Gold Harbour, South Georgia

2015 Circumnavigation of South Georgia with the Falkland Islands Field Report

Ingrid Nixon|December 28, 2015|Field Report

Friday, October 23, 2015 - Santiago, Chile

Crowns in my purse I have and goods at home. And so am come abroad to see the world. ~ William Shakespeare

Passport: check! Parka: check! Sense of adventure: check! Coming from myriad points on the planet, today we arrived in Santiago to meet our South Georgia traveling companions. Once ensconced in the Holiday Inn, many chose to spend the afternoon seeing the sights of this historic Chilean city. Welcome cocktails, dinner, and brief announcements only whet the appetite for adventures to come. It was then to bed, as we had an early departure the next morning for our flight to the Falkland Islands.

Saturday, October 24 - Santiago / Stanley, Falkland Islands / Embark Sea Adventurer

I lived on…full of sea dreams and the most charming anticipation of strange islands and adventures. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

Just before boarding our morning flight, our last two staff members arrived from the US, having been delayed by weather—phew! We enjoyed splendid views of the Andes as we flew to the Falklands via Punta Arenas. After landing and clearing into the country, we boarded buses for the lengthy ride through the rolling Falklands countryside to the capital city of Stanley. The guides pointed out stone runs, in which glacial and freeze/thaw processes have moved rocks into distinct channels streaming down the hillsides. We had a brief time in Stanley to poke around town before boarding the Sea Adventurer, our home for the coming weeks. As we slipped our lines and sailed towards South Georgia, the day came to a close with a splendid sunset.

Sunday & Monday, October 25 & 26 - At Sea

I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross. ~ Robert Cushman Murphy, Logbook for Grace

Our first day at sea was a chance to get used to the ship and the motion of the ocean. Seabirds, like the giant wandering albatross, followed us throughout the day, effortlessly winging their way over the waves that gently tossed our ship. We enjoyed the rare opportunity to see southern fulmars and Atlantic petrels in the same view, as the latter is rarely found in these latitudes. We turned out in our finery when Captain Mykola Tililyuk from the Ukraine and his staff hosted a welcome cocktail party and dinner.

On our second day at sea en route to South Georgia, the ocean waves proved mesmerizing. Occasional whale blows drew us to the railings for brief glimpses. Sharp eyes earned bottles of champagne for both Matthew Thomas and Dave Parent who simultaneously spotted our first iceberg—and it was a beauty! A tremendous tabular berg at least three miles long, glowing on the horizon about 15 miles away. In preparation for our anticipated landing tomorrow, we learned the dos and don’ts ashore at South Georgia, as well as washed our boots and vacuumed our Velcro to prevent the unintended introduction of seeds and other ills to this isolated island. We also picked up our Zodiac life vests. Did someone mention adventure? Bring it on.

Tuesday, October 27 - Elsehul Bay, South Georgia/ Right Whale Bay

High adventure, strenuous days, lonely nights, unique experiences. ~ Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia

Land ho! Mid-morning we pulled into Elsehul, a small bay in the northwest corner of the island, our first opportunity to Zodiac cruise, kayak, and walk ashore to get a sampling of South Georgia’s wildlife. Large bull elephant seals surrounded by females with pups dotted the shoreline, burping, blatting, and bawling. Fur seals snoozed on the beach and played in the shallows. South Georgia pipits, the only song bird in the Antarctic, flitted from tussock to tussock. The walk to the gray-headed albatross proved slippery and slimy, but worth it to see these magnificent birds on the nest. With weather and daylight in our favor, we relocated to Right Whale Bay to wander among the king penguins and seals, with a spectacular glacial backdrop. We returned to our snug little ship at dusk and gathered in the lounge to enjoy cake and ice cream, celebrating the birthday of our expedition leader, Russ Evans.

Fun Fact: We also learned that one hundred years ago on this day, Sir Ernest Shackleton gave the order to abandon the Endurance in the Weddell Sea.

Wednesday, October 28 - Salisbury Plain / Prion Island

We must never lose sense of awe at the magnificence of our planet. ~ Unknown

This morning we landed at Salisbury Plain, with king penguins galore! Young king penguins, called “oakum boys” and bearing a strong resemblance to kiwi fruit, stood in crèches throughout this expansive rookery. Their whistling calls combined with the lower trumpets of the mature birds created a splendid cacophony.

During lunch we relocated a short distance away to Prion Island in the Bay of Isles. A short walk up a boardwalk put us in the midst of wandering albatross chicks sitting on their nests, patiently waiting for their parents to come feed them. In a few short weeks they will stretch their lithe wings and be off to roam the Southern Ocean.

Thursday, October 29 - Fortuna Bay / Grytviken

For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave. ~ From Prospice, a poem by Robert Browning often quoted by Ernest Shackleton

With low clouds and eventual rain, we landed in Fortuna Bay for a nice, albeit wet, walk up to meet the local penguins and seals. This is the bay Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean dropped down into by mistake en route to Stromness on the first-ever island crossing. Later we sailed around to Grytviken, site of an extensive whaling operation in the first half of the 20th century. Members of the South Georgia Heritage Trust gave an impassioned talk about the recent effort to rid South Georgia of rats. Based on the number of pipits we’ve been seeing on the main island, they are cautiously optimistic that they have been successful, though monitoring continues.

We began our visit at the small cemetery to toast Shackleton, a.k.a. “the Boss,” and Frank Wild. We then had time to explore the former whaling station and museum before hosting guests from South Georgia onboard for dinner. Skies cleared throughout the afternoon and evening, making for a spectacular sunset.

Friday, October 30 - St. Andrews Bay

I must confess the disappointment I now met with did not affect me much; for, to judge of the bulk by the sample, it would not be worth the discovery. ~ Captain Cook on South Georgia

Though we had winds and a swell, we awoke to fabulous sunshine. We tucked into Godthul for flat calm water. Long walkers endured a short, bouncy Zodiac ride around to Cobblers Cove to climb up a steep snow slope for vistas and time with macaroni penguins. Among the highlights from Zodiac cruisers were the myriad courtship flights of light-mantled albatross on the surrounding cliffs. Our visit to St. Andrews Bay later in the day put us in the midst of one of THE largest king penguin colonies in the world, with a population ‘guestimated’ to be pushing 190,000 pairs. We wandered and wondered until sunset. A leopard seal playing in the shallows along the beach enjoyed by many en route back to the ship capped the day.

Saturday, October 31 - Gold Harbour / Cooper Bay

South Georgia is for those who grew up dreaming of a Garden of Eden where you would walk unharmed among abundant and fearless wildlife in a beautiful wilderness.... ~ Tim and Pauline Carr, Antarctic Oasis

By the light of the bright moon and the Southern Cross we made our way ashore at Gold Harbour at 3:30a.m. Doubts as to the value of the early rising vanished at the spectacle of the beach and its wildlife awash with the first golden rays of the sun. We lingered at the beach and kayaked until mid-morning, which allowed us to take in the beach politics, including an extended and bloody battle between two bull elephant seals. At Cooper Bay in the afternoon, we got up close and personal with macaroni and chinstrap penguins, and the kayakers got one last outing. Later, with snow petrels as escorts, we cruised past enormous icebergs near the entrance to Drygalski Fjord at the southern tip of the island. Out on deck was the place to be when we tucked up into the fjord for a healthy dose of glacial spectacle. Then we headed up the rugged western side of the island, a coast rarely seen by visitors.

Sunday, November 1 - Cape Rosa / King Haakon Bay

The ice and the waves had a voice of menace that night but I heard it only in my dreams. ~ Ernest Shackleton, from South, after the 800-mile boat journey

It was only befitting that we went ashore with wind, snow, and a good swell, for today we landed at Cave Cove on Cape Rosa. This is where Shackleton and crew first landed after their 800-mile open boat journey from Elephant Island. Very few people ever get here. We took turns lying down in the cave per Shackleton’s diagram in South, and from that could get a sense of the shelter this small overhang afforded the six men of the James Caird. Like Shackleton, we then relocated up into King Haakon Bay to the site known as “Peggotty Bluff”. From here, Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley left three companions behind in an overturned boat to go up over the island for help. We looked at the mountains shrouded in fog and wondered: How . . . did . . . they . . . do . . . it?

Monday – Thursday, November 2 – 5 - At Sea

King Weather is the tyrant of these latitudes, and he rules South Georgia with ruthless despotism. ~ Frank Hurley, Shackleton’s Argonauts

The morning of November 2 we had hoped to land at Stromness, but the Southern Ocean had other things in mind. The barometer plunged as a series of low pressure systems rolled through. The seas and waves responded with vigor. For a period of time we had sustained wind speeds of 50 knots with occasional gusts to 100 and 15 meter waves. Big waves crashed across the bow and the foredeck. The outside decks were periodically closed. For a while it looked like we would have to skip the Falklands all together and even then, an on time arrival in Ushuaia was doubtful. Russ worked with the Bridge crew to choose a course that would keep our options open. The ship’s speed varied from 10 knots to 4 in order to take the waves as comfortably as possible. Squat glasses in the dining room replaced the long-stemmed wine glasses, but more than one person received an impromptu beverage bath when the ship performed an expansive roll. Then on the fourth day, in what felt like a miracle, sea conditions moderated. The night of November 5, Russ announced that we would attempt a landing at the Falklands in the morning. A round of applause followed.

Friday, November 6 - Bleaker Island, Falkland Islands

Why are these islands so peaceful? The answer surely must be they’re really a piece of heaven, which came tumbling down to the sea. ~ Des Peck on the Falkland Islands

The soft, white sand felt oh so lovely and solid beneath our feet as we landed on Bleaker Island. Morning fog burned off to blue skies and brilliant sunshine as we enjoyed a needed leg stretch to and from the rockhopper penguins and imperial cormorant rookeries. This was a great opportunity to snag a few more species of land birds and ducks, like dark-faced ground tyrants, tussock birds, and silver grebes. We gathered for our group photo on the foredeck as we set sail, enjoyed the captain’s farewell cocktail party, and the chocolate extravaganza after dinner. A chocolate castle? Bravo.

Saturday & Sunday, November 7 & 8 - Beagle Channel / Ushuaia, Argentina / Disembark / Buenos Aires

Happy is he who like Ulysses has made a great journey. ~ Joachim Du Bellay

Cruising along steadily at 14 knots on smooth seas, we made great progress toward the Beagle Channel. The mountains of Isla de los Estados (Staten Island) greeted us around breakfast time. Land—a beautiful sight! We picked up our pilot mid-afternoon and sailed steadily into Ushuaia, enjoying Magellanic penguins and occasional brief dolphin sightings en route. We tied up alongside in Ushuaia just about dinnertime. Some went out to sample a bit of Argentine nightlife afterwards.

All adventures must come to an end to make way for new ones. And so it was we departed the Sea Adventurer in the morning, with most headed to Buenos Aires and points beyond. Our cameras and hard drives full of photos. Our minds teeming with memories and stories we shall be sharing for the rest of our lives. Onward.

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