Day 9 - On Salisbury Plain...there were penguins

February 18, 2015  •  2 Comments

After lunch, or rather two lunches (buffets, the enemy of all waistlines), we headed towards a place made famous by one of my all-time heroes, Sir David Attenborough. A place that I had seen on television programs before and looked on in awe. Salisbury Plain. Home to 60,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins. Home to mounds of Southern Elephant seals and packs of Antarctic Fur seals. The buffet table for many Northern and Southern Giant Petrels, Brown Skuas, Snowy Sheathbills and Kelp Gulls. A wildlife haven. 

MC008045 South GeorgiaMC008045 South Georgia A glacier on the northern South Georgian coast. The scale of this glacier (which is retreating) is difficult to illustrate without something familiar in the foreground. 

MC008077 White-chinned PetrelMC008077 White-chinned Petrel White-chinned Petrel skimming the water's surface.

As we steamed along the coast of South Georgia, we had Southern and Northern Royal Albatrosses, mixed in with Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses, with Wilson's Storm and White-chinned Petrels circling the ship. Although these had become the usual fare, they were never taken for granted. With a backdrop of glaciers of unfathomable size, and the icy wind providing a bracing slap to the face and numbing the extremities, I really began to feel that we were heading towards the ice and snow. To add further proof of this, a couple of Blue Petrels were mixed in with the Antarctic Petrels, and a Black-bellied Petrel dipped and scooped over the surface of the water off our bow. Both ticks for me and delighted to catch up with them so well, getting quality views. 

As a few Brown Skuas and Kelp Gulls flew overhead, as Antarctic Terns ghosting by, a Snowy Sheathbill circling and landing on the ship, and seabirds beginning to peter out, I knew we must be coming closer to land than we what we had been earlier. A check from the bow revealed a massive glacier rolling down to the sea from the mountains, and what appeared to be wildlife along the shore and slopes. Tons of wildlife. A shout from my fellow birdwatchers caused my head to swivel and there were King Penguins porpoising close to the ship! It was such a calm day, and they were coming so close, it was almost possible to hear the gasp and intake of breath of the Kings as they broke the surface of the water. Returning my gaze to land, I lifted my binoculars to look at the shoreline properly... I think I uttered the words "wow" (or more than likely "holy f*&king sh*t") as I found myself staring at thousands upon thousands of King Penguins, which had Fur and Elephant Seals interspersed amongst them. This was incredible. I couldn't stop smiling and my heart started pounding. This was the fabled Salisbury Plain.  

MC008046 Salisbury PlainMC008046 Salisbury Plain Salisbury Plain, South Georgia.

MC008142 King Penguin porpoiseMC008142 King Penguin porpoise Porpoising King Penguins!

MC008951MC008951 On closer inspection, the grandeur of a massive King Penguin colony revealed itself. What a sight!!

The call for the Zodiacs went up and I legged it down to the gangway. I was already in my wet-weather gear and was itching to get on to this legendary place. It is not often that one can land here. We found out subsequently that a ship, which was a day or so behind us, could not land here because of a bad storm. These landings were not to be taken lightly and were to be enjoyed to the max! Landing on the shore and looking back along, all that we could see were King Penguins, Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals. No humans. It was bliss. The smell was something else, though. More pungent and musky than any seabird colony I had experienced, anywhere. This was what it was all about. This is what Attenborough had brought to the attention of the world in a big way. It was the theatre of dreams, really and I was completely overwhelmed. 

MC008218 King penguinMC008218 King penguin The shoreline of Salisbury Plain, littered with King Penguins, Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, Kelp Gulls, Brown Skua and Snowy Sheathbills. 

MC008224 Fur SealMC008224 Fur Seal A male Antarctic Fur Seal looks on. 

MC008226 WeanerMC008226 Weaner A young Elephant Seal (aka Weaner).

MC008235 Weaner yawnMC008235 Weaner yawn A yelping Weaner (Elephant Seal) cries, snorts, bellows and squeaks. 

The Elephant Seals were great value, especially the Weaners, with their squeaks, cries, snorts, bellowing and apparent farting noises providing the backing chorus to the chirrups and squeaks of the mass of King Penguins. 60,000+ pairs of King Penguin nest on this Plain. Not to mention the thousands of young King Penguins, which are also known as Oakum Boys or Hairy Penguins. The Kings were what we were here for and it was mind-blowing. This is what South Georgia is all about now. Masses of wildlife. Little human presence. Perfect.

To get a better elevation to view of the colony, I asked if it was okay to clamber up the slope a bit. I got the nod and proceeded to make my way up. The view was spectacular being that bit higher. However, no sooner had I gone a couple of dozen yards through the tussock grass, when a nice big male Antarctic Fur Seal reared up on its hind flippers out of nowhere and snorted loudly. I froze and just thought that there was no point going further. These seals can run faster than a human over 20 yards. And their bite is very, very nasty. So, I just kept an eye on him and vice versa, and took photographs from the vantage point I had. I also made sure I took the time to just watch and observe what was going on around me. It was important to take it in. 

MC008272 King PenguinMC008272 King Penguin The King Penguins in all their glory. Moulting individuals in the bottom left corner, the young Kings or Oakum Boys in their brown down, and the adults paired up or incubating eggs. 

MC008262 Antarctic Fur SealMC008262 Antarctic Fur Seal A male Antarctic Fur Seal keeping an eye on me keeping on it him in the tussock grass.

MC008335MC008335 A handful of Oakum Boys giving the yellow penguins grief. My fellow passengers loving it.

MC008443 Jim and Peter SalisburyMC008443 Jim and Peter Salisbury Jim (left) and Peter (right) keeping any eye on the passengers and wildlife. A route had to be kept clear for the penguins going to and fro from the Plain and the sea. Jim and Peter were policing this. 

MC008290 Oakum BoysMC008290 Oakum Boys Oakum Boys!

A nice surprise was a few South Georgia Pintail in a small fresh(ish)water pond near where I was standing. The only meat-eating duck in the world(!) and one of the rarest birds on the planet. Pretty cool to see. They were non-plussed by our presence and were quite tame. We saw 6 birds in all in this area. Nice new species in the bag. I spent some time here, just watching and trying to find some nice patterns in amongst the throngs of penguins. It was fun watching the Oakum Boys waddling around and annoying adult birds. Brown Skuas were constantly patrolling the skies, looking for an easy meal. Kelp Gulls were also doing the same. Giant Petrels were just sitting around as well, waiting for an unsuspecting bird to get too close. Survival of the fittest...indeed. 

MC008295 South Georgia PintailMC008295 South Georgia Pintail South Georgia Pintail - meat-eating duck!

MC008350 King Penguin OakumMC008350 King Penguin Oakum A creche of King Penguins amongst the adults.

MC008419 King Penguin SalisburyMC008419 King Penguin Salisbury The colony stretched right up the hill.

MC008432 King PenguinsMC008432 King Penguins Lovely patterns.

MC__9664 Salisbury Plain KingsMC__9664 Salisbury Plain Kings The colony stretched on for miles.

MC008496 King Penguin close upMC008496 King Penguin close up King Penguin close-up. Did you notice the square pupil?!

With the colony well and truly observed after a couple of hours, I started to make my way across the beach to see some male (Southern) Elephant Seals that were, unusually, still here. This was a great and unexpected opportunity to see these guys. They are the biggest seals in the world, weighing in at 2,200 to 4,000 kg (4,900 to 8,800lb) and measure from 4.2 to 5.8 m (14 to 19 ft) long. True behemoths of the seal world, and the biggest beasts on the beach. As I made my way along the beach, it was fun (mostly) dodging the aggressive, hormone-fuelled Fur seals. Some of the young males were practicing defending their territory by charging the yellow penguins, that is, myself and fellow passengers! Once one made oneself big and roared, with arms waving up and down, the seals generally looked on confused and turned around. It was generally the youngsters and really pumped adult males that were persistent. 

MC008522 Fur seal snoozeMC008522 Fur seal snooze A sleeping male Antarctic Fur seal.

MC008537 Fur Elephant KingMC008537 Fur Elephant King A male Antarctic Fur seal marks its territory, while a recently weaned Elephant Seal snoozes next to its companion.

MC008661 Fur seal young maleMC008661 Fur seal young male A young male Antarctic Fur seal was full of hormones and charged most people that walked past him. 

MC008808 Fur seal headonMC008808 Fur seal headon Head-on; a male Antarctic Fur seal.

The bull Southern Elephant Seal was sleeping further along the beach. And it was HUGE! The bull was battered, bruised and bloodied from its battles on the beach. The bull Elephant just lay there, with the odd snort and shifting of its enormous mass from time-to-time. It was a treat to see such a specimen, as the males are generally long gone at this stage of the breeding season. The Weaners were also very entertaining and so approachable. However, the rules when visiting these lands is that he wildlife has to come to you and you are not approach the wildlife! These rules must be obeyed to keep the lands wild and allow others to see the beauty of the place. The scattering of many Fur seal skulls around the Elephant seal probably signified that the area was once used as a seal blubber boiling spot during the days of seal hunting. 

MC008744 ELephant Seal maleMC008744 ELephant Seal male A bloodied, bruised and battered-looking bull Southern Elephant Seal...a true giant of the beach. King Penguins and Antarctic Fur seals are in the background.

MC008755 Elephant Seal maleMC008755 Elephant Seal male A close-up of the snout of the Elephant Seal that gave it its name. Note the bloody scars of battle. 

MC008594 WeanerMC008594 Weaner Weaner Sleeping, oh-so peacefully.

As I mentioned earlier, it's all about survival of the fittest here. Examples of this were apparent all over the beach. Between carcasses of young King Penguins to bloodied and sliced open adult King Penguins, to the bones of whales signifying times past, it could be easily seen how it could become a bloodbath. Skulls and bones of Fur Seals were also littered along the beach. *WARNING: Graphic images* Birds such as Brown Skuas and Giant Petrels were never far away from the death and destruction. In fact, some were (un)fortunate to witness a King Penguin getting attached by a Fur Seal on the beach, which just bit right through the abdomen of the penguin and left if for dead. The Giant Petrels then swooped and ate the penguin alive. Gruesome but true story. If I'm honest, I was disgusted to have missed it. This place takes no prisoners and to see all aspects of this wilderness would have been great. 

MC008450 King Penguin deadMC008450 King Penguin dead A decomposing juvenile King Penguin.

MC008474 King Penguin injuredMC008474 King Penguin injured An adult King Penguin with a recently sliced open abdomen. It looks like it is healing but it is unclear whether the individual will survive. Fur seals have started attacking King Penguins as they make their way up the beaches, which may be the cause behind the injured penguins we saw.   

MC008876MC008876 A very badly injured King Penguin just out of the water. Jim and I raced up to take images, which I'm sure some onlookers may have thought was weird.

MC008656 Brown SkuasMC008656 Brown Skuas Brown 'Antarctic' Skuas loafing around and having a snooze. These were very easy to approach. Cool birds.

MC008934 Brown SkuaMC008934 Brown Skua Brown 'Antarctic' Skua

MC008678 Whale boneMC008678 Whale bone Remnants of times past; a weathered whale bone. 

It was not all a gore-fest, of course. There were penguins everywhere and they were beautiful!!

MC008892 King Penguin columnMC008892 King Penguin column

MC008963 King Penguin waterMC008963 King Penguin water Swimming King Penguin in the glacial blue waters off Salisbuy Plain.

Once we were herded back to the Zodiacs and back to the Sea Spirit, I hung back as long as I could so that I could get back on the last Zodiac. I didn't want to leave (a recurring theme...) and would love to have stayed for longer. I was on the second to last or last Zodiac with Jim and some of the team. As I was getting off the Zodiac and onto the launch deck of Sea Spirit, I heard "SNOW PETREL!!' being shouted in a Cork accent..."f*ck me" I thought. I raced through the "off limits" section and saw two birds circle the ship!! Unbelievable!! I quickly, but thoroughly, went through the bio-check and bio-wash procedure before racing up to Deck 4. The birds circled two more times before heading back across the bay to the cliffs flanking Salisbury Plain...what a day....


A Snow Petrel circling the ship after Salisbury Plain.

MC008966 Salisbury Plain glacierMC008966 Salisbury Plain glacier Salisbury Plain Glacier

And so ended one of the most incredible wildlife experiences I had encountered thus far, anywhere on the planet. I'll never forget the smell, sound, sights, survival and hardiness of the wildlife I experienced on Salisbury Plain. It was truly humbling to have stood there. 


Sharon Dumler Banbury(non-registered)
Love your photography! Beautiful shots and information.
Stuart Price(non-registered)
Absolutely amazing...................
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