Day 11 - Godthul Bay, South Georgia

March 15, 2015  •  1 Comment

I woke early, as normal, a bit more refreshed than the day before. An early night after a relatively calm day (emotionally!) does that. It was all a bit too much after Salisbury Plain. Godthul was our destination during the morning following our visits to the historical and inhabited stops of Stromness and Grytvikan, respectively. It is a bay 1.6 kilometres (1 mi) long entered between Cape George and Long Point, on the north coast of South Georgia, between Cumberland East Bay and Ocean Harbour. The name Godthul (Norwegian for "Good Hollow") dates back to the period 1905–12, and was probably applied by Norwegian sealers and whalers working in the area.The number of seabirds have now drastically decreased the closer we are to land, with many birds on their nests or out foraging for food. The Black-browed Albatross and White-chinned Petrels were about in good numbers, as were Light-mantled Sooty Albatross which breed on the cliffs here around Godthul. Here is a map showing you whereabouts we are now along the northern coast of the island.

512px-SG-Settlements (1)512px-SG-Settlements (1)

The Zodiac tour around the bay was very relaxing and a nice introduction to a day that was going to test my emotional state to the max, more so than Salisbury Plain! But more on that later. I was very fortunate on this Zodiac trip to be in the rib with none-other than Mr. Paul Nicklen, photographer extraordinaire and regular National Geographic contributor. Paul, and his partner Cristina Mittermeier, were great company and an inspiration throughout the trip. Both were very humble, generous with their time and patience. With Paul at the helm, we motored around the bay randomly, observing and photographing the wildlife there. All the photographs in this post were taken from the bumpy and unstable platform of the Zodiac, which always made it a challenge and particularly in the poor light we had. Godthul was home to Elephant and Fur seals, parked along the shoreline in various harems and pretenders to the throne. Weaners were there in good numbers and a few young male Elephant seals were throwing shapes and bellowing loudly at one or two females that were resting up on the shore. There was also the mewing calls of Fur Seal pups penetrating the air, which were only born in the days previously. Quite a sight and sound. 

MC__0024 Fur Seal growlMC__0024 Fur Seal growl

A female Fur Seal growling at the big male making its way towards her.

MC009866 Godthul Fur SealMC009866 Godthul Fur Seal

A harem of female Fur Seals with a pup that is only a couple of days old. Females become fertile again once the pup is born. 

MC__0045 WeanerMC__0045 Weaner

Wallowing weaners along the shoreline.

MC__0097 Harem FurMC__0097 Harem Fur

A Fur Seal harem. The big male is on the left, while the females, with a pup or two visible, to its right. 

MC__0118 Fur SealMC__0118 Fur Seal A young male Elephant seal in amongst some Weaners and Fur Seals.

MC009862 God WeanerMC009862 God Weaner

A young Elephant Seal (weaner) curiously approaches the Zodiac. 

Bones bones everywhere. The past use of the bay was quite obvious all along the shoreline. The whole place was littered with whale and seal bones, all aged and weathered by the harsh environment. Thankfully this does not go on anymore. It was quite sobering, yet upsetting seeing this. I can only imagine what the colour of the water and the stench must have been like in the days when these glorious mammals were butchered. Brutal humanity doing what it does best...

MC__0029 Godthul bonesMC__0029 Godthul bones

Along the lower cliffs were found South Georgia (Imperial) Shags, Snowy Sheathbills, Kelp Gulls and Antarctic Terns nesting and feeding. The Snowy Sheathbills came to visit the ship on a couple of occasions that day and are very curious birds. I found the Sheathbills to be hilarious and quite primal in their appearance and behaviour. A small group of half a dozen Gentoo Penguins looked lost at one side of the bay. Antarctic Terns fished along the edges and shallows, while Kelp Gulls just meandered amongst the Fur Seals and ran the gauntlet though the Shag colonies. It was great seeing some South Georgia Pintails here as well, with about 6 birds present, mostly paired up. They didn't take to the Zodiacs all too well and always flew to the opposite shore when we puttered by. 

MC__0089 Imperial Shag nestMC__0089 Imperial Shag nest South Georgia Shags on their nests on the tussac grass.

MC009882 Kelp GullMC009882 Kelp Gull An adult Kelp Gull meanders through the resting Fur Seals, looking for an easy meal.

MC009893 south Georgia PintailMC009893 south Georgia Pintail

A pair of South Georgia Pintails.

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An Antarctic Tern hunts along the shallows of Godthul bay.

MC009927 South Georgia ShagMC009927 South Georgia Shag MC__0055 Imperial ShagMC__0055 Imperial Shag

South Georgia Shags fish along the shallows of Godthul Bay.

MC009898 South Georgia PintailMC009898 South Georgia Pintail

A pair of South Georgia Pintail in flight.

The cliffs here were very steep, which you can sort of gauge from the image below with the Sea Spirit at the base. The weather was not spectacular, with low cloud/fog but at least it was dry and cold. The colours here are quite muted, with mosses, lichens and short grasses being weather-beaten and burned of any vibrancy. There was only one area where the colour was a bit more vibrant, along the flow of a small waterfall at one side of the cliff. There, some more lush herbage was evident and stood out against the muted greys and browns. Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses were flying by here in their display flight, while their haunting calls and songs echoed around the bay. It was surreal.  

MC__0057 GodthulMC__0057 Godthul MC__0070 Godthul BayMC__0070 Godthul Bay

After a few hours on the water and puttering around the bay with Paul, Cristina and Jim, we headed back to the Sea Spirit for some more food and beverages. A hot mug of coffee was in order. A few Cape Petrels were hanging around the boat and fed on whatever was thrown up by the ships engines as we turned and headed out of the bay into open sea and on towards St. Andrew's Bay...home to nearly 500,000 King Penguins...

MC004111MC004111

 


Day 10 Grytvikan, South Georgia

March 11, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After the mind-blowing experience that was Stromness, we steamed onwards for a few hours and headed towards Grytvikan and King Edward Point, both of which nestle in Cumberland Bay East. The journey across was peppered with flocks of Cape Petrel, Giant Petrels and Black-browed Albatross. The odd Wandering and Grey-headed Albatross patrolled behind the boat, while White-chinned Petrels were obvious by their vast increase in numbers. We only saw a single Snow Petrel but it caused enough excitement to get the blood flowing faster....not that it needed to! On approach to King Edward Point (KEP), we could see the white cross on the headland and the roofs of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) KEP base. Civilisation. It was strange to see people walking along the shoreline. I was not sure I was happy to see it. In fact, I knew I was not happy to see it. I was enjoying being away from "civilisation". Currently nine BAS personnel overwinter at the KEP station, rising to around 18 in the austral summer. Two Government Officers (including the Governor) plus partners are stationed on KEP, overlapping by about three months during the busy winter fishing season. Summer staff from the Museum at Grytviken are also accommodated at KEP. The continued occupation of the station serves a political purpose as well: it helps to maintain British sovereignty against Argentina's claim for ownership of the territory.

MC__9876 view from GrytvikanMC__9876 view from Grytvikan

The approach to King Edward Point Bay. This looks across the Cumberland East Bay. 

Edward PointEdward Point

King Edward Point on the right, with the white cross visible. The buildings of the BAS KEP base are just visible, while the whalers graveyard, where Shackleton lies, is visible on the left and marked by a white picket fence.

GrytvikenGrytviken BAS KEP base on the right, with Grytvikan whaling station on the left and the spire of the Whalers Church visible over the BAS KEP base in the background.

As well as raising a glass of Jameson whiskey at the grave of that anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, we also spent time exploring the now-safe Grytvikan whaling station. Remnants of the old chains used to haul the whales up the beach, the old boilers and oil storage facilities, and even the old soccer pitch is present. The Whalers Church has also been preserved. It was an interesting and historical visit. It also coincided with the best day of the trip; immaculate blue skies and calm seas. The residents said they had not seen this type weather in months. 

Grytikan Sea SpiritGrytikan Sea Spirit

The view across to the Sea Spirit from the shoreline where one can walk up to Shackleton's grave.

The bossThe boss

The Boss

MC__9973 Gyrtvikan ChurchMC__9973 Gyrtvikan Church

The Whalers Church, built in 1903.

MC__9976 Grytvikan FootballMC__9976 Grytvikan Football The Grytvikan soccer pitch where the Inter-Whaling Station Football and Sports tournaments were held. 

MC__9986 Oil DrumsMC__9986 Oil Drums

The oil drums

Whaler GrytvikanWhaler Grytvikan

The wreck of the whaling ship Petrel, complete with loaded harpoon at the bow. Non-plussed Elephant and Fur seals now rest peacefully here. 

After checking out the replica of the James Caird, checking out the museum, buying some souvenirs and posting some postcards from South Georgia Post Office, I popped back out to take it all in. The wildlife here was sparse compared to Stromness and Salisbury Plain. There were female and young male Elephant Seals hauled out on the land, as well as territory-holding Fur Seals. Antarctic Tern hunted along the shoreline, while the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross called mournfully from the cliff-tops. The odd King and Gentoo Penguins stood around, looking lost. A nice number of South Georgia Pintail flew in and quickly flew out again. It was calmer here, in amongst the human inhabitants. The wildlife not as numerous where man treads. 

Female ElephantFemale Elephant

A reseting female Elephant Seal.

MC009608 Fur SealMC009608 Fur Seal A pristine and healthy looking male Antarctic Fur Seal. The hair on this individual was very dry, which provided a great opportunity to see how thick the pelt on the species is. Quite spectacular. 

MC009641 King PenguinMC009641 King Penguin A King Penguin looking a bit injured. 

MC009657 Light-mantled SootyMC009657 Light-mantled Sooty

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross gliding over the bay. 

MC009755 Antarctic TernMC009755 Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern at rest.

MC009642 Antarctic TernMC009642 Antarctic Tern Antarctic Tern in flight.

After being brought to the Sea Spirit for dinner, I was delighted to have the pleasure of sitting with the Governor of the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), and his wife, for dinner on the ship that evening. A very interesting way of life here. In fact, it is through their perseverance that the rat eradication program of South Georgia is doing so well (http://www.sght.org/sght-habitat-restoration-project). What we were told after dinner was that the Governor had been aboard the ship checking everyone's passport and stamped each one with the GSGSSI stamp! Pretty cool thing to have. After dinner, we were treated to some spectacular lenticular clouds over Cumberland East Bay. 

MC__0001 Grytvikan cloudsMC__0001 Grytvikan clouds Cumberland East Bay with lenticular clouds.

MC__0006 Grytvikan cloudsMC__0006 Grytvikan clouds Cumberland East Bay with lenticular clouds

Now halfway through the trip, I was feeling the effect of the long days working hard on deck looking for seabirds and eating way more than I should. Early to bed. Early to rise. I was becoming weary now and headed off to bed after a couple of bottles of beer with Jim and Peter in the bar. Tomorrow promised, weather permitting, to be epic.

 

Day 10 - Stromness & Leith Whaling Stations, South Georgia

February 25, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

The alarm went off at the usual non-holiday hour and I groggily dragged myself up the bar for a coffee, a biscuit (or three) and some water. I as staring out the window at the pre-dawn gloaming outside, the sun not quite being above the horizon just yet. As I opened the door to the Deck 4 Aft, a cold and icy snow-laden wind quickly raised my chin and slapped me across the face. I was definitely awake now! Our port of call for the morning was Stromness. The harbour was a former whaling station but now holds it as a rusting, rotting monument to the former whaling activities that used to take place on the northern coast of South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. It was also the destination of Ernest Shackleton's rescue journey in 1916. 

DSCF1175 StromnessDSCF1175 Stromness

Stromness Harbour and whaling station taken through the falling snow (taken using the FujiFilm X100, set to Velvia film simulation)

MC__9693 Stromness snowMC__9693 Stromness snow Stromness Harbour and whaling station taken through the falling snow (taken using a Canon DSLR and 24-105mm lens). The famous Villa is still standing and visible in this image. It has been boarded up to try and prevent any more damage to it. An attempt to restore it is being considered. 

MC__9687 Stromness SnowMC__9687 Stromness Snow

Stromness Harbour - the river flows into the bay here on the right along the plain. 

In 1916, Ernest Shackleton and a small crew landed on the unpopulated southern coast of South Georgia at King Haakon Bay after an arduous sea voyage from Elephant Island in the 22-foot lifeboat James Caird. Shackleton along with (the great) Tom Crean and Frank Worsley then trekked across South Georgia's mountainous and glaciated interior in an effort to reach help on the populated northern shore of the island. After 36 hours of crossing the interior they arrived at the Stromness administration centre which also was the home of the Norwegian whaling station's manager. This building has been dubbed the "Villa at Stromness" because it represents relative luxury compared to its surroundings. All men were rescued from Elephant Island. Stromness Harbour conjures up the romanticism and incredible feat of strength and endurance shown by these men. It is very difficult to believe how they did it using the equipment and provisions they had. Quite remarkable. 

MC__9710 Stromness Waterfall GentooMC__9710 Stromness Waterfall Gentoo

The plain along which Shackelton, Crean and Worsley walked along, making their way to the bay, the whaling station and the Manager's hut. My fellow passengers are the yellow dots at the base of the waterfall, which the three men slid down having traversed the island's mountainous terrain. A Gentoo Penguin colony is visible at the bottom right edge of the image. 

MC__9718 Stromness WaterfallMC__9718 Stromness Waterfall  

The waterfall at Stromness with my fellow passengers (yellow penguins). Hopefully this will be able to give you a perspective on the size of the landscape. MC__9728 StromnessMC__9728 Stromness

Looking back towards the harbour from the plain, with the Sea Spirit viewable on the right. My fellow yellow penguins are making their way back. I was retracing Crean's steps but also searching for South Georgian Pintail along the streams :)

This landing was more about the history and people than the wildlife. However, it was not possible to ignore them either! There were Antarctic Fur Seals, "Weaner" Southern Elephant Seals, Gentoo and King Penguins, and South Georgia Pintail to be seen. The Gentoos were nesting here, a long walk/waddle inland for them, but the Kings seemed to be just loafing about, moulting. It was just lovely to spend time here, taking it all in. The falling snow made for a surreal scene and added even more to the magical and serene beauty of what would have once been a blood-soaked land being lapped by blood-red waters, and the air heavy with the stench of rotting whale, seal and pengiun carcasses. 

MC009083 Stromness GentooMC009083 Stromness Gentoo

A Gentoo Penguin stands guard at the edge of the colony

MC009101 Stromness GentooMC009101 Stromness Gentoo

A Gentoo Penguin calls loudly across the valley

MC009156 Gentoo StromnessMC009156 Gentoo Stromness

A Gentoo Penguin sits on its nest of grass and mud in the colony.

MC009191 King Penguin StromnessMC009191 King Penguin Stromness

King Penguin in the verdant surroundings and melting snow. A strange combination!

MC009198 Stromness Moulting KingsMC009198 Stromness Moulting Kings

Moulting King Penguins in a huddle.

MC__9731 Stromness anchorsMC__9731 Stromness anchors

The whaling station at Stromness is off-limits to tourists due to the quite large amount of asbestos that remains within and around the buildings. The instability of the buildings is also a threat to anyone walking around them. As well as being a graveyard for thousands of whale bones, there were rusting anchors littered all over. It didn't seem to bother the Fur seals too much though.

MC009232 Stromness FurMC009232 Stromness Fur

Lots of these impressive, smelly and hormone-laden beasts were around the station and landing site. Made for a few close calls with one particular individual, who constantly charged at myself and fellow passengers. As we were two days away from any serious medical facility, getting bitten by one of these bad boys was not an option!

MC__9741 Weaner close upMC__9741 Weaner close up

And then there is the other side to the danger...a gentle Southern Elephant Seal pup, aka a Weaner! Cute and cuddly balls of fat, that yelped, snorted and squealed at everything. 

MC009334MC009334

South Georgia Pintail. Despite my best efforts along the valley floor streams, I could only see a few distant birds in flight. Upon arrival at the meeting point to board the Zodiacs, there was this individual ignoring all persons, every seal and everything in its vicinity. Quite a beautiful duck, even for the only meat-eating duck known to science. 

MC__9772 Stromness no snowMC__9772 Stromness no snow

A few hours after landing, we now had different looking Stromness whaling station, minus the snow. The rusting hulks are really visible now. The "Villa" is the small white shed just right of the Large grey building on the left-hand side of the station. Incredible what a few hours in South Georgia's weather does to the scene. 

MC__9799 Stromness WaterfallMC__9799 Stromness Waterfall The valley floor where Shackleton, Crean and Worsley walked along to civilisation. The waterfall they slide down is visible here. The Fur seals can be seen dotted along the foreshore.

After our time in Stromness, we made our way back out of the harbour and nipped across to Leith Harbour, or Port Leith, in the next bay. Leith Harbour housed another decrepit and crumbling whaling station, which was once famously held by the Argentine army during the 1982 Falklands War. It is named after Leith, the harbour area in Edinburgh, Scotland. The founder of the whaling station was from there. The station there is now out of bounds to tourists since 2010 due to copious quantities of asbestos and crumbling buildings. The area is now occupied by Fur and Elephant seals, and the odd King Penguin. 

MC009560 StromnessMC009560 Stromness

The steep and unforgiving slopes are evident here. To try and put scale on this, there are Fur seals dotted along the edge where the slopes meet the sea.

MC__9849 Leith HarbourMC__9849 Leith Harbour

The abandoned buildings and oil drums of the whaling station at Leith Harbour. 

MC__9853 Leith HarbourMC__9853 Leith Harbour

The rusting eyesore that is Leith Harbour. 

MC__9869 Leith HarbourMC__9869 Leith Harbour

Very dramatic geology all over South Georgia. There are Fur seals dotted all along the water's edge...just to put some scale on the slopes. 

Following on from that quick detour to Leith, we made our way past dozens of White-chinned Petrels and Antarctic Terns flying through the snow, and then headed towards Edward's Point and the Boss's grave at Grytviken.

MC009420 White-chinned PetrelMC009420 White-chinned Petrel

Plenty of White-chinned Petrels flew about the ship and the in the snow showers.

MC009507 Antarctic TernMC009507 Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern driving through the falling show.

The views from the lunch buffet on Deck 5 were usually quite spectacular and this leg between landings was no different. Our first proper chucks of ice chunks in the sea after having been thrown out by the glaciers. This is, I think, the glacier in Cumberland East Bay, near Grytvikan. It was another reminder that we were heading towards Antarctica. 

MC009563 South Georgia glacierMC009563 South Georgia glacier

The first signs of sea ice being belched into the water by this MASSIVE glacier. I was very excited by this sight in Cumberland East Bay!

 


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....

MC000718MC000718

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. 


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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