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Report from the Field: Circumnavigation of South Georgia
Published on Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Santiago, Chile / Stanley, Falkland Islands
Over the previous two days we trickled in to Santiago, and last night we had a welcome dinner at our hotel and our first briefing. Today started early with a 3:30 wake-up call in order to make our flight to Mt. Pleasant airfield via Punta Arenas. Mt. Pleasant is a working military base, so no photos were allowed to document our arrival. We headed to Stanley in two motorcoaches, winding along the hills of the island. Sheep dotted the grassland and we spotted a few upland geese and a Falkland Islands thrush. The charming Upland Goose Hotel had high tea and all the trimmings waiting for us in Stanley. After we’d had our fill, we visited the museum and did some shopping before taking the short ride over to the ship.
On board we joined the rest of our staff and the passengers who had just finished their trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Clipper Adventurer was pinned to the dock by high winds with gusts up to 40 knots. We waited it out and got a late evening start, sailing through the night on our way to Steeple Jason.
We had a leisurely morning enjoying the blue skies and downright balmy weather on deck as we sailed north and west through the Falklands to the uninhabited island of Steeple Jason. We spent the entire afternoon and evening on shore, even bringing with us our “bag dinners.” For our first landing of the trip, we were greeted right at the landing site with a line of gentoo penguins headed to their nearby colony. After spending some time watching the gentoos, we strolled through the maze of tussock grass until we reached the black-browed albatross colony—the largest albatross colony of any kind in the world—that calls Steeple Jason home. Camouflaged in the tall clumps of grass, we were able to get close with our cameras to the birds on their mud nests. Our long shore time gave us the chance to really spend some time watching these magnificent birds. Another species we witnessed today was the aggressive striated caracara, from whom we were warned to keep at least 100 feet, lest we get dive-bombed. Many of us stayed on shore until sunset and we saw the gentoo penguins porpoising in the water and jumping up out of the surf onto the rocks as our Zodiacs shuttled us back to the ship in the lingering sub-Antarctic light.
It was an early morning for about half the group who landed at the beach at Carcass Island for a three and half mile walk. Immediately when we got to shore, a snipe was spotted and soon thereafter her tiny chick. The hills were full of Magellenic penguin burrows and the ones out of their holes were letting out their distinctive braying calls. The walk was taken at different paces, but everyone eventually ended up at the small settlement, where our resident hosts had tea and an enormous assortment of cookies waiting for us. Along the way we saw more Magellenic penguins, upland and tundra geese, steamer and Patagonian crested ducks, Magellenic oystercatchers, and even a pair of black-capped night herons. Many of us spotted a caracara sitting on her nest—a cozy looking mess of sheep fleece.
In the afternoon we left the Falklands for the star island of the trip. Peter Harrison gave a lecture on the albatrosses of the world providing an infectious enthusiasm for these formidable birds. Afterward, Captain Hartmann hosted a festive welcome cocktail party and dinner as we headed across the open ocean toward South Georgia.
At Sea / Right Whale Bay, South Georgia
After spending two and a half days crossing the Scotia Sea we finally spied South Georgia’s shores around 2:00 this afternoon. Calm seas had graced our entire 800 mile crossing. We had many brilliant lectures from our capable staff and spent the hours in between resting up for our packed schedule on South Georgia.
The fur seal activity was thick many miles out and we knew this to be a sign of what we would find on shore. When we finally anchored in Right Whale Bay, we saw the writhing brown beach and could spy the king penguin colony—a duller white than the glaciers and snow fields behind it. We worked our way past the fur seal beachmasters. Their harems were full of newborn pups just days old. Beyond them, and just behind a small hill of tussock grass, was the expansive king penguin colony. We were told this was a smaller-sized colony, but as this was our first landing on South Georgia, we were amazed at the sight. A few of the early breeders were incubating eggs under the special blubber fold over their feet. Most of the chicks were last year’s—brown woolly oakum boys clustered together in dark bands throughout the colony. The weather was classic South Georgia—windy, rainy, and cold—but we all enjoyed our first landing and many stayed on shore through dinner, taking advantage of the long evening light.
Salisbury Plain / Prion Island
Today we saw South Georgia possibly at its finest. The sun came out and the early birds and photographers were on shore at Salisbury Plain to see its dramatic unveiling. The rest of us were happy to see blue skies when we awoke and were anxious to get ashore. The king penguin colony at Salisbury Plain is enormous. The sea of birds extends up a hillside and is surrounded on both sides by huge receding glaciers. We had until lunch time to explore the colony, and some of us managed to circumnavigate the whole of it on a long walk during that time.
We left the colony in a stupor, and we were promised that the afternoon would be equally as astounding. During lunch the ship repositioned in the Bay of Isles closer to Prion Island—renowned nesting site of the wandering albatross. As per island regulations we went ashore in small groups, and each was lead by a lecturer who took us to view a nest. The wandering albatross—the world’s largest flying bird—is a beautiful white bird and the individuals who nest in South Georgia are the biggest and whitest of the world’s population. We witnessed individuals and pairs; some were adding grass and mud to their nests and one pair even copulated in view of our group. We were able to spend a considerable amount of time just seated in the tussock enjoying these gracious animals as they opened their wings in the sun or preened their feathers or even napped. The background for these birds was a photographer’s dream and we couldn’t have had better weather. Even our experienced lecturers and leaders counted today’s experience on Prion Island as one of their best expedition moments.
Fortuna Bay / Stromness Bay
The king penguin colony at Fortuna is not as tightly packed as some of the others we visited, providing an opportunity to photograph the birds as individuals or pairs rather than as a sea of birds. The setting was gorgeous with craggy peaks and a glacier in the background. We also encountered South Georgia’s only terrestrial megafauna—the reindeer who were introduced by the Norwegians long ago. About one-third of our group departed Fortuna on foot, heading off on the “Shackleton hike”—retracing the last leg of the famed explorer’s journey to salvation at Stromness. The rest of the group traveled to Stromness by ship, meeting the hikers behind the old whaling station at a waterfall that the original Shackleton party actually had to repel down at the end of its “hike.” Our hikers simply went around it. Stromness is an interesting site with fur seals now inhabiting the old whaling buildings (despite the warning signs of danger and asbestos). The terrain behind the station is boggy with saturated green clumps of moss. There is also a gentoo penguin colony up on a ridge and many of the birds there had newly-hatched chicks.
Gold Harbor / Cooper Bay
We encountered our first wieners when we landed at Gold Harbor this morning. Our expedition leader encouraged us to lie down on the beach and let the elephant seal pups “do their thing.” The pups were about six weeks old and left alone on the beach; at that age they are hoping to get a meal and try to suckle everything they come in contact with. Gold Harbor is spectacular with a hanging glacier, a king penguin colony, a gentoo colony, cliffs of nesting light-mantled sooty albatross, and of course lots of elephant seals. We had the spotting scope on the beautiful sooty albatross which allowed us a great view of these birds that nest in steep areas where they are rarely seen. Zodiac rides into a protected harbor got us up close to the hanging glacier.
On our repositioning to Cooper Bay, we had a rare and wonderful view of South Georgia’s major peaks with a blue sky background. At Cooper Bay we climbed the tussock to view a macaroni penguin colony and on a Zodiac cruise of the bay we even spied a few chinstrap penguins. The captain took the ship up Drygalski Fjord after dinner, and even though we had been shrouded in fog all evening, at the back of the fjord we had a crystal clear view of the glacier. It was a magical sight with dramatic peaks all around and we were all on deck to spy the snowy petrel—third hardest bird to see according to Peter—flitting about in front of the glacier.
King Haakon Bay
We had two historical stops this morning with brunch in between. First was Cape Rosa where we visited the cave in which Shackleton and his men slept when they first arrived from Elephant Island. We moved to the nearby Peggotty Bluff where some of us braved strong cold winds to hike a few miles over terminal moraine to have a closer view of the glacier over which Shackleton walked at the beginning of his crossing of South Georgia. Due to rough weather, our afternoon Zodiac cruise was cancelled and we had an impromptu lecture from our historian, Tim Baughman, before cocktails and dinner.
Hercules Bay / Grytviken
Our task this morning was Herculean indeed: brave the rain, wind, and waves, then over slick rocks, past the territorial fur seals, and up a muddy tussock hill for a view of a macaroni penguin colony. Many of us conquered all of these obstacles, and the rest of us braved the first three on a Zodiac cruise of the harbor. To our amazement, the afternoon dawned glorious, with full sun and stunning turquoise waters greeting us in Cumberland Bay as we anchored for our visit to Grytviken. We began with an Irish whiskey toast to Sir Earnest Shackleton at his resting place, then explored the old whaling station and current research base. We visited Shackleton’s memorial cross, the church, the museum, and finally the gift shop. Our ship’s lounge became an onboard post office all afternoon, so we could send mail from this most remote outpost.
We had two special presentations before dinner. One was from Jan Cheek, one of our fellow passengers who spent much of her childhood in the then active whaling station of Grytviken. Her father was the local police officer and she shared a bit about her days on South Georgia and answered questions we had about life there in the mid-20th century. Next up was the captain of the HMS Endurance in the service of the British Antarctic Survey. He shared with us some of the exciting research the Survey is conducting in the Antarctic and some amazing images of this magical place.
St. Andrew’s Bay / Godthul / Royal Bay
The early birds were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise this morning over the king penguin colony at St. Andrew’s Bay—the largest in the world. The rest of the group joined them on shore in brilliant sunlight with views of Mt. Paget and several glaciers. Many of us saw the melanistic penguin with his jet black belly—a rare sight. We repositioned to Godthul after lunch and en route stopped by Ocean Harbor for a view of a sunken three-masted metal ship, now home to South Georgia shags.
South Georgia’s fickle weather had turned to rain when we got to Godthul, but we climbed the muddy slope to the gentoo penguin colony where we were able to have close views of healthy-looking chicks—many of them sets of twins. We had an early dinner in order to fit in a third landing on our last full day on South Georgia. Even though many of us did not want to don our soggy clothes, we knew it was a rare opportunity to visit a colony in the evening hours. A very special surprise was waiting for us on the beach: a leopard seal, which is a very rare sighting in South Georgia. Everyone got a good look of the shark-like marine mammal before it slid back into the water. The Royal Bay penguin colony is immense and interspersed with large elephant seal wallows. A hike up the bluff revealed that the colony extended twice as far as it appeared from shore and with pounding surf forming one border and waterfalls in the back, it was a dramatic and poignant sight.
Right Whale Bay / Elsehul
We made a return to Right Whale Bay this morning—our first landing on South Georgia so many days ago—to fully complete our circumnavigation. The weather was much better and we were able to see the tall, craggy peaks that form a dramatic background to the penguin colony and the waterfall that tumbles down from the cliffs right onto the beach. The fur seal population had increased significantly since we were last there. As we made our way back to the Zodiacs through the fur seals on the beach, we were taking our final steps on South Georgia.
We made one more stop in Elsehul Bay for Zodiac cruises. Elsehul is crammed with wildlife, including so many fur seals it would have been difficult to find a place to land. Our tour of the bay was a microcosm of South Georgia itself and we bid farewell to all the island’s creatures: macaroni, gentoo, and king penguins; fur and elephant seals; and black-browed, gray-headed, and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. We boarded the ship after our tour and watched South Georgia disappear in the fog on our way back across the Scotia Sea to the Falkland Islands.
At Sea / Ushuaia, Argentina
We spent four days crossing the Scotia Sea. Hurricane force winds and huge swells caused us to cancel our stop at Sea Lion Island in the Falklands and head straight to South America. We were disappointed to miss Sea Lion Island, but the storm was spectacular and the bridge was often crammed with spectators trying to capture the power of the sea on film. We had many lectures and recaps to keep us occupied and spent our final days of the trip organizing photos and reflecting on South Georgia. We had a farewell cocktail party and dinner on our final night at sea and tipped our hats to Captain Hartmann, the ship’s crew, and all the staff for getting us to and from South Georgia safely and in comfort.
Upon arrival in Ushuaia we made a brief stop at an overlook that afforded us views of the port, the Beagle Channel, and our beloved ship docked way down below before making our way to the airport. We took our final photos and headed our separate ways from this southernmost city at the end of our spectacular Southern Ocean adventure.