows no limits.
St Andrew’s Bay
St Andrew’s Bay is probably THE landing in South Georgia and having missed it on our first visit here in 2012 I was itching at the opportunity of experiencing this expansive Bay with its 300,000 pairs of King Penguins. Yes, that means 600,000 adults plus their chicks meaning an approximate total of 750,000 penguins all in a single spot.
Up to 6000 elephant seals also haul out along the beaches here during the breeding season and as we were visiting over the peak part of this season it was set to be a jammed packed visit. A receding glacier stretches around the back of the colony setting the scene and 6 glorious landings over 3 days awaited us.
There is one word to describe this place and that is “Abundance”! Every person who is passionate about wildlife needs to know how truly wonderful it is that such a place on our planet still exists today.
We arrived at about 7pm on the first evening and even though time was short we all decided on a very quick exploratory visit. Just in that hour I could feel the potential of what was to come and sleep was hard to come by in anticipation of our first morning landing.
It amazes me how quickly one adapts to the wildlife and the closeness of the experience at South Georgia. I remember back to the first few minutes of our initial landing at Right Whale Bay and the sense of wonderment as a magnificent King Penguin in all its colourful splendor walked past just a few meters away from me.
By now being surrounded by literally hundreds of King Penguins was the new norm but I still was not quite so comfortable with being that close to the massive elephant seals.
One of the reasons for doing a trip so early in the South Georgia season was to be here at the peak of the Southern Elephant seal breeding and pupping season.
Day by day more and more female elephant seals were arriving and hauling out on the beaches to give birth to their young. Adult and near adult males were also arriving to stake their claim in preparation for the breeding season. With the daily increase in arrivals the beach was starting to become a real adventure course and high tide especially provided some humorous moments trying to dodge the nearly 4 ton males!
But very quickly this also became normal and looking back at the end of our stay at St Andrew’s the elephant seals seemed to be quite used to us too. They do warn you off by issuing a loud bark or cough and by opening their mouths wide allowing a good look into their rosy pink mouths. However, as soon as they see that one poses no threat they are quite trusting and I particularly enjoyed looking into their huge orb-like eyes which came across looking inquiringly gentle to me. Many of the females had already given birth and proportionally tiny black-pelted pups would lie alongside as they hungrily suckled from their mums.
Harems are established by the dominant males and on the fringes of each “Sneaky F*#$cker’s” surround. Believe it or not, this is actually an official scientific term for males who aren’t dominant but will sneak in for a quick opportunity with a female when the Beach Master is turned the other way. Apparently these males make up a fairly significant part of the gene pool and certainly have an important role to play. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that the beach is a mine field of wildlife. Dotted amongst the hundreds of elephant seals and thousands of penguins are the ever opportunistic Giant Petrels.
The beauty and abundance at South Georgia initially creates a sense of an unbelievable utopia but when one starts to pay close attention and begin to peel back the layers you start to understand that this in an incredibly tough place to survive. If you show even the slightest sign of weakness you will be taken apart piece by piece and some particularly gruesome scenes played out before us as the giant petrels made short work of the weak. The petrels certainly have their niche and although it was not something I choose to watch I was aware of the cogs in the wheel of this eco system.
There was so much going on along this 2 to 3km stretch of beach and as one walked along every 50 meters or so a particular drama would be playing itself out. It was just amazing how much behavior there was and at the end of each landing every member of our expedition would have something different to report back on regarding what he or she saw.
I very much enjoyed the opportunity of being able to walk and explore this big area. Chris & I went on long walks that took us around glacial lakes, barren areas strewn with rocks from glacial deposits and then finally at the back of the colony, the receding glacier. King penguins of course could be found in every nook and cranny.
Nursery areas of juvenile king penguins known as “oakum boys” could be found in their multitude in the middle of the colony and of course if we watched closely predatory giant petrels could be found hopping in amongst them, harassing them and weeding out the weak. Sunset brought on a spectacular sight and as we looked into the colony the many thousands of oakum boys would be lit up exposing beautiful dark patterns of penguin.
The pounding shore break at St Andrew’s also creates some truly beautiful sights in the early dawn as streams and streams of penguins going out for a day of feeding at sea are shrouded in a thick mist that hangs suspended all down the length of the beach. We were very fortunate to have an exceptional weather day with good sunlight and huge breaking swell which really served to amplify the misty conditions. It was a photo Chris had been dreaming of since his visit in 2015 and our excitement when we saw the conditions was extreme! We didn’t quite get the soft golden light we were hoping for but it did not stop us from taking hundreds of images, almost to Chris’s dismay when he realized he had to edit all of them!
I mentioned how many dramas would be playing out along the beach and one of the events definitely worth a mention was the high presence of leopard seals that were hunting King penguins in the waters around a rocky point. One evening some of our expedition members were surrounded by a total of 6 leopard seals while they took a zodiac ride around the point. The following afternoon we had 3 curiously coming up to the zodiac. It was a fantastic experience as we would excitedly try to spot their giant reptilian like heads as they would pop up around the boat clearly enjoying our presence as well. But for the leopard seals and king penguins it was serious business and throughout the day kills could be spotted by the swarm of numerous giant petrels that were benefiting from the leftover pieces.
It is difficult to decide on a highlight because each landing was just so overwhelming with everything that we were seeing and appreciating but I think my vote goes to our last evening once the sun had set behind the mountain.
It was perfect weather, warm in fact, and there was not a breath of wind. The beach break was still pounding and the echoing of the crashing waves was the background tone to the braying penguins and bellowing elephant seals. Now that the sun had set the light was even and as I looked down the beach to the 2 kilometers we had to walk back to the pickup point the sight and abundance of wildlife before me was very special indeed. I turned to Chris and Paige and said to them…let’s really take in every detail of this last walk…
As we slowly picked our way down the beach walking around the groups of penguins and avoiding the harems of elephant seals very little was said between us. It was as if our evening walk took place in slow motion as we tried to absorb every tiny detail of the sight, sound, smells and emotion of St Andrew’s Bay.
Special memories from probably the most spectacular 3 kilometers of beach on our planet!
Gold Harbour, home to 30,000 pairs of King Penguins, a large amount of elephant seals and a small colony of Gentoo Penguins is breathtaking. The horseshoe shaped bay is dominated by steep and sheer mountains and to top it off is a dramatic hanging glacier overlooking the incredibly condensed amount of wildlife strung out along the beach.
This was another of the landing sites that I had only ever heard of and could not wait to explore.
With 3 days ahead of us the first landing is almost always the “exploratory” landing and we spent our time doing a long walk around the bay and almost around to the tongue of where the glacier meets the large lake below. En route we stopped and spent a lot of time within the King Penguin colony. It was immediately apparent that the Oakum Boys were far more curious and interactive than at any other landing site so far. No matter where one stopped we would right away be surrounded by a gang of oakums. They would extend their necks out to get as close as possible before intently peering at us whilst constantly turning their heads and uttering frenzied chirruping sounds at the same time. It was a great opportunity to get incredibly close to them and as such we sat down on the ground and got to spend some quality time interacting with them. Every so often an oakum boy would come bumbling into the inquisitive group with its wings flapping wildly and looking and acting like a bizarre windup toy!
The Bay is fairly small and as I just mentioned the wildlife, particularly the elephant seals, are very condensed and the different harems tightly packed. As such male interactions were numerous and although we again did not see a massive beach master clash there was a huge amount of subtle behavior at play.
My favorite is what I termed “crocodiles”. These were younger males that would spend their time cruising the waters just behind the breach break, popping their heads up every so often as it surveyed its chances. When a gap or opportunity with a female would be spotted he would surf the wave in, wriggle up the beach and take advantage of the unsuspecting female. We didn’t actually see any mating but with the females coming into season very shortly it felt as if the males were building up and getting ready for the important job that lay ahead.
The equally unsuspecting dominate male would eventually spy this sneaky behavior and of course an aggressive chase, pummeling females and pups along the way, would take place as he drove the younger male out.
On previous trips to Antarctica and the 1 previous trip to South Georgia I had not paid great attention to elephant seals, I think most probably because the landing were so short and one was not able to really explore and spend the time observing behavior. With the opportunities we had now we were all becoming completely taken with these fascinatingly massive and deep diving seals. So much so that we started to affectionately refer to them as “Beach Slugs”. It took me by surprise as to just how much I enjoyed spending literally hours with them as we watched their behavior and interactions.
The males can grow up to nearly 5 meters long and weigh as much as 3,700 kilograms. The females are smaller and seem to spend much of their short lives pregnant with a gestation period of 48 to 50 weeks. They suckle their pup for 28 days and within 18 days of giving birth they come into season.
The pups only get those first 28 days with their mums and from them onwards they are literally on their own. It did make me wonder how much, if any information was being passed from mum to pup in those crucial 28 days.
As much as I respected the females I think I have even more respect for the males who basically fight themselves to death in the most basic need of wanting to procreate and pass on their genes.
They only live for around 10 years and 90% of males will never reach social maturity. It is also incredibly rare for a dominant male to be the beach master for more than one breeding season. There is constant deadly competition.
A very interesting situation had developed at both St Andrew’s Bay and Gold Harbour where the very end side of the beach had become an accumulation point for young and so far unsuccessful males gathering together. This had probably developed after being pushed out at every harem and then had basically all been lumped up together. I think the best way I can describe the result was a “male elephant seal training camp”. The entire day would be made up of a build up to a fight between dueling competitors. Extremely fascinating body language such as bellowing, head turns, eye slits, stares downs and slug like sprints towards one another would also take place where upon a short duel would eventually take place.
It was never a very serious beach master duel but none the less it was incredible to watch each situation build and the different reactions that would transpire. Most times when a male knew he was out weighed, strong evasive moves would be employed and no chances taken.
One got the feeling that the females were not so enchanted with the annoying and amorous males. Being much smaller they had little choice of being able to move when a male would literally plonk himself on a desired female, the size of his head dwarfing hers as he laid claim on top of hers. A fair amount of biting the female around her head and neck would then take place before being squashed. It definitely came across as tough love being the order of the day. The only hint of gentleness was of a short and stubby front flipper that would wrap itself around the side of the female in a hug-like fashion although I suspect this was more of a “keep still, you’re mine” rather than an “I think you’re cute”!
Imsert pic of elephant seal patterns
Gold Harbour is one of the landings in South Georgia that offers a chance to see the magnificent Light mantled Sooty Albatross. Each year from mid-October they nest on the precipices of steep headlands in the tussock grass and as part of their breeding ritual beautiful paired dances whilst in flight take place between the courting couple.
We had been looking out for them most of the trip as this special courtship and the possibility of seeing a light mantled up close was another aspect of South Georgia that I had spent many months dreaming about. Up to this point the sky was void of the sooty dance but on a blustery yet sunny afternoon we were preparing to launch when we looked up and saw the iconic bird with its crooked back wings.
The wind direction and speed was perfect for them to soar along the headlands that flanked the basin of Gold Harbour and we were thrilled to see the first sign of them.
We quickly changed our original plan and set off on a slight incline hike that would take us through the thick tussock, avoiding the fur seals on our way up and up along the top of the ridge and headland. From above we counted 6 sootys in total as they soared gloriously just above us and at times even at eye level. Since they had virtually just arrived nests were not yet established so we didn’t think there was much chance of seeing one of the birds settled down. But as luck would have it Chris moved towards the end of a headland and stopped suddenly before gesticulating wildly to come and have a look. As we approached we knew what sight would greet us and with extreme excitement we crept up trying to not make a sound. Just 5 meters below us there sat a light-mantled sooty albatross nestled into the crook of a rocky precipice.
What a sight!!
Fortunately the bird was very calm and not bothered at all about the 4 pairs of peering eyes that sat taking it in and for about 30 minutes we were able to really appreciate this special bird. My favorite part about it is the contrasting white rim around the top of its eye, making it seem as if it is a cartoon character. Well, an extremely beautiful cartoon character at that!
Unfortunately we did not have our cameras with us but perhaps this was a good thing as it really allowed us to take in the full beauty of the bird and its spectacular surroundings along with watching its counterparts as they soared around us. Of its own accord the bird decided to join them and it was fascinating to watch as it teetered to the sheer cliff face, looked over, spread its wings and dropped towards the beach below before the updraft sent it soaring above us.
As we left Gold Harbour later the next morning I felt sure that was our “sooty moment” and really did not expect what would take place when we returned back to Gold Harbour 2 days later. The afternoon felt quiet as we sat and spent time with the elephant seals but during a lull Chris turned to me and asked if I had heard “that”. Light mantled sootys have a very distinct call that is rather unique to them. It’s the avian version of a cat mewl and upon hearing it a second time there was no doubt there was a sooty sat down rather close to us. We looked up scouring the cliff faces and nestled up in the tussock mid-way up a headland there we spotted the distinctive black head with gleaming white eye brows!
We immediately took one look at each other and said “We can get there, let’s go!”
In our panic we didn’t take our full range of lenses and left the wide angle lens behind as we didn’t really believe we would get that close.
On arrival we found the bird perched perfectly on the soft green moss and nestled amongst the golden dry tussock overlooking the full spectrum of Gold Harbour, complete with hanging glacier in the background…wow, wow, wow! Surely it couldn’t get any better than this?
We had however made a pretty big mistake by leaving the wide angle lens behind so Chris turned tail, virtually slid down the tussock hill, grabbed the lens and raced back up again. It was at break neck speed!
Just like our previous sighting the bird was completely unperturbed by our presence and we had another 20 to 30 minutes of sitting, appreciating and at last photographing it. With such a spectacular subject to work with there was again a fair amount of editing to do, not that I minded too much.
Once the bird took off and the sighting was over I was left shaking with excitement and adrenalin…this surely had to be one of the highlights of the trip and quite possibly right up there with one of our best wildlife experiences ever.
The afternoon wasn’t over just quite yet. With the sun still pretty high in the sky we spent the late afternoon sitting amongst the elephant seal colonies and observing all the multiple interactions that were taking place. I became aware of the beach master reigning over this part of the beach. He stood out magnificently as he was significantly larger than any of the other dominant males we had seen and from his facial expressions and body language you could tell he meant business, serious business.
Any other male that came within noticeable distance was immediately chased off with loud bellows, rearing up in a threatening fashion and rocking backwards and forwards, followed by an occasional a chase. All these less dominant males did not pursue the challenge as this beach master reigned supreme.
Just as the sun was preparing to drop below the mountains behind movement caught the corner of my eye and from the right side a serious challenger was approaching at high speed through the colony. His target was most obviously the beach master. This purposeful behavior indicated that this would be a serious challenge. The beach master picked up on his approaching competition and there was no standing back. He would be meeting this challenger head on.
I wish I could adequately describe the look on his face for it was so ferocious I felt sure the challenger would back down at any moment. If elephant seals had human emotions his face would have portrayed pure anger, hatred almost, complete disdain and a fierceness I would never want to encounter.
The challenger met him head on and they both reared up facing each other just inches apart. They then both proceeded to bellow and bellow as they threatened each other whilst huge clouds of vapour escaped from their monstrous mouths. Their eyes were opened so wide the outer red rims gleamed as they stared each other down.
Still neither elephant seal stood down but the next move was a neck thump as the beach master put his full weight and might into it as he pummeled the challenger multiple times. It was too much for the challenger and he went down to the ground.
The beach master pounced on him and held him down before launching a full-on bite attack. As soon as he was able to the challenger slunk away as quickly as he could having lost the challenge.
The fight only lasted a few moments but it was amazing to have had the opportunity of observing and getting some sort of an idea of what a serious fight entails. The beach master was extremely impressive in his ability to assert his dominance and maintain his position on the beach and I felt certain it would take a super dominant male to displace him.
The following morning it was fairly emotional as we sat on the back deck watching the hanging glacier of Gold Harbour melt off into the distance as we departed for the last time. I don’t know when we will be back here, it could be many years, and I don’t know what we will find when we return. The glacier, as well as most of the glaciers in South Georgia are receding at an alarming rate. Deon showed us images of Gold Harbour Glacier 20 years ago. It is vastly changed from those days when the glacier was virtually the entire mountain. Chris even commented on how it had noticeably shrunk just in the 2 years since he was here.
We had paid a quick visit to Twitcher’s Glacier a few days before and in the 2 years since Deon had visited the glacier had receded by 500m. That equates to half a meter per day and even in the short cruise we took past here there was a significantly large carving that took place.
Whilst at Gold Harbour we hiked to where we could get the best view of the tongue of the glacier as it comes down the mountain and meets the lake below. I sat gazing up at the blue ice and thought to myself that I was looking at the history of the planet. Climatic changes have of course taken place throughout Earth’s history but surely not at such an alarming rate as what we are seeing? I find it utterly terrifying.
Over the next few days we continued south spotting some wedel seals, along with 3 pups, at Larson Habour where we anchored for a night. In the past this was the only place in South Georgia where sea ice formed which is perfect wedel seal habitat. It seems there are still a few hopeful wedel seals visiting here although it is long since there was any sea ice here at all.
We also took a cruise down to Cape Disappointment where we just about poked our heads around the corner to the notorious south coast. The visit was a short one as we were hit by terrible weather with high winds topping out at 70 knots along with heavy fog and rain. The spectacular cliffs with nesting albatross were well worth the visit as well as being treated to a vividly strong rainbow.
As we began to work our way back to St Andrew’s Bay we were treated to perfect conditions giving us a very rare opportunity to try for a landing at Royal Bay. This is a very difficult place to land due to the prevailing winds that funnel through the bay and the seemingly ever present fog. Deon had not been able to land here in 12 years so with perfect conditions we couldn’t pass up the chance to give Royal Bay a go!
Just as the zodiac was being launched 2 humpback whales popped up right next to the boat. They were extremely curious and circled both the Hans Hansson and the zodiac for about 30 minutes often times turning on their backs and rolling around in the calm waters whilst exhaling loudly. We could not have had better conditions in which to see them.
For a number of people on our expedition this was their first up close and personal whale experience and was a very special event for them. For me, just to see a whale at South Georgia was heartwarming and truly wonderful.
Back to St Andrews
We set sail for the return journey to St Andrew’s Bay where we hoped for another 3 landings. We arrived late at night and after a very bumpy night on anchor and worsening conditions over the morning we had to up anchor and steam to the protected bay of Ocean Harbour. This is another old whaling station site and parts of the beach are littered with whale bones, making for interesting photos of elephant seals lying amongst them.
Late that afternoon we sailed back to St Andrew’s, still arriving to bad weather but ok enough to at least make a landing.
The outside temperature had just gone below zero and small snowflakes were beginning to fall. The wind was also blowing and some of the stronger gusts had the potential to send snow drift racing across the beach. These are the condition Chris had dreamed of in order to capture the atmosphere and the harshness of the polar/sub polar? regions. As for me, coming from Africa where snow storm conditions are a nonstarter I was keen to experience what these environmental conditions were like.
We had a surprisingly easy landing in the zodiac and walked along the beach to the beginning of the King Penguin Colony. The snowflakes were just beginning to “stick” and the oakum boys were now being covered in a fine, dusty white layer. We stopped and photographed them as the snow fell heavier and heavier. It was now beginning to stick to the ground.
A beautiful white layer now formed the base of the colony and even the beach was beginning to turn a wintery white. The wind gusts were finally beginning to produce the snow drift we had been dreaming of.
We walked further down the beach where a glacial stream produced a good crossing point for penguins and a raised bit of beach from which to photograph the stretch of beach reaching down along the most north eastern corner.
Then it all began to happen, an epic 45 minutes of a constant stream of penguins, huddled elephant seals and loads of snow being dumped down and blown about everywhere when the stronger gusts came through. The mood was most definitely polar!
As I watched more closely I began to realise that even though this was a significant event for us all the wildlife was going about their day in the most normal of ways. This was life for them. No matter what the conditions are their business of survival remains the same and whatever needs to be done must take pace no matter what challenges are thrown at them.
The reams and reams of penguins continued to stream along the beach as penguins prepared to go out to sea on fishing trips. A particular poignant moment took place right in front of me of an elephant seal mum suckling her pup as if it was a normal sunny day.
I have the greatest respect for wildlife in any case but this really drove home the point that each animal is basically an Olympic athlete, and this is just the norm if one wishes to survive.
I felt really privileged to have been able to sit amongst the various St Andrew’s Bay populations and just watch South Georgia life play out.
Another incredible 2 days of landings followed before leaving St Andrew’s Bay for one more visit to Right Whale Bay. We noticed in the 7 days since we had left St Andrews and had been further down the coast just how many more elephant seals had arrived to haul out, especially down the far side of the beach. We guessed that during our absence the numbers had doubled and it was amazing to see how quickly the change took place. In fact there was now virtually no break between harems and I can only imagine the epic Beach Master fights that must have been taking place, and the ones that would follow over the next couple of weeks when most of the females would be coming into season.
Sadly just as the beach was beginning to reach maximum capacity we turned our heads north east and bade farewell to St Andrews. We would now be heading back towards our first landing site, Right Whale Bay, almost reaching the end of our trip.
Return to Right Whale Bay
Our first landing at Right Whale Bay felt rather distant in my memory…so many sights and sounds had been taken in since then!
One can dream and dream of what perfect conditions would be, and put it out to the universe hoping someone will hear, but things rarely work out how you want. Again we were to be lucky and the southerly winds that had been blowing for the last few days brought with it the freezing but also snowy conditions we had so been hoping for.
Early that morning Right Whale Bay was covered in a layer of white snow but with the wind howling as it was it wouldn’t be long before the thin layer would be blown away. As we landed we headed for our favorite spot that took us up the slightly inclined ridge and down to the secluded cove below. Hundreds of penguins walk this route each morning from the beach as they survey their different options of trying to avoid the patrolling leopard seals.
At the bottom of the cove we were greeted to the sight of about 300 penguins lined up staring at the surfline waiting to go out along with a massive leopard seal lying lazily on the beach. The leopard seal began to sing its mesmerizing whale-like song. There was a second leopard seal hauled out on the rocks not far away so perhaps it was a serenade, or perhaps it’s just that these leopard seals at Right Whale Bay are extremely talkative. Whatever the case it felt surreal sitting there on the beach listening to this incredibly haunting sound.
Interestingly the penguins did not react at all to the leopard seal so I would imagine that with the watery environment taken out of the equation there was no threat.
As we began to walk back up the ridge we could see an extremely pleasing thin and wispy line of snowdrift being blown across the crest with the travelling penguins marching on through it.
It was just perfect and we could not have hoped for better.
With a nearly endless stream we had plenty of opportunity to set up and wait for the perfect mix of penguins complete with the snowdrift background, creating an image that was almost at the very top of our photography wish list.
Right Whale bay was really our last landing on a big wildlife site, our last chance to sit amongst thousands of King penguins, hundreds of elephant seals and have the leopard seals playing around the zodiac. On our last afternoon landing here we really tried to just sit and take in everything we had been so lucky to experience on this once in a lifetime expedition. It was particularly special sitting amongst the curious oakum boys in the penguin nursery and I tried to put across a huge thank you for the precious moments they had given us all.
Elsahul, our final landing
Our last landing site would be 2 days at Elsahul which is famed for the nesting Wandering albatross as well as Grey-headed and light mantled sooty albatross that nest amongst the tussocky cliffs. Hopefully these wildlife gems awaited us…
On our first afternoon we took a long hike over to the area where there are normally a number of Wandering Albatross nests and at this time of the season there would be a chance of seeing chicks sitting on nests as they patiently wait for parents to return with spoils from sea.
We were in luck and managed to spot a total of 7 nests harbouring large fluffy and downy wandering albatross chicks. These are the first I have ever seen and having many times greatly admired the adults and sub adults as they soared behind our boat in the open ocean it was a true privilege. With the hugely ambitious rat eradication project at South Georgia just about to be declared as successful it is fantastic to know that future generations of wandering albatross now have one less threat to contend with.
It was with a heavy heart the following morning that we prepared for our final landing, donning our normal 5 layers, muck boots and beanies for the last time.
The weather was turning foul and I did not expect too much but as we crested the headland we began to notice the dozens of Grey headed and Sotty Albatross that were now taking flight in the perfect wind conditions.
They soared all around us at eye level and as we started to look a little closer we began to spot a few resting birds. Many of them were in close viewing distance and we were able to sit and marvel at their beauty as they sat and called for the potential mates that were soaring above and around. This was my first time at being able to closely view a grey headed albatross and I can tell you they are absolutely exquisite.
One of our expedition members, Tami was particularly adept at climbing and getting into seemingly impossible places. She had begun to notice a number of grey-headed albatross landing a little further along from us and went to investigate. A short while later she returned with very exciting news of not one but two females sitting waiting for suitors. She said we may find the climb down a little uncomfortable but that it was totally doable.
Hmmm, I guess there was no choice, we had to give it a go!
Tami led us down a somewhat precarious path but although there was a steep drop-off when we arrived there was also a very comfortable and stable platform of tussock from which to view the 2 magnificent females. Both birds were totally comfortable with us and as one fell asleep the other received a male visitor. A little bit of a greeting took place but you could see she was not that impressed and promptly ignored him.
An obviously much more desirable male arrived right after this and straight away we could tell this was a match made in heaven. They were extremely gentle with each other as much preening took place before the relationship was consummated. Much to my delight the male even proceeded to help with the “house work” afterwards by helping to prepare and build on the nest. A perfect match indeed!
The opportunity of sitting and watching such intimate interactions was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so a huge thank you to Tami for her brave efforts in finding the perfect path down to them.
These were our last moments of South Georgia and shortly to follow was our last stable meal for the next 5 days. Yes, you can probably guess that an absolutely horrendous crossing awaited us and as we were none the wiser huge smiles were all around as we took our final group photos of the trip.
It is worth writing about this rather forgettable 5 days as it is most definitely part of the experience and it’s with absolutely no joy to tell you that we now hold the record for the most unpleasantly prolonged crossing Deon and Juliette have ever done. Yikes!!
From the moment we left the protected waters of South Georgia till the moment we entered Stanley Harbour it was continuous rock and roll, pitch and heave and never ending nausea for most of us.
We didn’t see Dustin or Tony for the full 5 days and both of them emerged from their cabins more than a few kilos lighter. I couldn’t stand up for long without wanting to heave so spent most of the 5 days staring at the same nail that has been knocked into the backboard of my bunk for hours on end. There were many other pretty hilarious moments as other expedition members began suffering from the seasickness medication. Apparently the boat had hit rocks and run aground; Argentine pirates had taken over the Hans Hansson and were now sailing the boat; fur seals were in someone’s cabin harassing them and a number of people heard music for 3 days. It would have been funny if we hadn’t felt so vile!
I guess the point is that everything about South Georgia is felt on an intense basis as well as offering the extreme of just about everything. I know with certainty that I will never have another adventure such as this one. Our small group along with the length of time and flexibility we had gave rise to some of my most memorable and impressionable wildlife experiences ever.
Our entire group and crew were amazing and along with excellent humour and huge appreciation for everything we saw I know it will be an adventure that will be impossibly hard to beat in the many years to come.
A huge thank you to everyone for making this such an incredible experience…