Antarctic Cruise Part 2: South Georgia Island

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January 16th 2016
Published: January 22nd 2016
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South Georgia Island

Continued from Part 1:

Day 5:

At 7:45 AM the sky is completely covered in fog. Visibility is maybe 100 meters, maybe less. Walking upstairs it’s not raining, it’s just gross outside. There will be nothing to see today. Good thing this weather has come on our day at sea, though according to the crew this is good weather because the wind isn’t too bad (thus the fog). I want clear days on South Georgia though – I want to see the mountains!

After breakfast we are given a talk about Ernest Shackleton and his incredible survival story in the Southern Ocean in 1914-16. Even a basic overview would take forever to describe so I encourage you to look up the story for yourself. I definitely wouldn’t have made it if I was part of the crew. I fall in and out of sleep all day. Something about the rocking of the boat makes me sleepy, really sleepy. Laying down in bed between lectures I fall asleep every time. After lunch they put on BBC’s Frozen Planet Episode 1, which I have seen before. I fall asleep on Nimarta’s lap halfway through the show. After that, I take another nap in the room. Lazy Sunday.

By dinner the fog has cleared a bit but visibility still isn’t far. I haven’t seen overcast this thick in a while. It makes me a bit worried that we will have the same weather in South Georgia, but we have another full day at sea first so maybe it will get better. The most important thing is not having too much wind so we can at least make the landings on the island. Apparently a few weeks ago a boat with a bunch of Chinese tourists did an 11 day trip to Antarctica and didn’t get to go on shore even once. Now that is some bad luck!

They hand out a free book about South Georgia after dinner for us to read. There are also a lot of biosecurity regulations we will have to go over tomorrow. One more day at sea then it’s four straight days on South Georgia!

Day 6:

It’s only partly cloudy today. Breakfast is a bit later and afterwards we are given a mandatory briefing on South Georgia Island and all its biosecurity measures. Apparently this afternoon we will have to vacuum everything we want to take ashore so as to not bring any unwanted seeds or anything like that onto the island. They recently started an eradication program for all the mice on the island and they are pretty proud that it is working so far and thus don’t want to introduce anymore unwanted species.

Just before lunch we see our first iceberg. The skies have cleared now and it’s almost totally blue sky. Off to our left is a giant iceberg (it looks giant to me but I’ve never seen an iceberg before and apparently this one is small). We see many more icebergs throughout the day. It’s warm enough today that I sit outside on a bench for a half hour reading in just shorts, flip flops, and a T-shirt. Everything thinks I’m crazy but I think it feels good. It’s so damn hot inside the boat so this is a welcome relief.

After vacuuming up our gear I sit in the bar for a while to read. At some point we cross into another time zone. My phone updates automatically since I have locations services on. But the ship operates the full voyage on Ushuaia time. I guess this makes it easier for everything, but that means sunset is gonna be early and sunrise is gonna be really early. We pass a little island called Shag Rock, but it’s far so away to see any of the shags. Off to the left we spot an orca. I’ve never seen an orca before, but this guy is too far away to get a good look. I do see his head pop out of the water though.

After dinner there is a photography session that Nimarta goes to. I use this opportunity to do some Dutch lessons now that my Rosetta Stone is working again. Tomorrow we will reach South Georgia Island and we will be in the area for four days. Hopefully this weather stays!

Day 7:

The weather gods have not heard my prayers. This morning is freezing, rainy, foggy, and windy as hell. The wind isn’t high enough to cancel the zodiac cruise though. We are at Elsehul bay at the northeast corner of the island. We arrived here around 6 AM apparently. Breakfast is at 6:30 and we are loaded on the first zodiac by 7:30. There will be no landing here. There is nowhere to land – no beaches. The mountains rise up from the ocean in steep cliffs covered in albatross nests. It’s is an unforgiving morning but we are going for it. We are all bundled up in our biggest jackets and multiple layers of pants so we are ready.

This area is known for its macaroni penguins. The island is known to have 4 million pairs of macaroni penguins. There are only two places on the island where macaroni penguins nest and this is one of them. They look almost identical to the rockhoppers, the only difference being that they are a little bit bigger and their yellow hair goes further over their eyes. As we approach the colony we pass tons of fur seals swimming in the ocean. Up and down the go right by the boat. These guys are everywhere on (and off) this island. We have been warned that they may be an issue – more on this later.

We get pretty close to the shore and see a little colony of macaronies. They are chilling on the cliff with some seals. By now the water is starting to get really choppy. The winds have increased. After a few pictures of the penguins the guide says it is time to go back to the ship. She radios the other guides to no load any more zodiacs, it’s just too dangerous. We get soaked on the way back. Not by the rain, but by the waves crashing into the boat. The waterproof layers do pretty good, but my butt is soaking, since there is nowhere for the water to escape as I’m sitting down. Stepping off the zodiac back onto the loading bay is difficult but I make a clean step. We learn later that some people really had trouble getting back on the ship.

Everything is soaked and we strip our wet clothes as soon as we get back to the room. The rain layers did pretty good but as I said, my butt is wet, so that’s four layers down to my underwear that is soaked through. After hanging everything up to dry we lay down for a nap. By now the fog has really come in and there is nothing to see so we figure we may as well get some sleep. We don’t wake back up till around noon and I head upstairs to the bar. I can see some land to our right but it is still pretty foggy. We are heading for the Bay of Isles, which has a really big king penguin population. The goal is to make a landing there around 2:30.

After lunch the skies clear up a bit. It’s still overcast but at least we can see land now. And we have reached out spot. We go up to the bridge and peer through the binoculars. Thousands of king penguins are on the beach! They are packed so tightly together it’s like looking at a sold out football stadium from a blimp. The water is surprisingly calm as well. Everything is looking good except for one thing: seals. There are too many of them. I hear the expedition leader talking about it over her walkie-talkie. It sounds like she is saying that we won’t be able to land because there is not enough space with all the seals.

Sure enough, that’s the case. Around 3:00 they announce that there are way too many seals to make a landing so we will just be doing zodiac cruises. This disappoints everyone on board. Too many seals!? WTF!? Can’t we just move them? Apparently not. There will be no walking with penguins today. Hopefully in the next three days we will get a chance, but not today. They break the ship into two groups and we are in the second group to go on the zodiac, so we get an extra hour or so resting in the room.

When our time comes to go for the zodiac cruise we are on the first boat. The water is still calm so that is the good news. The bad news is it is still foggy and cloudy as hell. I’m sure some breathtaking mountains are behind here these clouds but it doesn’t look like we will be finding out any time soon.

Heading away from the ship we see groups on king penguins swimming along and hundreds of fur seals playing in the water. There are also tons of petrels floating about, stretching their wings. As we near the shore the sight of thousands of king penguins and fur seals comes clearer into view. Holy hell. It’s like a penguin and seal Panama City Beach MTV spring break. Now I see why there was nowhere to land on the beach. There is literally no break from all the seals. The groups of penguins meander through the seals not paying any attention to them. Off in the distance on the hill we can see tens of thousands of white dots. These are all king penguins.

We can’t get too close to the shore as the waves are decently big, but we can get close enough to see what we need to see. This beach is maybe 3 miles long and it is completely covered by wildlife (penguins, seals, and petrels). I have never seen anything like this before. It’s crazy. There are three main sizes of the fur seal: males are huge, females are decent sized, and babies are small. It’s nesting season here so there are thousands of baby seals on the beach intermixed with the adults and penguins.

These fur seals don’t eat penguin, so they can live peacefully together. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about all the animals here. The petrels, which are huge here, will eat anything, and one of their favorite meals seems to be baby seal. From the zodiac we can see a group of petrels with red bills. They are not a different breed of petrel; they are just covered in baby seal blood. They are kind of like vultures, in that they will eat something even if it’s already dead. Who knows how this baby seal died, but now it is petrel food.

After over an hour on the zodiac it is time to head back to the ship. It has started raining pretty good now and everyone is getting soaked. This afternoon cruise was way better than the morning though. As disappointed as everyone was that we couldn’t make a landing it seems everyone still enjoys the cruises and seeing the huge penguin colonies from the boat. There were clearly too many seals on the beach to land the zodiacs. We will have to try again tomorrow!

After dinner we decide to get to bed early as it’s another early morning tomorrow. That doesn’t happen, though, as we end up watching two episodes of Homeland. It’s about 11:30 when Nimarta peaks out the window past the curtains to see if we are moving or not. We are not, as we have already arrived in our destination for the morning, but something else surprises us: stars! The sky has almost completely cleared and we can see stars. After the miserable weather today this is amazing. We run upstairs to view the entire sky. There are some clouds over the mountains but for the most part it’s completely clear. And the stars are abundant. There is no artificial light here. The clear skies give us hope for tomorrow. Hopefully the morning will look the same!

Day 8:

We awake at 6:00 AM and open the curtains. Much to our delight the sky is still clear – blue skies welcome us to Christmas Eve’s eve. This is going to be good. However, we know we can’t get too excited yet because there are still two possible setbacks: wind and seals. If it’s too windy they can’t operate the zodiacs and we won’t be able to go to the island. And seals… well you already know about the seals. So everyone is incredibly delighted when they announce just after breakfast that they have found a spot to land without too may seals and the wind has died down. Today we will finally set foot on South Georgia Island!

Once again we are in the very first zodiac to depart for the shore. It’s so sunny and the water is calm. There will be no getting wet on today’s zodiac journey. It’s even kind of warm. We immediately regret wearing so many layers as we zoom towards the coast. We will have to strip layers later. For now we just want to enjoy this majestic scenery. We couldn’t see any mountains yesterday but we sure can today. Jagged, rocky peaks climb out of the bay and reach towards the sky. South Georgia is a very mountainous island. It’s rather small, less than 100 miles across and only about 20 miles wide, but its highest mountain is almost 10,000 feet. Coming directly from the sea that is pretty damn high. I’m not sure if we can see that peak right now but the peaks around us are impressive too. They are capped in snow all year long, and numerous glaciers poke through the valleys. We will be very close to one of them in just a few minutes.

As we approach the shore we are greeted by thousands upon thousands of seals, mostly babies. It’s amazing that they found us a place to land because there a hell of a lot of seals here. I figure that they decided they had to let us land on this gorgeous day or the passengers would not be too happy. The fur seals stare at us as we depart the boat. A few king penguins watch us too. Groups of king penguins are scattered everywhere, but the main colony (called a rookery) is a bit of a walk away. That is our first stop if we can get by all of the seals.

I’ve seen thick New Zealand fur seal populations in Kaikora (just north of Christchurch) but this is something else. There must be 10,000 baby fur seals moping around, with maybe half as many adults. The babies look just like the fur seals in New Zealand but the adults are far bigger. As a general rule you are supposed to stay 15 meters away from a seal, but clearly that is impossible. The guides tell us to stay as far away from the adults as we can and to just not step on any babies. They are literally everywhere so you have to pay attention to where you are walking or you may step on one. The issue is that some male fur seals can be aggressive. And you don’t want to get bit by one of these guys – their teeth are scary looking and they carry all sorts of diseases you don’t want to deal with. That, and if you get bit by a seal everyone’s trip is over, as we have to head back to civilization asap.

We hop around the fur seals as we head towards the king penguin colony. There are all sorts of groups (5-30 individuals) of penguins waddling about intermixed with the seals. There are also some elephant seals. These are the biggest seals in the world and they are really, really slow. They are so fat that they have to slither on their blubber. They cannot run like the fur seals can. And they have huge, droopy eyes. They always look so sad. Maybe it’s because they didn’t get laid this year (more on this later). The ones here are pretty small by elephant seal standards. The large males are the really big ones with the long snouts (hence the name) and they have apparently already mated and gone out to sea for the summer. We may see them at some point but apparently not here!

As we are walking towards the penguin colony a baby seal decides to be a tough guy. He wobbles up to Nimarta and starts growling at her. It’s cute because it is so small so it is nothing to be scared of. After it sneers at Nimarta it comes over to me, getting within about one meter of my feet, and starts growling at me too. I say “chill out baby seal,” and humor it for a bit before walking off. This little guy might be an aggressive one when he gets older!

We manage to stay free of any more angry seals as we head to the penguin colony. We are passing a ton of penguins, but we know that this is nothing compared to what awaits us. Soon, we are beyond the seals. They don’t drift too far from the beach so we have extended ourselves past their territory by now. From here on it’s just penguins. We climb a little hill and we see it: the penguin colony. My first estimate is that there are maybe 50,000 king penguins here, all huddled up like they are going to some big conference. It’s amazing. We have never seen anything like this before (other than from the zodiac yesterday) and we are right up close to them. They are scattered across a rocky plain with a few streams flowing through it. Some of the younger ones, who haven’t shed their baby fur yet, are congregating around the streams, lining each side of them. The adults stand around, doing nothing in particular. This is the life of a king penguin.

We can’t get too close to the colony but we get a pretty good view from the hill. One of the penguins stares at us with curiosity but the others seem to not give a crap about all these humans with cameras. They are probably used to this. For as far as we can see there are penguins. They must really enjoy being in large groups. To cap the scene a small glacier is in the background with blue skies above. It’s a magical scene like something out of a National Geographic documentary. And it sort of is – NatGeo loves South Georgia and comes here all the time. Now I see why. And crazily enough this is one of the small king penguin colonies on the island!

Time flies by on the island. We only have just under four hours and that seems like not enough. Even I - someone who barely takes any pictures – am taking a ton of pictures. Every one of the penguins has its own personality. And they just walk so comically. Most of the other passengers have super fancy Japanese Tourist Cameras but I am OK with my digital camera. I love the combination of the scenery with the abundant wildlife. This is definitely something you only get to see in this part of the world and most likely only on this island. Even Antarctica doesn’t have colonies of penguins this dense, from what I have heard. It’s just crazy out here. Even as I take picture after picture I know that pictures won’t do this justice. We paid enough to get here and we are glad we got such a beautiful day!

After hanging out at the penguin colony for a while we decide to start making our way back to where we started from. We know there will be a lot more to see on the way back. We will probably even have a chance to sit down and see if any penguins approach us. One curious guy seems to be attracted to my sunscreen and comes in for a woof. He is maybe a meter from me and stares me down for a bit before heading off to better smelling things. One thing we see a lot of is penguins marching in a line. I don’t know why they do this but they seems to walk single file when they are on the move as part of a group. Sure, there are lone penguins walking around, but mostly they stick in groups. I never saw March of the Penguins, but I imagine it to be something like this.

Soon we are back in seal territory. A juvenile elephant seal tries to hobble up a hill and we watch him with amusement. He gets a few hops each time before he has to stop and rest. It looks like he is working hard. He just can’t move with the same speed and agility that the fur seals can. And this speed and agility is on display when one comes charging at me. We were told this may happen so I am prepared. I raise my hands above my head and shout at him. He stops in his tracks, aware now that I am the boss around here. Two more try to come at me on the beach and I put them in their place too. Fur seals got nothing on me!

There are so many baby seals that we don’t even know which ones to take pictures of. There is even a white one (a recessive gene that affects about 1 out of every 1000 fur seals). They sleep, they lounge, and they play in the water. The adult males watch while the females rest. We get to see some minor seal fights as some males charge other males. It’s pretty cool to see but I want to see male elephant seals battle! Eventually we are all sealed out and we make our way back to the zodiacs to head back to the ship. It has been an amazing morning on South Georgia Island. We are excited about the next two and a half days here. Back at the boat the skies are even clearer than before. Photos from the ship deck look great so we snap a few before the ship starts to move to our next destination.

After lunch we lounge in the bar area and watch the mountains pass by. We are heading to Grytiviken now, an old whaling station that has been restored for historical purposes. We cruise along the north side of the island with the land to our right. Jagged peaks dot the landscape as we move forward. The whole island is beautiful. Even if it wasn’t a wildlife paradise it would still be a badass island. We are a bit delayed reaching Grytiviken and it’s nearly 3:00 by the time the South Georgia Government representative boards the ship to collect our papers. No one actually resides here but it is owned by the British and they operate a research station and museum so about 20 people live here off and on. As amazing as this place is I could not imagine living here for six months. Maybe if I really, really, really loved penguins….

At Grytiviken we get dropped off at the graveyard where Shackleton is buried, along with some other explorers and whalers. Oceanwide gives everyone a shot of whiskey to toast to Shackleton’s memory and after that we are off to explore the old village. The first thing we notice about this place is the amount of elephant seals. This morning it was mostly fur seals. There are still fur seals here but the vast majority of the seals are elephant seals. And there are only a few groups of king penguins. The elephant seals burp and fart and make all sorts of other gross noises to let you know they are boss around here. Except they really aren’t. They are so slow and lazy that all you have to do if they try to attack you is walk away. And they don’t even really have any teeth to bit you with. They are just big teddy bears.

From the cemetery we walk over to the old whaling town. They have recently restored this town as a historic place. You can’t enter any of the old buildings or machines but there are signs around explaining what everything was used for. There is a huge pile of rusted chain that was used to drag dead whales out of the ocean and bring them onto a wooden platform to be cut open. The history is pretty sad (the killing of the whales) but it’s important to learn about I believe. The largest blue whale ever recorded was caught here. It measured in at a whopping 33 meters long. That produced a lot of oil! At least they used every part of the whale, even the bones. The blubber was the main catch, as it was converted to oil. But even the bones could be mashed and turned to oil apparently. The meat was harvested and condensed to use freeze and sell as meat for pet food. Think about that if you had a dog in the 1950s.

There is a museum and gift shop here that we want to check out. But first we decide to do about a 2k hike to Shackleton Point. I’m not sure what exactly happened here but there is a memorial to him. We head off with two of our new German friends who Nimarta has molded into our personal honeymoon photographers. We pass through the research station where the people who work on South Georgia live. The dorms hold a total of 26 people so at no time can more than that be living on the island. 26 people! Coming up to Shackleton Point we have to walk through some deep tussocks. On the sixth step we hear a little growl. To our right is a little baby fur seal guarding the stairs. It’s adorable. We continue on with one of the Germans leading the way. But as we near the top he is greeted by a large male fur seal that grows at him. He staggers and falls down as we all crack up at his reaction. I take the lead now and scare the seal off and we make it to the point, which is really just a cross and a bench. It’s nothing great, but it was good to get some exercise.

By now the weather has completely changed. We can barely see the town and it’s starting to get really windy and cold. We are back in town in just under 30 minutes and we decide we have time to check out the museum and gift shop. In the gift shop we ask the clerk how long she spends in South Georgia. She spends six months here and this is her third year in a row doing summer at Grytiviken. She absolutely loves it and this makes Nimarta immediately jealous. Turns out she is from Wellington and lived over in Titahi Bay. You meet people from Wellington everywhere!

The museum looks cool but I don’t have time to explore all the exhibits. One thing I find interesting is the fur of all the local wildlife. The fur seal is really, really soft. Even the king penguin is really soft. It really makes me want to pick one up and take it home with me. They can’t run and they can’t fly – they must be so easy to catch! My favorite part of the museum, though, is seeing the replica of the boat that Shackleton spent a month crossing the ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia. It is frikin’ tiny. I can’t imagine how six people lived in this little thing for so long and survived. It truly was an amazing story of survival.

Our time has run out at Grytiviken and we must board the zodiac back to the ship. It was a fascinating place and we hope that this is not the last time we will see it. Back on the ship we have a special dinner tonight, as some of the people from the Grytiviken research station are joining. The crew puts on a real show for them and we have a buffet dinner and free drinks. We celebrate this by saying yes to wine, yes to beer, yes to anything they offer us. We should have guests on the ship more often! One of the workers who works for the South Georgia Government sits with us and tells us tales of living on South Georgia. Again, Nimarta is very jealous and vows she will work in South Georgia one day. I tell her I will come visit.

It was an amazing day on South Georgia Island. The weather was a good as it gets on this tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. The clear blue skies and moderate winds have given us extraordinary pictures and even better memories. We still have two more days on the island so we are excited to see what the next two days have in store.

Day 9:

We are up at 6 AM again. The weather is not too great, the clouds are very low. But the wind is mild so we will be landing this morning at St. Andrew’s Bay. This is probably the most famous place on the island. You may have seen it on the Discovery Channel, or BBC, or Animal Planet, or any other station that does wildlife shows. St. Andrew’s Bay is home to the largest king penguin colony in the world. At around 500,000 penguins in this little bay it’s the Manhattan of penguin colonies. This is the place that drew us to take this cruise to South Georgia and we know we will not be disappointed.

The mountains here are supposed to be stunning, as well, but unfortunately we cannot see them right now. The clouds are too low. We can see a bit of a huge glacier behind the penguin colony, but the peaks are hidden. We pray for the skies to clear as we load the zodiac to the shore. The first thing we notice ashore is that the elephant seals here are bigger. They are still not the giant ones with the huge snouts but these guys are monstrous. You don’t want one to roll over you. Fortunately they are so slow that you really have to be not paying attention to get trampled by an elephant seal. When they move they slither about 2-3 meters then have to take a break to rest. After a few minutes of resting they move again 2-3 meters and repeat the process until they get where they want to go. It’s pretty hilarious. They are the same when they fight. They fight for a few seconds then lay down to rest. Then get up and fight, then rest. I guess you need a lot of time to catch your breath when you are that fat! We watch numerous males battle as we prepare to head towards the king penguin colony. Tons of penguins are scattered about on the beach but the main colony is about a mile in the distance on the other side of the hills.

We make our way through many groups of king penguins and the off fur seal as we head towards the hills in the distance. We can tell that the penguins here are used to humans. They really don’t seem that interested in us. They clearly have better things to do. Up the hill we go. When we get there we are greeted with one of the most spectacular views you can ever see anywhere. The king penguins are everywhere. They must be covering a square mile or two and they are right up against each other. It looks like 500,000 penguins may be a conservative estimate. The other colony we visited yesterday was big but this is enormous. It’s hard to describe what this looks like – you really have to see it to believe it.

And see it we do. After some pictures we sit in awe of the mountainous terrain and abundant wildlife. There can’t be anywhere else in the world with this kind of population of the same animal, aside from maybe an ant farm. It’s loud, too. They don’t just sit in silence. They sing, and holler, and let other penguins know what’s up. We still haven’t figured out just exactly what they makes noise for, but they make a lot of noise, especially 500,000 of them.

As we walk towards the mountains the skies begin to clear a bit. We can actually see some of the mountains now, including the peaks in front of us, and they are just as spectacular as the peaks yesterday. All the mountains on this island are so rugged and barren. It’s such an inhospitable place for humans and that’s one of the reason it’s thrives with so much wildlife. I can’t even imagine how many whales would be in the waters off the coast if it hadn’t been for places like Grytivikan….

The king penguin colony is amazing but we can’t really get close to it. For up close and person encounters with king penguins we have to wander through the maze of penguins and seals outside of the colony. So that’s what we do as we slowly make our way back to the landing point. As I mentioned, the penguins here are not as curious as the ones yesterday, but some still walk up to me and stretch their necks out, staring me down before they wander off to something more exciting. The younger ones tend to be more curious. You can tell the younger ones because they are still shedding their baby fur. They are born with an ugly brown coat that they shed over their first year. After they have completely shed off the baby fur they turn into the colorful king penguin you know of. When they are in between they are left with some funny hair dos. My favorite is the penguins with the mullets. It looks like all they need is a beer and a Nascar race!

As we make our way back to the zodiacs we notice that the elephant seals aren’t fighting as much as they were before. The main purpose of fighting is to win the right to mate with the female. A typical elephant seal community with have one dominate male who wins all the fights and impregnates all the females and a bunch of other males who can’t get laid. Most of the mating has apparently already happened for this year though, so it seems that these fights are just practice for next year. We haven’t seen any of the really big males yet. The guides tell us the big males have most likely already impregnated the females and gone out to sea for the summer. The ones left on the shore are the ones who didn’t get any action. Some of them have scars and wounds. The fights can get pretty brutal. Even these practice fights look pretty gnarly. They hit each other pretty hard although their teeth aren’t that big they can clearly break the skin. We watch a few more battles and then head back to the zodiac and back to the ship. Our morning at St. Andrew’s has been a great success. We were on the first zodiac to the shore and the last zodiac to leave, almost four hours on the island. We wave goodbye to the seals and penguins and cruise back to the ship for lunch.

As lunch ends the weather takes a turn for the worse in Godthul Bay, where we are for our afternoon landing. The clouds are super low now and we can’t see any mountains, just a beach full of seals. There really isn’t any wind, though, so it’s an easy ride over to the beach. We are going on a little hike this afternoon, up into the clouds.

We have to dodge fur seals as we make our way down the beach and through the tussocks to a place where we can climb the hill. Seals love to lie in tussocks, and they are thick vegetation so sometimes they are hard to see. And you don’t want to accidently step on a fur seal - that will not end up good for you. We scare off the seals as we make our way to a little stream that provides a good path up the hill. Soon we are out of seal territory and into gentoo penguin territory. These are maybe my favorite penguin solely because they have such a funny walk. For some reason they walk with their wings flared back behind them and pointed up. I think it’s because they need it for balance, but no one seems to be able to confirm this. Either way, their walk is hilarious. We watch them in their colony for a bit before moving on into the clouds.

The scenery here is most likely amazing. But we will never know. We are walking through the clouds and it is tough to see anything. The ground here feels a lot like the arctic tundra in Alaska. It’s incredibly soft and difficult to walk in. I always think I’m gonna sink into the ground on my next step. But I manage to stay above ground as we make our way down towards a small lake. We are given a brief glimpse of the scenery around us as some clouds move for a minute and we see a mountain peak. But this glimpse doesn’t last long as the fast moving clouds cover it almost as soon as it appears. Some giant petrels are nesting to our right, but other than that there really isn’t much to see.

We hike in a big loop and end up back at the gentoo colony. It’s a bit clearer now and the skies across the bay have cleared enough to give us a partial view of the mountain directly across from us. It’s a magnificent scene with the gentoos in the foreground and the mountains in the background. There is even a tiny sliver of blue sky to cap it off. Hiking back down the hill we enter fur seal territory again. Everything is going well until our guide, JB, is approached by a big male who doesn’t want us walking on his beach. He has a big walking stick in his hand and pokes the seal, urging him to get away. The seal backs off but still doesn’t want to give up. JB has to hold the seal off as the rest of us approach an open beach area.

One thing about standing on the beach in fur seal territory is that you have to constantly watch your back. Seals are always swimming and can come back onto the beach in a heartbeat. They swim fast and they run fast too. Nimarta is standing next to two of the Chinese girls taking pictures of an elephant seal when she gets the scare of her life (minus the snake incident in Australia). A large fur seal darts out of the ocean and seems to be heading right towards her. The Chinese girls scream and Nimarta panics and falls down into the shallow water. Luckily, the seal was charging a rival seal and not her or the Chinese girls. She is up quickly and runs to me, a few meters away, happy to not have a fur seal bite in her leg.

It’s funny to laugh about it now, but fur seal bites are no laughing matter. Just a few weeks ago a tour had to turn around and head back to the Falklands after a passenger got bit by a fur seal on South Georgia. These guys have huge teeth and a bite from them could be a death sentence. There are no emergency services here. The nearest hospital is in Stanley, two and a half days by ship away. If someone gets bit by a seal, everyone’s cruise it over. The ship has to immediately head to the Stanley (or Ushuaia if it’s closer) to get the wounded passenger medical attention. As horrible as it is for the person bit by a seal they must feel even more horrible knowing that they are responsible for ruining everyone’s trip. You don’t get your money back if the ship has to turn around due to a medical emergency. You’re just screwed. According to the South Georgia Government guy we met this has happened four times already this year on South Georgia alone (not all from seal bites – one was for a broken hip). We were the 81st boat to come this year, he says. 4 out of 81 means that five percent of the cruises that have come to South Georgia this year have had to end the cruise short without going to Antarctica. I can’t imagine how that must feel to spend all this money, come all the way down here, and not be able to go to Antarctica because someone had an accident. But what can you do, right? Just hope you have good travel insurance….

Back on the boat it is Christmas Eve dinner. It is nothing special – apparently tomorrow they have a special Christmas dinner. But Nimarta insists we wear our Christmas hats to dinner. This will truly be a unique Christmas here in the middle of nowhere, far from human civilization. And it will be our last day on South Georgia. It has been amazing so far and we hope to go out with a bang!

Day 10:

Christmas morning we are up at 5:00 AM. Not to open presents but to get an early start on what will be a long day. We are going to Gold Harbor, our expedition leader’s favorite spot on the whole island. She says it’s beautiful and we will have to take her word for it since it’s complete overcast and low clouds again. We can’t be too disappointed though. Most days on South Georgia are like this. The island isn’t known for its sunny days. We are happy to have had one – most people don’t even get that.

Of all the beaches we have been to so far this one has the biggest and most elephant seals. Fur seals are few and far between here, making it safer for everyone, but there is no shortage of giant, slobbering, farting, burping elephant seals. We have wanted to see elephant seals with snouts the entire time we have been here, as the ones we have seen so far have been younger, and here we finally see some. They aren’t the huge ones – those guys are already gone after mating with all the females – but some of these guys have decently big snouts. It’s 5:30 in the morning and it’s fighting time at Gold Harbor. There must be 10 battles going on right in front of us. This is what we have wanted to see all along!

One thing we were not expecting to see, however, is a rape. Apparently elephant seals mating is kind of rapey. The female is literally 10% of the size of the male. And she clearly does not want to be mounted by this big ogre. She tries to get away, but the male is larger and moves faster. He is on her and climbs on top of her, his giant, red elephant seal penis clearly visible to everyone. And then the rape happens. Like everything else elephant seals do they exert energy for a few moments, then rest. Sex is no different. It’s pretty funny to watch. It doesn’t last long, and when it is over she waddles off, scarred for life.

Wandering through elephant seal battles we find the king penguin colony. This one is far smaller than the one at St. Andrew’s, but in some ways it’s even better since the colony is right on the beach and the young penguins seem to be fascinated by us humans. The penguins here probably don’t see as many people as the ones at St. Andrew’s. They are very curious about us. The adults don’t really care, but the young ones, the one that are almost done shedding their baby fur, are intrigued by our presence. They walk up to us and stare at us, tilting their necks and trying to figure out what they hell we are doing here. Nimarta hold out here Christmas hat and ones takes it in his mouth. I’m not sure if he’s trying to eat it or what, but he drops it to the ground and wanders off to other encounters.

The highlight of the day comes from the penguin bite. Not an attack or anything like that. But one of the young penguins is so fascinated by my hand that he comes in for a closer look and a taste. I hold out my hand with my knuckles clenched, gloves on. He stares me down for a moment before stretching his neck out to bite down on my fingers with his beak. It doesn’t hurt or anything. It’s more of a test bite than a real bite. He gnaws for a bit before realizing that he isn’t getting my fingers and backs off. Bit by a penguin! Nimarta decides she wants to get bit by the penguin too so I give her my gloves. She sits down by the penguin and holds out her hand. The penguin looks at her and tilts his neck, but he doesn’t bite her hand. She tries and tries but he won’t bite her. Nimarta is saddened that the penguin doesn’t like her as much as he liked me. Or the three other people he bit! Nimarta will have to live with leaving South Georgia without being bit by a penguin.

Back at the boat it is breakfast time. This was the first pre-breakfast landing we had and it feels weird to be eating breakfast know, after being on land already. Christmas morning has started out well. Next up we are heading to another bay that is known for macaroni penguins. Unfortunately, when we get there the guides assess that it is too dangerous to get into the zodiacs. The swell is really high and the water is rising and falling by multiple meters. There will be no landing this morning. We will have to view the macaroni penguins from the ship. Luckily this is possible, as they are swimming all around the ship, jumping in and out of the water as they search for food.

With the failed landing our time on South Georgia Island has come to an end. We will not set foot on the island again, but we will be treated to one last experience. The crew as decided to take a scenic cruise down Drygalski Fjord, at the very southeast corner of the island. I have flashbacks of Milford Sound in New Zealand as we approach the mouth of the fjord. The weather is starting to clear a bit and we can see the jagged rock peaks on either side of the fjord.

After lunch we go out on the deck and we are greeted by a sight that can only be described as spectacular. The skies are blue above us and the mountains and glaciers have all become visible. The water in the fjord is turquoise blue, thanks to the glacial runoff, and mountains and glaciers flank us on both sides. As it is a fjord, the water is very deep and we can get extremely close to the glaciers. The glacier on our right is amazing, the white ice shining perfectly in the sunlight. Directly at the end of the fjord is an even bigger glacier, but we don’t get too close to that one before we turn around to head back. I count four very large glaciers between the peaks of the rocky mountains. There is no green here, in stark contrast to Milford Sound, but other than that they look similar, aside from the bigger and more frequent glaciers here. But while Milford is a huge tourist destination not many people get to see this fjord. I feel lucky to have cruised down it and seen it in all its majesty.

Back in the ocean we head towards Antarctica. Our time in South Georgia has been truly indescribable. This is one of the last untamed and untouched wildernesses in the world (save the unfortunate whaling history). There is no way to describe on paper the feeling you get when you walk up a hill and see 500,000 penguins chilling in the valley below, giant peaks of snowcapped mountains in the background. Or when you land on a beach and you can barely get around the fur and elephant seals, who are all looking at you wondering what you are doing in their home. I’m usually more into scenery than wildlife but this place is something special. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I can’t even think of another place in the world that has this sort of wildlife population. And to top it off the scenery is breathtaking. Even if there were no animals here it would still be a fantastic place. The weather may not be the best, but the mountains, glaciers, fjords, and wildlife surely make up for it.

Christmas dinner is turkey with gravy and stuffing. We have been on this boat for nine days now and it is starting to feel like home. Our fellow travelers are our new family and it almost feels like a family dinner. Christmas at South Georgia has been an unforgettable experience and will always live on in my memory as one of the best Christmas’s ever. This trip so far has already been worth the price of admission, and we are not even at Antarctica yet. Luckily, that is next on our itinerary. As soon as we cross 60 degrees south we will officially be in Antarctic waters, and the International Antarctic Treaty defines Antarctica as anything below that degree of latitude. Antarctica here we come! be continued in Part 3


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