South Georgia has it all. An abundance of wildlife. Stunning landscapes. To top it all off, a unique history of sealing, whaling and polar expeditions, including Shackleton’s famous Endurance Expedition and the unbelievable story of the men’s survival. South Georgia is one of the main reasons we chose our 22-day Antarctica Ultimate Expedition itinerary – so we wouldn’t miss this spectacular island.
From the Falklands, we crossed the Antarctic convergence with luck through two calm sea days, anxious to get there. The only company we had were occasional seabirds that followed the ship – petrels and prions and albatrosses. The first signs of land after nothing but endless sea were rocks jutting out from the ocean, known as Shag Rocks, usually a place filled with birds. Unfortunately, that day was incredibly foggy; all we could see were some faint outlines.
Regardless, it meant that we had finally arrived!
Fittingly, our first landing site in South Georgia was also where Shackleton and co. first landed in South Georgia after his impossible journey from Elephant Island in an open boat. A narrow passage led to a small rocky beach at Cape Rosa, often difficult for visitors to land with any wind or swell. The weather gods were smiling upon us.
It was nothing short of a miracle that Shackleton and co. managed to land here back in the day, and we felt the history in retracing their footsteps. There was a plaque deservedly commemorating that occasion that we all clamoured to see.
Otherwise the small landing area made for a quick visit. We got our first taste of how aggressive and territorial male fur seals can be at this point in the mating season. We also saw our first young elephant seals. They were so cute with big circular eyes, and extremely funny when they moved around like fat sausages. Hehehe.
Since Cape Rosa is located at the entrance to King Haakon Bay, it was only natural we headed there for the rest of the day.
King Haakon Bay
Named for King Haakon of Norway by Norwegian explorer Carl Anton Larsen, King Haakon Bay had 270 degrees of mountain and glacier views we would learn to associate with South Georgia. Imagine mountain views where only the very top of the snow-capped mountain rose directly from the ocean – that’s what it looked like.
We were meant to make another landing at King Haakon Bay, but the wind had picked up and the conditions were not suitable. Normally this would have made us sad, but we were too busy being out on deck and looking all around us.
I can’t remember how long we were out there, but we couldn’t stop taking pictures. Of the mountain, the sky, the ship; of each other.
Another thing we will never forget was the clouds that day, tracks of floating white lines reaching up and out from the mountaintop. So gorgeous.
What a fantastic first day in South Georgia!
Right Whale Bay
Day 2 in South Georgia had perfect weather, exactly what we needed for all the wildlife we expected to see. This was what we came to South Georgia for, and our first big king penguin colony did not disappoint.
King penguins!!! We couldn’t believe we were seeing them in the flesh. There were so many. So many. From the ones right next to us, to the ones way back in the distance that could have easily been mistaken for specks of rock or snow in the mountain.
King penguins doing everything you could imagine. Diving into the water for food. Coming back from the sea and shaking off the water. Nesting. Mating. Sitting. Sleeping. Walking around aimlessly. Pooping. Anything and everything.
There was so much going on around us we didn’t know where to look. Brown fur balls of moulting baby king penguins stood in clusters (known as creches). White sheathbills picked through the penguin poop. Fur seals chased penguins off of their territory.
A mature male elephant seal with the big trunk nose literally did not move the entire time we were there – what a lazy bum!
The gorgeous backdrop was the icing on the cake. Beach that faded to plains that stretched to a waterfall rolling down the hills under the snowy mountains. Unreal. There were even misty clouds gently rolling in from the horizon. A complete feast for the eyes.
Salisbury Plain was extra special because we were the first boat group to arrive onshore for this particular landing. This meant that at one point, we were literally the first guests following the path laid out by the Expedition Team, sometimes with nothing by nature and the occasional flag in front of us.
It gave us even more of an explorer feeling. Stepping across rocks, over grass and through a stream. Watching out for aggressive fur seals and curious king penguins. Some were as curious about us as we were about them and came right up to all the humans dressed in bright-red clothes.
The penguin colony stretched as far as the eyes could see. Some 100,000 pairs of king penguins nested here (and that doesn’t count the young ones!). It was impossible to adequately capture the sights and sounds and smells in photos.
We caught one such pair in the act. It was particularly entertaining to watch the entire dance from start to end. From trying to get into position on top, belly to back, to staying on top, and then both standing up, it only took a few minutes. Reminiscent of what we saw in the Galapagos, but this time it was up close with bigger penguins.
Julie brought along a penguin hat specifically for this trip, and there was no better place to try to blend in. Do you think the penguins noticed?
What also made Salisbury Plain special was the South Georgia pintail. Endemic to the island of South Georgia, we spotted these birds here for the very first time. It’s absolutely crazy that these little yellow-billed ducks exist nowhere else on Earth except this little island in the middle of the vast ocean. Mind-blowing.
Just as we were about to board the tender boat at the end of our time at the landing, a stray chinstrap penguin came out of nowhere towards us. What a pleasant surprise! The aptly named chinstrap penguins look simultaneously like they are constantly smiling ear to ear, or wearing a permanent jockey helmet… or both. Hopefully this fellow was not too far from home.
Fortuna Bay to Stromness
During Shackleton’s crossing of South Georgia on foot, it was here in Fortuna Bay when he and the other two men first heard the whaler’s call at Stromness and knew that they were close to rescue. We had the privilege of retracing this last section of the historic Shackleton hike from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. But first we stopped in Fortuna Bay.
While other landings allowed us to visit and observe king penguin colonies at ground level, Fortuna Bay provided a unique view from above. Atop a small hill was the perfect vantage point to take in the sprawling colony beneath us.
Once again, it was hard to fathom how many there were. We had seen so many king penguins already, but it really never got old.
One thing we did notice was more brown fluff along the streams and rivers running through the area. Apparently while moulting, standing in the cool water helps baby king penguins to maintain body temperature.
In no time at all, we were back to the ship for an early lunch to get ready for the Shackleton hike. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and a heavy fog settled over the bay. The hike was cancelled. Boo. Then as we waited for everyone to come back onboard so we could all head to Stromness by ship, the weather cleared again. The hike was back on! Yes! Such unpredictable weather down in the Southern Oceans.
We took it slow and steady, up from the beach and deep into the island. This was by far the furthest we would ever get inland in South Georgia. It was a strange feeling to watch our ship MS Fram sail away and drift out of sight, leaving us to the wilderness and the hope that it would meet us on the other side.
I can’t remember the last time we hiked with so many people in one big group. It made us realize how much we count on hikes to be a chance to be fully immersed in nature, which is much harder to do with 60+ other people right beside you. So we dawdled near the back of the pack and soaked up the views around us.
The terrain was one-of-a-kind. Brittle shale rocks covered what wasn’t water or snow or ice. Panoramic snowy mountain views, even though we were barely above sea level. Hiking through snow and across glaciers. All the while imagining how Shackleton and co. did this with next to nothing.
We stopped a few times along the way with particularly spectacular views. First was Crean Lake shortly after the highest point of the hike. Gorgeous deep blue surrounded by blinding white and snowy peaks.
Then a little while later, Stromness came into view. MS Fram was there in the harbor – phew! Fog settled in again, shrouding the entire valley in mystery. The effect was hauntingly beautiful.
The descent into Stromness was steep, punctuated by a gentoo penguin rookery that had chosen a place far from shore to nest. At the bottom of the hill was the famed Shackleton waterfall that the three men rappelled down – thank goodness we didn’t retrace that part – and the end of the hike. “Well done!” we bid each other, and shook hands just like Shackleton and his men.
Stromness was the first and only time we arrived at a landing site from within, heading towards the shore. Grassy swamps lead to multiple stream crossings that ended at a green clearing. Moss and lichen shone under the light, dotted with fur seals. The once thriving Stromness whaling station laid abandoned and secluded in the distance; due to safety, we had to stay at least 200m away. Buildings of red rust stood in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape.
Despite the desolation of the abandoned whaling station, new life had without doubt sprung up all around. Our last memory of Stromness was the vivacity with which a few young elephant seals playfully fought each other in a puddle of delight.
Unbeknown to us at the time, Grytviken was our last and final landing in South Georgia (weather did not cooperate for St. Andrew’s Bay), which turned out to be quite fitting. Previously the biggest whaling station on the island, it is now a historical port and landmark, the only current settlement in South Georgia.
More than anything else, it is known as the resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who had an undeniably intrinsic connection to South Georgia. On his Trans-Atlantic Expedition after the Endurance Expedition, he passed away in South Georgia, and his wife asked that he be buried at the cemetery in Grytviken. We cheered him with his own brand of whisky.
Of the six women who live in Grytviken and carry out the work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust onsite, one gave us a great tour, explaining how life was way back then. The best preserved building by far was the church – built in Norway and shipped here – where they still held Christmas service.
There was a wonderful museum on all things South Georgia – Shackleton and other Antarctic explorers, whaling, wildlife, life on the island, history, and of course, a great gift shop. My favorite exhibition was a taxidermy display of the wandering albatross, one of the largest flying birds, that gave one a sense of just how wide their wingspan can be.
Other interesting finds:
- A post office (applause for the UK postal service)!
- The only public toilets in all of South Georgia.
- A previously sunken whaling boat that was brought back and parked at the shore.
- Another boat of visitors – however, they were in a private sailboat instead of the large cruise we were on… can’t imagine how seasick those folks could get.
One last South Georgia story. On the shores of Grytviken, we saw a newborn fur seal pup in the first few hours of its life. Pink evidence of its birth laid not too far from the pup and its resting mom. He/she was so small, yet already so curious with his/her eyes wide open and even gave us a bark! We could have sat there and watched the adorable little pup forever because the miracle life never ceases to amaze.
Goodbye, South Georgia! We’re beyond grateful for everything we got to see and experience. What a wild, wild and magical place.
Onwards to what we came all this way for – Antarctica!
For more pictures from South Georgia, please check out the South Georgia gallery!