Published: August 9th 2007March 27th 2007
A Few Penguins
This is the king penguin rookery at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia. It is one of the most amazing sights I have seen.
It was a night like any other night in the vast Southern Ocean. The stars were hidden behind a veil of clouds, the moonless sky was as dark as India ink and it was so cold that the salty ocean froze to the deck in thick, slushy sheets. My watch group was serving the dreaded 'dog' watch from midnight to four. Under ideal conditions the dog watch could be a very pleasant time to be on deck, due to brilliant, moonlit seascapes and star-filled skies, but, on this particular night, danger was lurking in the darkness ahead of us and the lookouts stationed on the bow had to be very alert. We all knew what the path ahead of us looked like, we had been running the icy gauntlet all day, but now, in the darkness of night, we were sailing through the deadly obstacle course blindfolded. The radar gave us some protection from the biggest ones, but those weren't the ones we were worried about, generally we could spot their immense, white bulk in time to avoid them, it was their sinister little offspring, the growlers, that we were worried about! The responsibility for spotting the growlers fell entirely on
This is a very bad picture of Elephant Island that I took as we sailed past - It was too rough to land.
the shoulders of the lookouts stationed on the bow and on nights like this particular night it was a nearly hopeless charge - By the time they appeared in front of us it was too late, we were already upon them! What made the growlers so dangerous was their size - It is true that a direct collision with one of the larger ones, sometimes miles long and towering well above our heads, would be a devastating blow, one that has sent many ships to the crushing depths of the world's oceans, but, as I have said, we could see them well and easily steer around them. The growlers were small and they barely stuck up above the surface of the ocean, which made them nearly impossible to differentiate from the waves. When I took over the lookout sometime after midnight I was told that there were several large tabular icebergs in front of us, including a close one just off of our starboard side, information that came from the radar, so I started scanning the horizon. I was having a hard time differentiating the bowsprit from the black night and it was less than fifty feet in front of
The Icy Deck House
This particular night it was freezing even in the deck house. Note the ice on the inside of the windows.
me, so I was a little surprised when I managed to spot the massive white wall of ice a few hundred yards in front of us, about fifty feet off of our starboard side. We called the iceberg into the wheelhouse and the Captain confirmed that he saw it - Everything was working just like it was supposed to. About ten minutes later I spotted another one, but, unlike the previous one, I was too late! By the time my eyes recognized the car sized white glow at the surface as a growler and I reported it to the Captain it was right next to us, less than twenty feet off of our starboard side! The radar had not seen that one, so luck was with us that dark night for sure. The following evening, the Southern Ocean was not as kind - At just past midnight the bark Europa hit an iceberg!
My watch had just ended and I was sound asleep when it happened, so I missed it. Eye witnesses said there was a loud bang and a bone-jarring jolt as the Europa's bow crashed into the van-sized growler shattering the ice into small chunks. I vaguely
The Icy Deck
Everything was coated in ice when we woke up one morning, which made for a beautiful sight.
remember hearing some bumps on the hull, almost as if it were a dream, as the ship sailed through the bergy bits left over from the collision, but I turned over and went back to sleep! When I woke up the following morning I learned of our collision and some sad news regarding the ship - Our lovely lady, the Europa's nicely carved figurehead that had been adorning the bow for many years, had vanished in the night - Perhaps she liked the iceberg more than us or perhaps she sacrificed herself to save us, but, regardless, the Europa sailed on! We had hit the iceberg with the strongest part of the ship, the bow, so, other than the missing figurehead, there was no damage worth mentioning - We were lucky!
By the time we had hit the iceberg we had been sailing north-east for two days. Early in the first day we spotted Elephant Island, which was the island that the crew of the doomed Endurance was stranded on while Shackleton and a few companions sailed the tiny James Carid to the island of South Georgia for help. We had had beautiful sailing conditions since we put Deception
We got very well acquainted with these guys. We even hit one of them, though a little smaller.
Island behind us and we were moving along nicely, but beautiful sailing conditions meant there was a lot of wind and a lot of wind meant that there was a big swell and, sadly, the big swell meant that landing on Elephant Island's perilous coast was out of the question - We had to be content with our brief glimpse of Elephant Island's rugged, icy coastline from the slanting deck of our ship as we sailed past! After Elephant Island we entered the famous stretch of the stormy southern ocean that Shackleton and his men navigated in the James Carid and we started following their path, though in a much larger ship (our sloopy boat on deck was a closer match to theirs!) The massive bands of icebergs also started showing up as we sailed past the island and they were truly an impressive sight to see. For some reason the bergs all seemed to congregate in the same areas, I suppose due to current and wind patterns, so we could sail through a whole day of iceberg free water and, just as we thought we had seen the last of the icy giants, we would be thrust back into
At the Helm
During the day it was easy to sail around the big bergs. At night it was a little harder.
the mine field of ice. The icebergs were a lot of fun to sail amongst during the day - Some of them had fantastical forms that brought images of mysterious floating mountains and spires and, occasionally, arches, but the most common of the Antarctic icebergs were the tabular bergs, which meant that they were flat on top, like a plateau, and that they had been calved from one of the great ice shelves that ring the continent. While the tabular bergs lacked the surreal icescapes that the others had, they made up for their plain appearance with their sheer size - Some of the tabular bergs we passed were miles long with sheer ice cliffs that towered well above our heads and they were small ones compared to what they can be (one that blocked McMurdo Sound a few years ago was larger than a small state!) After our iceberg encounter we changed our course and headed more towards the north in hopes that we could escape the reach of the icebergs before a forecasted storm arrived.
I was on the deck for the dog watch again on Saint Patrick's Day and, in contrast to the previous, ice-filled watches,
The Path Ahead
There are just a few bergs in front of us!
it was as pleasant of a watch as I could have hoped for! The group coming off of watch told us to keep a good lookout for dolphins. The tale they told us was one of surreal light and magic and we decided that they were joking with us, but, by the end of the watch we would be passing the same tales on to the next group! We were on deck finishing up some sail work and the ship's deck lights were shedding a yellow light on the dark ocean around us. The lookout yelled from the bow, "Dolphins!" and we all went to see what he was talking about. We found about twenty hourglass dolphins playing in our bow wave. We stood there watching the dolphins play for about ten minutes - I remember thinking how lucky we were that the lights were on - and then the lights went off, but the show was far from over. We had been seeing bioluminescence in the disturbed waves around the boat just about every night since we left Antarctica. This bioluminescence came in the form of bright flashes of greenish light ranging in size from a small marble to
A Slanted Deck
When the sailing was good it was hard to walk on deck, because the ship was nearly always leaning hard to one side or the other.
a basketball - We learned that the organisms making these lights were everything from the minuscule plankton to the larger squid and moon jellyfish. The dolphins that we were watching that particular night didn't disappear when the lights went out, they began to glow. They ceased to be hourglass dolphins and became 'comet' dolphins, a name that I gave them. I called them comet dolphins because, as they swam rapidly through the crystal clear water and waves at our bow, they excited the bioluminescent organisms in the water, which illuminated their bodies and made their trails glow a faint green, occasionally accompanied by the bright flash of one of the larger organisms. We gathered everybody that was on watch up on the deck and we sat there against the bow rail watching the erratic, interweaving paths of the hyperactive dolphins as they shot like green comets through the water. Occasionally they would line up five or more wide and shoot across our bow in formation, leaving behind parallel green trails like a group of stunt pilots at an air show - It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen! The show lasted for over an hour
These guys were constantly with us during our voyage.
and then the dolphins left us alone in the dark, but what a wonderful show it was! We passed on the same stories to the next watch group, but, sadly, they saw nothing.
The wind increased in intensity and changed directions a bit, but the sailing remained wonderful. I had the opportunity to go climbing aloft on just about every watch and sometimes in between them. I started getting quicker at furling and unfurling sails, though I was still a lot slower than the crew, and I started getting very comfortable up in the rigging. Climbing to the first platform on the masts, which was a little uncomfortable at first due to a slight overhang, became second nature and I made it up to the second 'platform' finally to help furl the upper stay sails. When I was up there the fog rolled in across the ocean and dropped an eerie shroud over us - I was waiting for the crack of an opposing ship's guns to shatter the silence, just like in the movies, but it never came and we sailed on into the thick fog. We knew that we were near the island of South Georgia, we
Me at the Helm
This was one of my least favorite parts of the ship. Thank you for the picture Rolland.
had covered the eight-hundred nautical miles or so in good time, but the fog made it impossible to see anything. We knew by looking at the radar that we were approaching the first small islands around South Georgia, so the lookouts were again on high alert. Night set in and the fog was as thick as ever. Out on deck the silent sounds of the open ocean had been replaced with the symphonic sounds of life - The waters around us were filled with the strange calls from some hidden bird or seal, sometimes sounding like a call for help from a distressed person, or like the eerie songs of the coyotes, but we saw nothing but black. We had been moving through the darkness with all of the deck lights turned off because they attracted the sea birds and, despite our efforts, we had already had four Antarctic prions touch down on our deck, which attested to the abundance of wildlife that we would be surrounded by for the next week. The birds that did land on deck had to be captured and held until they could be released in the first light of dawn, otherwise they may have
Hanging on the Yard
This was one of my favorite places on the ship. Thank you Thijs for the picure. www.thijsheslenfeld.com
been stepped on in the darkness, or, if they were released in the darkness, they would have likely returned to us, possibly injuring themselves in the spider web of our rigging. We sailed on through the darkness and fog without incident and by morning the sun began to win the battle and, once the haze cleared, land was all around us - We had made it to South Georgia!
The island of South Georgia holds a special place in my heart. Its spectacularly wild landscape and extreme remoteness, coupled with its amazing, but sometimes cruel human history make it a special place in its own right, but it was something entirely different that had gained the island a place in my heart! I was born and raised in the state of Georgia. When I was young I picked up a copy of National Geographic Magazine, which was essentially the only thing I read when I was young, and I turned to a story that caught my eye, a story about South Georgia. I was sitting in the oppressive heat and humidity of North Georgia at the time and I was interested in seeing what such a worldly magazine
Playing in the Southern Ocean
It wasn't always comfortable, but my voyage on the Europa was amazing! Thank you Thijs for the picure. www.thijsheslenfeld.com
had found so interesting just to the south of me. I started by looking at the pictures and I was instantly confused, how could there be such magnificent mountains and glaciers down there, just a few hundred miles away from me? I thought I had found the answer when I remembered that one of my teachers from school was from a city called Tbilisi in a small country near Russia called Georgia, but she had told us a lot about here home and she had never mentioned anything about the massive glaciers and penguins that were so prominent in the pictures. I had found a mystery and I was hooked, as I got deeper into the article my eyes were opened to a small piece of land in the remote southern ocean that was filled with rugged, snow-capped mountain ranges that ended at the rocky shore and sweeping glaciers that flowed to the sea from the lofty, somewhat unknown interior. It was a land of diverse wildlife with thousands of beautiful penguins, frolicking fur seals and reindeer. I was then introduced the the albatross, a big bird that could fly around the world, but chose to call South Georgia home
The Antarctic Prions
We had several of these guys land on deck and we had to capture them and hold them until it got light.
- It must have been a wonderful place! I also learned about the massive whaling stations that lay in ruins around the island, standing as a reminder of a time when many people called South Georgia home and made a living off of the island's vast natural resources. I finished the article and pulled out a giant world map and I searched the southern ocean until my finger landed on the long, narrow island in the South Atlantic - I had discovered South Georgia!
We sailed around the northern end of the island and pulled into Rosalita Bay, accompanied by hundreds of playful fur seals that swarmed around us in the beautiful, aquamarine water, and we dropped our anchor. The zodiac boats were ready, so several of us lined up on the halyard and lifted the rubber boats off of the sloopy deck and dropped them over the rail into the water. Our first exploration of South Georgia's splendors came in the form of a zodiac cruise around Rosalita Bay. We left the Europa and headed across the choppy surface of the bay to the sheer cliffs along the coast. The first thing that we noticed was the green
This is my first view of South Georgia through the fog.
tussock grass that blanketed the shore - South Georgia was very green! The waters close to the cliffs were filled with swaying kelp forests and the numerous fur seals that came out to see us were swimming vigorously through the tangle of vegetation. Most of the seals were youngsters and they were very eager to say hello to us, so they came right up to the boat. Sometimes one would do some sort of acrobatic flip out of the water just to show off, or possibly they just wanted to splash us, it was a lot of fun to watch! The cliffs were populated with gray-headed albatrosses that had nests among the tussock grass and the beaches, where there were beaches, were covered with noisy seals and a few king penguins. One of the beaches we approached had what seemed like thousands of frolicking seals on and around it and they surrounded us like a bunch of playful puppies. A professional photographer that was on our voyage donned his dry suit and snorkel equipment and slipped into the water - He was immediately engulfed by a swarm of happy fur seals and they did spins and flips in the air
The glaciers of South Georgia. This is where we spent our first night.
all around him in a display that could not have been anything other than pure joy! We continued around the coast for a while exploring the sheer cliffs and craggy islands and the seals stayed with us for most of the way, in the distance we could see the shear mountains of the interior and one large, gleaming white glacier. We completed our cruise and headed back to the Europa for hot chocolate, but what an amazing welcome to South Georgia! That night during my anchor watch the sky was covered with a brilliant blanket of stars and the hills resonated with the noisy laughter of thousands of fur seals - It was a perfect night, but the sound reminded me more of a jungle-bound Tarzan movie than a cold night on the shore of a remote island in the Southern Ocean!
The following morning we had the anchor up early and we headed around the corner to a nearby section of coast called Salisbury Plain, the home to one of the most amazing things I have ever seen - A rookery containing more than fifty-thousand king penguins! Due to the fragile nature of the rookery we were going
Frolicking Fur Seals
These guys were excited to see us and they played like puppies around the zodiacs.
to keep our distance, so we landed well down the beach from it. The landing was a lot of fun, because the surf was a little rough and we had to move into shore quickly, turn the zodiac around so that the back was facing the beach and pile off of it quickly before the next set of waves hit! Once on shore we were surrounded by hundreds of king penguins, possibly the most beautiful of all penguins. The rookery was still a fifteen minute walk away, but the penguins were everywhere! We were walking to a spot near the rookery in small groups, so I took a seat on the rocky shore and sat watching the amazing creatures and waited for my turn. The penguins stood very tall compared to the ones we had seen in Antarctica, so sitting down allowed us to look them directly in their eyes. As soon as I sat down I had a few inquisitive penguins approach me. They stopped about five feet away from me and started doing their formal 'bows' and talking amongst themselves, about me no doubt. One of them decided that I was a little boring so it decided to
walk away, but the other one slapped it with its flipper-like wing as if to say, "I am not done looking at him yet!", and the other one walked back and stood patiently by its side. They both eventually walked away. I sat there watching the antics of all of the penguins and I waited for my next visitors. The water was filled with swimming penguins and seals. From time to time the penguins would explode out of the water in front of an approaching wave and comically run up the beach away from it with their arms outstretched. Others were just standing in big groups talking. From time to time small fur seals would try to harass the penguins, but, unlike the small gentoos who would run at the smallest sign of aggression, the kings would face their aggressors and smack them with their powerful wings when they got too close - It was funny seeing the normally aggressive seals running in fear from a bird! One of the repelled seals ran from the penguin straight towards me. He had the same playful look on his face that my dog, Oliver, back home always has when we are playing,
These two penguins were fighting over me.
so I let him finish his charge. The seal came to a stop just short of reaching my foot and just looked at me and posed for a few pictures then moved on - Not exactly the menacing beast I was told they were (it was a small one though!) A few minutes later I was lying on my side taking a picture when five penguins decided to get a closer look. They approached me from one side and two of them walked around me and then I was surrounded. I was then laying flat on my back and there were two penguins up against each arm and one with his belly up against the top of my head. All five of them were bending down looking me right in the face with there black, saber like beaks dangerously close to my eyes, which, of course, prompted me to cover my eyes with my hands - I spent the rest of their visit peering at them through the narrow cracks between my fingers as they looked down on me like a bunch of doctors over their patient, I was laughing inside, but I did my best to be quiet and
This is the big rookery at Salisbury Plain. The fluffy brown birds are the chicks.
not scare them away. It seemed like an eternity that they were standing over me, but it wasn't more than a few minutes and then three of them walked away. The other two took a few steps back and decided to fight over me and they slapped each other a bit and then started picking at my clothes and then one of them looked me in the face with a very inquisitive and slightly comical gesture and then moved on to my hand. Next came the attack! The one that must have won the right to eat me reached over and bit my hand! The first bite didn't get the results he wanted so he bit me two more times in the same place and then gave up and walked away - Apparently my hand is not a large piece of krill or fish! The bite didn't exactly hurt, but he did draw blood, which confirmed my suspicion that penguins are actually ferocious predators - If I continued laying there they may have eaten my entire hand! The group leader walked up to me and said it was time for us to walk over to the rookery, so I gathered
50,000 King Penguins
The birds stretched as far as the eye could see.
my things together and said good bye to my penguin friends - I was covered in penguin poo when I stood up, but it was worth it!
Our walk took us across a muddy stream and into a large grassy plain. Large fur seals were everywhere, so we had to be a little careful to give them the room they needed, they still decided to run up to us a few times. We crossed over a slimy green mud bank and then weaved through some tussock grass and came to a stop about fifty feet from the closest edge of the rookery. There we stood in the mud with fifty-thousand adult king penguins with their lovely black, white and orange plumage and countless downy, brown chicks. The smell was fowler than anything I had ever smelled, but I loved it! The noise was the same deafening kazoo call that I grew to know in Antarctica, but it was a lot louder and a bit harsher. The penguins stretched out in a seemingly endless mass of birds across the flats all the way to the water in one direction and up a large hill in the other. The distant mountains
Attack of the Skuas
The skua gulls are voracious predators and they will take any chance to attack the young penguins.
were slightly obscured by clouds and the sky was filled with predatory skuas that were searching for an easy meal - In short it was one of the most amazing natural sights I have seen. We were given about ten minutes to view the rookery and then we quietly retreated the way we came. Back at the beach we waited for our turns in the zodiac while we watched the penguins and did our best to clean off the vast amounts of penguin poo that adorned our clothing and boots.
Once everyone was back on the Europa we pulled up the anchor and headed to a place called Prion Island about an hour or so away. Prion Island, which is a small, beautifully rugged island covered with thick green tussock grass, is home to a small colony of wandering albatrosses. This colony was the only one populated with these massive birds that could be viewed by the general public at South Georgia and there were a lot of very strict rules regarding landings there that help to insure that our impact is minimized. We split up into small groups and we headed to the island, passing through some calm,
There were several dead animals on the beaches around South Georgia. When they die they stay put. This is one of the more interesting mummies I saw.
kelp-filled channels, and landed on a small beach filled with excited fur seals and several gentoo and king penguins. I sat on the beach watching the amusing wildlife and I waited for my turn to hike up to the colony. When our time arrived, we headed up a steep, muddy slope following a small stream through the tussock grass. The path was slow going because we were constantly confronting large fur seals that were concealed in the tall grass - It was really a funny experience, because we would walk a little way up the trail and then we would hear a throaty growl and then a small, furry head with big, black eyes, long whiskers and 'Shrek-like' ears would pop up through the grass and look at us with a puppy-like look and then disappear again only to pop up in another place a few seconds later. The fur seals became fewer and the trail improved as we went up and then we came to a stop in a small area at the top of the island that our guide had roped off. It was an impressive sight that greeted us up there. The hilly top of the island
On the Beach
Penguins playing in the surf. The Europa is in the background.
was blanketed with the greenest grass, the lofty mountains of the main island rose towards the sky in impressive, jagged peaks, the blue, saltwater channel and the huge glaciers on the other side glowed in the warm afternoon light and the sky was filled with the sleek form of several gliding albatrosses, in the distance we could see a small blue iceberg and even a few whales! Amongst the grassy hills in front of us there were several pairs of wandering albatrosses, some were just sitting there relaxing, others were doing their graceful mating dance with curved, outstretched wings, there was even one sitting alone on its nest with a small chick sticking its needy head up from beneath - It was an amazing sight! Our time amongst the albatrosses came to an end and we headed back down through the seal obstacle course to the beach and our waiting zodiac. One of the most amazing sunsets I have seen on this voyage brought an end to one of the most amazing days of my life - I was completely blown away by how much life called South Georgia home!
We headed to our next anchorage, at Prince Olaf
On Prion Island (1)
Prion Island is home to a small colony of wandering albatrosses.
Harbor, while I slept. I was on deck for the two to four anchor watch, which had become my favorite time to be on deck at night, and I sat there taking in the jungle song of the seals that filled the air around the harbor, the sky was an impressive expanse of stars, broken only by the black silhouette of the mountainous skyline. The burning toast induced fire alarm, which had become a normal morning sound on board, had me out of bed at about eight o'clock and that is when I learned that I had an early morning zodiac ride and shore walk to get ready for. Half and hour later I had eaten breakfast and was on deck, climbing down into the zodiac. The harbor was bound by steep mountain ridges and small grassy slopes. The harbor was once the location of a thriving whaling station of the same name and now the rusty, decaying ruins of the station take up one end of the harbor. There was also a large, half submerged hulk of an old sailing ship that was a little bigger than the Europa - The contrast between the rust-tinted ruins and the green
On Prion Island (2)
Prion Island is home to a small colony of wandering albatrosses.
hills was beautiful! We weaved our way through the thick kelp and landed on a small beach near the shipwreck and then we headed up a muddy trail on the outskirts of the ghost town. The trail ended at a lovely little cemetery on the top of a grassy hill. The views of the harbor and the surrounding landscape from the top were amazing! After our walk we did a short zodiac tour of the harbor where we got a closer view of the ancient wooden wharf, the rusty shipwreck and an odd propeller garden and then we headed back to the Europa.
Once everybody was back on board and the zodiacs had been lifted out of the water, the Captain gave word that we were going to set sail and head to Fortuna Bay, a few hours to the south-east of us. I grabbed a harness and I shot up the fore mast to unfurl the upper and lower top sails. It only took us a few minutes to remove the ropes, or gaskets as they are called, that secured the bottom of the sail to the yard when they were not in use, and then we were
On Prion Island (3)
Prion Island is home to a small colony of wandering albatrosses. This is part of a mating ritual.
back down on deck. We set those sails and then we were sent back up to unfurl the t'gallant and royal sails - I went to the t'gallant , which was the second sail from the top. We set those and then we went up a few more times for the coarse sails and the stay sails and then they were all set. We sailed along the beautifully scenic coastline of South Georgia beneath a billowing canopy of sails, passing several shear cliffs and glaciers along the way, and then we pulled into Fortuna Bay about mid afternoon. The island's rugged interior had been concealed in fog all morning, but when we pulled into the bay some of the snow-capped giants came out to greet us. We struck the royal and t'gallant sails and I headed back up the mast, this time all the way to the top, and I furled the royal sail. It was my first time up to the royal yard and I was amazed by the spectacular view and the peaceful feeling I felt from my perch one-hundred and twenty feet above the deck. In fact, I was a little disappointed that it had taken me
On Prion Island (4)
The sky was filled with soaring wandering albatrosses, which was a beautiful sight.
so long to get up there - In the coming weeks I would get well acquainted with its lofty heights though, and it would quickly become my favorite place on the boat! We then struck all of the remaining sails and we dropped our anchor. By the time all of the work was done I had climbed up into the masts seven times and we had set and struck all of Europa's sails - What a wonderful day of sailing!
It was early afternoon when we arrived in Fortuna Bay, so it was decided that we had enough time to go to shore and visit some more penguins and seals before dinner. We hoisted the zodiacs off of the deck and dropped them back in the water and then we all headed to shore. The rocky, gray beach was filled with king penguins and a few gentoos. There were lots of seals, including three massive elephant seals that were against the cliffs near an old sealers' cave and, up on the green slopes above the beach, we got our first glimpses of the island's introduced population of reindeer. Most of the group headed towards a small penguin rookery down
In the Zodiac
The rubber zodiacs were our main way of landing on South Georgia and they were a lot of fun to ride in.
the beach, but I decided to spend some time with the elephant seals and then, after I gave up on them doing anything other than basking in their own flatulence, I took a seat near a large group of king penguins. After a few minutes of just sitting there, several penguins walked up to say hello. They were real interested in my camera, especially their reflection in my lens, and one of them actually grabbed the sun hood with its beak, but in the end they let me keep it. We sat there observing each other for several minutes and then, after a vain attempt to take the hat off of my head, they walked away and started to inspect the ship's biologist. I was enjoying myself on the beach, but the time came to head back to the boat, so I said good bye to my tuxedoed friends and I jumped into the zodiac.
The following morning we headed across the bay to a small section of beach and we said farewell to the Europa, for a little while at least. We were embarking on a short walk from Fortuna Bay to Stromness whaling station. Our route was
A South Georgian Sunset
This was the sight we had as we sailed away from Prion Island.
the one that Shackleton and his companions had followed at the end of their epic trek across South Georgia's uncharted interior - We were following in the footsteps of Shackleton! The trail led up from the beach along a narrow seal path through the tussock grass. At the top of the sea cliffs there was a grass clearing where we stopped and watched the Europa sail out of the bay and then we turned and started walking. For a while the terrain was a mixture of grass and soggy moss, but, as we climbed higher, the greenery was replaced by brown scree slopes. We were surrounded by the small brown mountains along the coast on one side and the lofty, snow-clad peaks that formed the island's rugged interior on the other. At first look there didn't seem to be any signs of life along the trail, but somebody pointed off to the left of us and said, "Reindeer!" Their brownish white coats were well camouflaged in the predominantly brown scenery, but there was a large herd standing in front of us. The trail followed a quick flowing stream up to a small lake called Lake Creen, where Tom Creen, a
Prince Olaf Harbor
This is an old abandoned whaling station that now serves as a reminder of the horrors of the whaling days.
companion of Shackleton, fell through the ice during their trek. There was no ice to be seen on the lake this time around, in fact, the temperature was warm and beautiful and we sat on the shore of the greenish, clear water and rested in the sun. We climbed a little further up to a pass above the lake and then we started heading down towards the coast. The view from the top of the pass was stunning - There was a steep descent to a large, flat river valley that led all the way to the coast. There was a small, grassy hill at the end of the valley and, just beyond, were the sprawling ruins of Stromness Whaling Station. We made our way down the loose scree slopes, slipping and sliding the whole way, to the river valley - It was a very steep descent though and it took a while to get everyone down. We made quick work of the flat river valley, making a short detour to a ridge to try and see the Europa come into the bay under sail, but we were too late. We walked past the grassy hill, which was filled with
The Whaler's Cemetery
Whaling is now a thing of the past on South Georgia, but there are still some whalers here.
gentoo penguins, and we weaved our way through hundreds of fur seals, being charged by several of them, and then we were on the beach beside Stromness waiting for our ride. The hike was amazing and it felt really good to stretch my legs after so long on the boat. Due to some major safety issues regarding the ruins, we were unable to explore Stromness, which was too bad, but the young seals did their best to make up for it by repeatedly swimming up a stream that lead into the ocean and 'rafting' back down. We boarded the zodiacs and headed back to the Europa where we enjoyed a delicious lunch on deck - The weather was nice, the deck was still and the sun was warm, it was a perfect way to end a nice hike!
After lunch we set sail for the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken and the research station at Prince Edward's Point. The sailing was beautiful and we had a lot of fun as we learned a bit about sailing along a coastline, which takes a bit more work than just crossing the ocean. We sailed into Cumberland Bay just as the sun
Another View of the Ruins
I just liked this picture of Prince Olaf Harbor.
was getting low and we were greeted by a small scientific fishing boat, which was the first vessel we had seen (that wasn't wrecked) since we pulled into Deception Island over a week before - The boat was very small and they were bobbing badly in the choppy waves, so they stuck around long enough to get some pictures of the Europa under sail and then they headed back to the dock. We followed them into Prince Edward Cove and, as we took away the sails and furled them, we got our first glimpse of the whaling station and, just below the green hills on the south-western shore of the bay, Grytviken's famous cemetery. We had to spend our first night at anchor in the middle of the cove, because a massive fisheries patrol boat was tied up to the quay site at the point and a small sail boat was tied up to the quay site at Grytviken itself - It was a busy time there. The following morning we anxiously waited for the large vessel to move so we could tie up to the pier and get through the immigration formalities - They were unable to get under
Prince Olaf Harbor was a beautiful place and the Europa is a beautiful way to see it.
way early because the katabatic winds coming from the interior of the island were forcing the boat against the pier, but by mid morning, we were tied up to the shore and the gang plank was out. After a quick passport stamping party and a talk about the rules for the coming day, we set off to explore Grytviken. Several of us had decided to do a hike to a small bay called Maiviken, so we gathered our things and headed towards the old Norwegian church at the whaling station, where the trail started. While we waited for everyone to gather we explored the nicely restored whaler's church, which was built in 1913. The church contained a nice library and a Shackleton Memorial Wall (Shackleton's funeral was held in this church) and, up a small set of wooden stairs, the original church bells, which we were encouraged to ring "gently". We started our hike amid the 'clang', 'clang', 'clang' of the old bells, the same ones that rang for over half a century during Grytviken's whaling days.
The walk to Maiviken started with a nice climb through grassy hills following a small mountain stream. The landscape changed from grassy
On the Wreck of the Brutus
This ship is now slowly decaying in Prince Olaf Harbor. It is the Brutus and it is one of the many shipwrecks that dot South Georgia's shores.
hills to wide, rocky scree slopes as we went up. We reached the pass that served as the high point of our walk and we were greeted with a spectacular view down a sweeping valley with a few large lakes and, in the distance, the ocean. Our walk headed down the valley towards the lakes and then it skirted the right side of the valley, descending steeply through a narrow gully to a grassy, somewhat boggy field. Just before we reached the ocean, the trail seemed to come to an end at a precipitous, grassy slope - The area was beautiful! It was the kind of place that would be perfect for lying down in the grass and sleeping, so most of our group decided to stop there, but a few of us decided to continue on down the slope to the ocean. The steep slope ended up being a simple obstacle to get by and at the bottom of the hill, just out of view of the people who had stopped above, we were granted an amazing vista that seemed straight out of Africa - Down another steep, grassy slope there was a large inland pond with a steep,
The Wreck of the Brutus
This ship is now slowly decaying in Prince Olaf Harbor. It is the Brutus and it is one of the many shipwrecks that dot South Georgia's shores.
hilly shoreline that was completely covered in thick, tree-like tussock grass. The brown water was calm and there was a small stream flowing from the pond down to the ocean. There were hundreds of fur seals frolicking in the tranquil waters, completely out of reach of any of their natural predators, and their joyful, symphony that greeted us up on the hill top was captivating - We were drawn down the hill to them. As was usually the case when we were among large groups of fur seals, we had to be on guard as we walked down the hill and through the small grassy field adjacent to the pond, because the seals seemed to enjoy showing off how tough they were - They would constantly belt out their throaty roar, one more fitting of a lion than a small seal, and they would charge us with their mouth open wide, showing off their big teeth, but, generally, their show of force was more of a playful gesture than a menacing one. We weaved our way through the field of seals and into the thick tussock grass along the small stream and then we crossed the slimy stream bed and
Beautiful Mountains and Aquamarine Water
The whole island of South Georgia is made up of scenery like this.
made it to the beach. There were more seals on the beach, but there were also some penguins and a few small icebergs, in the distance there was a large opening, or window, through one of the cliff faces, so that is where we went. We were able to climb up the steep slope to the window and then we walked through it to a small beach on the other side where there were more great views. We also walked to a small sealers' cave that had a wooden barrier covering the opening, complete with windows and a door, and afterwards we walked back to the top of the grassy slope, via a different trail, to where our friends were waiting for us and then we walked back to Grytviken - What a wonderful hike!
We arrived back to the whaling station in time to take a look at the museum, which was located in a nicely restored building near the water. The museum had several nice displays pertaining to the human and natural history of South Georgia, including some very gruesome photographs from the whaling days and an interesting display on the gear used for Antarctic exploration. I
A Polite Bow
The king penguins were always very inquisitive and very polite (except when they were biting me!)
was in the museum for about an hour and then I took a slow walk through the rusting ruins of the whaling station. There were two large whale catcher boats, complete with loaded harpoon guns that had been run aground and left when the station closed down and there was a section of restored wharf with a lone chinstrap penguin on it. There were also several labeled instruments of destruction outside the museum, all with terrifying names like 'pneumatic bone saw'. I walked along the shoreline and headed out of the station, passing the ruined hulk of the Louise, which was once considered to be the finest example of a down-easter left in existence until it was used as target practice and was burned to the waterline in the 1980’s, and then I stopped at a narrow grassy path that lead up to the Grytviken cemetery. That is were the trail got interesting - To get to the cemetery I had to walk through a mine field of aggressive fur seals, all of them placed there to make sure that only the worthy could make it to the safety of the white picket fence. I made it, but I had
What is this I Wonder?
If you just sit still you have many encounters like this.
several false starts, a few back-tracks and several course changes before I finally made it around my playfully aggressive foes and closed the gate behind me. I walked past all of the simple gravestones, most of which marked the final resting place for the many whalers who gave their lives to their trade and to the one South Georgian casualty of the Falkland Islands war, and I stopped at a massive, rough-cut block of granite that marked the final resting place of one of the greatest explorers to ever stride across the Antarctic ice, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton died in Grytviken Harbor in 1921 at the start of his final expedition to the Antarctic. His wife requested that he be buried at Grytviken, so he could remain in the region of the world he loved so much and gave up so much for. His funeral took place in the whalers' church, as I have mentioned and then he took an honored place amongst Grytviken's deceased. Part of the driving force for my wanting to stop at South Georgia was to visit Shackleton's final resting place, a plan I originally hatched with one of my friends from McMurdo, and I
Playing with Penguins
The penguin visitor. Thank you for the picture Annik.
had succeeded! At the foot of his grave there were some silk roses wrapped in plastic with a note from one of his descendents who had completed their journey to their forefather's grave a few years ago. I said farewell to the great explorer and then I headed back towards the Europa, weaving my way past the attentive fur seals and the burned up hulk of the Louise and then, after a brief stop back at the museum and a long walk along the shore, I stepped back on board my floating home.
It was late afternoon when I made it back on board the Europa and preparations were already underway for what would prove to be a festive party on deck. We hung a few spare sails to act as a wind-break and then we started getting the coals ready in two large stainless grills. Just as the last vestiges of daylight disappeared as the sun descended behind the mountains, tray after tray of food came up from the galley and the cooking began. We were joined by several visitors from the science station, which added some much needed variety to our conversations, and we whiled the night
Ha, Ha, I Am Bigger Than You!
This is a gentoo penguin and a king penguin talking on the beach.
away under a brilliant canopy of southern ocean stars and several strands of colorful party lights that were serving as our deck lights - It was a great evening!
I was up before the sun the following morning and, after a quick cup of coffee, I was off exploring again. This time I turned my back on Grytviken and, instead, headed towards a point on a bluff above the entrance of Prince Edward Cove. I walked past all of the science buildings and then headed up a grassy hill guarded by a large elephant seal and hundreds of playfully aggressive fur seals. The trail leveled out and the number of fur seals increased as did their aggressive behavior. I started offering the end of my tripod to the charging seals, which they accepted as a suitable alternative to my foot, and, as I suspected would be the case, they always stopped their ferocious charge short and inquisitively nudged the tripod with their noses - I am convinced that they just wanted to play, but I remained cautious around them because the nearest hospital was not really so near! I reached a staircase that led up a steep slope covered
You Wana Fight?
This picture shows just how tough the fur seals think they are.
with tussock grass and at the top I found the object of my early morning walk - Shackleton's Cross. The cross was erected by Shackleton's men to commemorate his death and it has stood watch over the entrance to the cove ever since. The cross was there to see the end of South Georgia's whaling industry in the 1960’s and the mass-exodus of whalers that accompanied it, it was present during Argentina's failed attempt to take the island from the British during the Falkland Islands war in the 1980's, there is a concrete gun bunker just below the cross that stands as a reminder of that conflict, and now it watches ship after ship drop off hundreds of tourists every year who have come to see this remote and scenic land. I was there to watch the sun rise over the eastern mountains and what a sunrise it was! After nearly an hour at the cross my stomach reminded me of the delicious breakfast I had waiting for me back on board, so I took one last look at the cross and the amazing scenery it was a part of and then I headed back to the ship.
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
This is one of the many scenes from the Shackleton walk to Stromness.
breakfast I set off with a friend for one last walk through Grytviken. We headed all the way to the explorer's grave and then we headed up the hill behind the cemetery to a large, man made reservoir. We took in the amazing view over the harbor as we watched the sun slowly set Grytviken's rusty buildings aglow and then we headed back to the Europa. After a science lecture regarding South Georgia's important fishery, we cast off the mooring lines and we put Grytviken behind us.
After a wonderful, mid-morning trip up into the rigging to unfurl the top sails, we set sail towards the southeast along the island's beautifully rugged coastline. Later, we got our first views of the macaroni penguins, which are the most plentiful penguins on South Georgia, and then we took away our sails and motored into an insanely small harbor called Cobbler's Cove. Once we were inside the cove's sheer cliffs, which were so narrow that the Europa seemed like it wouldn't fit, we discovered that the wind conditions were too bad to attempt a landing, so we motored around the corner to Godthal Bay and dropped anchor for the night. Godthal Bay
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
These are the mountains he had to cross with his companions, though with a lot less snow.
was once the site of a floating whaling factory and we saw the reminders of the horrors that happened in the bay when we landed on the narrow, bone strewn beach. The beach wasn't so nice to warrant a long stay, so we immediately gathered into two groups, a fast group and a slow group, and we set off on a long walk through the hills. There were no trails, except those used by the thousands of gentoo penguins who lived in large rookeries up in the mountains, so we just found our own way. Our route started with a steep ascent through the tussock grass along the coast, but once we got on more level ground the grass turned to a golden, grain-like appearance. We walked past several amazingly located penguin rookeries that were inhabited by a mountaineering variety of gentoos and we saw several large herds of reindeer which called this isolated stretch of grassland home. Ultimately our walk led us to some amazing bluffs a few hundred feet above the crashing surf where we looked off across the wild southern ocean and then we followed the shore along the top of the bluffs back to the boat.
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
Lake Creen is where Tom Creen fell through the ice, which was conceiled beneath the snow.
Along the way we had to make several changes in direction to avoid disturbing the penguins or some nesting giant petrels, but we eventually made it back down to the whale bone beach having completed an amazing hike through some of the most remote and unspoiled scenery I have ever encountered!
We woke up the following morning to a pleasant surprise on deck - The deck and all of the surrounding hills were blanketed in a few inches of newly fallen snow! The storm that we were expecting turned into a snow storm during the night and what a beautiful sight it was! There were a few snowballs thrown before the snow began to melt away and then we set sail again, this time to a place not so far away called Ocean Harbor. Ocean Harbor was the site of another whaling station, but it was closed down and most of the stuff was moved up to Stromness. What remained of the station was still very interesting to look at, including a building, several large machines and an old steam locomotive, but the main draw of Ocean Harbor was the beautifully preserved wreck of a three-masted bark, very similar
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
Stromness is in the distance, I didn't hear the steam horn though.
to ours, that ran aground in 1911 on the south side of the bay. We toured the ruins of the station and while we waited on the beach for our ride out to the wreck we discovered three of the largest seals I have ever seen. They were bull elephant seals and they were larger than I could have ever imagined they could get and they just laid there on the beach like slugs, but they were still impressive to see. We loaded onto the zodiacs when it was our turn for the wreck tour and we set off towards the rusty old hulk. We weaved our way through some massive kelp fields and circled the hull a few times, while we watched the lovely blue-eyed shags that had moved in when the people left - A few of us hatched a plan to string some sails up on the ruin of a boat and sail it north for restoration, but, after closer inspection, we quickly learned that it would not be easily possible, oh well!
We all returned to the Europa for lunch on deck and then we set off in the zodiacs again. This time we headed
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
Some of the scree slopes were quite steep, but we all made it down.
out of Ocean Harbor and went around a point and into Penguin Bay. We landed on a shady beach between two large groups of elephant seals. On one side of us were the youngsters, who were play fighting and picking on the penguins, and on the other side there were the bulls and they were every bit as big (and lazy) as the ones we had seen on the other shore. I sat down amongst the king and gentoo penguins that were also all over the beach and I watched. I had several more amazing penguin encounters as I sat there. The elephant seals didn't move, they just sat there in their own flatulence and slept, but just as our time to leave came and we had loaded into the zodiacs, two of the bulls decided to fight. They stood up with their giant elephant trunk-like noses pointed to the sky and their massive mouths opened showing their hippo-like teeth and they roared a roar that would have scared a lion. Steam was flowing out of their open mouths as they faced off and they slapped necks a few times, but then they just moved a little bit and went
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
The Europa at anchor, waiting for us to reach Stromness Whaling station.
back to sleep up against each other as if nothing had happened - I had left my camera in the boat this time around so I have no pictures of the scene, but it was amazing!
Early the next morning we hoisted up the anchor and we set sail for Cooper's Bay. It took most of the day to get there because it was a long way away. There was a storm approaching on the horizon, so we wasted no time when we dropped the anchor. Within an hour of arriving we were all on a small cobblestone shore waiting for our turn to walk up the slippery, snow covered slope to see the macaroni colony that called the area home. It was a treacherous walk but it was worth it. We came to a stop in the thick tussock grass above a large group of macaronis. The macaroni penguins get their name from the 'macaroni club', which was a popular term to describe outlandishly 'fashionable' people in the 1700's, because of a very distinct yellow, feathery crest they have on their heads - In fact, the song 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' mentions '...he put a feather in his cap
In the Footsteps of Shackleton
This is Stromness Whaling station.
and called it macaroni...', which refers to the same fashion (I know, pointless knowledge!) The penguins were a little shy, so we stayed away from the main group and we watched them for a while from above. The long climb up the muddy slope made the penguins very dirty looking, but their humorous hairdos made up for the dirt - They were great to watch. While we were standing up there we got to see another strange phenomenon, a circum solar halo (basically a ring around the sun), which was very cool to see. The storm was coming quickly and we got word that the water was getting very choppy, so we had to hurry back down the slippery slope to the beach and then we headed back to the boat. The rough water made it a little difficult to get from the zodiac to the deck of the Europa, but we all managed with only a few incidents. We hoisted the zodiacs back on deck and we moved to the safest anchorage we could find to wait out the storm. We spent the rest of the day getting the ship ready for the open ocean, including putting up safety
I think this is called a linticular cloud and it is a common sight in the mountains. We saw this one as we sailed towards Grytviken.
nets and ropes and taking apart the zodiacs.
The following morning, after a slightly rough evening, we prepared to set sail. While I was up in the rigging unfurling the sails I started feeling a little queasy and by the time I made it to the royal yard it had progressed into full on seasickness - The heavy swell at the surface had been transformed into a very pronounced movement at the top of the mast, which was more than my stomach could handle. Luckily, I stopped unfurling and stood there on the foot ropes of the royal yard and watched the stationary horizon for a while until the feeling had passed - Later I relived the scene with a few of the crew members and heard their similar stories that didn’t end so well (for the people below them at least!) We set all of the sails and we headed out into the open ocean leaving the amazing island of South Georgia behind us.
There are more photos below