This post is part of a series on 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. For an introduction to South Georgia Island and information on additional shore and zodiac excursions on the island, see the previous post.
South Georgia Island – Day 3
Grytviken in Cumberland Bay is an old whaling station that was finally abandoned in the mid-1960s. The buildings and the whale processing plant have been cleaned up of toxic materials such as asbestos and made safe for animals and tourists to roam. There is also a museum and a couple of stores for visitors to tour. A hike above the site is sometimes possible but with the lengthy process of going through the bio-security check before debarkation we did not have enough time. Kayaking was a “go” and then a “no” due to winds.
The morning started with a briefing by a representative from South Georgia Heritage about the programs they do to restore the environment and protect the animals of South Georgia. One of the projects was the eradication of all rats and mice from the island and South Georgia was declared rodent free in 2018. They now inspect all boats with rat sniffing dogs.
All your gear has to be free from foreign seeds before debarkation. The staff helps you check your gear and then an agent from South Georgia randomly checks guests before they head down to the zodiacs. No one was caught with any foreign material.
The visit of Grytviken started at the cemetery where Shackleton, the early 20th century Antarctica explorer, is buried. His grave was toasted with a shot of whiskey. All along the shore from the landing into the small village were myriad curious fur seal pups that got aggressive at times and would chase you. There were also piles of elephant seals, almost all female at this time of year. The large males leave sometime in early January after they finish breeding. There were also a few king penguins and other shore birds hanging about.
The large male elephant seals are generally on South Georgia in November and December and leave in early January after they finish breeding. Females show up in September or October.
It turned out to be a beautiful day with a mix of sun and clouds. The sun emerged from behind the clouds and then disappeared again, only to repeat the cycle continuously throughout the morning.
Like all the areas we have visited in South Georgia the setting is beautiful, with snow-capped peaks and glaciers. Grytviken is a striking combination of the decaying rust colored refinery with fur seals and other wildlife playing or lying about soaking up the sun against a backdrop of rugged mountains.
The museum houses exhibits about Shackleton, the whaling industry and life on the island. There is also a small church and post office in town.
2 hours on shore.
Stromness, also a former whaling station, is historically significant as the town Shackleton reached after landing his boat on the other side of the island and hiking over the central mountains of South Georgia. Currently there is an abandoned whale processing plant on site which visitors are not allowed within 200m of because of unsafe conditions including asbestos.
There were some penguins on the beach. On this particular day there were mostly king penguins with a few gentoos and one chin strap proudly in the mix. Plenty of fur seals also claim this beach.
In addition to the wildlife along the beach there was an opportunity to walk along a flat valley to Shackleton’s waterfall which is where he descended from the mountains and made his last push to civilization. It’s a nice enough walk if you are looking for some exercise but the waterfall wasn’t really worth the effort in early February if you want more time with the wildlife. Once past the initial grassland just inland from the beach we didn’t see any other wildlife. The way is relatively flat but the trail can be rocky as times and does go through some boggy areas as well as crossing the stream several times.
Although there was a brisk cold wind when we started it died down leaving a mostly sunny and beautiful afternoon. At 6 p.m. the light just before we had to board the zodiacs to go back to the boat was stunning.
2 hours on shore.
South Georgia Island – Day 4
This morning we woke to a completely different scene with heavy fog and a blanket of snow covering the rocky shore.
The snow continued after breakfast and there was too much swell at Cooper Bay to be able to launch the zodiacs. Instead we watched the macaroni penguins porpoising through the water, some reasonably close to the ship. Still, it was difficult to photograph the fast moving penguins in the falling snow while trying to keep your camera as dry as possible and water droplets off of the lens. It’s important to use a lens hood and camera rain jackets are also another layer of protection against the wet conditions. Visibility remained quite low.
Despite the snowy conditions we were able to launch the zodiacs at Larsen Harbor and go up the fjord to view the glacier at the head. Our driver today was Santiago who also likes to stop in the middle of the water away from any wildlife and lecture and ask Socratic questions. I was, unfortunately, again on a zodiac with no other photographers. I was dying to get a good shot of the Arctic tern diving into the water but was on the wrong side of the boat. The other guests were as helpful as possible but I didn’t have the time and Santiago is not a photographer and doesn’t help much either in terms of positioning the boat.
In any case it was a beautiful scene with everything dusted in a fresh layer of snow. We came across some gentoo penguins hanging out on the beach but didn’t get too close to them, a blond fur seal and our first Weddell seals on the way back to the ship. The Weddell seal is predominantly found in Antarctica. Southern South Georgia is the northern edge of their range.
As we headed further up the fjord the sea was calm and the ice layer, really fallen snow, thickened. At the end is a stable glacier with a cave at the bottom. We got a good view but didn’t get very close. It’s dangerous to get too close to a glacier, especially when in a small boat.
Just over an hour on the water.
After lunch the ship took a cruise up Drygalski fjord. The foggy ceiling had lifted a bit revealing more of the snow dusted mountains and glaciers. The fjord has some impressive craggy hanging glaciers with water falls cascading down. At the end of the fjord the Drygalski glacier was mostly shrouded in clouds.
We headed out to open sea at 3:30 p.m.
February 7 and 8, 2023