Blog Archives: South Georgia


Leading Ladies: One of our own – Q & A with Sue Flood

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Sue Flood was an Associate Producer on the award winning BBC series ‘The Blue Planet’ and is a photographer, author, wildlife filmmaker and conservationist. Her travel and photography highlights include diving with humpback whales in the South Pacific, face to face encounters with leopard seals in the Antarctic, filming of polar bears in the Arctic and on safari in Zambia. Sue has led many of our photographic wildlife group tours and will be joining our cruise to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands with Monty Halls and Telegraph Tours departing next January.

We asked Sue to share her thoughts on who inspired her to become a photographer, which place she is happiest, her best travel advice and more…

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

At school I wanted to work on wildlife films with David Attenborough, so to get to do that for 11 years was truly a dream come true!

What ambitions do you still have?

To be a better photographer and get fitter!

Ambition or talent: Which matters more?

They’re both important. And you make your own luck, to some extent. Whenever people tell me I’m lucky, I always reply that the harder I work, the luckier I get!

If your 20-year old self could see you know, what would he/she think?

I think she’d be pleasantly surprised at how happy I am, doing a job that I love, and very happily married to a childhood friend who I met when I was 9!  I also think she’d be amazed to find out I was invited to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace as a result of my photography. 

If you had to rate your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

It goes up to 11, like the amps in Spinal Tap.

In what place are you happiest?

Home is where the heart is. Though an emperor penguin colony is the place I’m happiest in the field!

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Of course I do. I wish it were possible to do my job without getting on a plane.

How often do you travel?

Several long-haul trips a year.

The one essential you travel with?

My camera, of course!

Your best piece of travel advice?

Save your airmiles!  Saving my points with Virgin Airlines allowed me to get married on the beach on Necker Island last year (and Richard Branson was our witness!).

What advice would you give to young ladies wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Work hard, and don’t ever think of doing this job unless you want to do it more than anything else in the world!

What motivates you to do what you do?

Getting people interested in the natural world, whether through still or moving images.

Who has inspired you to do what you do?

No prizes for guessing it’s David Attenborough!

If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would change?

No – most of my career has been wonderful, and the bits that haven’t have taught me something, so I wouldn’t change a thing.

Travel with Sue on one of our wildlife group tours below or get in touch with our experts for more information on an exclusive Galapagos charter in 2017 led by her. Call us on 01285 601 791 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

On to Elephant Island

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*Days 13 – 15* our two and a half days at sea were not as bad as anticipated, the seas were very rough when we first left South Georgia but were much calmer as we headed closer to the South Shetland Islands.

The hours of staring out to sea paid off with me seeing a Sperm whale and an unspecified beaked whale (I didn’t manage to get a photo for identification). During the roughest part of the journey I looked out of my cabin window to see 5 Orcas just outside, they surfaced a few times before disappearing, the marine biologist, Colin Baird, is yet to forgive me for not telling him, although they would have been well gone by the time I found him. I am under pressure now to spot more Orcas and known on-board as the “whale whisperer”.

We also encountered 10 or so fin whales, the second largest species in the world, feeding in the very deep waters north of the peninsula. During the sea days we had talks on a wide range of subjects from the classic explorers to some of the lesser known such as Nordenskold whose journey was almost as epic as Shackleton’s.

Early on day 15 Elephant island loomed out of the fog, a truly godforsaken place to have to await rescue, we were here on a spring morning with thick snow but watery sunshine, they endured unbelievable hardship on this small spit of land enclosed by glaciers and cliffs, a sobering start to our day.

As we have reached the Antarctic Peninsula we went through our bio security checks again, cleaning all our equipment, hovering bags and all velcro fastenings to remove any seeds from other regions so we are ready for our upcoming excursions.

Our expedition leader Alex is the youngest member of staff (and probably on-board) yet he has very a wise head on his shoulders and six years of experience. He decided we should explore Gibbs Island by zodiac, not normally on the “tourist” map but we were not disappointed. The sun shone brightly, the seas were calm and we were rewarded with fantastic views into the snow covered mountains that were home to chinstrap penguins. We watched them swim in from the deep and leap onto the rocks of the beach before starting their arduous journey up to their nesting sites. The frequently trod routes were deep grooves in the snowfield creating what looked like moguls. We watched eagerly encouraging them to make their leaps, many of which ended with the poor penguins sliding back down the slope to begin again or an awkward beak first landing. One penguin disappeared completely only to be cheered on when he reappeared from the deep snow, shaking himself off rather indignantly. I could have stayed there for hours but lunch beckoned so we returned to the ship and are now heading to Deception Island for tomorrows landings.

Final Days in South Georgia

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*Day 12* – Gold Harbour bathed in golden light, those who got up at 4am were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise across the mountain and glaciers of this stunning harbour. The seas were calm and surf not too big which was good as most of us were still half asleep.

The beach was strewn with Elephant seals so densely packed it was hard to find a way through and there was a particularly high density of males, most of which were peacefully sleeping but a few reared up and bellowed or snorted at us but more half-hearted warnings than a serious threat. I picked my way to the back of the beach and walked along to the King Penguin colony, only a small one but fascinating as ever. The chicks were quick to come and look us over, hoping for food, all fluffed up with nowhere to go.

Sitting quietly watching the penguins a young elephant seal became quite curious shuffling ever closer with those big beseeching eyes looking up at me it stopped a few inches short of my boots and sniffed then seemed to settle down. A few minutes later curiosity got the better of it, I stood up gently so I could move away but before I could its flipper was on my boot. I stood as quietly as possible as it sniffed me straining it head up to smell my camera, it was quite a hefty little blighter. Satisfied I was friend not foe it began to nuzzle my knee, pushing harder it then started sucking my waterproof trousers, hoping for milk I assume, when it started to open it mouth wider and I could see the pink of his tongue as it wrapped its mouth very gently around my knee I decided I really should pull away. I managed to twist my foot down into the sand and pull my foot from under its flipper and backed away slowly, keeping an eye out for the other pups that were surrounding me. I have no photos from the encounter as it was too close but it will be etched on my mind forever.

A ships cruise up Drygalski Fjord was our final excursion for South Georgia and we saw her in raw beauty, the wind howled at 50 knots, snow racking our faces as we tried keep our feet, a bracing experience. At the end of the fjord is a large glacier, this gave us a little respite from the wind as we watched huge chucks of ice fall off the terminal face. The peaks of the mountains are shrouded in mist giving it an ethereal feel. We will sail out round cape disappointment this afternoon and head south towards the peninsula, we have already encountered a number of icebergs similar in size to the millennium stadium; we have seen satellite pictures of an iceberg north of South Georgia which is about half the size of the island itself so we are expecting great things. In true Shackleton style this year is the record for pack ice around the continent, the ice charts show just the tip of peninsula is free of fast ice, it will be interesting to see the difference from my previous visit in February.

Arriving at South Georgia

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*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 Rositta Bay, in a snow and hail storm.

*Day 9* – I have an odd collection of inspiring images around my desk at work including Edward Wilsons 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 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 meters 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 lunch time 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 meters 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 Gentoo’s 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 8 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.

Discovering South Georgia

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*Day 10* – an early start with a 5am alarm call for a pre breakfast landing at Fortuna Bay, a wet and windy landing with our first sighting of the reindeer that were introduce by the Norwegian whalers which have adapted to the reverse season of their native Arctic. They have decided to irradiate them due to the damage they are doing to native flora so this may soon be a very rare sight.

We got a great view of a Sooty Mantled Albatross nesting on a bluff which gave great views out over the bay. There were a number of Elephant Seal harems with a few hopeful males lurking in the surf only to be seen off buy the incumbent beach-master with little more than a snort and bellow. Many of the pups have already been weaned while others looked only days old, they put on so much weight in such a short space of time.

Back on board we are now eagerly awaiting breakfast while we relocate to Stromness the end of Shackleton’s great journey.

The sun shone in Stromness and we got to see South Georgia in stunning blue skies, the old whaling station is off limits due to the asbestos contamination but the beach is littered with remnants and whale bones along with the usual mixture of elephant and fur seals. Walking back up into the flat valley we saw a large herd of reindeer and also encountered an amazing bog with stunning green and red moss mounds. We could see the final mountain pass Shackleton and his men crossed before dropping down beside the waterfall on the plain and walking the final few hundred meters to the managers house.

Our final landing of the day was at Grytviken where we all paid tribute to Earnest Shackleton with a toast of Irish whisky, a quick swig for ourselves and a tot for the Boss along with Frank Wild who’s ashes were buried next to him last year. The graves of the many young men were a stark reminder of how tough life was here, many barely into their 20’s.

We were taken on a guided tour by the South Georgia Heritage staff through the various areas of the whaling station which has been kept as intact as possible. The tour ended at the fascinating museum which houses a replica of the James Caird. I am hoping the post cards I sent from here will take less than the 13 months the ones I sent from Antarctica took.

Final requirement for the night is the BBQ on the back deck.

*Day 11* – awesome and gobsmacked are not words I want to use in my blog but do actually seem right for today. We started with a landing at Gothul where the weather was a little inclement but the opportunity to get a little height and look down on the bay was too good an opportunity. In the tussock there were plenty of fur seals and on the exposed moss Gentoo penguins were nesting. There is still plenty of snow on the ground and hoof prints in the edge of the lake gave away the reindeer. In the cliffs Light Mantled Sooty Albatross were nesting and also Southern Giant Petrel.

After an early lunch we arrived into St Andrews Bay home to the largest King Penguin colony in South Georgia. The wind had picked up but now the sun shone on this magnificent bay surrounded by castellated peaks. The surf was big as we arrived on the beach making for a stern landing; the beach was strewn with Elephant seals, from new born pups and weeners to plenty of huge males. The beachmaster was being challenged and a ferocious battle ensued with both the victor and loser covered in blood by the end. The loser loped off into a nearby pool to lick his wounds and all was quiet – well as quiet as an elephant seal colony is with its constant belching and farting noises.

Leaving the fracas I headed up into the hills skirting by numerous groups of moulting penguins and the odd sleeping seals. The view down onto the colony was staggering, a patchwork of brown black and white. Groups of fluffy chicks huddled together, squawking and flapping when the ever present skuas swooped down looking for a meal, a wave of anxious chicks beaks waving would wobble like a Mexican wave. Amongst the chicks were groups of moulting birds along with a few adults that had returned to feed their chick. How they find their own chick in the confusion is incredible. All this with a backdrop of the glacier and mountains in blue sky, I simply sat mesmerised for a few hours watching the dramas play out.

We returned to the ship at 5.30 for an early meal hoping to get a landing in at Royal Bay but were thwarted by high winds, no matter the expedition leader as announced a 0415 first zodiac to Gold Harbour to watch the sunrise on our final day in South Georgia so an early night it is.

Heading South

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Sue is currently on her South Georgia, Falkland and Antarctica cruise – read all about her adventures as she sends us updates from the boat.

*Day One* – standing on the end of the pier at Puerto Madryn and looking forward to heading south. Puerto Madryn is the gateway to Peninsula Valdez famed for its wildlife including the Southern Wright whales that calve in the bay, fingers crossed we may see some as we set sail this afternoon, setting a course for the Falkland Islands.

The Only Way is South.

You know the omens are good for a trip when the first wildlife encounter is prior to leaving the dock; we had two huge sea lions alongside the ship just lazing on the dock only mildly interested in the to-ing and frow-ing. During the compulsory muster drill, that now has to be performed before the ship sets sail, a couple of Southern Wright whales were breaching in the bay, they continued to put on a show throughout the drill and well into the crew introductions. In the early evening we set sail heading south east towards the Falkland Islands a two day sail away, after a long flight I took advantage of an early night and was lulled to sleep with the rocking of the ocean.

*Day Two* – we awoke to a beautiful calm morning with sunshine, I was on deck by 6.30 watching birds in our wake, Cape petrels wheeling around the ship catching the updrafts with their dappled plumage catching the morning sunlight. Tiny storm petrels that look so fragile dancing across the tops of the waves and then the magnificent Albatross, both Royal and Black browed gracefully glide in with an occasional idle flap of their wings. They effortlessly caught up with us swirling and swooping alongside the ship.

Humpbacks were spotted on a number of occasions their huge blasts of air catching the sun as they took in lung fulls of air, then the tell-tale humpback before they dived again with a final flick of their tail. During the day we were joined by several small groups of hourglass dolphins who came in from a great distant to hang on our bow wave, like kids having fun they whipped back and forth leaping in front of the ship then disappearing as quickly as they had come. This along with six lectures over the course of the day covering everything from the conflicts of the Falkland Islands to whale identification we were never bored. With a slight tail wind and these gentle seas we are making good progress….

*Day Three* – another sunny one but the wind has picked up and the swells of the Southern Ocean have caught up with quite a few of us, lunchtime numbers were definitely depleted! Despite the rougher seas we did see a couple of humpback whales and we were again joined by the hour glass dolphins. The afternoon was set aside for the briefings on zodiac landings and the biosecurity measures. In the late afternoon land could be seen and as we were a little ahead of time we took the opportunity to sail close to the Jason Island group which has a large black browed Albatross colony and many of them wheeled around the boat as we watched the setting sun.

*Day Four* – the first big day as we were to have two landings today. The first was at Carcass Island where we landed at Dyke bay and walked along the head of the beach to the small holding which takes guests, a number of which had just flown in on one of the regular flights by Cessna. The coastline had plenty on offer, ducks kelp and highland geese many of which had chicks and in burrows the Magellenic penguins were beginning nesting. Caracaras were definitely in the mood for love and there was much displaying particularly around the farm house. At the farm we were warmly welcomed by the McGill family who provided us with a great cup of tea and an amazing display of cakes.

We were joined by both Commersons and Peals dolphins during the zodiac trip back to the ship. During lunch we repositioned to Saunders Island, here we were provided with a plethora of penguins – Gentoo, Magallenic, King and Rockhoppers. The landing spot was a stunning isthmus between two hills known as the neck with crashing surf on one side and slightly less on ours – which made for an exciting landing. The punky Rockhoppers were noisy neighbours to the far more serene Black Browed Albatross who looked rather disdainfully at their clamouring behaviour. In amongst these were gaudy Imperial cormorants with their bright red eyes and orange crest.

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