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Published: February 13th 2013
South Georgia. I will be the first to admit that I had no idea what to expect of the place, and knew next to nothing about it. This was rectified pretty quickly thanks to some talks on the place and the sheer excitement that all of the staff felt for the place – and you know it’s a pretty great sign when even the staff can’t wait to get there.
South Georgia was first used for sealing and then whaling. It is quite staggering how many whales were killed there, largely for oil – in the 1929 to 1930 whaling season alone, 30,000 blue whales were killed. Thankfully all of this has now stopped and all native wildlife is protected. We saw some of the old whaling stations, notably Grytviken, that are now falling into disrepair. In my mind, while they are of historic importance, they are best left to rot like the whole whaling industry should be across the world, and it was hard to distance feelings against those that worked there with the knowledge that it wasn’t their fault – the vast majority of the workers just wanted something that paid well.
South Georgia is also the
resting place of Ernest Shackleton, who holds a very dear place in most of the crew’s hearts. I shall summarise his trip in a couple of sentences for those that are not familiar with the story. Shackleton had aimed to get to the South Pole, but their ship became stuck in ice and was eventually smashed to pieces. The crew made their way via their smaller boats to Elephant Island, where a decision was made that several members would go to South Georgia to get help, including Shackleton. The men left on Elephant Island were there for months, surviving by living in two overturned lifeboats and living on seal and penguin meat. Shackleton reached South Georgia and returned to his men, rescuing them all with no deaths. It is quite an incredible feat, as this took place during the first world war, and having seen the islands I cannot imagine how they managed to survive without either going mad or eating each other.
But enough of that serious stuff; let us talk for a moment about farting and burping. Elephant seals are not only bloody big, but they are also bloody disgusting/amusing to watch. They lie, normally in packs
of up to ten or so, and move only very occasionally. When this occurs they can do so relatively quickly for their size and look something like Vanessa Feltz in her fat days trying to do the dance move known as the caterpillar. However, the most incredible thing about them is the noise. Almost continuously, from one end or the other, a steam of air can be seen and an accompanying noise heard to indicate they have ‘let one go’. It is hard to relate it to quite anything else I have ever experienced in my life, though I imagine if you took a class of adolescent school boys, made them drink nothing but fizzy Fanta and eat nothing but cabbage, then put them in a single room and waited for their digestive systems to kick in, you’d be pretty close.
And the penguins… Goodness gracious me! Our first landing was at a place called Salisbury Plain where there is a colony of King Penguins. I believe we were told there were something like 50,000 pairs of penguins. That’s 100,000 overall, which I think you’ll agree is a fair old number. It was quite something, standing amongst them all
while they went about their business, seals on the shore running at each other, the ship anchored some way off, trying to convince yourself that you were actually there. King Penguins are also the best looking penguins (bar Emperor’s, but you have to go way down south to see them) so they made for good subjects on camera. The afternoon landing was at Prion Island where we saw more seals and birds, and went past some awesome pieces of ice in the water, getting up close to see the incredible blue colour against the white.
The next day was spent at Grytviken in the morning and then Fortuna Bay in the afternoon, where a number of us opted to do a small part of the walk that Shackleton had made across South Georgia. The day after though was the real icing on the cake – St. Andrews. Prior to landing here we were told that there were around 100,000 pairs of penguins, and it was staggering to see them and get amongst them. After landing, I walked up a ridge and could hear the noise of the colony building and building. Coming over the crest of the ridge was
mind blowing as they suddenly appeared and were absolutely everywhere. It seemed that each experience on the trip was being outdone by the next, but looking back I think that has to be the second best wildlife moment of the trip overall.
Hopefully that gives you a little idea of the South Georgia experience. Our next destination – Antarctica…
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