King Penguins in South Georgia

Wild, Remote South Georgia

As we glide through the sea a bit of ocean spray washes over the bow and sprays our jackets. Rugged peaks are heavy with snow and glaciers to our right. The glaciers push into the milky waters that lay between us and the shore.

Seals and penguins slip in and out of the surf on shore. They jump with abandon as they breach the deeper waves for air. Maybe some of them breach near us out of curiosity at our zodiac boats. At times they follow seemingly out of playfulness. An albatross flies by and I wonder if there are any human beings who can truly look at nature and not be amazed.

This is South Georgia, a remote island accessible only by the sea and only by smaller vessels. The closest islands are the Falkland Islands a two-day journey away through South Atlantic waters. The nearest flights available in case of emergency medical evacuation are back on the Falkland Islands.

King Penguins by the water in South Georgia
King Penguins

South Georgia is a rugged and wild place hostile to most lifeforms. The primary inhabitants are birds and sea lions. To them, it is paradise. The island is home to many birds including penguins, albatross, and petrels. There are also multiple seal species. The colonies are vast and something otherworldly.

A Remote Corner of the World

Aboard the Ocean Atlantic, we spent multiple days making as many landings as possible weather permitting in this remote corner of the world.

February is the warmest month in South Georgia with an average temperature of  6 °C (43 °F) on the coastal areas – inland can be much colder. We arrived in January which is only slightly colder.

Baby Elephant Seal and a King Penguin in South Georgia
Baby Elephant Seal and a King Penguin

The weather in South Georgia is unpredictable. Trade winds have very few land masses to slow them down on their way to the island. Once they hit the island the high mountains can amplify the winds as they squeeze through the glacier-filled valleys. Sunshine is rare in South Georgia. They say it rains 300 days a year here.

Bio Security Checks

I felt the growing anticipation all around the ship on our first landing in South Georgia. The day before we arrived we all went through a biosecurity check. The expedition staff thoroughly checked our jackets, snow and rain pants, gloves, and packs. They vacuumed out pockets and inspected velcros for any seeds or biomaterial. South Georgia is a protected environment and any introduced seeds or contaminants can be a huge risk to the island.

King Penguin colony in South Georgia
King Penguin colony

In the 1900s, whalers accidentally introduced rats to the island. They had a devastating impact on indigenous wildlife. Other species and plant life have also been introduced including reindeer. Some of them thrived and have a negative impact. Rats and reindeer have since been eradicated. The South Georgia government (a British territory) guards against any introduction of new species. There was a sniffer dog that inspected our ship before we left the Falklands. He sniffed around to make sure we did not have any rats on board.

Walking down the stairs of the ship to board the zodiac in a South Georgia bay
Boarding the zodiacs

Only ships carrying 200 or fewer passengers are allowed to disembark on all the South Georgia landing sites. Cruise ships that carry more passengers have fewer landing options. Ships with more than 850 passengers are not even allowed in the South Georgia waters. During the nights that we were there, the crew turned off all the outside deck lights and closed the blackout drapes to minimize light pollution and help avoid confusion for the birds.

Right Whale Bay

The Ocean Atlantic, with its 199 other passengers, dropped anchor in Right Whale Bay. We put on layers of cold weather gear and rain protection and waited for our group to be called for disembarkation. When our turn came, we gathered in the mudroom to put on our boots and prepare to board the zodiacs.

Penguin colony in South Georgia on the side of a misty mountain

Each of us carefully stepped into the tray of disinfectant to ensure there were no contaminants on our boots. We would do this before every landing in addition to washing and scrubbing our boots after each landing. After the disinfectant, we made our way down the stairs to ocean level and climbed onto zodiacs.

On our first landing, the sky was gray and fog hung low over the bay lending mystery to the land. Penguins and seals watched as we disembarked in the surf and made our way to the black beach. The fog seemed to heighten the colors of the tussock grass growing in clumps on the hills.

Abandoned whaling station on South Georgia
Fur seal in the tussock grass

Wildlife has the right of way

The lower portions of the mountains in the distance were covered with green vegetation. Snow crowned the mountains and created flowing veins of white down the crevasses of the landscape. A waterfall descended the cliff to the north. Peering through the fog felt like a glimpse into Jurrasic park and I half-expected to see a prehistoric creature in the mist. The beach was populated by seals and penguins. We walked among them as careful observers taking care to keep a respectable distance.

The wildlife paid little mind to us except for the occasional territorial fur seal that would make their rights of that piece of beach known. Wildlife here has the right of away, we tried to stay out of their paths.

Young Elephant Seals playing in the water with a glacier in the background in St. Andrews Bay South Georgia
Young Elephant Seals playing in the water with a glacier in the background in St. Andrews Bay

Baby seals gathered in a small pool of water at the base of a large rock outcropping. They played while the parents hunted for food at sea. They frolicked and splashed and occasionally chased a human observer.

The penguin colony extended up the hillside. Each tuxedoed bird melding into the masses becoming a pattern of black, white and brown amid the green slope.

I’ve always dreamed of seeing far off places. There I stood on a remote island far from civilization engulfed in mist and mystery far from any place I’ve known before.

Stromness Whaling Station

In 1912 a whaling station was built in Stromness Bay on South Georgia. It was in operation until 1931 when it was converted into a ship repair yard. The site was abandoned by 1961. The remains of the buildings still stand today, in a state of disrepair. The red earthen rust of the structures blends into the raw mountainside behind them like ghosts of the past.

Abandoned whaling station, seals in the foreground, mountain in the background on South Georgia
Abandoned whaling station

One of the early Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton, found rescue here. His ship had frozen in the Antarctic ice. Most of his crew waited on Elephant Island near Antartica. Shackleton and five other men made an open-boat journey 800 miles (1,300 km) over open seas to South Georgia seeking rescue. We tried to imagine his path over the mountains after the long trek from his abandoned ship.

Check out David Reid, a modern day Arctic Explorer

We anchored in Stromness Bay on a calm day with sunshine and only a few clouds. This was a rare occasion in South Georgia and one we tried to fully soak in. The whaling station was at the end of a verdant green valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains.

Abandoned whaling station on South Georgia; photo credits to Massimo Bassano of Albatross Expeditions
Abandoned whaling station; photo credits to Massimo Bassano of Albatross Expeditions

Since each landing was limited by time and we had to eat all meals on the ship, we only had time to wander around the base of the valley. I walked to the furthest end and gazed at the mountains. I checked on my phone. It showed me the trails I could take and I longed to follow them.

St Andrews Bay

Making our way south along the South Georgian island our next landing was in St. Andrews Bay. Another beautiful day greeted us and the weather appeared to be in our favor for a great landing.

Penguins a rock ledge near shore with white capped mountains in the background on St Andrews Bay South Georgia

We swung our legs over the zodiacs and jumped out in the surf. Pods of penguins popped up in the water or jumped through the air just like the dolphins do. For all their clumsiness on land, they glide gracefully through the water.

On land, we made our way through the elephant seals, fur seals, and penguins wandering around the beach. Our destination was to the penguin colony that filled the valley just to the north of us.

St Andrews Bay South Georgia water reflection
St Andrews Bay

The call of King Penguins raising their trumpets to the air rose above the sound of the winds. Before me stood thousands of penguins calling to their mates and their young.

The young penguins waddled around, still covered with brown fuzzy feathers that moved softly with the wind. One of them sidled up to my friend next to me and began pecking at him. Another young penguin chased a Skua bird away.

A Multitude of Penguins

In the afternoon we climbed a small hill above the penguin colony in St. Andrews Bay. Our path led us through a grassy slope just below a few glaciers. These glaciers descended from the valley of the rugged mountains that were decorated with snowpack and ice.

A valley dotted with Penguins with a glacier in the background on top of snow capped mountains in South Georgia

From the top of the hill, I looked down and the scenery filled my senses. My sight could not take in the sea of penguins that filled the valley below me. Over 150,000 breeding pairs nest in that valley. The sound of their trumpeting calls filled my ears. Even my sense of smell was filled with a mix of penguin stench and the fresh breeze off the glaciers behind us.

We all stood there with huge smiles shaking our heads in wonder at the vast numbers filling the valley and spilling out onto the beach.

Charging Fur Seals

Fur seals and elephant seals were wending their way through the more dispersed penguins further down the beach. Seals are protective of their space of real estate on the beach. If we crossed their invisible line they let us know with their deep, belch-like growl. If we don’t heed their warning they sometimes charge.

Fur seals have a faster charge than most other seals, but still slow enough for us to have time to respond. We must stand our ground and face them with our arms over our heads to look larger. For the most part, we tried to avoid any confrontation by keeping our distance. We always gave them the right of way.

Petrel in South Georgia
Northern Giant Petrel

Grytviken, the only “town”

We have experienced excellent weather which made multiple landings each day possible. We knew we were very lucky to have seen so much on this trip already. Each landing in South Georgia increased the sense of remoteness and wildness of the place.

We did, however, miss our landing in Grytviken due to high winds that even kicked up a waterspout. While waiting for the winds to die down our captain took the ship into the Moraine Fjord. This gave us a closer look at the glaciers that were pushing into the sea. The winds continued to blow unabated and even got worse, so the landing was not possible.

Grytviken is the only place in South Georgia with a working settlement. While it no longer has permanent residents there are normally 11 to 30 people staying there throughout the year. They manage the South Georgia Museum and entertain the tourists visiting. This is the only place that larger cruise ships (500-850 passengers) can land. A major attraction is the Grytviken graveyard. This is the final resting place of polar explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild.

Freedom in the Wild Places

After a full day in St. Andrews Bay with beautiful weather and even a picnic on the back deck of the ship, we headed back out to sea.

I made my way to the top deck and gazed out at the silhouette of the South Georgia mountains standing alone in the middle of the vast ocean. This is my favorite place on the ship. It is often quiet with little to no other people milling around. The sun is low in the sky and color is beginning to fill the horizon. A strong wind whistles through the bolt holes of the glass screen in front of me.

I can hear the sea calling my name and it whispers of places unknown of depth beyond imagination yet to be explored. It compels me to wander further yet I am not lost. This is where I am at home in the midst of the unknown in the open spaces of nature that cry out in majesty.

On the deck of the ship looking at South Georgia in the sun set
South Georgia Island on the horizon. Yes, it was freezing cold without my coat for this picture.

This season of peace is like the wandering albatross who glides on the winds before me now. Her wings spread in a wide expanse swooping high then gracefully dropping down over the water. The wind sustains her path.

I remember where I came from and am forever grateful to be here now experiencing life wandering this vast world. An opportunity I never dreamed would come.

10 thoughts on “Wild, Remote South Georgia”

  1. This was very interesting to me (and to Doug). Doug has a book about the trek that Ernest Shackleton had gone through with his crew. So to see pictures of it kind of help put the story into perspective. Very interesting indeed. Thank you so much for sharing this blog and the pictures. (Plus the video).

    1. I can’t imagine what Shackleton and his men went through during all their explorations. We had a number of lectures on the ship about the original explorers. It’s very interesting.

  2. The book is very very interesting. The things that they all went through and then for all of them to come out alive in the end. WOW!

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