Part III: The Incredible South Georgia
Well its two full days at sea from Elephant Island heading north to get to South Georgia, a journey of some 1,300 miles. We are following in the "footsteps" of Shackleton and his crew of 5 aboard the 22.5 ft lifeboat The James Caird as they left the camp at Point Wild in search of rescue. They took 16 days to reach the southern coast of South Georgia, and legend has it that they were only able to take 3 sextant readings on the entire passage but still nailed it! What an incredible journey.
There are strict biosecurity measures in place for South Georgia due to its isolation and unique wildlife. We are required to watch a video and attend a talk about biosecurity. Even though we cleaned our clothing in Argentina, we need to inspect and clean our boots and pants before and after every excursion ashore. Grass seeds are particularly problematic and we find ourselves going over our velcro straps with a pair of tweezers! We will have the local biosecurity guy from South Georgia on board for 24 hours as it is our ship's first trip to this area and our Expedition Leader will be rated. She is hoping for a perfect 100% of course!
We arrived and dropped anchor late at night. About 2am we are rudely awoken, in fact almost thrown out of bed, by some sudden and serious side to side motion of our ship. Things were falling over everywhere as the ship must have swung side on to the swell coming off the shore. As we are awake we take a peek outside, we have to be careful not to have any lights on with the curtains open. The ship is meant to be in blackout mode with all windows covered at night to avoid confusing the local birdlife! We can see the dark outline of land, but what is really overwhelming is the acrid stench of penguin guano! The Captain finally fired up the engines and put the stern thrusters on to turn us into the swell and we could go back to sleep!
Although the swell has eased the trip ashore is a very wet one, with the zodiacs surfing into the beach on breaking waves. Luckily we are well rugged up in our wet weather gear and boots, and camera gear is safely stowed. There are king penguins as far as the eye can see (and the nose can smell...). There are a lot of chicks still being cared for in the rookery and adults still moulting. There are also quite a lot of fur seals, the pups are curious and come chasing after us to play. We have been shown how to make ourselves look big and scary to shoo them away, but this technique doesn't seem to work for me. In fact, they look like they are laughing at me... Needless to say I ended up with thousands of photos of seals and penguins, all competing to look the cutest! Here is a small selection of them. Our departure is just as wet and wild as our arrival, with a wave breaking over the bow of the zodiac as we are launched off the beach.
In the afternoon we go ashore in Grytviken, an old whaling station and the main "town" of South Georgia. There are permanent residents here, both researchers and caretakers. I think you would have to be a really hardy soul to survive the winter here, as summer left a lot to be desired in terms of temperature. We head to the whaler’s cemetery to visit Shackelton’s grave and had a toast with whiskey to him and Frank Wild, who is nearby. Shackleton's grave is the only one facing south. He passed away from a heart problem at South Georgia at the start of his next (and last) expedition and apparently his wife felt that as he loved this part of the world so much he might as well stay there!
We had a short tour of the whaling station, and then a few of us went for a short, fast walk up into the hills above the town. Keith went to the museum and posted some postcards back to Australia (we are still waiting for them to arrive...)
Scenes from Grytviken:
Shackleton and his crew landed on the south west coast of South Georgia, although they knew that it was inhospitable and uninhabited. They wanted to ensure they would be able to land and would not be blown past South Georgia and into oblivion by the wild weather as they tried to round the southern tip and get to the east coast settlements. After their ordeal at sea, its hard to imagine taking on a 36 hour hike across a snow covered and rugged, mountainous island in winter. Our walk only covers the last leg of the journey and that was more than enough exertion for the day.
We start with a short scramble up a muddy and thickly tussocked section of track which is home to some pretty cute fur seals. After that there is mainly slate scree and it is heavy going, but we are rewarded with great views of the peaks and valleys on either side and a small lake. The scenery was fantastic and the experience of descending into Stromness harbour, with the ships' horn attempting to recreate the sounds of the whaling station was ethereal. From the saddle we get a great view down the valley of glacial morain to the whaling station. We pick our way carefully down steep scree, past Shackleton Falls and descend into the valley, walking along the almost dry river bed towards the old Stromness whaling station. Some fur seals are frolicking in shallow water near the river mouth. Imagine Shackleton's relief to arrive here after such a long and dangerous journey. Legend has it that the men where first spotted by some children who thought they were monsters and ran off screaming. They must have looked pretty wild after so long at sea, their faces blacked by the soot and grease of burning blubber they used for fuel. Shackleton knew the manager of the whaling station quite well, but even he did not recognise him when he turned up on his doorstep. The task of finding a ship and setting off to rescue his men on the south coast of South Georgia and then on to Elephant island, began almost immediately and was ultimately successful. Hopefully we did not look quite as shabby as Shackleton et al on our arrival!
The weather today has been absolutely glorious and what better way to enjoy it that with a BBQ lunch as we cruise slowly out of Stromness Bay. Oh and it seems we are also celebrating the engagement of 2 of the expedition crew!
The day is not over yet though and after lunch we board the zodiacs again to take a cruise around Hercules Bay. Here the main attraction is the Macaroni penguins. I assume they get their name from the yellow, noodle-like feathers hanging from the tops of their heads. These fellas love to get up high on the steep cliffs around the bay. We cruise around the bay watching the comings and goings. The cliffs are covered with bright yellow lichen which provides a dramatic backdrop to the monochromatic wildlife here, which includes Gentoo, Chinstrap and King penguins, cormorants, skuas and the small bird called a Prion.
We have an early start the next morning to ensure everyone can get ashore given the limitations on visitor numbers. The boardwalk is thick with fur seals who have to be chased off as we move along. We see several Wandering Albatross nesting and, well, wandering around but apparently the success of the fur seals is pushing them off the island which is a shame. We also see some Skuas with young chicks.
Our next excursion ashore is to Salisbury Plain. The landing here was not rough as St Andrews Bay and we only got a little bit wet, but quite exciting nonetheless. There seem to be a lot more king penguins in the water here and I suspect a few of them came a cropper as the zodiac came charging into the beach. The long pebbled beach is thick with King Penguins and the grass is mostly the domain of the fur seals. The glacier dominates the valley and there is a bitterly cold wind funnelling down towards the beach. We walk a across the boggy plain and then we find ourselves "climbing up on Salisbury hill" and yes I had that song stuck in my head the whole time! The hillock is boggy and covered with soft moss clumps so every now and then you sink in up to your knees! There is a mini blizzard while we are up there and hailstones the size of peas rain down before the sun breaks through again. The penguin colony here is quite extensive and noisy. The constant "whirring" of the mating calls sounds almost mechanical. The short video below will give you an idea of the noise.
Turn your volume up for the video!
In the afternoon we go for a Zodiac cruise around Elsehul Bay. Its cloudy and cold and we are exhausted and I almost didn't go, but as we have 3 days of nothing coming up it seemed churlish not to. They bay was another smorgasbord of wildlife that with so many different species inter-mingling. We have been late in the season so haven't seen many Elephant seals but here we see a large-ish one on the beach. The Macrocystis kelp in the water is abundant and regular stops to unwrap the prop of the zodiac were much needed. On the rocks some amazing bull kelp which moves almost hypnotically back and forth on the swell. We head off towards Argentina late afternoon, its a long journey but the weather is looking kind.
Around 9am we arrive at the only landmark of our journey back to Ushuaia, Shag Rock. Rumour has it these birds are known as "Occasional Shags"... What can I say, there were rocks, there were shags. We did a hot-lap in the ship as that was the most excitement we would have for a while. Underway for another three days we had some excellent talks from the expedition crew but mostly ate and drank! We had hoped a lap of the Cape Horn or even to see more of the Beagle channel but with Covid-19 unfolding the priority was to get the boat to the dock and ensure we could disembark.
We arrived at Ushuaia, Argentina, in the wee hours of the morning of the 16th of March. Seems like so long ago now but if you think back to what was happening then, it was just the start of the lockdowns.
This odd little frontier town really does feel like the end of the world. It felt like we were deposited here rather unceremoniously in morning, after breakfast. We were lucky to be let off the ship as other cruise ships in the area weren't so lucky. The dreaded Corona virus had already made it here and we started to slowly come to the realisation of what the new world would be like.
Lynda is slowly getting used to the transition from working to not working and racing to cruising.