We landed on a stone beach in moderate surf amongst a group of Elephant seals.
Grey-black clouds billowed over the mountains, attempting to cover the gun blue glacier face that divided the black cliff at the other end of the bay..
A loud crack and puff of pure white snow announced the birthing of the glacier.
The Five-Meter Rule
Simon Boyes, the ornithologist on board, led us through the giant Elephant Seals that were jousting to secure their harem. They can weight up to 3 tons and raise their necks by extending their backs to face the competition. They are a lot less graceful and if you stand 5 meters away (the rule of wildlife viewing in the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic region) then invariably some penguins walk up behind you and start pecking at any loose straps. There are 400 000 Elephant Seals on South Georgia, making up 75% of the global population. The scientific name is Mirounga leonina
The Origin of Scientific Names
My fascination with the origin of names was worthwhile in this instance. Many have Greek derivation, as in the leonina for lion-like. But the Genus Mirounga is derived from the old Aboriginal word for these animals, whose range stretches to the Sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand and Australia.
Simon led us to a breeding colony of King Penguins on the beach. He drew a line with his foot in the pebble beach to keep us from entering the thickest part of the colony. This line did nothing to prevent the penguins from coming to investigate us. We set up to photograph in a jaw dropping position: penguins squawking; elephant seals jousting; penguins incubating eggs while last years hatchlings were bigger than their parents and covered in brown down; wieners barking and skuas flying and landing like scavengers at war.
Snow Does Not Stop photography
Then it started snowing. First lightly then much harder, then the wind picked up to break the muffled quiet of the snow. Many of the group slowly returned to the zodiacs and the ship, but we stayed till the last and were frozen, even with thick and proper layered outdoor gear.
Marius had a moment of genius when he noticed penguins waling through the brood and panned them at a slow shutter speed. He gracefully shared his idea with his clients. What a great and generous photographer. Have a look at his website here.
Back to the ship and we were all on a high from an intensely beautiful yet rugged morning.
The Elusive South Georgia Pipit
It was to be the birders afternoon as we cruised onto Drygalski Fjord. The bridge is open at all times to passengers but the tension is palpable as the captain and crew negotiate the narrow entry into rocky harbours or fjords. I am sure they must use some vodka to distress afterwards.
The birders were there to see the last remaining South Georgia Pipits, the most southerly passerine in the world and endemic to South Georgia. There was a rat free island here where the bird could breed and the eggs were not destroyed. The birder’s disappointment was audible when the ship had to swing around in the fjord and exit because of a snowstorm.
Crossing the Scotia Sea
The next two days saw us crossing the Scotia Sea. I survived the trip in terms of motion with three drugs now: Epanutin, Stugeron and Scopolamine. Then I was struck down by ‘flu, and took to my bunk for another two days of hallucination.
But when I surfaced we had crossed 60 degrees south and we were in the thick of ice.