After leaving Stanley, the crossing to South Georgia takes between two to two and a half days, depending on the weather and winds. Although our crossing was fair, it was still good to know we would be landing again soon.
South Georgia’s mountains capped with snow meant the scenery was picture postcard and combined with a clear blue sky it could not have been better for our first excursion. This time it was a zodiac cruise. There is a small population of Macaroni Penguins in South Georgia and Elsehul Bay is one good place to see them especially as it is unlikely that you can see Macaroni Penguins anywhere else on the trip.
A Zodiac cruise is the same as a shore landing except you don’t get off. This does have additional challenges especially for photography (see below) but generally for seeing the wildlife it depends on how close the boat can get to the shore, the swell, the competence of the zodiac driver and your fellow zodiac passengers!
Besides the Macaroni’s there are a huge number of fur seals, both on shore and playing round the boats, giant petrels flying overhead and sitting in the water and a colony of shags high up on the rocks.
From the zodiac, and with a little practice, it is possible to take video underwater of the seals.
Our second stop on South Georgia is at Salisbury Plain. According to the expedition team this is one of the hardest places to land, but for us the sea is calm and allowed us an extended excursion of up to six hours on shore.
This is a wide shore line with a huge King Penguin colony, together with numerous fur seals. At this time of year there are fur seal pups everywhere – black bundles of fur just crying out (literally) to be picked up (of course this is not a possibility although the pups don’t seem to have understood the protocol). They are exceptionally friendly, unlike their one year old brothers and sisters who become quite aggressive. Family groups (generally one male with two or three females) litter the shore.
The King Penguins start off in small groups as you begin to walk inland and then become a mass in the area away from the beach. There are penguins at different stages – last year’s chicks still in their brown ‘fur coats’, adults with the distinctive patterns of yellow markings on the head and this year’s chicks.
The extended landing means there is plenty of time to take in the scene as well as taking as many photos as you want. At the back of the colony is a small hill where the expedition team laid a path to enable us to get a high perspective over the colony. This has its challenges as the path is uneven, some of the steps up are quite high, and after many people have been on it, it is very muddy and slippery. However, the view from the top provides a good aspect for an understanding of how big the colony is.
Day two in South Georgia provides an opportunity for three landings. The first is pre-breakfast (departing the ship at 06.00) at Fortuna Bay. Again this is a King Penguin colony with a large number of fur seals. This is a different landscape being a valley between the mountains. Small rivers and streams run through the valley giving different photographic opportunities.
It is worth walking as far as the expedition team allows, to get away from the crowds. The penguins here are very inquisitive and sitting quietly in one place for a while almost guarantees one or two will come and investigate.
The second landing is at Stromness Harbour. This was a former whaling station and the place that Shackleton finally managed to reach to obtain help for himself and his crew. At the end of the valley is the waterfall which he had to climb down to make it the last mile. The walk to the waterfall is on flat, if uneven ground and takes about 45 minutes. En route there is a small colony of Gentoo Penguins and numerous Arctic Terns protecting their nests.
Near to the whaling station (prohibited access to within 200m) is a colony of Elephant seals. The buildings of the whaling station are still preserved although they have rusted, but great light and the amazing mountain backdrop enable some stunning photography.
Our landing at Godthul (third landing of the day) is onto a small beach full of fur seals – and the only way is up! The route off the beach is up a tussock grass hill which is not an easy climb but is made more challenging by the fur seals hiding in the tussocks and ready to make a lunge at you.
But the climb is definitely worth it. At the top is a colony of Gentoo penguins, currently with chicks, and very close to the path. There are also Arctic Terns, Giant Petrels sitting on their nests, and the most stunning views across the bay.
Further up the hillside is a mountain lake which is very picturesque. There are a number of places where the best plan is to just sit and watch the Gentoos, and take in the views of the whole bay and surrounding mountains.
The following morning we wake up in Moltke Harbour and to a deteriorating weather situation. The decision is to sit tight and see if the winds die down to enable a landing. This means we spend the time on board taking a better look at the glaciers surrounding the bay and plentiful rainbows.
After several frustrating hours the decision is taken to move the ship to find a more suitable and hopefully less windy landing place.
This turns out to be Gold Harbour. Although the weather here is improved, the landing has its own challenges in the form of huge numbers of elephant seals all over the beach.
This means that the area we are able to walk along is quite small and there is the constant danger of fighting male elephant seals! Together with some very inquisitive and feisty adolescent King Penguins there is no lack of entertainment.
This is also a good spot for watching both penguins and seals in the sea and surf. Most other landings have meant that we were only on the beach for actually getting on and off the zodiacs, but here the narrowness of the beach area enables you to see the wildlife on shore and in the sea.
The following morning (our fourth in South Georgia) we are at Grytviken. This is another old whaling station, but this one has been preserved and there is also a small museum, church and post office.
It is also the final resting place of Ernest Shackleton. Courtesy of Quark, and with the agreement of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, we are able to toast this great explorer at the cemetery with an early morning nip of Whisky or Guinness.
The Trust staff provide several brief tours of the different parts of the whaling station and the time on shore provides a good opportunity to reflect on the amazing endeavors of Shackleton in rescuing his crew.
The post office takes cards, but it seems that they won’t be leaving South Georgia until 10th January and so will still be on the island when we arrive home!
Our final stop on South Georgia is at St Andrews Harbour. This is apparently an extremely difficult landing place because of the surf, the proliferation of wildlife and the fast flowing glacial rivers running into the sea. We are lucky to make the landing and on passing through the huge numbers of elephant seals on the beach we follow the route to the top of a small hill. And we are greeted by the sight of the largest colony of King Penguins on South Georgia – around 150,000 breeding pairs – so with an average of one chick each we are looking at nearly half a million penguins!
South Georgia is truly an amazing destination and should be included on every Antarctic expedition. It has everything from history, picture postcard scenery, outstanding geology and of course, the huge numbers of penguins and seals.