Peggotty Bluff, King Penguin Colonies, Grytviken, Shackleton's Grave and Dawn at Gold Harbour,
There are many things I want to write about South Georgia Island. However, South Georgia is another one of those places where the written word struggles against the island‘s reality. It’s too big, it’s too beautiful, and it’s too complex. I will do my best, but I will try to keep it short. My photographs, though poignant, cannot fully encompass this island for the same reasons. I chose these images because I liked them, they stood up to my artistic eye, and they offer views of the island as it looks today. And today, this island is magnificent.
South Georgia Island In Pictures
Peggotty Bluff, King Haakon Bay
This is the spot where Ernest Shackleton and company made landfall on South Georgia Island after crossing eight hundred miles of rough Antarctic waters in an open wood boat. During that crossing, he sailed through a hurricane and was able to make only three sightings with his sextant. He named the bluff “Peggotty Bluff” after a scene from “David Copperfield.” He stayed for a day or two, then with two other men made the first crossing of South Georgia on foot, a feat that is easily as impressive as the watery crossing considering their condition and the landscape they faced. I could talk about this odyssey for hours. If you want to learn more about this amazing feat of survival, read “The Endurance" by Caroline Alexander.
To me, it was a fitting place to make my own first landfall on South Georgia. This island is steeped in maritime history and amazing natural beauty. In my first fifty steps on the beach, I saw both. Wherever I looked, I saw high mountains, glaciers, and foothills. The beach was dotted with amazing wildlife I had never seen before. I gaped at a group of king penguins. I nervously grinned at sleeping fur seals and huge elephant seals. It was amazing.
And with all that natural beauty about me, I walked in the footsteps of Shackleton. Who, upon reaching this spot, had already been through hell, and still had not given up. I had admired “The Boss’s” grit before, but being here and seeing what he faced gave me new appreciation for his feat of survival.
Trinity Island, Stewart Strait
We passed through Stewart Strait in the late afternoon. The wind was howling from the northwest, a raw lashing from a cold whip on any exposed skin. I sat in the comfort of the ship’s library. I was content to watch the seals and penguins swim in groups through the lumpy slate gray ocean. The albatross and cape petrels zoomed by, gliding easily on the ferocious wind.
The sun cracked through the gloom just as we were passing Trinity Island. A compelling scene of ocean surf and misty islands unfolded before me. I grabbed my camera and shoved the door open against the gale. It felt like I was in a cyclone, but I steadied myself against the cold bulkhead and captured this shot. I stayed outside for as long as the sunshine lasted, which turned out to be only about ten minutes. I felt fully refreshed from my impromptu photo shoot. I pulled my way back into the library, took a sip of hot tea and smiled.
The Penguins of Salisbury Plain
Salisbury plain is on the north side of the island located on the Bay of Isles. This plain is home to one of the island’s largest king penguin colonies, ranking forth or fifth in total number.
Let me tell you about a king penguin colony. First of all, they stink. Penguins don’t care where they shit. Picture hundreds and hundreds of penguins mingling together, each of them shitting several times a day. The aroma is over powering. The main part of the colony stood around in a giant plain of greasy muck. I gingerly stepped through the sticky sludge as I moved around the edge of the colony. If any part of your clothing touched this gunk, it remained there even after brushing it off. Penguin shit is half Velcro and half toxic waste.
Secondly, the king penguin is a very handsome bird. It‘s plumage has very delicate lines with colors ranging in light gray, black, and bright yellow. It’s beak is bright orange along its side and black on top. It carries itself well, as though it is always just going for a stroll through the park.
The penguin chicks are extremely cute. Known as “Oakum Boys,” they wear a fluffy brown suit of feathers that looks to be a size too big for them. They are very plump. They walk around in a gawky toddler awkwardness that brings a smile to my face whenever I think of it.
Here are two of my favorite moments. Three chicks walked up to me and lifted their heads up to see what I was all about. Then, probably in frustration, one of them tilted its head skyward and started chirping quite loudly. It began flapping its useless scrawny wings as hard as it could. It ran around the colony with reckless abandon. It circled until it bounced off another adult bird, the latter bewildered by the young chick. It was hilarious.
One poor chick was convinced it had found its mum. It dutifully followed this mature penguin around the colony for over an hour. At intervals, the mature penguin would stop, turn around and curse the young chick out insisting it wasn’t its mum. It could not persuade the young chick of this. When the older penguin walked on, the younger one followed one-step behind. At one point, the young chick walked right into the back of the older one, which caused another bout of cursing. No matter what trick the mature penguin tried, the young chick stayed right behind.
Penguins are curious creatures. During the course of the morning, I sat on my haunches to gain a penguin perspective, or to use my camera. If I remained there long enough, a king penguin would come up to me and watch me for a couple of minutes before moving on. “What are these giant red penguins?”
The Ghosts of South Georgia
All that remains of South Georgia’s whaling history are decrepit artifacts of the once busy whaling stations. These old run down buildings are slowly rusting away- blown apart by the relentless wind. They are dangerous places, filled with asbestos, flying bits of metal and unexploded harpoon tips.
I walked through the largest station at Grytviken (pronounced Grit-vee-ken). Grytviken sits in a small cove on the west side of Cumberland East Bay on the north side of the island.
I had mixed feelings about Grytviken. As I looked over the huge collection of rundown machinery, broken concrete slabs, heavy chains, and rusted hulls of beached whaling ships, I couldn’t help but feel repulsion. All of this used metal was once part of a giant assembly line that killed and slaughtered the whales of the southern ocean. They turned the giant whales into barrels of oil, and sacks of fertilizer. It felt like a death camp - a disassembly line of the magnificent southern whales. They were very efficient. As the plaque states, “On a good day, thirty fin whales could be rendered in 24 hours.”
The whale populations of the southern oceans still haven’t recovered. International law protects them, but there are still some countries that continue to kill whales. It’s a very controversial issue.
On the positive side, Grytviken is home to an amazing collection of vintage maritime memorabilia. Throughout the grounds, there are interesting pieces of maritime history, from the giant chains, the rusting vessels, complete with a crow’s nest, and finally the well-stocked museum. With my camera in hand, I walked the grounds looking for history. It was all around me.
A very heavy snow squall fell upon me as I walked through Grytviken’s quiet cemetery. Shackleton lies here, his grave oriented north to south. I paused to reflect on the final resting spot of one of the great survivalists, and drank a toast to his spirit.
Gold Harbour Beach
I landed on Gold Harbour beach shortly before four in the morning. It was chilly, but I was comfortable enough in my xtratuff boots, long johns and rain pants. I wore three thin layers of protection over my torso topped off with a windproof parka. I was snug.
Upon arrival, I found elephant seals lying around like giant stuffed sausages all over the sand. Elephant seals are huge. The male can weigh over four tons, the female much smaller at only one ton. This bulk is primarily blubber. The male elephant seal looks much like Jabba The Hut (of Star Wars Fame). They spend most of its time fighting other males, mating (if it’s lucky), or sleeping in the sand. For such a large creature, they are surprisingly light on their flippers. If you aren’t careful, an elephant seal can sneak up and reshape you into a flat Stanley.
I must admit it was a bit unnerving to walk among the sleeping males. At the same time, it was exhilarating. I snickered at the slumbering giants. They were snoring and snuffing through their giant nostrils. I thought of my brothers after a hefty afternoon meal.
The weaners- the small elephant seal pups that have been weaned off mum’s milk- were very curious, and came right up to where I was standing. They were adorable. Their giant brown eye reflected the scene around it, and I had a hard time keeping it from chewing on my boots and tripod.
Mixed into the hundreds of seals were thousands of king penguins. This was another beachside colony and these birds chose one of the most beautiful beaches on earth for their home. I spent a lot of time admiring their clean plumage in the crisp morning light. The “Oakum Boys” were active; the curious chicks waddled over to where I sat in the sand.
Along with the king penguins, gentoo penguins waddled around in small groups. These penguins are much smaller than the king, but no less charismatic.
This was a fine morning. Gold Harbour has one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. This was South Georgia at its finest, an experience I won’t soon forget.
The Penguins of Cooper Bay
Before we started making way towards the Antarctica Peninsula, we made one final stop on the eastern side of South Georgia Island at Cooper Bay.
In this small bay, I saw four different types of penguins. This includes two types that I had never seen before: the chinstrap and the macaroni.
It’s easy to see why they call them chinstrap penguins, as they have a dark line that runs underneath their chin. Though penguins cannot fly through the air, they can swim like mini torpedoes. To breathe they often pop up through the surface to catch a breath of air before diving back under. I was quick on the shutter for this shot of three chinstraps taking flight.
The macaroni penguin is easy to distinguish from other penguins by its bright yellow feathers that stick out of the back of its head. I was fortunate to get close to a small group of them lounging on a large rock near the water. It would have been nice to spend more time with the macaroni penguin, but it wasn’t in the cards. My time on South Georgia Island had ended.
I feel very fortunate to be one of the few people in the world who will ever make it to South Georgia. It is a very remote island located far in the south Atlantic. The wildlife and landscapes were among the most beautiful I have ever seen. Looking back at my photos from this trip, I realize that I only spent four days at six different locations on South Georgia. Imagine what a person might see if he spent a lot of time here on this amazing island.
“Onward!” We are now sailing to Antarctica.