*Day 8* – this whole venture started 12 months ago when I met John McKeon of Polar Latitudes, he then sent Alex (my boss) and e-mail saying “you must send Sue to South Georgia, it will blow her mind”. John was not wrong. Having sighted the Shag Rocks yesterday today we got to South Georgia for real.
Our first stop was Elsehul we had arrived in the night and I was up on deck early to gaze in awe at the steep cliffs that were full of Brown Albatross colonies. Unfortunately, the wind here was too high for us to attempt a landing so we hauled anchor and set off further around the coast. I was so mesmerised by the scenery that I didn’t hear the call for breakfast and it was only when I noticed I was completely alone on deck that I thought I better go and check it out. Fortunately, there was still a little left out so I scoffed a couple of bits of toast.
We repositioned to Right Whale Bay, where we were to get our first opportunity to land. I was in the first zodiac as we drew up in the surf on the black sand beach we could see huge male elephant seals hauled out along with some smaller females, in the distance we could see and hear the King Penguins. I could hardly believe I was stood on South Georgia and was not sure which way to go as there was so much wildlife around; we were directed between a huge elephant Seal and a small group of penguins to the back of the beach. The elephant seal lifted it head and snorted and burped at us, showing its pink throat, but it was a very half-hearted threat and he seemed placated by all the clicking cameras, he slumped back to the ground and closed his eyes with a snort.
We walked along the beach and back up towards the mountains, however we could see many small avalanches so didn’t go too far, the katabatic winds would come out of nowhere and it was hard to stay on our feet particularly in the deep snow. On the left hand edge of the bay was a small hummock covered in tussock, amongst this were a large number of fur seals and beyond we could hear the noise of a breeding king penguin colony. The small groups we had seen on the beach were all moulting groups, looking quite grumpy and forlorn with their shaggy coats. Rounding the hummock we could see a vast colony (although small for here). Fluffy brown chicks and their elegant parents all honking to each other a cacophony. We spent an hour or so just sitting quietly watching the comings, goings and antics before we reluctantly returned to the beach. As if to remind us we had been lucky the wind picked up and snow “fell” horizontally, as we climbed into the zodiacs
in the surf and headed back to our warm and welcoming expedition ship.
During lunch we moved into the Bay of Isles and we are currently anchored in Rosita Bay, in a snow and hail storm.
*Day 9* – I have an odd collection of inspiring images around my desk at work including Edward Wilson’s Blizzard a simple pencil sketch of a lone figure battling winds and snow to collect a meteorological reading, I felt like I had walked into the painting today. We had anchored off Salisbury Plain before breakfast in a very strong and cold wind, air temperature was 3 degrees but the wind chill made this considerably lower. We all thought that the landing would be called off so to say the dining room emptied quickly when it was announced we would leave in 45 minutes is an understatement, Usain Bolt would have been impressed.
As we surfed into the beach the wind picked up and we picked our way through the elephant seals and were told to follow the flag marked route to the main colony avoiding all the small groups along the way. The wind blew and the snow whipped up, most stopped where they were expecting to be called back. I could just make out the flapping red of the flag so undeterred carried on.
The flags were just 30 metres apart but only just visible; sometimes having a low centre of gravity is a real bonus! I trudged on exhilarated by the feeling of utter remoteness and called by the faint noise of the colony over the howling gale. Perseverance was rewarded – I arrived at the colony which stretched in front of me and up into the low tussock covered hills. A mixture of the elegant adults with pristine plumage, fluffy brown chicks and scruffy adults in moult that looked decided unhappy with life. There was a cacophony of hooting and squeaking, the wind began to abate and the sun broke through shedding light across this spectacle that just grew and grew in front of my eyes to unbelievable numbers.
There are few destinations in life that truly live up to their hype but all that I had heard about this had not prepared me for such an amazing sight. Curious chicks approached these brightly coloured people not quite sure of us, a gust of wind would send them scuttling back into the huddle with comical wing flapping and exited squeaking. These balls of fluff had endured the entire winter on South Georgia and all that it could throw at them, after three hours we returned to our warm ship to be greeted with mugs of hot chocolate, back to reality!
This will be etched on my memory forever, along with the lingering smell of penguin poo that has impregnated my clothes and camera bag – something to share with the folks back home.
The reposition at lunchtime was not far as we had been lucky enough to get a licence to visit Prion Island where Wandering Albatross nest. The beach landing was a small one and it was covered in elephant and fur seals, who were generous enough to be quite easy-going about our presence since there was less than 5 metres between them. One of the Elephant seals gave birth just before we arrived and the tiny pup was suckling hard when we arrived.
A board walk led up into the tussock covered hills and at the end of this the gentoos had decided to nest. We carefully picked out way through them and headed up into the hillocks. On the way up we passed the endemic South Georgia pipit and also a pair of South Georgia pintail ducks. The tussock grass was full of fur seals and higher up the nests of the Wandering Albatross. You wouldn’t believe that such a large bird could hide so well, what at first appearance was empty turned out to have at least eight chicks from last year’s brood. They would occasionally pop up over the tussock in a slightly gawky fashion, then get up and stretch their mighty wings, only then could you really appreciate how large these birds are, I needed my wide-angle lens to get the full wingspan in. Preening, stretching and generally looking rather ungainly they entertained us for hours. A reward for our patience was the arrival of an adult who then feed the enormous and greedy chick.
In all a day that will be difficult to surpass however we start at 5am tomorrow so it seems there is plenty more to come.