South Georgia Island

Ever since we read the book “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing, we wanted to visit South Georgia Island. A quick synopsis is that in 1914, the Endurance (along with Ernest Shackleton and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition) set sail for Antarctica. In October 1915, their ship became trapped and later crushed by ice. Surviving on penguins, seals, and eventually their dogs, Shackleton led his men by lifeboat to Elephant Island (800 miles southwest of South Georgia Island). Knowing they could not survive long term on Elephant Isle, Shackleton and five others departed for South Georgia in James Caird. After 17 brutal days spent crossing some of the toughest oceanwater in the world, the James Caird miraculously arrives on the west coast of South Georgia. Shackleton, Worsely and Crean set out to accomplish the impossible by traversing South Georgia’s glaciers to reach the whaling station of Stromness. Unbelievably, they make it and as a direct result of their efforts, all 22 members of the expedition of Elephant Island are subsequently rescued. In January 1922, during a later expedition, Shackleton died on board a ship off South Georgia, and at the request of his widow, was buried at Grytviken on South Georgia Island. We visited South Georgia to pay our respects to a man we consider to be the greatest leader of all times. Along the way, we visited the sights of Elsehul, Right Whale Bay, Fortuna Bay, Stromness Whaling Station, Hercules Bay, Grytviken, Salisbury Plains, Prion Island in the Bay of Isles, Godthul, Drygalskiy Fjord, and Cooper Bay.

4 JAN: (Monday: At sea en route to South Georgia): Today was a sea day, filled with lectures galore to keep us busy. Becky opted to catch up on sleep, while Robby attended Rod Planck’s “raw exposure” lecture, which he found really interesting. We both attended Ed’s drawing workshop and to our amazement found that we were actually able to sketch a decent penguin thanks to Ed’s fantastic tutelage. Bruce’s Photoshop Basics sounded like a good lecture but we found it a bit dry and boring. For some reason, we both skipped the intriguing lecture that Dave was giving on “Island Endemism and Invasive Species”, and instead, got our gear inspected at the bar by Ross and Hugh. Once they certified that we were clear of any seeds, dirt, or foreign material on all of our landing gear (to include jackets, gloves, boots, tripods, hats, and camera bags), we initialed next to our names on the passenger manifest that we were both authorized to enter South Georgia. After dinner, Rod gave some photo tips for South Georgia Island, which Robby attended.

5 JAN: (Tuesday: At sea in the Southern Ocean into Polar Waters enroute to South Georgia): Today was another sea day, and the Cheesemans filled it with quite a few activities to keep us busy and entertained. Tom Murphy showcased more of his amazing photos in the “Photographic Composition Part II”, and gave us interesting ideas on how to mimic his photography style. Afterwards, Doug gave a briefing on the whales of the Antarctic which we both skipped for some reason…it would have been a great lecture to attend but we were being lazy and for that matter, also skipped Ted’s “For the Love of Albatross” lecture as well. After lunch, we finally got our butts in gear and did attend Edward Rooks’ drawing workshop and Patrick Endres’ “Processing your photos with Lightroom”. We skipped Jim Danzenbaker’s King Penguins lecture, but did sit in on Craig Poore’s “Why we whaled…a historical perspective”. It was an interesting explanation as to why whaling in the late 19th and early 20th century became so popular, and Craig tied in how “Gone with the Wind” was probably the most influential movie encouraging whaling (the corsets, candles, horse buggy whip were all byproducts of the whaling era) . After dinner we attended the first group slideshow and were impressed at our fellow travelers’ photographic abilities. Since we hadn’t submitted any of our own images to display, we vowed that we’d be ready to share some of our favorites during the next group slideshow.

6 JAN: Wednesday: (Arrival to South Georgia: Elsehul & Right Whale Bay): Today was primarily a travel day, and we lazed away many of the day’s lectures, lured in by the hilarity of watching Larry David make people squirm on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. We took a brief tour of the bridge, and inadvertently wandered into the Russian Captain’s private work area, despite the rather inconspicuous signs indicating “do not enter”…after chiding us slightly, the Captain guided us up the stairs to the bridge area where we checked out the panoramic view.

According to our daily itinerary, we were supposed to make an after dinner landing at Elsehul, a seldom-visited site of abundant sealing 200 years ago. This landing has historic tri-pots on the beach, but gets very few visitors because of the sheer number of fur seals lounging on the beach. This year’s historic low figures of fur-seals was supposed to allow us to pay a visit, but once we were able to view the beaches of Elsehul, the staff made the command decision that there were far too many fur seals to allow a safe landing. Instead, they diverted us to Right Whale Bay, so called due to the Right Whales (a slow moving, hence easy to catch, whale that was rich in oil and would float to the top once harpooned) being harvested in this region.

We were instructed NOT to run away from the fur seals, as they will chase and bite you. Instead, we were to use a stick or tripod leg to gently tickle their whiskers, which is a highly sensitive area for the seals and brings a charging one to a screeching halt. Both of us thought “yeah right”…we’ll believe it when we see it. However, the staff was right on…the seals were so inquisitive and territorial, but brandishing a stick in their direction warded off all their charges. We had a two hour landing, and light was limited since we didn’t get to Right Whale Bay until around 2000. We saw petrels dining on the carcasses of dead fur seals, and a few King Penguins sauntering through the area. The baby fur seals were especially cute, and we quickly became familiar with the musky smell of the adult fur seals. Watching the male fur seals exhaust themselves chasing and chastising their wandering females to keep them in control within their harem was interesting, and kept us fascinated for the better half of an hour. Once a rogue male would enter into a competitor’s territory, the male seal would immediately charge, giving pursuit until the interloper had left the area. Since our landing here was so short and limited by the dwindling light, we chose to enjoy the scenery rather than feverishly snap away at the amazing landscape. We both really enjoyed our brief landing here.

7 JAN: (Thursday: Fortuna Bay & Stromness): Fortuna Bay is a well protected harbor in a beautiful glaciated valley. Today we meet our first King Penguin colony and we had the option of reliving in Shackleton’s footsteps by walking one way from Fortuna Bay over to Stromness (a 3.3 mile or 5.5 km hike), ending at the Shackleton waterfall. We had the option of getting up early (no wake up call but we set our alarm for 0500) for those who wanted to catch the early 0600 zodiac to Fortuna Bay. Since we would have to forego breakfast, the staff had coordinated for snacks to be available in the observation lounge, where we were able to grab snickers bars, yogurt bars and croissants, and we had packed bread and cheese from last night’s dinner to eat onshore during lunch (no fruit is allowed onshore). It was drizzling out at 0600, nasty weather to be honest. But we had two extra hours to spend photographing before the later crowd came ashore. We were surprised to see reindeer on the island! A bunch of them were grazing on the hills, but they were a little shy so they kept running away when we tried to get up close. Baby fur seals greeted us upon our arrival, and large elephant seals were hidden amongst the tussock grass. We climbed a hill for views over the bay. Then we sauntered down to get our first look at the King Penguins…very cool penguins that were the largest ones we would see on our trip. The weather cleared but remained cool. We were glad that the rain stopped as it made it a lot easier to take pictures. Several Oakum boys (10-14 month old King Penguin chicks) were around, and we laughed at their half-molted stage. They are quite curious, and will follow you around in the hopes that you might feed them! The reindeer finally came down to feed and we were able to get surprisingly close to them, although they still remained skittish. The reindeer were introduced in November 1911 by Norwegian whaling companies as an additional source of meat. Surprisingly, they thrived and there is controversy as to whether they (as an introduced and non-native species) should be allowed to remain on South Georgia or not. There are about 2000 reindeer on the island, and some argue that they should all be removed permanently. We grabbed a quick lunch around 1100 of cheese and bread, and took some pretty amazing photos of the penguin colony (from a hillside) before meeting back up at the landing site for the hike at 1400.

The staff had already shuttled those who wanted to eat lunch on board the Polar Star, but there was quite a few folks interested in the hike, so we all loaded up for a brief zodiac ride to the base of the hike at Fortuna Bay. It was a relatively steep initial hike of about 30 minutes. Rod and Marleen were the two lead hikers, and we had to continually unzip and tear off clothes, as we got quite warm on the hike. We weren’t sure how the hike in the muck boots would work out for us, but it was a piece of cake. We had broom sticks for our walking poles, and they were used to keep the fur seals lining the waterfront at bay, and afterwards we used them to assist us in surmounting the slippery tussock grass mounds. Once we finally reached a high enough elevation on the hill, the mountainside turned to scree, and the walk was quite pleasant. We ended up walking straight through to Crean Lake (so named for Tom Crean, a crew member from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition who fell through this very lake decades earlier). There was a pleasant Irish family (the McGaherns) on our trek, and we overheard the father, Ray, mention that he was very close friends with one of Crean’s descendants…they were proudly taking photos at various stages of the walk, and we thought it was an awesome to pay tribute to the amazing accomplishments of Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton, and Frank Worsely. Just before we descended down into Stromness Bay, Ted produced chocolate bars (yummy) and our favorite portion of the walk ensued. Actually, it wasn’t a walk but a slide! And Ted and Gail Cheeseman paved the way for everyone to follow suit. They glissaded (a controlled slide) down the steep slope in no time at all, and we all eagerly joined in….what a ride! It was a steep and fast ride and we covered significant ground in less than a minute. It was reminiscent of reading the adventures of Shackleton, Crean and Worsely, when they took a leap of faith and glissaded down a massive slope, without even being able to see the bottom. The rush we all experienced in that short but thrilling ride was a natural high, and it gave us even more respect for Shackleton’s boldness, that he led his companions into the unknown, trusting in Providence and faith alone.

Robby slid down head first but was so fast that no one was able to take a picture of him! At the base of the mountain, we saw Shackleton’s waterfall, and it was a great feeling to be stepping in the footsteps of one of our great heroes. We asked Ted to take our picture commemorating the hike and he happily obliged. We had just completed a 3 hour hike, but imagine what Shackleton, Worsely and Crean had accomplished back in 1916…unaided by modern technology or equipment, they had endured a 3.5 day trek to traverse the previously uncharted South Georgia terrain. Treacherous and foreign terrain that included snow up to their thighs, mountains, lakes, crevasses, and glaciers. All they knew was they had to head towards the seasonal whaling station at Stromness. Can you even imagine it? The thought of what they accomplished still gives us goosebumps to this day.

We still had about a mile to go to reach Stromness, and we could see the old whaler’s huts in the distance. (Asbestos prevents visitors from wandering through the historic town, and there are numerous signposts clearing marking that no one is allowed to venture past a certain point). Instead, elephant and fur seals and penguins have taken over the town as their refuge. We were attacked by dive-bombing, territorial terns…an uncanny feeling to be sure. We couldn’t tell where their nests were and weren’t sure why they were dive-bombing us but walked as briskly as we could to escape their territorial flight pattern. We spent some time enjoying Stromness, before hopping on a zodiac back to the ship to warm up with some well deserved hot chocolate and cookies in the observation lounge…what a long day! We enjoyed it thoroughly, but it was quite exhausting and needless to say, we both slept well.

8 JAN: (Friday: Hercules Bay and Grytviken): Hercules Bay: two landings and zodiac cruising with Hugh Rose. One landing was at the waterfall surrounded by 300 meter cliffs, fur seals and some King Penguins. We were lucky enough to get to the other landing, which was a Macaroni Penguin colony, accessible only via zodiac cruising. The first thing that we noticed was how extremely smelly the landing was…probably due to the fact that there were wallows of huge elephant seals molting and stinking together. We took our time getting over to the penguin “highway” and positioned ourselves for the traffic. We also were able to see two chinstrap penguins hanging on the periphery of the macaroni hangout, near the water’s edge. How funny that these two chinstraps decided to live amongst the macaronis! After spending over an hour here, we decided to hop into a zodiac and were planning on going to the second landing site, but Hugh convinced us to stay in his zodiac for some cruising, and boy did he steer us right! He’s an excellent zodiac driver, and navigated us to some prime photography spots…two thumbs up for Hugh! We felt super lucky to have been able to cruise with him. Back on the Polar Star in time for lunch, we set sail for Grytviken, which is located in Cumberland Bay (and the site where the South Georgia customs officials would conduct random spot checks on our gear).

Becky took a nap while Robby went up to the bridge and watched the Captain pull the Polar Star into dock…he pulled it right up to the dock to give us a dry landing. Once we pulled into bay, one of the South Georgia staff boarded the vessel to give us an introductory brief on what she and her 4 member team do on the island. We all boarded zodiacs for a short ride over to the whaler’s cemetery, so we could all honor Sir Ernest Shackleton with Johnny Walker’s Red Label whiskey…Craig Poore gave a moving speech before we all toasted Shackleton and doused his grave with the majority of our whiskey. Afterwards, we watched a moving tribute as Pat Brown (who had been planning on visiting Antarctica a few years ago with her now late husband) brought his ashes to ensure that he could finally meet one of his great heroes, Sir Shackleton. It was a touching moment, and brought a tear or two as we realized what was going on.

Afterwards, we took our time walking through the Grytviken whaling station, which had a nice museum, and natural history room built by Pauline and Tim Carr (showcasing a replica of the James Caird, the open boat sailed by Shackleton and crew from the Weddell Sea to Elephant Island and onward to South Georgia), a traditional Norwegian church, an old rusting catcher ship named “Petrel”, and countless whaling artifacts. It started snowing, but cleared up before we headed back to the Polar Star by foot. That evening, we enjoyed a delicious BBQ in the observation lounge…the crew went all out, grilling up delicious steaks, sausages, pork, salmon, and ribs, alongside potato salad and some beautiful carved fruit. Talk about some good eats! We pigged out and stuffed our faces with all the yummy treats. Combined with a little bit of our own smuggled alcohol, we soon beat a retreat to our room to succumb to a calorie coma.

9 JAN: (Saturday: Salisbury Plains & Prion Island in the Bay of Isles): Alarm for 0500, early morning zodiac at 0600 to Salisbury Plains. Our plan was to spend 6 hours and catch the lunch zodiac back before our trip to Prion Island. The morning started out gorgeous, with a clear, calm mirror effect. We could see a sailboat off in the distance, and the mountains surrounding Salisbury Plains looked beautiful. We had a calm ride to shore, and took our time making our way down to the main colony, which appeared to number almost half a million penguins! There were King Penguins in all stages of breeding and molting, and hordes of “the Oakum Boys” intermixed in the colony in huge swathes of brown. We spent our time taking portraits of the King Penguins, before finally deciding to scale the mountain in front of us. Jim was showing us a pair of King Penguins that had just started the ritual of an egg exchange, an intricate dance that could take up to two hours. It was interesting, but we wanted a bird’s eye view from the top of the mountain. Scaling it from the front of the mountain was difficult, as the tussock grass was extremely slippery and large puddles of guano goo was everywhere at the base of the mountain. We ended up skirting the side of the mountain and a steep 20 minute hike to the top brought us fine views of the landscape below. All that we could see from the colony immediately in front of us extending out to the horizon were King Penguins, in a gorgeous and mesmerizing collage that appeared to be a military camouflage of whites and browns. We took our time taking photos and soon noticed that the wind appeared to pick up from the mountain top. We ended up making our way along from one side to the other, and found a small patch of snow to glissade down the mountain side, making for a much quicker (and easier) journey for our way down than up. A stream was skirting the mountain, snaking its way all the way to the beach head, and there were literally thousands of penguins doggedly standing their ground in the stream, making for picturesque photos. However, the wind was really starting to pick up and snow kept getting stuck on our lenses. We’d stop to wipe it dry, take a few photos and repeat. Eventually the wind got so strong that we decided to put our camera gear away and make our way back to the landing zone. Just in the nick of time, as the ship’s emergency bell stuck, signifying that we were all to make our way to the landing zone. We linked up with a repeat passenger, Marcus Lindenlaub from Germany, who led the way through the gauntlet of thousands of fur seals and King Penguins. Time was of the essence, so we made our way in a hurried but calm manner towards the landing zone. Marcus had originally thought that there were too many fur seals on the beach, and we’d have to backtrack the way we came. Once we heard the ship’s alarm, we reconsidered and decided to just head straightaway to the zodiacs. The seas were rough but we got back to the Polar Star with no issues thanks to the Herculean efforts of the zodiac drivers. Once onboard, we both warmed up with a hot cup of chocolate, appropriately entitled, “A Warm Hug on a Cold Day”. Lunch was a bit rocky and we weren’t sure if the afternoon landing (Prion Island) would happen or not. The Cheesemans finally decided we would be able to squeeze the landing in after dinner, making a series of announcements keeping us all informed. Dinner was bumped up an hour early, and zodiac landings were to start at 1930-2000. Since lighting was limited, and Prior Island is a small landing that required all visitors to stay on the boardwalk, the staff urged everyone to limit their camera gear, and perhaps not even bring a camera if we could avoid it. Certainly tripods were frowned upon, as there simply wouldn’t be enough space on the boardwalk to erect it. We saw several nests of Wandering Albatross, beautiful white birds that were absolutely magnificent to behold. Their wingspans can reach up to 11.5 feet, and some have been tagged to reach ripe old ages of 70 and 80 years old, raising a chick biannually! We just brought our point and shoot, and opted for a short one hour tour here, since it was dark by 2100. After a hot shower to warm us up, we both slept soundly.

10 JAN: (Sunday: Godthul & Drygalskiy Fjord – originally St Andrew’s Bay which was cancelled due to adverse weather): Due to the rough waters this morning, a landing at St Andrew’s Bay, the largest colony of King Penguins on South Georgia numbering 200,000 pairs, was deemed improbable, so the Cheesemans scheduled an alternate landing site of Godthul Bay, famously known for its calm harbor against the storms. Godthul Bay was an old whaler’s station, with remnants of thousands of whale bones on the beach. We tried walking along the beach but the rocks were super slick and the fur seals were aggressively protecting their territory. We saw a pair of pintail ducks calmly darting in between our legs. Elephant seals were battling each other in the sea, and we were happy when we realized that the staff had opened up a route up the hillside so we could make our way to the nearby Gentoo colony.

The hike up was interspersed in between fur seals, so we needed a walking stick to keep them at bay (tickling their whiskers always does the trick). We saw two chick eggs that had been recently devoured by the skuas, and upon reaching the colony, sat transfixed by the industriousness of the Gentoos who were furiously building their nests. Trip after trip with dirt and rocks were made back and forth in the colony, with some of the penguins stealing their supplies from their neighbors. Becky witnessed a skua steal a chick from its Gentoo mom, and was horrified to see it devour the baby in mere seconds. It all took less than 60 seconds for it to swoop down upon the colony, harass several nesting Gentoos, nip one of them as a distraction, before fleeing with its baby in tow. It was shocking to watch nature in full force, blood, guts and all. Of course its all part of life and a skua has to eat to survive, but to see it happen to a hapless chick before its helpless parents was almost too much to bear.

After returning to the ship, we had lunch, and the ship was rocking and rolling like a roller coaster, so hold back the nausea, Becky ran off from lunch to lie down and rest through the turbulent voyage. A few hours later, the Polar Star pulled into Drygalskiy Fjord, a pretty (and calm) section of South Georgia Island where Ted told us the glacier had retreated significantly over the 10 years that he has been visiting the island. Some fellow passengers saw a leopard seal in the distance, which hopped off its ice floe and disappeared underwater. A large shooter (an underwater submerged section of the iceberg that splinters off and rockets to the surface) appeared, and its upward momentum was strong enough to cause a massive gap between the base of the glacier and the surrounding ice packs.

After we turned around and departed Drygalskiy Fjord, the waters continued to be choppy, until the captain was able to anchor at Larsen Harbor. We skipped the afternoon and evening lectures as we had been forewarned of an early morning landing (and hopefully calm weather to enable us to rush through the missed landing sites of St Andrew’s Bay and Gold Harbor).

11 JAN: (Monday: Cooper Bay): Polar Star was able to anchor at Larsen Harbor and repositioned in the morning at Cooper Bay. We had an early morning zodiac (0530) out to Cooper Bay to look at the Macaroni colonies atop the snowy (and slippery) hilltop. Getting into the zodiac was pretty crazy…a rogue wave came up to Becky’s waist level, drenched her and the launching crew, and soaked down into her boots. Thankfully this was only a 2 hour landing, so she decided to suck it up. Rod Planck was driving our zodiac and apologized profusely for his inappropriate language this morning. None of our group heard his original tirade but it was understandable, the sea conditions were rough and he was having a hard time getting his zodiac under control. Cooper Bay was super slick, so we armed ourselves with broomsticks and made our way slowly up the hill. It was crowded on top of the hill overlooking down into the colony. We didn’t bring a tripod since we had been forewarned to bring as little as possible. The macaronis were loud, brash, and entertaining. Seeing their nests interspersed with the white snow made for an especially picturesque landing.

Back to the ship at 0730 and Becky took a hot shower to warm up before breakfast. Due to the upswell, the other two scheduled landings for today, Gold Harbor and St Andrew’s Bay, were cancelled so we got an early head start sailing towards the South Orkneys. At breakfast, Victor Cooper made an announcement encouraging all passengers to acknowledge the mighty efforts that the staff had made to ensure our successful landing, stating that we probably didn’t realize just how hard they worked to keep us happy and satisfied.

Ted immediately put out a modified schedule, filling it with lectures. We decided to skip most of the lectures but did attend Ed’s drawing class where we learned about the six degrees of shading, which can be modified to give it a dark or light mood. The bridge all but reported Fin whales riding bicycles and doing back flips from the bow, so we postponed class for about 30 minutes to check them out. They were way off in the distance but were surfacing quite frequently. After drawing class, we signed up to get our gear inspected for the biosecruity screening process for Antarctica, getting checked off by David Shaw in the library at 1800.

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