I started writing this article and found myself discussing the general history of South Georgia. While the basics of this lost-at-sea island are fascinating, at least I think they are, I know that what my adventurous readers are here for is a taste of the experience! So I’m going to share four that blow any overview out of the water, in this order: most epic, most intense, most historic and most fun.
MOST EPIC: Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia
So, I’m sitting on top of the largest King penguin colony in the world and in comes this rainbow… It was one of those “whoa, pinch me, is this for real or am I truly losing it?” moments in my life. It was one of those moments that one feels a little guilty sharing on Facebook, as if to say, ‘look at where I am while you are at work.’
…The rainbow had a very distinct beginning, middle and end.
It began with a walk up a hillside to the rookery overlook. Louder than the 50 knot katabatic winds (about 57 miles per hour) blowing across Saint Andrews Bay was the call of 240,000 King penguins chattering across the colony. Then came the beginning of that rainbow.
It was really beautiful – the sky dark and the golden light perfect, the rainbow vibrant and in a full arc. It could have been the best photography of my life, except that the winds were so persistent that I could not find stillness for even one moment to change a lens or capture usable video. They were so strong that they almost blew us off the mountain. More accurately, when leaning into them, they held us upright. Katabatics, or glacial downslope winds, whap your face and make water pour from your eyes. They are so deafening that they steal the voice of those standing next to you – but not the penguins! The smell is absolutely foul, penguin guano wafting across you each time the wind changes direction… it will never come off of your clothing, you cannot escape it, and it nearly makes you want to vomit. But you do get use to it after awhile. And after awhile of being home, you actually miss it. Sounds crazy, to miss penguin poop, I know…
Just as the rainbow began to diminish, the winds gained energy, and we were quickly rushed down from the ridge. Captain Oliver had just put in a call to the crew that if we didn’t get onto the ship soon we could become marooned, exposed to conditions and would be forced to hunker down until the weather passed.
When we got to the shore, eight Lindblad crewmembers stood waist deep in the wild surf, holding zodiacs near shore with all of their might while the crew ashore separated us into two lines and readied us to hop into the boats. It was a little bit scary, a little bit dangerous, cold and wet and windy and exciting as hell. As soon as we were safely in the zodiac and when we pushed off, I looked up through a spray of sea and saw explorer Peter Hillary across from me. Having him there with a big grin on his face gave me a sense of security. “You can always see the kind of travelers with whom you are with by how they react to the unexpected — ‘it’s pleasing to see everybody in such good spirits!’” he shouted. Moments like this one are the best part of adventure travel – when the spontaneous arrives to replace whatever adventure is planned.
The day before, I had heard a quiet rumor that our time in South Georgia could be cut short due to a major storm in the Southern Ocean. I imagine the winds coming in and pushing us out wasn’t terribly surprising to the captain and crew as much as making land that morning was a calculated risk to allow us to leave South Georgia without any want. Kudos to the captain and crew!
MOST INTENSE: Elsehul zodiac cruise
After sailing for two days across the Southern Ocean from Antarctica, we arrived at Elsehul — home to one of the largest fur seal colonies in the world and also home to nearly all of the breeding birds in South Georgia.
The island was shrouded with clouds, wind and wild snowy air. The prospect of landing on shore seemed harrowing at best, all that surrounded it looked menacing. To Shackleton and his crew whom landed there in 1916, it surely looked like the Promised Land after 16 days crossing the wildest sea on Earth in search of rescue. To me, just harrowing.
The ship docked on the south side of the island and we cruised the vicinity by zodiac. We watched rockhopper penguins fall into and climb out of the sea; albatross, snow petrel and other birds flew all around us; spaghetti sea kelp danced into the current. The sky turned black, then bright white with sun, then, perhaps the most amazing moment of my life! Thousands of baby fur seals were learning to swim all around the zodiac. They were jumping and splashing and barking… they were everywhere! Then the statuesque king penguins started to chorale on shore. Then the sky opened up and a whiteout of dense snow fell from the sky and popped off of our gear like popcorn. I was so overwhelmed — I didn’t know what to do with all of this information, I couldn’t process it, and it just streamed out of my eyeballs in the form of tears. The driver who lived half of his life here for decades looked down upon me and smiled “what a beautiful reaction.”
MOST HISTORIC: Stromness, Grytviken and Shackleton’s grave
Stromness was the first sight of civilization the men of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition would behold after a brutal year of survival in Antarctica. After arriving at Stromness, “The Boss”, Ernest Shackleton sought rescue for his crew on the other side of the peninsula at the whaling station at Grytviken. It is also where he was laid to rest along with polar explorer Roald Amundsen and many of the whalers who died on South Georgia. Although Shackleton was of Irish descent and lived most of his life in England, his heart belonged to Antarctica and especially, to South Georgia. When he had a heart attack in 1922, his body was being prepared to be sent back to the UK when his wife instructed that the boat be turned right around and returned to South Georgia so Ernest could be “where he belonged.”
The gravesite is stoic and beautiful. All whom are laid to rest there face west/east, except for Shackleton whose grave points north/south. After touring the old whaling station and museum, we wandered to the gravesite on the hillside to pay our respects. We were celebrating the centennial, so it was apropos to pour a sip out for Ernest and toast him with the blood of his homeland: Jameson Whisky (we’d polished off the Shackleton Whisky the week before.)
With that, a quotation honoring Shackleton that was recited several times throughout my voyage to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands:
“For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
—Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist
MOST FUN: Salisbury Plain & Fortuna Bay
It’s difficult to say that any moment on this incredible voyage was “most fun.” I would almost call this one the most absurd – as in the absurdity of beauty and quantity of wildlife that surround you there almost makes you shrug and laugh and say, “really?” Fortuna Bay is probably best known as the second largest King penguin colony in the world (behind Saint Andrews which I covered above.) And there is so much more to this amazing beach than just amazing King penguins. The surf and the shore is completely covered with Antarctic Fur seal pups awaiting their mothers return from foraging to nurse them. Those little angels have attitudes too – we said they were kind of like Walkers (as in The Walking Dead) – whiling and snapping at us as we walked by. Then, there is the Glacial plain towering over the beach, the shore dusted with crisp snow, the sound of so much wildlife – it’s indescribable. So, I am only going to share one photo that I feel personified the entire experience of being in the Land that Time Forgot.
Thanks for reading!