I first learned of South Georgia island from watching a television series called Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe. Art Wolfe is the lucky photographer who travels to amazing places as the subject for the show. The South Georgia episode seemed unreal – beautiful landscapes covered with fur seals, large sea birds and home to the world’s largest King penguin rookery. When we discovered a “last minute deal” on a trip to South Georgia, we jumped at the opportunity.
The Remotest of Remote Islands (?)
Even though we have visited remote islands on our professional hiatus (like Easter Island – the most remote inhabited island in the world – and the Galapagos), South Georgia would truly be the most remote for us to date. For example, you can still fly to Easter Island in less than 5 hours from Lima, Peru. However, South Georgia has no airport. Therefore, the only way to access the island is to arrive by boat. So, we are talking about 5 hours by air to reach Easter Island compared to 4 or 5 days at sea to reach South Georgia. This journey consisted of 18 days in total: 4.5 days at sea crossing the Atlantic ocean to South Georgia from Ushuaia, Argentina, 8 days exploring South Georgia followed by another 5.5 days at sea to end in Montevideo, Uruguay. Additionally, South Georgia (unlike Easter Island or the Falkland Islands) is not inhabited, adding to its remote feel.
Making landfall by zodiac on South Georgia was described to me as “a little more wild” compared to making landfall on the Antarctic peninsula. In comparison to our Antarctica voyage, the water was rougher around the landing areas – even on the gangway (the metal stairway which hangs down the side of the ship allowing passengers to climb aboard from a zodiac).
On one specific landing, a wave broke into the back of the zodiac as it arrived on shore. Two passengers had their cameras completely drenched with cold, salt water… the cameras never functioned again. I had read similar horror stories prior to leaving on this trip. Losing my camera during the voyage would have been devastating, not to mention we have another year or so before our professional hiatus comes to an end. Therefore, I made sure my camera traveled in a proper dry bag on zodiac cruises to and from the boat. The dry bag was also handy to protect the camera from heavy rain or snow while on the mainland.
Another reason the landings were more “wild”, was due to the density of king penguins and fur seals lining the beach where zodiac landings took place. Fur seals will charge people on the beaches which can be a little intimidating for first-timers. They have quite the dirty mouth, so avoiding a bite from them is wise. Adult males can be quite aggressive, especially if protecting their breeding beach and harem. Visiting in late March, as we did, ensured much fewer males were around as most are out to sea having finished the breeding season. By the end of the trip, it was not intimidating to sit on the beach and allow the smaller fur seals to charge up at us. After a brief show of courage, they would typically just stop at our feet to sniff our boots and bark a little.
Really Big Birds… Really
The albatross is a sea bird having the longest wingspan of any flying bird, which can reach 12 feet (3.7 m). They are expert gliders, having the ability to glide over half a mile (>1000 meters) or more without a single flap of their wings.
When viewing these great birds from the boat with only the vast sea and sky as a back drop, it was hard to get a feeling for just how huge these birds really are. Getting closer to them on land gave a little more perspective on their actual size. When visiting the museum in Grytviken, we stood side by side with a taxidermied wandering albatross. As you can see from the picture, the size of these birds is almost unbelievable.
We were also very lucky to witness several juvenile wandering albatrosses practice their mating “dance.”
Penguins – Up Close and Personal
What was incredible about the Art Wolfe episode on South Georgia was how physically close he was able to get to the penguins. The possibility of being in such close proximity to so many penguins is the result of two factors.
Number one: the sheer density of penguins on South Georgia in specific locations made it nearly impossible to distance yourself from them. The penguins on the island mainly consist of a single species – the king penguin. South Georgia boasts the largest king penguin rookery in the world at over 200,000 pair! Try to imagine nearly a half million penguins on one beach… and that is just one colony. There are numerous other colonies scattered across the island. Other penguin species found on South Georgia include gentoos and macaroni, as well as rockhoppers (depending on on the season), but nothing like the number of king penguins.
Number two: King penguins (in addition to other species of penguin) are curious and are unafraid of humans. Unfortunately, this fact (in addition to the fact they are poor runners on land) did not aid them well in history from a survival standpoint versus man. They were a regular source of food for expedition teams who first explored the Antarctic regions. If you remain still for bit, one or more of these guys will waddle right up to you, possibly scraping their beak on your boots or picking at your coat.
Soaking It In
Standing on a hill facing the largest king penguin rookery in the world is something you have to do while pinching yourself periodically. I felt like I was watching a live taping of a BBC Frozen Planet episode. There are thousands of penguins doing what penguins do… squawking, tending to their eggs or baby chicks, running into and out of the ocean, chasing other penguins down the beach or simply resting on their stomachs. Of course, all of this while thousands of fur seals run up and down the beaches, giant petrels scavenge for food and enormous elephant seals lounge. It is amazing how many hours I could sit and watch these animals perform seemingly trivial tasks without losing interest in the least. Sit… breathe… pan left… pan right… back to center… pinch yourself… repeat.
I can’t imagine it gets much better than this for viewing exotic wildlife in its natural environment. The backdrop of beaches, glaciers and snow-capped mountains only added to the beauty of this truly unique place. It was definitely one of the most memorable destinations so far on our journey, which makes us wonder: Did we make a mistake by not ending our trip here?… Can it be topped??
** You can see more photos of South Georgia in our gallery.