“You have got to send Sue to South Georgia – it will blow her mind.” These were the words that convinced my manager that my proposed three weeks out of the office was reasonable. And how glad I was – South Georgia surpassed each and every one of my expectations, throwing the full gambit of weather, luck, disappointment and emotions my way in just four days.
Suspense quickly built from my first sighting of Shag Rocks, a collection of bird-smothered jagged peaks that loom in the fog, but a blown-out landing at Elsehul reminded me of the importance of travelling to these world-extremes with expert Captains and highly experienced expedition leaders who have a plan B (and C, and D…) Abandoned landings are not unusual in these parts, where huge ocean swells and katabatic winds make for challenging zodiac journeys, but being in the right hands ensures that every possible opportunity is taken advantage of.
I am not sure if it was the noise or the smell that struck me most upon landing at Right Whale Bay. I was under careful instruction not to approach within five metres of any of the native wildlife, especially the elephant seals, who my guide endearingly nicknamed “blubber slugs”. They littered the landscape with barely a few metres between them – tightly packed groups of females congregated with tiny pups, while creches of weaners gazed with the biggest and most beseeching eyes I had ever come across.
In contrast, colossal beachmasters with truncated noses and faces only a mother could love prepared to fight to keep their harem of females (who would be ready to mate once their pups were weened). I had watched before as these huge males would rear up and hurl themselves at each other with mouths agape, teeth tearing into necks, gory and visceral but equally spellbinding to watch. As they battle, snorting and roaring and flailing their nostrils, they let out pungent belches that reek of decaying fish.
Meanwhile, less offensively smelling chancers nip in to tempt the females, but at their own risk – given the right motivation, beachmasters can move at a somewhat surprising speed, lolloping along as great ripples of blubber kick up the black sand. Not wanting to get in the way of these testosterone-pumped beasts, I tiptoed my way past a few slumbering males (who occasionally opened an eye and let out a half-hearted snort) towards a small king penguin colony. Distracted by photographing this cluster, I was slow to notice a weaner elephant seal that was wobbling closer and closer to me until it pinned my wellington boot to the ground and started sucking on my knee. Not wanting to touch it, I wiggled my foot free from its considerable weight and backed off. I hadn’t been expecting to wash elephant seal dribble off my trousers at the end of the day, but anything can happen in these extremes.
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 wind and snow to collect a meteorological reading. Visiting Salisbury Plain, I felt like I had walked into this scene. The landing was a challenge and a set of flags had been set up to mark our way from the landing spot to the penguin colony. Shortly after setting off the wind picked up and squalls of snow and sand began to blow around us, almost taking me off my feet. As I hunkered down and trudged into the glacial blast, I felt so alive despite my breath freezing on my eyelashes. Through the storm we found groups of grouchy looking adult king penguins, themselves coated in snow, and a huddle of fluffy brown chicks with their backs to the wind. As the clouds lifted and sun broke through, the unbelievable sight of hundreds of thousands of penguins spread as far as the eye could see.
The mind-blowing scene was enhanced by a cacophony of wheezy honking and chitters as parents called to chicks and vice versa – how they find each other in all this confusion is unfathomable. The chicks eventually shook off the snow and grew interested in us strange and colourful creatures. I sat quietly with my camera poised with its telephoto lens, which proved redundant as curiosity got the better of the chicks. They approached cautiously, eventually pecking at my boots, nosing through my rucksack and finally breaking the lens glass.
“Men wanted for hazardous journey…” Visiting South Georgia was almost like a pilgrimage of sorts. I had listened to scratchy records of Shackleton’s voice describing his expeditions and read many books about his amazing escape. So, when I found myself standing at his graveside in a small cemetery in Grytviken, toasting a tot of whiskey to “The Boss”, I was moved. My hankering to return to this magical island has not since diminished. It has captured my heart and blown my mind.