Sensory overload

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December 27th 2008
Published: February 11th 2009
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And what a sunrise it was! Overnight we had cruised slowly to Gold Harbour, and from our balcony we were greeted with the sight of a pink and yellow sky over a bank of icebergs to the east, and a dark blue sky above us and to the west over the large, deep Bertrab glacier. When we were ready to brave the cold and we emerged onto a windless deck just before four o’clock, the sun crept above the horizon and the mountaintops at the end of the bay lit up with the warmth of its first rays. Over the next fifteen minutes we watched the sun’s reflection slide gradually down the ice-clad slopes into the sea, and eventually the whole bay was bathed in the most wonderful rich golden glow. An incredible sight, and undoubtedly one of life’s most memorable moments.

As the sun rose higher its light was diffused by patches of thin low cloud, but it was still a fine morning and at 5.45 a.m. we boarded a Zodiac and went across to the shore where we had already spotted yet another vast colony of King Penguins. Dotted amongst them, and seeming to integrate quite well, were the occasional Gentoo, unperturbed by their inferior size, and apparently un-bullied by their King relatives.

But the highlight of the beach was a large group of several hundred Elephant Seals, mainly bachelor males lazing on the sand and occasionally rousing themselves for mock battles with their neighbours to the accompaniment of loud, deep guttural grunting. Unlike their much smaller male Fur Seal relatives, however, these two-tonne monsters (up to four tonnes when fully grown) took no notice of us humans so we could walk freely amongst them. Having said that, Lisa was a bit wary of them and stayed at the edge of the surf just soaking in the magical scene while a young Elephant Seal pup nibbled playfully at her ankles.

The fully mature males, having fasted for months as they claimed and protected their area of beach and mated with as many females as possible, had all gone to sea to feed, as had the breeding females. But scattered along the beach were this summer’s cubs, now about a metre and a half long, weaned but with no teeth, abandoned by their mothers and living off their blubber until they too - now toothed - could head out to sea to start the whole cycle again.

This was perhaps the most enjoyable beach so far and we could have spent the whole day here quite happily. Eventually, however, the Captain radioed to the beach that we should return to the ship as soon as possible as a gale-force katabatic wind had started to whistle down the glaciers into the bay. Those of us who were last getting off the beach got pretty wet on the return run as short choppy waves built up very quickly on the previously sheltered water.

We pulled out of Gold Harbour and headed southeast towards the tip of South Georgia and were soon picking our way through an amazing collection of icebergs. This ice alley had resulted from the fragmentation of a massive tabular berg broken away from one of the Antarctic ice shelves - you could see the annular lines on many of the bergs. Experienced crew said it was the best display of bergs they had ever seen in the seas around South Georgia. It was an indescribable sight, a jaw-dropping experience, but one that was practically impossible to capture in photographs.

At the end of the alley we entered Drygalski Fjord, another wonderful feature that the island has to offer on a clear, calm day - again our luck held. We motored slowly up the long, narrow rectangular inlet dotted with growlers, bergy bits, and small bergs, and surrounded by almost sheer mountainsides covered with ice fields and glaciers - all this to the sound of Pink Floyd’s “Echo” playing on the bridge sound system (the bridge crew proved to have an impeccable taste in music). Words had begun to fail most of us as we advanced up this spectacular scenic wonder. When we reached a dead end at Risting Glacier, the helmsman turned us around on a dime, using the bow and stern thrusters to keep us from hilting some sizeable growlers that were providing roosting spots for Terns and Snowy Petrels, and hunting grounds for a Leopard Seal.

By now we were suffering from sensory overload and were almost looking forward to having nothing to look at. By the time we exited Drygalski Fjord, passed the end of ice alley, and turned south and then west around Cape Disappointment (so named when James Cook realised he had not discovered Terra Australis), our wish was granted as the wind picked up, the sea rose, and we were soon rolling along in a gale towards the Antarctic Peninsula. They say you can have four seasons in a matter of hours in this region, and today we had just about experienced that. It had been a truly golden morning to end our visit to the wonderful island of South Georgia.

We napped until early afternoon and then had the chance to really relax for the first time in three days, and catch up on things that we had had no time to turn our attention to since reaching South Georgia. Given the state of the sea, Lisa stayed horizontal in our suite from late afternoon throughout the night, while I had dinner and retired fairly early - having had only four hours proper sleep in the past forty.Next ➤ ➤

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