South Georgia Island with Polar Latitudes – Part 1

South Georgia Island, sitting in the Southern Ocean a 2-day ocean voyage south of the Falkland Islands and 2 days east of Antarctica, is a remote wonderland of incredible landscapes teaming with wildlife. One beach was so crowded with penguins and seals there was no room for us to land and we had to view them from the zodiacs.

Throughout the 1800s South Georgia was primarily a commercial sealing outpost. Later, early in the 20th century as the number of seals dwindled, they turned to whaling. Several whaling stations operated on the island until the mid-1960s. Today the island focuses on conservation and the preservation of the flora and fauna. The waters surrounding the island have been part of a patrolled marine protected area since 2012, and in 2018, due to an aggressive eradication program, the island was declared free of the invasive rats and mice that preyed on native bird eggs.

For history buffs, South Georgia Island is where Shackleton ended his incredible story of survival (1914-1916). I highly recommend reading “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing to anyone planning a trip to Antarctica or who is interested in extreme adventure stories.

South Georgia Island – Day 1

In the previous evenings briefing Nate, the Polar Latitudes’ excursion leader, showed considerable concern about the winds and where we would be able to beach the zodiacs the following day. We would have to wait until the next day for firmer plans. With all the projected enthusiasm for on board activities, i.e., bingo and haiku I tried to set my expectations low for landing and was beginning to worry if we would actually step off the boat the next day. South Georgia Island has extremely changeable weather. There is a reason you spend 4 days here; you wouldn’t want to bet a shore excursion on a single day.

Fortuna Bay

The following morning we woke to the island’s beautiful, dramatic coastline with steep mountains, snowy peaks and glaciers. The beach areas are covered in penguins, mostly king penguins, and fur seals. The combination of dramatic scenery, wildlife and unspoiled beauty is one of the most stunning I have ever scene.

The sea was somewhat rough with a pretty good swell and winds. We had come in from the south to the west side of the island during the night and were headed to Fortuna Bay. The swell and winds were still fairly strong, 20 knots with gusts up to 40. 40 is the maximum for zodiacs. We passed one glacier with the winds howling down it but once past the winds dropped considerably. As usual they sent a scouting zodiac followed by the crew and then got us out in groups. The weather started cloudy but only improved as the day wore on. After lunch there was considerable blue sky.

Once off the zodiacs there was a path marked for us that took us to a large king penguin rookery with 7000 pairs of birds. When the wind blew in the right direction you could definitely smell them.

On the way to the rookery, about a 15 minute walk if you just walked there, penguins and fur seals were everywhere, all along the beach and flat grassy areas. There was so much going on it was difficult to know where to focus your camera or what to watch. Penguin highways cross the flatlands to the water and the fur seal pups get feisty if you get too close so you have to pay attention to where you are walking and where the animals want to get to. They do a good job of having the route marked with plenty of staff around to keep you on track.

At the end of the trail is a small hill with views of a glacier and the 7000 nesting pairs of king penguins, a long dense strip of birds huddled along a low spot against the base of the mountains.

We had about 2 hours on shore.

Jason Harbor

After lunch we had our second excursion of the day at Jason Harbor in Cumberland Bay. Because the excursion was going to start later in the afternoon, and to give guests as much time as possible, they did the daily briefing at 2 instead of 6:30.

At Jason Harbor we were offered the option of a hike to a viewpoint and then the choice to continue on a loop hike or hike back down by yourself and enjoy the wildlife in the tussock grasslands and on the beach. The penguins hang out along the beach with the seals, who mostly play in the water.

The hike to the viewpoint was guided with about 20 people in a group and painfully slow, but the views of the valley below, stretching to the sea with a backdrop of snowy peaks and glaciers was stunning and worth the climb. The track was somewhat difficult because of the uneven terrain and rocky slopes but was not too strenuous if you are in reasonably good shape. We opted to head back down rather continue on the guided hike.

The harbor has king penguins and fur and elephant seals. There are other birds as well such as the South Georgia pintail and the South Georgia pipit, a small grassland bird. The grass lands are a mine field of small pools and lurking fur seals making it difficult to wander the area without angering a seal or stepping into a pool of water. Still it was great fun. The sound of crying seal pups and barking adults with the elephant seals grunting in the background just added to the ominous situation.

We had plenty of time at this site, over 2 hours, and were losing light at the end of our time here. Last zodiac departures back to the boat were at 6:45 to 7:15.

South Georgia Island – Day 2

Moltke Harbor

We woke to fairly calm seas although there was some swell with no white caps. I hoped that meant we had favorable conditions for shore excursions. Clouds topped the snow-capped peaks along the shore but seemed to be clearing.

The morning plan of landing at Will Point did not pan out because of the swell so we crossed Royal Bay to Moltke Harbor and did a zodiac tour. Kayaking was scrapped for the morning.

Royal Bay has fabulous mountain views of snow-capped peaks and glacier. The morning started out somewhat cloudy but the sun broke out by the time we were in the zodiacs. They can get everyone on the ship on zodiacs with 10 guests per zodiac. The zodiacs always go in pairs and our guides were Jeff and Stephi. Jeff’s specialization is kelp and he does love to talk about it. Most of the guests seemed quite interested in his talk about the kelp and the importance of it to the eco-system. I really just wanted to watch and photograph the storm petrels flitting about the kelp, the penguins and fur seals playing on the beach and the elephant seals in a wallow at the far end of the valley.

We did get some time for photos but there was a lot of time spent too far out for photos discussing the geology of the landscape and kelp. I watched the animals in the distance yearning to be closer, but with so many others interested in kelp I was decidedly out numbered.

There was not too much swell or surf so the boat stayed dry but it was difficult to photograph anything if you were on the wrong side of the boat. Most passengers could not or would not sit on the floor of the boat so that the other side could see over them. It felt like such a pity to be in such a magical landscape with so much wildlife around and not be able get closer to photograph it or to get a good look and watch for a while.

2 and half hours on the water.

Gold Harbor

At Gold Harbor there were too many animals, i.e., penguins and aggressive fur and elephant seals for the zodiacs to be able to land on the beach so we did another zodiac tour. The kayaks were finally able to get out on the water.

This is another stunning harbor with a hanging glacier and a penguin saturated beach. Fur and elephant seals also hang out here among the penguins.

Jeannine, who specializes in birds, was our zodiac driver this afternoon and was much more focused on the wildlife and gave us a chance to sit and watch/photograph the animals.

The penguins stretched along the beach as far as you could see. At the far end was an area where the surf was more gentle and the penguins and fur seals played in the water among the boulders. The fur seals play king of the rock and “fought” over the top position over and over again. The penguins frolicked in the surf. Occasionally a penguin or fur seal would get curious and come close to the zodiac. The guests in the zodiac were a little better about getting lower so the other side of the boat could take photographs but some didn’t get out of the way or had mobility difficulties and couldn’t very easily.

The elephant seals, mostly females at this time of year, hung out at the far end of the beach and looked like giant rounded boulders. One or two came into the water but not close to the zodiac.

Just under 3 hours on the water.

February 5-6, 2023

This post is part of a 21 day trip (18 days at sea) to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica on the ship Island Sky run by Polar Latitudes.