Shackleton, seals and kings: why visit South Georgia
Nikki is overwhelmed by the atmosphere, wildlife and majestic beauty of South Georgia – and explains why you should include a visit to this very special island on your Antarctic voyage.
“The light and phenomenal surroundings just make you feel more alive…“
When he surveyed South Georgia in 1775, Captain James Cook believed he had discovered the headland of the mythical continent Terra Australis Incognita. Cook began mapping the east coast, and upon arriving at the south end and looking back up the west coast, realised that he was mapping an island. He showed his frustration by naming the southern end Cape Disappointment – however a trip to this amazing isle is completely the opposite of the cape’s name!
Worth the voyage?
It’s no secret amongst the team here at Discover the World that I’ve always believed Antarctica to be THE ultimate expedition voyage – after all – I’ve just come back from spending four months at Port Lockroy, the British historic base there. For me, the white continent has everything – wildlife, ice, weather, remoteness… but I was incredibly excited when I heard the news I’d be visiting South Georgia on my ‘ride’ back home from the base. I’d always felt that for anyone choosing between expedition voyages, the main focus should be the Peninsula itself – and that the days at sea getting to South Georgia were ‘a bit of a shame’ and cut out the all-too-precious time in Antarctica. Having now visited South Georgia I’m really not so sure!
I can honestly say that the two days I spent there were absolutely amongst the best in my life – it was an unbelievable privilege to have had the opportunity to visit such a very special place. Even in the rain and howling wind, the Drygalski Fjord (named after Erich Dagobert von Drygalski, a professor at the University of Berlin who led the German South Polar Expedition of 1901-03), was simply beautiful. Thanks to the minerals that derive from the rocky mountains looming over the fjord, the water is a stunning, milky shade of aqua. The glaciers tumbling into it created waterfalls like bridal veils, and although the wind was fierce and the cloud cover fairly low, everyone was incredibly excited to be here at last, the island weather projecting a moody and dramatic landscape.
The weather continued to lend an atmospheric edge as we caught sight of the cluster of buildings and tangled rusting metal at Grytviken, upon entering King Edward Cove. Founded by Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen in 1904, Grytviken was the first whaling station in Antarctic waters, and is home to the old whaling station and several derelict ships, including the Petrel, which is an excellent example of a steam-powered whale-catcher.
I spent a couple of hours engrossing myself in the fascinating little museum which is run by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. There is also a well-stocked little shop there, which supports the Trust and allows passengers to take home a souvenir memory of their visit. The postcards of the station in it’s heyday caught my eye; what a difference a few decades makes. The government spent around £4 million a few years ago securing the site, which is now an eery graveyard of old boats and carcass processing equipment, which is rusting away. The area must have been buzzing with workers and whale flesh – very sad for animal lovers such as myself, but I can imagine it was a buoyant and lively place for the workers.
Of course I paid my respects to the inspirational explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton at the whalers cemetery (who died here in 1922). A few plaques and empty whisky bottles and the size of the tombstone marking out the grave above amongst other simple wooden white crosses. As we had landed at the beach just infront of the graveyard, I was struck by the playfulness of the fur seal pups dotting the shoreline and amongst the tussock grass; it’s important to be careful and watch out for them! It is here that I also spotted my first solitary king penguin – a real thrill – I was here on South Georgia at last! It was an amazing afternoon, visiting the cemetery at the left hand end of the bay, walking around past the pretty white church, through the whaling station, on to the museum and finally ending at King Edward Point. Located just across the cove from Grytviken, ‘KEP’ as it is fondly known by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) folk, is site of the former British Garrison and is now home to BAS-applied Fisheries Research Station, as well as the Marine Office (who acts as Harbour Master, Customs and Immigration, Fisheries Officer and sub-Postmaster) – the government’s sole representative.
In 1916 Shackleton and his companions famously crossed the island in their quest to raise a rescue party for their men stranded on Elephant Island. They also came through Fortuna Bay on their trek. The bay was named after one of the first whaling ships in the area, that ran aground at Hope Point in 1916 as her helmsman was reading a letter from home! The bay is home to king and gentoo penguins, as well as many flighted birds, including albatross and southern giant petrels. It is impossible to count the vast numbers of king penguins and fur seals that crowd the beaches and shallows here, and the sea seemed to be full of writhing pups tumbling in the waves, and dashing across the sand! I could have watched them all day long, however my eye was drawn to the remarkable view of a line of reindeer grazing across the lush meadows, with cool alpine streams running down from the shimmering Konig glacier.
A twenty minute walk through the lush landscape brought us to the king penguin colony – a vast huddle of several thousand king penguins, and a few fluffy brown chicks of varying sizes if you looked closely! Standing a good distance from the colony, the sight had some fellow travellers dewy-eyed, as we stood awestruck by the sight before us – the penguins, the glacier, the sunshine on the mountains. On numerous occasions I was crouched down and so engrossed in looking towards the mass of birds, that when I slowly turned around a few kings were taking a closer look at ME – pretty much eyeball-to-eyeball – something I will never forget. It was just the perfect morning….
More history lessons
Turning back to Captain Cook again – he was the first to land on and survey the island in 1775, and upon his return to Britain it was Cook’s report of large numbers of seals in the Southern Ocean that led to the plundering of the area. The whalers followed the sealers and the first shore station was up and running by 1904. Thankfully, the last of the eventual six shore stations closed in 1965. During this period over 175,000 whales were ‘processed’ at South Georgia, including 41,515 blue whales. Sadly, although recovering slowly, there is only an estimated 4% of the original whale population left in the Southern Ocean.
The warm sunshine and calm day continued into the afternoon, for our visit to another well-known whaling station at Stromness. Stromness Bay is actually home to three abandoned stations – Stromness, Leith Harbour and Husvik. For safety, there was an approx. 200 yard ‘no go zone’ – the buildings are rapidly falling apart and now that certain bits of the structure and open to the elements, it means that the wind getting inside the building will no doubt accelerate their demise – rather a sad fact. I would have loved to see inside the Manager’s House – where an unrecognisably worn Shackleton, Worsley and seaman Tom Crean were welcomed in, following their epic crossing of the island, on his quest to rescue the men from his Endurance expedition.
Three young elephant seals were lazing by a small lake, and the subject of many avid photographers! It was a bit of an assault course around the perimeter of the station, across tracts of mud and grass, moving carefully around the fur seal pups and their mothers – thank goodness there were no males as they can be very aggressive and territorial! The pups ranged from tiny brown animals with big doe eyes, to larger creatures of varying colours – including some leucistic seals (not strictly albino, but without usual pigmentation). All this set infront of iconic landscapes that were scaled by ‘The Boss’ and his two companions.
The sheer amount of wildlife found on South Georgia, and that’s not just the penguins, is perhaps what surprised me the most. Visiting at the end of the summer meant that the snow and ice had gone – leaving lush green pastures and grasses, and I would love to go back just as the breeding cycles are starting – to see the pups in their true infancy and the king chicks with their fluffy down.
This is somewhere that you need to stand for a moment, take it all in, and lock those sights, sounds and smells away for the rainy days when you are stuck in a traffic jam or staring at a computer screen as I am now. If I’ve brought back a few good memories for anyone reading this then that’s brilliant, and you’ll know what I mean. The polar regions have that something unidentifiable – my Base Leader from a couple of years ago almost summed it up I think – the light and phenomenal surroundings just make you feel more alive – it’s a very unique environment. Personally, I look forward to storing up a few more special moments when I return… some day!