Week 38: South Georgia

Jason Harbour
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Jason Harbour

Week 38: South Georgia

Coopers Bay & Gold harbour

Braving the Scotia Sea we are getting excited early morning to go and discover South Georgia. Already from the ship, with binoculars, you can see the wildlife on the shores which gets the juices flowing. The main challenge for South Georgia however is the weather which can be moody and tough on the type of expedition we are on that relies on zodiac transfers. With the marine deck bobbing up and down, a swell of 2 meters will cancel any activity as you can simply not get into the zodiac safely. So we keep our fingers and toes crossed and get rewarded with a last minute decision to still go for a zodiac cruise along the coast. The hop onto the zodiac is the main hurdle, but after that the ride on the boat – though wet – is fairly easy.

And boy does it not disappoint! The beaches are covered with a mix of baby fur seals, elephant seals, chinstrap and gentoo penguins, but the real treat on this island is the addition of 2 more penguins; the Macaroni and King penguin. Right off the ship we get greeted by swimming King penguins, which really stand out with their bright orange colors on their black/grey/white skin. As we make our way towards the coast there are plenty more huddled together or out for a stroll along the beach. Baby fur seals play en masse and pick on the penguins, while plenty of different seabirds scour the bay for food. The endemic pipit also makes an appearance, once almost extinct it now flourishes with rats eradicated from the island. To top it off, we again see a leopard seal going for the kill, seems to become our signature experience when on a zodiac cruise, so our first experience at South Georgia is already a highlight!

For the afternoon the ‘Gold Harbour’ is chosen for a landing that is a summary of what South Georgia is all about. The bay is home to a large King Penguin colony, which means there are literally thousands gathered on the beach where we walk. In the middle of the large group of penguins are chicks, that sometimes make it outside of the huddle only to be ushered in again by adults. The King Penguin chick has an all brown coat, making it one of the uglier looking chicks in penguin terms, but it also makes them stand out as they very clumsily make their way across the pebbled beach.

The harbour isn’t only filled with these penguins, we are also greeted by several Gentoo penguins, large numbers of fur seal babies and a big group of elephant seals, the biggest seal in the world which becomes very clear from looking at them from a distance! Weighing up to 4,500 kilos, this is not a mammal to mess with, but luckily it is time for them to shed their skin which means they spend all their energy on this while lounging on the beach, instead of picking a fight with the funny looking tourists that pass them by. With so many animals around it is difficult to really focus on one or the other, and the best thing seems to just stop and admire the view. The landscape is filled with mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and the greens of tussok grass, and the weather very often adds a mystical veil in the shape of fog – magical! If this is what South Georgia has to offer we understand why it is considered one of the most incredible wildlife spots on the planet, and we have the joy of visiting it…

Jason Harbour & Leith Harbour

The strange thing about South Georgia is that every time you think it can not get better ito wildlife… and then it DOES. For this day we have a landing planned in Jason Harbour, a cove clouded in thick mist when we wake up and where we are greeted by a ‘fogbow’, which is something we had never seen before! As we approach land we are still surrounded by mist, making it a very mystical landing as king penguins stand on the shore to greet us. To get to a beautiful lake/bay within the cove, we have to cross a patch of land which is covered in tussok grass, and in the grass tons of baby fur seals are hiding so we have to be careful! While a path is marked by the red flags the animals simply don’t care about them which meant we had to detour as a huge elephant seal decided to block the path in the meantime. As the boys called it “it is like a real life video game of dodging animals in a maze of grass!”. As time goes by the sun warms up the bay and gets rid of the last slither of fog, forcing all to take off our heavy coats and enjoy a beautiful morning here in Jason Harbour.

For the afternoon, we have to avoid some bad weather and head to Leith Harbour, the biggest former whaling station of South Georgia. As you are not allowed to land we have a zodiac cruise in the bay, and the rain (our first!) gives it an extra gloomy feel. The whaling station looks so ominous and with the earlier presentations on whaling and movies that we have seen it really gives you goosebumps when you consider the massive slaughter that took place here. They could fully ‘process’ a whale within half an hour, leaving nothing where it was laying before and thousands were killed per season from the early 1900’s to th 1960’s. There is no whaling anymore today and the decaying buildings leave a stark contrast between nature and human action from way back when. Thankfully the rain subsides quickly and most of the cruise we enjoy the scenery and of course the large numbers of seals and birds enjoying the bay.

Grytviken & Fortuna Bay

To visit Grytviken is not an easy feat in normal times, but Covid certainly adds an extra layer of complexity to the ordeal. To land your entire ship has to be Covid free, which we had a small challenge with as 2 passengers were quarantined from day 1 with a suspected (and later confirmed) case. Thankfully their isolation period was just enough for the authorities to clear our ship to land in Grytviken! Beyond Covid, the main concern for visitors on any of the landing sites in South Georgia is the spread of alien species of plants and other organics that could harm the local biosphere. This means that going on land in Grytviken requires a mass-cleaning of everything we will wear when going off the ship, and for the ship crew to give the checking officer a tour of the ship to see if all their prepwork was done properly (including rat traps on board!). The island has been successful in eradicating all non native species of animals (including large numbers of rats), but plants are much more difficult to fight and they certainly do not want any new rats to come. Every single passenger is checked by the officer when getting in the zodiac, but we all pass with flying colors 🙂 – first 100% ever for Poseidon.

First stop on land is the cemetery where Shackleton is buried, mere days after his ship the Endurance is actually found at the bottom of the ocean in Antarctica – 3000 meters deep and mostly in tact! The research ship that did it is actually in the Grytviken harbour with us and has already celebrated this achievement the day before us. Interestingly, the ship is found 100 years after Shackleton passed away. We have a celebration of our own, as the bar manager serves whisky (a sailors tradition) over his grave for everybody. We do our best to avoid the seals lying around and go to discover the rest of town, mostly the buildings and ships that are in ruins from the old whaling station. Some buildings have been restored, such as the church (where the boys get to ring the bells!), the post office (where we send cards that will probably only arrive in a few months) and the museum with plenty to discover.

In the afternoon we hit Fortuna Bay, one with a king penguin colony further into the countryside. The fun part about it is that it requires a walk passing plenty of fur seals again (the beach where we land the zodiac is covered with them, pestering the crew in charge of landing the zodiacs) and a nice leg stretch along a stream. The colony can be observed from a small hilltop, which means you can sit and enjoy the view of thousands of penguins and their chicks, while skuas fly over head trying to snag a little one or an egg. In the meantime, the penguins do the same walk as we did, coming on one path, and going on another on a perfect one way penguin highway.

We spend quite a while just admiring the view before we go back on our ‘dodge-a-seal’-return. Some are really tenacious as they try out their hunting skills, but by the time we get back to the zodiacs even Luc dares to scare them off (Bo not so much :-)). The sun is starting to set giving us a nice glow on the mountain ranges around before we head back to our ship for another fantastic dinner and debrief on the day we had plus the plans for tomorrow.

Stromness & Ocean Harbour

While Stromness also has a whaling station you are not allowed to enter, we are actually landing alongside of it with a very different destination; the waterfall at the back of the bay where Shackleton made his worldfamous crossing over land of South Georgia and heard the whistle of the whaling station for the first time. Again we almost trip over many young seals waiting at the landing site, but after this it is a great hike along the stream beds into the bay towards the glacier. Some more penguins join the fun, but with no colony nearby most wildlife is seal. The surroundings are again beautiful and a great place to imagine the challenge it must have been after all the hardship crossing the ocean in a bit more than a rowboat and then walking across a snow and ice packed island with nothing but your gut feel and bravery. It is nice to stretch our legs a bit more than usual and have a closer look at he waterfall, with many stream crossings along the way (great fun when you have waterproof boots on!).

As we had Ocean Harbour on the plans for the afternoon, the weather took a change for the worse and some big swells were engulfing the marina where we normally have to get into the zodiacs. The landing and a potential cruise are thus cancelled and a plan B in the shape whale watching is set up for the afternoon. Rightfully so, as we leave the bay in the upcoming hours we see the bad weather crouching in along the island, while we enjoy some great whale action around the ship, with several breaching! With a storm in close view we get a bit nervous about the crossing to the Falklands, so it is nice to see we still have a quiet night in one of South Georgia’s many bays before a possibly very choppy crossing!

Salisbury Plain

Luckily our expedition leader is on our side and decides to delay the crossing and try to make it as smooth as possible. In doing so, we have an extra landing on South Georgia which is an absolute stunner; Salisbury Plain. Home to one of the largest breeding colonies of King Penguins (some 60.000 PAIRS, i.e. more than 100.000 penguins in one spot!) and of course to plenty of seals in all types, shapes and sizes. It is impossible to keep the 5m distance rule as the place is covered in penguins, and truly is the most epic end of a fantastic visit to South Georgia. Here the colony can be viewed from close by, and the action of all the penguin chicks fat and in their brown down jackets while being wary of the petrels ready to haul it off and eat it on the side is very ‘National Geographic’ to say the least! In a pond in the fields are also the pintail ducks that actually eat meat (leftovers from other animals)… cute looking but odd little fellas. Hard to peel away from this wildlife heaven the time does come to say goodbye to this island in the middle of the ocean that has given us such an incredible wildlife experience.

Braving the South Atlantic

So far the weather and especially the waves have been very kind to us, but between South Georgia and Falklands we do get into the tail of a storm that passed right before our crossing. It still gave us some good 4-6 meter swells which the size of our ship you can really feel. The boys had no issues whatsoever – except Bo falling down the stairs once – but mom had a good leg of sea sickness that was not really helped by the preventative patches. So while the boys enjoyed the ship – and a very special meeting with our captain! – , the lectures and the food while also getting doubled up on some homework to catch up on, mom was laying in bed between meals, and sometimes hunched over the toilet :-p.

The enormous seabirds (albatross, petrels, etc) soaring by make it still quite magical, but the general jest is to get these 2 days of sailing over with. Of course they did, and having land in sight has just really not felt as good as it did on the Falklands… Time for some different action and get the wobble out of our legs!

Next week: Falklands & back to BA

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