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Day 9 - Elsehul Bay, South Georgia

February 09, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I slept fitfully the night before the dawn of the first day on South Georgia. The island evokes a land of wonder and awe in my minds eye and it did not disappoint. The dawn was once again covered in a cloud and an almost-invisible fog, which lingered about the air. It was quite eerie. However, it did permit us the first glimpse of the fabled island. The first encounter with Antarctica per se.

Bird Island, South GeorgiaBird Island, South Georgia South GeorgiaSouth Georgia Bird Island, South GeorgiaBird Island, South Georgia South Georgia - the first glimpses at dawn

While we were steaming along to our first port of call, a glimpse of a South Georgian Diving Petrel exploding off the water ahead of the ship, and Grey-headed, Light-mantled Sooty and Black-browed Albatrosses clearly visible along the coast, signalled that the wildlife was waking up. Southern Fulmar and Cape Petrels made themselves known by circling the ship, keeping low over the water but distant enough to make photography difficult. The early morning gloom did not favour photographing birds in flight all that well. Antarctic Prions, Wilson's Storm Petrel and White-chinned Petrels made various passes of the ship as we sailed along. From the bow of the ship, the sound of a blow caused me to shift my focus from left to right, and there was a single Humpback Whale making a quick dive away from us. A nice start to the day. I hadn't even finished my first coffee yet (but I did have a couple of biscuits while all this was going on).

South Georgia Diving PetrelSouth Georgia Diving Petrel South Georgian Diving Petrel moves away from the bow.

Cape PetrelCape Petrel A Cape Petrel gently flaps over a calm ocean and around the ship.

Humpback WhaleHumpback Whale

A distant Humpback Whale about to dive after taking a breath. The remnants of the blow can be seen over and behind the whale. Antarctic Prions and a Black-browed Albatross keep the whale company.

The first port of call on South Georgia was Elsehul Bay, which can be a difficult place to visit and tour by Zodiac due to the likelihood of ill-favourable weather and sea ice. Elsehul is a bay 0.5 miles (0.8 km) wide, entered close west of Cape Pride along the north coast of South Georgia. It is separated from another harbour (the Undine Harbour) by a narrow isthmus called the Survey Isthmus. The name "Elsehul" dates back to the period 1905–12 and was probably applied by Norwegian sealers and whalers working in the area. The bay is home to nice collection of wildlife, which we were lucky to encounter. The weather was calm, windless and dry. It was a perfect way to see this beautiful bay and experience a glimpse into the wildlife of Antarctica and its islands. 

South GeorgiaSouth Georgia The northern coastline of South Georgia at dawn. Low cloud and little light.

Elsehul Bay, South GeorgiaElsehul Bay, South Georgia

Entering Elsehul bay on a calm and steady day, with lingering fog but with some break in the clouds.

The first thing I noticed was the sound of calling albatross and seals. The eerie cry of the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses wafted over the calm morning air. It is a sound I will never forget. My nerves were tingling and I (once again) had to pinch myself. I was still in disbelief that I was here. A casual scan with the binoculars around the edges of the bay revealed Antarctic Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels and Brown Skuas. King Penguins were also noted along one particular inlet. Looking out across one section of cliff, I noticed a large gathering of black and white birds on nests. I immediately thought they were South Georgia (Imperial) Shags, as I had seen quite a few flying around on our way in. On closer inspection as we steered towards them, my jaw dropped...the black and white birds were Macaroni Penguins!! Hundreds of them nesting in amongst the tussock grass, with some Grey-headed Albatross next door. Magic. 

Elsehul Bay, South Georgia with Macaroni PenguinElsehul Bay, South Georgia with Macaroni Penguin Black and white nesting birds and albatross amongst the tussock grass. I first thought they were South Georgia Shags, but...

Macaroni Penguin Colongy, Elsehul BayMacaroni Penguin Colongy, Elsehul Bay ...it was hundreds of Macaroni Penguins!!

MC007438 Grey-headed Albatross colonyMC007438 Grey-headed Albatross colony Grey-headed Albatross on their nests in the tussock grass.

After a quick breakfast was had (all-in omelette! as one does), we were called to our boarding groups and were ushered to climb aboard the Zodiacs for a 3-4 hour cruise around the bay. It is very hard to put scale on anything in South Georgia (or Antarctica). The sheer size of this bay can only be seen by comparing it to the size of the ship (91 metres or 300 feet long) and the Zodiacs (~5m or 17 feet). The place is massive. This was my first time on a Zodiac cruise. In essence, a Zodiac tour involves driving around to various sites at the landing area, and investigating the wildlife, geology, historical sites etc. Where we go, how slow/fast we go, how long we stop for, is determined by both the driver and passengers. Taking photographs from a Zodiac, even in calm conditions, is very difficult. With 7-9 other passengers looking for good positions etc., and the movement of the platform one was sitting/kneeling/standing on, one had to be quick off the mark. As we toured around the bay, we came across a lot of Antarctic Fur Seals, both male and females. The majority of the Fur seals were male, whose intention was to set up territory on the beach for the arriving females. A few females were there, and one or two had tiny pups, probably only born that morning or the day before. A pup being born was witnessed by another Zodiac as we toured around, but we missed it. All we saw was a bloody-headed Northern Giant Petrel which happened upon the birth and ate the placenta in less than a minute. Survival of the fittest. Gotta love it down here. 

Sea Spirit anchored in Elsehul Bay, South GeorgiaSea Spirit anchored in Elsehul Bay, South Georgia M.V. Sea Spirit at anchor in Elsehul Bay. A few Zodiacs can also be seen, to give one a sense of scale.

South Georgia ShagSouth Georgia Shag South Georgia Shag (note the white cheeks).

Antarctic Fur SealAntarctic Fur Seal Antarctic Fur Seal (male)

Antarctic Fur Seal (female)Antarctic Fur Seal (female) Antarctic Fur Seal (female)

Antarctic Fur SealsAntarctic Fur Seals male Antarctic Fur Seals setting up territories on the beach. Some female Fur seals are there with recently bon pups (centre of image). Others are just lounging on the scree.

MC007451 Bloody Northern GiantMC007451 Bloody Northern Giant Northern Giant Petrel blood-stained from consuming the placenta of the female Fur Seal with the newborn pup (centre). The pup is no more than 10 minutes old! A Brown Skua is running off in the top right corner. 

Wounded Antarctic Fur SealWounded Antarctic Fur Seal Territorial disputes amongst the Fur Seals can result in some nasty injuries. 

As we were puttering around the bay, a call came in over the walkie-talkies that not one but two(!) South Georgia Pipits were found along the rocky coastline!! This was totally unexpected as the team had never recorded the Pipits from this site previously. Jim was obviously very excited with this news and was trying to ensure that all the Zodiac passengers were able to see the birds. Success was had by all and there were smiling faces in all the boats. This is the only passerine in the Antarctic islands, including South Georgia, and the most southerly found passerine in the world. A rat eradication program (http://www.sgisland.gs/index.php/%28e%29Eradication_Of_Rodents) has been ongoing for a couple of years, and it appears to be having great success. We saw at least 4 South Georgia Pipits in this little bay alone, where none had been recorded in recent times. Fingers crossed the island can be rat-free after 2016. 

Jim Wilson and Paul Nicklen pointing out a South Georgia PipitJim Wilson and Paul Nicklen pointing out a South Georgia Pipit Jim Wilson (red jacket) points out the South Georgia Pipit to the passengers, while Paul Nicklen (Canadian, National Geographic photographer, Zodiac driver and all round super nice guy) looks on and gets the Zodiac in a little closer. Having Paul on the trip made it even more special. 

South Georgia PipitSouth Georgia Pipit

This is what all the fuss was about - South Georgia Pipit! Tough little songbirds. 

After the excitement of the pipit, we continued on touring the bay, coming across huddles of recently weaned Elephant Seals, who are affectionately known as Weaners. They are called this as they are weaned by the female Elephant Seals after only 30 days, and are left to fend for themselves. The females leave and head out to sea to feed and get on with their lives. Some young adult males were also present, practicing their fighting, while disinterested Antarctic Fur seals ignored them. Antarctic Terns and Brown Skuas were flying overhead, the terns busily hunting in the shallows, while the Brown Skuas looked for an easy meal.

Southern Elephant Seal & Gentoo PenguiinSouthern Elephant Seal & Gentoo Penguiin A young male Elephant Seal lounges on the beach, with some Antarctic Fur seals for company. A forlorn-looking Gentoo Penguin hangs out under some overhanging tussock grass. 

Southern Elephant Seal "Weaners"Southern Elephant Seal "Weaners" Weaners!!

MC007679 Elelphant Seal fightMC007679 Elelphant Seal fight A pair of young bull Elephant Seals practice their duelling skills. A pair of Antarctic Fur seals on the shoreline are not one bit interested. 

Antarctic TernAntarctic Tern Antarctic Tern hunting in the shallows. 

MC007436 Brown SkuaMC007436 Brown Skua Brown Skua flying overhead looking for an easy meal. 

We also saw two penguin species in amongst the Elephant and Fur seals, namely the King Penguins and Gentoo Penguin. The Kings were in active moult and so are not able to go into the water. So, they just huddle in a group and wait for their new feathers to push the old feathers out. It all seems quite boring really but I am sure they are enjoying lazing around doing nothing (don't you just love anthropomorphising).

Southern Elephant and Fur Seal, King and Gentoo PenguinSouthern Elephant and Fur Seal, King and Gentoo Penguin A group of moulting King Penguins in amongst some sleeping Elephant and Antarctic Fur Seals. A single Gentoo is also there. 

Evidence of sealers from the past were evident in the bay. A trio of seal blubber boiling pots were left behind to rust and decay in the salty air and harsh conditions. Now, thankfully, the seals and penguins merely laze around these pots where once they would have fed the pot's hungry innards. 

Seal Oil Boiling PotsSeal Oil Boiling Pots

Seal Blubber Boiling Pots surrounded by Antarctic Fur Seals, a Gentoo Penguin, Northern and Southern Giant Petrels. 

Peter Wilson in Elsehul BayPeter Wilson in Elsehul Bay Peter Wilson brings his passengers on a mini-lap of the ship while he waits to drop them off. The colours here are "as shot" and have not been altered in any way. Beautiful colours, particularly the water, with the fog lingering over the tops of the cliffs. 

With the tour of bay completed, we headed back to the ship for lunch and began steaming out towards open water again. What was interesting to note as we approached land was the decrease in bird numbers and species variety, when compared to the open ocean. However, all was not boring and too quiet, as the quartet of Light-mantled Sooty, Wandering, Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatross were visible from the ship as we sailed out. All of these species breed in the area. It was some some sight. 

Grey-headed AlbatrossGrey-headed Albatross Grey-headed Albatross (adult)

Grey-headed AlbatrossGrey-headed Albatross An adult Grey-headed Albatross flying off the stern of the ship. 

Wandering AlbatrossWandering Albatross A sub-adult Wandering Albatross off the stern of the ship. 

Black-browed Albatross take offBlack-browed Albatross take off Black-browed Albatross taking off from the sea.

Cape Petrel take offCape Petrel take off Pintados or Cape Petrels take off from the water with a Black-browed Albatross looking on. 

White-chinned PetrelWhite-chinned Petrel

White-chinned Petrel banking off the bow.

Even as we sailed along the northern the coastline, mammals continued to impress. Porpoising Antarctic Fur Seals and surfacing Humpback Whales kept us company as we ate lunch, drank coffee and ate more biscuits. It really couldn't get better than this. Could it?

Antarctic Fur Seals porpoisingAntarctic Fur Seals porpoising A group of porpoising Antarctic Fur Seals head towards the coastline.

Humpback WhalesHumpback Whales Humpback WhaleHumpback Whale A group of Humpback Whales on their migration, with Antarctic Prions flying around them. We saw a dozen Humpbacks in this small area.

Cape PetrelCape Petrel

Cape Petrel (aka Pintado or Cape Pigeon)

What lay ahead, unbeknownst to myself, would just knock me for six. Salisbury Plain awaited. 

 


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