12th March and 13th March
We sailed across the South Scotia Sea for 2 days. Some of the first day of the crossing was a bit rough so we stayed close to our cabin. Our second day at sea could be described as peaceful – both the expansive ocean around us and the contented mood on board. We returned to the lecture room for a mandatory briefing on South Georgia. This short film described the do’s and don’ts for our visit complete with examples of the stunning vistas we aim to see. The Scotia Sea continued to showcase it’s natural beauty through the day. With the sun beating strongly off the waters, dolphins played in the waves and we were able to spend a lot more time on deck watching the sea birds soaring in the thermals. It is really starting to hit us know that we are not far from realising one of our big dreams of getting to South Georgia.
A more perfect day we could not have imagined. The sun was out, the seas were still calm, and we bubbled with increasing excitement and anticipation for our first sighting of South Georgia. And then, there she was! Emerging out of the sea fog, immense snow covered cliffs projecting high about the sea.
As we turned into the mouth of King Haakon Bay, wonderful vistas of mountain, snow and sparkling water began to take shape before our eyes. This was the day when we would witness the scenes of the final journey of the “James Caird”.
Cape Rosa lies at the western extreme of the south shore of King Haakon Bay, sheltering the tiny cove which became known as ‘Cave Cove’.
The crew of the ‘James Caird’ found their way against the odds through the narrow channel to find their first landfall after 16 days at sea. Despite our sunlit arrival by zodiac in near perfect conditions, the surge against the storm beach was still impressive. Shackleton’s men, perilously lacking in food and fuel, would have been cheered to find several fur seals in the tussock above the beach, but we did our best not to disturb the one who appeared to be guarding the cave. Next to the cave, in fact little more than a recess in the rock – we imagined the six men huddled in reindeer sleeping bags in tight formation around their fire in a space 8 foot deep and little wider with their sail as a windbreak. We felt privileged to stand on that normally inaccessible famous spot where few others have stood before us.
We returned to the ship and headed to the head of King Haakon Bay for the afternoon’s activities. Shackleton and his companions were likewise in high spirits as they sailed inland in fine conditions. Our adventure this afternoon was to the northern shores of the bay.
We were able to spend a few relaxing hours exploring the beach and tussocks, a small lake and climbing the ridges.
Fur seals growled (and then they lay back down to snooze in the sun) and the elephant seals both disgusted and charmed us with their snuggling, belching and breaking wind.
We were also thrilled to come across our first King Penguin – with its orange, yellow, black, grey and white feathers resplendent in the sun.
We headed back to the ship and our first day in South Georgia was certainly memorable for the weather, scenery and history.
This morning we arrived in the Bay of Isles on the eastern side of South Georgia. We were woken from our slumber at 5.30am for the pre-dawn Prion Island extravaganza. A rocky channel guarded by giant kelp and flocks of kelp gulls led to a flurry of frolicking baby fur seals including the odd white variant (occurring naturally in 1 in 800 of the population). Weaned furry forerunners announced our arrival on a very busy beach.
A few king penguins regally regarded the circus as a chinstrap retaliated against its pecking skua irritation and the sleepier fur babes snuggled amongst the coiled seaweed.
The boardwalk platforms allowed us to gaze closely at incubating wandering albatrosses on nests and giant petrel chicks continually moved moss around their nest.
Overhead the sturdy bomber giant petrels contrasted with slender light sooted albatross.
Along the way we had to fight off the odd grumpy fur seal but we were always told don’t run and hold your ground. It seemed to work. At times they had even taken over the board walk so that was a challenge. We could not believe the number of fur seals on Prion Island. In fact they are taking over the tussocks higher up the hill each year and are taking over the nesting areas for the Wandering Albatross.
After returning to the ship we headed for the spectacle of the two kilometre stretch of Salisbury Plain. Submarine King Penguins streamed out from the massive rookery of 250,000 birds on shore with crèches reaching up the glacial outwash plain. The ship swirled in gusts of 40 knot winds. We were so close yet so far. After a spell of watchful anticipation, the decision was made to head to the reputedly sheltered arena of Prince Olav Harbour first explored in 1775 by Captain James Cook. A whaling and fur sealing bounty also probably bought the first rats to South Georgia and left a midden of rusting buildings of the whaling station.
Bashing through 20 knot winds and ensnaring kelp, we reached the three masted ship the ‘Brutus’, a nitrate transport vessel then coal hulk, now a kelp gull nesting wreck. Around Sheep’s Head we slunk into ‘elephant lagoon’ where again the cavorting fur seals stole the show. Our gusty trip back to a skilfully rotating ship was invigorating, energising and very wet. The wind had whipped up even further and it required great skill to disembark from the zodiac to the ship. Our most interesting adventure weather wise to date.
We had a nice hot shower and had Borscht for lunch. We then headed to Possession Bay but once again the weather was not favourable. Hopefully the weather gods will be with us tomorrow. We had a spectacular sunset to top off the day.
Overnight we headed for St Andrews Bay. What a sense of relief was felt when we opened our porthole to see a still sea and the blue sky desperately trying to push through the sweeping clouds above St Andrews Bay. The three kilometre long black sandy beach was encircled by the striking backdrop of the ice-clad and snow bespeckled mountains of the Allardyce Range, and the Cook, Buxton and Heaney glaciers. And once aided with binoculars, what looked like a simple moraine field to the naked eye, was an expansive mass of the colourful king penguin. We were going to visit the largest colony in South Georgia where there are hundreds of thousands of them.
The sheer scale and multitude of penguins was overwhelming, and indeed all we could in our now humbled state was to sit and attempt to absorb the scene with all of our senses.
We watched the penguins attempt group body surfs into the beach, whilst the younger fur seals charmed us with their quirky upside down snoozing, while the teenage versions growled menacingly and galloped at our ankles from all sides.
There were skuas stealing baby chicks and eating them right in front of us. Even the magnificent giant petrels got in on the act.
We approached the rookery and the noise was fantastic. We were able to see chicks of various ages. They are like ugly duckings and they transform into the most absolutely beautiful penguins. This is something that we will never forget.
Our afternoon excursion took us to Fortuna Bay, the start of the last leg of Shackleton, Crean and Worsley’s trek across South Georgia. Shane was part of the group that farewelled us to take on the trek to Stromness Bay. I watched from the boat as the colourful snake of Gortex wound it’s way slowly up the rocky ridges towards Crean Lake. The ship then headed around to Stromness Bay to collect the group later in the evening.
Shane’s recollection of the trek – After a steep, slippery and steady climb, we finally got to experience the magnificent view of Fortuna Bay. Up on the ridge we navigated around Crean Lake, and could then see Stromness Bay. I can imagine the surge of relief that Shackleton and his men felt upon seeing Stromness. Of course there was no whaling station whistle for us, just the high whistle of the strong winds speeding past our ears. In the fading light, we carefully picked our way down the pass and met the awaiting zodiacs. It was an experience that I am certainly glad that I took on.
We have now had the privilege of visiting some of the key locations of the Shackleton epic: the icy Weddell Sea, the ‘wild’ Point Wild, Cave Cove, and both the start and finish of his South Georgia crossing. And yet, we can only use our imagination to empathise with these men’s experiences and their sheer willpower to survive.
Once everyone was back on the boat, we had a delicious barbeque dinner, although we did need to enjoy it inside.
Happy St Patrick’s Day. This morning our first stop was at Hercules Bay. If we were going to see Macaroni Penguins today would be the day. We have been so lucky with the weather here at South Georgia, yet again the sun was beating strongly upon our faces and provided a golden light with which to photograph the coloured crests of the macaronis in full glory. Yes, we got to see them.
We headed out in the zodiacs in Hercules Bay which is a miniature fjord only 500 metres wide, but it was jam packed with delights for us. At the far end, a narrow waterfall cascaded from the dizzy heights of the rocky and tussocky cliffs, and down onto a small shingle beach on which elephant seals, fur seals, Gentoo penguins, king penguins and giant petrels all basked together in the sun. The rocky shoreline wore a beautiful skirt of kelp.
One unfortunate fur seal wore a tangled necklace of green fishing net which caught our attention.
To the rescue Nigel and Howard. Nigel is a naturalist and had done this a few times before but he usually had more tools to help him. So they managed to land on the beach and catch the seal by the tail, who swiftly became a writhing and flailing set of sharp, gnashing teeth. Thankfully the only casualties were the cuff of Howards glove, his watch, and Nigel’s excrement infused jacket. On releasing the distressed beast, it sat quietly, looked at his new human friends, and then lunged at Howard before it took off down the beach. Hurray for our heroic seal whisperers. We were all out on the zodiacs while this was unfolding having a good old laugh at the way it all unfolded. Shane was able to video the whole feat.
Look at the happy free fur seal. The net had started cutting into its body so it would have eventually died.
Once we returned to the boat we continued to enjoy the sunshine and the calm weather as we motored to Cumberland Bay. We were soon off to explore what was quite an unusual event – tabular icebergs from the Weddell Sea, now grounded in a South Georgian Bay! And spectacular they were. By using the zodiacs we were able to get extremely close to the bergs to examine every groove, dimple, crack and surface.
We even got to stand on one like proud penguins and marvelled at their sheer size and beauty.
After lunch we had an informative talk about the Habitation Restoration Project from South Georgian resident Sarah. At present they are in the second stage of the rat eradication project. During the whaling times, Norwegian brown rats made their way to South Georgia and they are taking over so quickly that they are killing off a lot of the bird life, they eat the eggs and little chicks. There were helicopters in the air as she spoke distributing pellets that are irresistible to these rats, they then take them into their burrows and die. Stage one was extremely successful. Over two years they are yet to sight a rat in that area. Due to the terrain and all the glaciers they are able to do this program in stages as the rats will not cross the glaciers. So, we were then off to experience Grytviken ourselves.
We had been cleared by the Government Officer with a once in a life time stamp in our passport. Our last landing in South Georgia offered a visit to their wonderful museum as well as the opportunity to indulge in some shopping. After all you are only likely to be here once.
Inside the museum there was an Albatross on display, I put Shane next to it so you can see how big they actually are.
We were also able to pay homage to Shackleton at his gravesite, and take a moment to reflect on his extraordinary achievements.
The opportunity to tour the lovely little church and old whaling station also gave us a chance to somberly consider the huge number of whales that were slaughtered in these waters.
The last bit of business here in Grytviken was to collect the little boat “The Alexandra Shakleton” which is a replica of “The James Caird” that had recently carried out a re-enactment of the Shackleton Expedition. It was lifted by crane onto the back of our ship where it is now tightly secured.
18th to 20th March
Now we had the longest open sea sailing for the entire trip. We had three days at sea, slowly making our way across the South Atlantic Ocean to the Falkland Islands. Some of the trip was quite smooth and we made good time but by the third day we had some bad weather and this slowed us back down. It was still nowhere near as bad as the storm we had last time. Shane and I were both suffering though. Last night Shane decided to venture down to dinner with me. Roast Beef and Roast Potatoes were on the menu. Well Shane really enjoyed his meal (for a short time anyway), within 5 minutes of wiping his plate clean he had his head in a sick bag the poor thing. So I put him to bed and Doctor Lesley gave him some more tablets. Another of adventures has come to an end.