Truly Spectacular South Georgia!
Posted on Thursday, 15 December 2016
Once off; Wildlife & Photography Specialty Expedition October 2017
Over the years we have been lucky enough to work with many of the worlds leading natural history film crews and camera operators. Ever curious, I always asked what their favorite wildlife location was.
Almost without fail, those that had ventured to South Georgia (SG) said that this location topped everything.
In 2012 Monique and I first travelled to SG aboard a One Ocean expedition trip and spent four amazing days exploring some of the most popular areas with 100+ other passengers. We were gob smacked by the overwhelming volume of wildlife and the trip surpassed our already high expectations.
In 2015, now smitten by my first taste, I signed up for a very special once every ten years survey of wandering albatross breeding sites on SG, this time on a far smaller boat with only 11 other participants.
The smaller boat and limited number of guests really allowed us so much more time ashore in often remote locations, and most importantly the skipper of the boat was one of the most experienced Southern Ocean captains and made some very tricky landings easy. Instead of being ashore for three hour stints, and always at the mercy of the weakest passenger and regular meal times etc as with any other expedition to SG, we stayed ashore sometimes the whole day. We visited sites off the regular route and had a huge degree of flexibility as we were not following a stringent time schedule. We also regularly got up before sunrise and stayed out till after sunset, no mean feat in January at those latitudes, such was the flexibility granted to us.
What this meant is that you could really take time composing images, watching behavior and really enjoying the natural marvel that is SG.
So what makes SG so special, let me put a few numbers out there for you:
SG is roughly 135km long and varies between 1 and 35km wide.
It is home to the following estimated populations,
4 000 000 + Antarctic fur seals
600 000 Southern elephant seals,
7 000 000 penguins of 4 species (several colonies of over 200 000 pairs!!)
Wandering, light mantled sooty, grey headed & black browed albatross breeding colonies.
An estimated, depending on whom you talk to, 40 - 70 MILLION seabirds that live on the island and surrounding islands…
All this wildlife occurs in spectacular settings with hanging glaciers, huge jagged mountains and boulder strewn bays adding to our palette of possible photographic backgrounds. En route to and from SG to the Falklands, wandering, grey headed, light mantled sooty and black browed albatross soar next to the boat.
Various cetacean species are also seen en route including Commersons , Peales, Orca and possibly Hourglass dolphins. Humpback, Sperm, Fin, Minke and possible Blue whale sightings
So…….to get to my point; we simply have to go back!
Laws and costs are quickly changing and access to SG is becoming more and more difficult, restricted and costly.
In October 2017 we are putting together a trip that will truly give us, as the cliché goes, “once in a lifetime opportunities”.
Together with the same team that I went to SG with in 2015, we will be chartering the same small but incredibly seaworthy boat (formerly a North sea rescue craft). We will have arguably the Southern Oceans best captain, who is also owner of the boat and our skipper, as well as his equally capable partner.
The plan will be to spend 20 days on and around SG at locations I and the skipper have chosen to give us spectacular wildlife and photographic opportunities.
Instead of spending three hours at these sites we will spend many hours, and multiple landings over multiple days to give us varied lighting and weather options to get truly unique imagery.
We have chosen to go in the Southern Hemispheres early spring as coupled with varying weather that gives often dramatic atmospheric conditions, huge numbers of elephant seals are hauled out on the beaches and fighting for their right to dominate the beach. Albatross are also around in good numbers and penguins are everywhere. As a real added bonus, with no guarantees that it will happen next year, the following is an excerpt from my last correspondence with the skipper who has just got back from an early season trip this year.
“There was a very unusual number of leopard seals; I counted 36 individuals at Right Whale Bay and 31 at St Andrews Bay. Needless to say they were massacring the King penguins at quite a steady rate. At Right Whale Bay they utterly dominated the bay and the penguins were having a very stressful time coming and going. We saw some fairly unprecedented leopard seal behaviour; up to 9 animals interacting around the zodiac, 2 animals food sharing (pulling a penguin apart between themselves) and up to 4 animals hunting together (I don’t know that they were actually cooperating though). What was most remarkable was that 2 or 3 animals had a hunting technique of chasing penguins out of the water onto the beach and then bursting out of the surf (like the orca do at Valdez Peninsula) and grabbing them in the backwash.
Seems like something is definitely happening with leopard seals this season; there were plenty of them in the Falklands too. Although their winter presence both in South Georgia and the Falklands has increased over the last few years, it will be very interesting to see if this season is a one-off “spike” or if there will be a similar situation next year”.
So, if we are lucky we may see this again next year which would, as suggested, really give us something else special to photograph! I can’t stress enough how special it is to see all this wildlife , not from 100m away but often all around you whilst you respectfully sit on the shores and let the wildlife’s behavior unfold!