South Georgia exceeded even our wildest expectations. As we head for the Antarctic Peninsula, I am overwhelmed with a sense of awe that there still exists a place of such wild and rugged beauty and where wildlife reigns in concentrations and diversity that has to be seen to be believed. Our expedition began on the north coast and we cruised down the eastern side of the island, calling at bays, coves, harbors, and fjords along the way.
The Bay of Isles served as our introduction, the early sun illuminating emerald green islets and a dramatic ridge of snow-covered peaks. Our first iceberg could be spotted off in the distance; before us lay the Grace and Lucas Glaciers with the vast open Salisbury Plain in-between. Zodiacs dropped us on the long wide beach and we were immediately engulfed by the sights and sounds of a colony of over 200,000 king Penguins. A three-mile hike took us across the beach, up and over the tussock-covered ridge to an overlook with expansive views of Mt. Ashley, glaciers, the bay, and the penguin colony, which we observed and photographed in all its chaos!
There were adults in various stages of moult, crèches of brown fluffy chicks known as “Oakum boys” that survived the long winter fast and were now begging for food. We saw the full-bellied adults returning to feed their chicks, and adults without chicks were also returning to the beach to begin the mating process, with vocalization and elegant displays of courtship. The penguins are everywhere, literally as far as the eye can see—a wonderful scene.
We enjoyed a hearty lunch back on board as we sailed to Elsehul, a cove named by Norwegian whalers, known for the roar of the katabatic winds that blow down. Almost on cue, these winds picked up, blowing in heavy cloud cover and light rain, accentuating the dramatic scenery of the bay all the more. We set out by Zodiac to cruise along the sheltered shore waters, viewing black browed and grey headed albatrosses, and a macaroni penguin rookery high up on the tussock slopes. The small rocky beaches revealed fur seal pups only days old, and fierce territorial battles among the males.
Our second day in South Georgia began with our entry into King Edward Cove and the sight of the white cross that marks the Shackleton memorial at Hope Point. Our morning was dedicated to visiting Grytviken, the island’s first whaling station. Standing beside Sir Ernest Shackleton’s gravestone, Peter lead us in an eloquent toast to “The Boss.” Walking past the rusting ruins of the whaling station, we visited the South Georgia Museum and the picturesque church that was brought over from Strommen, Norway in 1913. After making a few small purchases and sending postcards off, we set sail for Fortuna Bay.
Fortuna Bay is a fjord flanked by spectacular alpine scenery and as we cruised along we could see herds of reindeer grazing on the grassy slopes. Zodiacs landed us at Whistle Cove from where we headed inland to view a king penguin colony on the level outwash plain below the Konig Glacier. Crossing a few shallow streams, our first wildlife sighting was a herd of reindeer grazing on the plain before us. The relatively small colony of king penguins turned out to be the most picturesque, huddled along the shores of a meandering stream, the penguins back-dropped by snowy peaks.
A small group elected to reenact the final leg of Shackleton’s route across the island. Setting off from Fortuna Bay, graced with cooperative weather, we were afforded exceptional views as we walked over picturesque sandstone and shale, past snow and icefields, around Crean Lake, and down into Stromness. The descent proved difficult with unstable footing on the scree slopes so we slid down the snow fields, thoroughly enjoying the “easy way down.” We stopped briefly at Shackleton waterfall and followed the meandering river to Stromness Harbour and the now derelict whaling station where Zodiacs were waiting to return us to the comfort of Le Diamant.
Our final day on this remarkable island began exceptionally early as our goal was to enjoy sunrise at Gold Harbour—an amphitheater of hanging glaciers with an abundance of wildlife. Landing on the beach in the dark and overcast morning it soon became clear that sunrise was inconsequential; we were here for the wildlife. King penguins, gentoo penguins, and elephant seals were all jostling for space on the beach while light-mantled sooty albatrosses were nesting on the cliffs and fur seals were lounging about in the tussock. Several hundred elephant seals and their pups dominated the sandy beach; the pups had recently been weaned and were very inquisitive, coming over to investigate anyone or anything sitting on the beach. Walking down the long sandy beach, we watched the penguins go in and out of the surf, sometimes rather clumsily. At the end of the long beach and below the hanging Bertrab Glacier is a large lagoon where we watched young elephant seal males practicing their fighting techniques.
We cruised to Cooper Bay where we hoped to land and hike up to a macaroni penguin colony. On arrival, the plans began to change as Julie announced that we should all dress very warmly since the katabatic winds were blowing fiercely and sleet had begun to fall. This is expedition travel after all and JD, our leader, was determined to forge ahead with our plan, dispatching a Zodiac of staff to mark the walking trail from the beach to the colony. An honorable battle was waged with three aggressive male fur seals but with fears of losing Peter and Jonathan, we retreated into the ocean and lost the beach—no hike would occur today. Instead, we had a very enjoyable Zodiac cruise that produced excellent up-close views of the macaroni penguins on the rocky outcrops. One beach was a particular highlight with chinstrap, king, and gentoo penguins alongside elephant and fur seals. Small ice chunks were floating on the bay and off in the distance we could see a field of huge icebergs.
We set sail in the late afternoon, Capitan Garcia navigating expertly though a field of beautifully sculpted icebergs, the perfect prelude to the great white continent that lies ahead.