South Georgia Island: The Serengeti of the Sea

I’ve had Georgia on my mind for some time now….SOUTH GEORGIA that is. That remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. I wrote a post about it last year. I’ll leave a link to it at the end of this post. Now, I finally made it here in person! And it is even MORE AMAZING than I dreamed it would be.

The voyage from the Falklands took a full three days though some “lumpy” seas. The South Atlantic can be an unforgiving place. We saw spouts from several types of whales on the way over (Humpback, Sei and Fin Whales), along with some porpoise. I’ll never forget the sight of high rugged snow-capped mountains jutting out from a frothy sea, with the black heads of fur seals rivaling the amount of whitecaps in the ocean. The amount of wildlife in the sea was almost unimaginable.

Of course Geography has a lot to do with the abundance of wildlife here. The seas surrounding the island are rich in phytoplankton, on which the food chain is built. Long summer days provide the sunlight for photosynthesis and iron leaching from the landmass provides critical fertilizer that phytoplankton need. These provide the sustenance for krill, which keep fish, seals, penguins, seabirds, and whales alive.

“The nature of South Georgia’s ecosystem is also greatly influenced by its position in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which is a strong current flowing in an easterly direction. Where the ACC runs into South Georgia and the submarine rampart of the Scotia Ridge, there is massive upwelling and mixing of water that brings nutrients to the surface where they promote phytoplankton blooms.” (1) Just north of South Georgia island is where the Polar Front occurs where warm water and cold water meet in a convergence. Krill are seldom seen to the north of this line.

The other reason for so much wildlife on the land is that it is the only landmass within a huge area of sea where seabirds and marine life such as pinnipeds can breed and raise their young.

Our first planned spot for landing was Right Whale Bay, but due to heavy winds again, we altered our plans and opted for Prince Olav’s Harbor, which offered us some protection from the 40 knot winds elsewhere. The morning zodiac trip was chilly and damp (it was 4C and misting), but we cruised close to shore where a large horde of fur seals were lining the rocky shores.

Map of South Georgia Island: Wikimap.org
First zodiac cruise to view fur seals

Since the tide was low at the time, we had to make our way through kelp beds, and we had to clean a few fronds from the propeller at times. Further up the cove we came across the remains of an old whaling station and the wreckage of an old ship. Now the wildlife has reclaimed an area where they were formally hunted. Presently, the whole island is a nature reserve and no fishing is allowed within 12 km of the island.

Wreck at Prince Olav’s Harbor
Remains of old whaling station at Prince Olav’s Harbor

After lunch we made our way to Salisbury Plain to visit a King Penguin colony. However, the wind picked up again to 40 knots and the ship was unable to hold anchor and we were unable to use the zodiacs to land. But we cruised up and down the coast and marveled at the beautiful landscape of a large glacier in the background with a nice sandy beach in the foreground. After about an hour, the wind started to abate to around 20 knots. Now we could safely land at Salisbury Plain.

Salisbury Plain: Glaciers, Seals, and Birds

Upon landing, we had to run the gauntlet straight up the beach past the fur seals who were guarding the beach like sentinels. They are very aggressive concerning their territory, and a bite from one of them would more than ruin your day, especially since we are three days away from any medical facility. Once we were at the top of the beach, we put our life jackets in a pile and walked toward the penguin colony. The noise and the odor from bird guano were both pretty loud. This is probably the most remote place I have been to on this planet (and that is saying a lot), and it is so full of life!

King Penguins at Salisbury Plain

We were all very happy with this experience, but the best was yet to come. The following morning we woke up to clear skies and calm winds at our new anchorage at St. Andrews harbor. This time when we landed on the beach, elephant seals and king penguins awaited us.

Elephant seals at St. Andrews harbor

What a gorgeous day it was! Just the scenery itself would have been enough to replenish a wounded soul. But we had the opportunity to hike around and explore a bit. The expedition staff flagged a route for us to hike up over a knoll to overlook a colony of 300,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins with their chicks.

Route flagged through the maze of seals and birds to the overlook

We had to first cross a running stream with penguins lined up in a queue, and then watch out for fur seals strewn all over the landscape. Giant Petrels, Albatross and Terns flew overhead as we watched our steps crossing the landscape.

King Penguins at our stream crossing
South Georgia Magic!

I thought we had seen a lot of wildlife at Salisbury Plain, but what I saw below me when I topped the crest of the hill just blew my mind. Below were the 300,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins, with at least 100,000 more large brown chicks who were almost as large as their parents. I’ve been to the Serengeti Plains of Africa, but the concentration of wildlife here cannot compare to anywhere else on our planet, including the high arctic in summer. A very large elephant seal was far away from the beach and quickly bounded his way toward the water as the frightened birds parted to make a path for him. These five adult kings in the picture below watched all of this with me.

overlooking the main colony: brown bodies are those of chicks

After a few glorious hours of being in this magical place, it was time to make our way back to the ship, as we had another place to explore after lunch. When we made our way back to the beach, it seemed like a young elephant seal was waving goodbye to us.

Waving goodbye?

While we waited for the next zodiac to arrive at the beach, the king penguins, who had no fear of humans, began to come over and give us a closer look. They seemed especially interested in our footwear. Maybe our rubber boots made us look like we didn’t have any toes.

inquisitive king penguins: Plancius in the background

As we boarded the zodiac, we took one last slow cruise past the colony.

view of the colony from the zodiac

After lunch, we were scheduled to make a landing at Godthul harbor, where there is a Gentoo penguin colony. But I have already had a full and satisfying day. If this were a football game, I would be leading 56-3 at halftime. Instead of running up the score, I decided pull the first string and opted out of the Godthul landing. I just had a morning of sensory overload and needed time to process it all. Rather than take the afternoon excursion, I chose to take a shower while the boat was at anchor, wash out a few clothes and catch up on my journal writing. Looking from the ship, Godthul was an impressive looking harbor. We did managed to see some more humpback whales on the way there, but I could not have had a better day than this already was! I felt very fortunate to experience this magical remote outpost that very few humans get to visit.

Our next stop will be the old whaling station at Grytviken and visiting the grave of Ernest Shackleton, and reliving his heroic epic journey from Antarctica in a life boat over 100 years ago.

The link to the original post Which Georgia is on Your Mind?

(1) South Georgia, by Robert Burton, p. 18. The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Fifth Edition, 2018.

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