My Travels: Riches in Gold Harbour and Snowstorm Closes Drygalski Fjord

We landed on a stone beach in moderate surf amongst a group of Elephant seals.

Glacier and Cliff above the King Penguin Colony

Glacier and Cliff above the King Penguin Colony

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.

Southern Elephant Seal amongst the King Penguins

Southern Elephant Seal amongst the King Penguins

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

Portrait of an Elephant Seal in the Snow

Portrait of an Elephant Seal in the Snow

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.

 

Skua bombing the colony

Skua bombing the colony

The Elusive South Georgia Pipit

A Walk in the Snow

A Walk in the Snow

Elephant Seals Jousting

Elephant Seals Jousting

Wiener irritating a penguin

Wiener irritating a penguin

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.

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Marius Coetzee’s Idea. Thank you!

Ocean Notes Day 9

Ocean Notes Day 9

My Travels: The Fjords and Harbours of South Georgia

Whale blubber tanks are only slightly smaller than oil refinery tanks.

Katie Murray (Ship Historian) at Sir Ernest Shackleton's Grave

Katie Murray (Ship Historian) at Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Grave

The tanks and town buildings of Stromness Bay were uniformly red from the rust and looked peaceful set at the base of glaciers and in the green grass at the water’s edge.

This Mad Max like setting belied the peacefulness of the bay and mountains: the buildings were built with asbestos insulation and it was dangerous to land and disturb the carcinogenic fibres.

The size of the tanks disturbed me. We were still hunting whales, our 7 billion inhabitants of this fragile earth. We were still building tanks, but now there were many more, mainly in the hot arid desert regions of our earth, filled with fossil oil. We are still so inefficient and have so much to learn.

After lunch we moored in the bay of Grytviken and were introduced to the Director of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, Sarah Lurcock who presented on the history of the trust and the Rat Eradication Project.  Rats are exotic to the islands and arrived with the numerous shipwrecks. They breed like rats (or rabbits) and eats small bird eggs to the point that they almost eradicated the South Georgia Pipit, and endemic species and the most southerly passerine in the world.

The program started with a pilot study, which used helicopters to drop poison pellets with minimal secondary fallout. They are currently completing the second phase and have the third and last phase to complete to have eradicated the rodent from the island. Interestingly, the effect of global warming is felt here. Before the glaciers would reach the sea and form district geographic barriers to the rat movement, but now with them receding there is a beach between the wall of ice and the sea, which the rats use to traverse to previously, unexplored (or now eradicated) areas. So there is some urgency to use the remaining barriers to optmise the rat eradication program.

Grytviken

Grytviken is the capital of South Georgia. The buildings have been cleared of asbestos and there is a museum, post office and a research station. About twenty people live on the island in summer. Our ship’s historian, Kate Murray, did and internship there last year and indeed she was the kingpin in getting us to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave in the cemetery of Grytviken.

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The Vavilov at anchor in Grytviken

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Grytviken is littered with shipwrecks

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The Whaler’s Church in Grytviken

For those not familiar with the one greatest explorers of our world it is best to read his book “South” it is well worth it. He stands out as a great leader of men in desperate times.

The landing at Grytviken was somber with our toast at his grave. A wee dram of whiskey burnt our throats and the brought life to his grave.

There is a Mexican belief related to All Saints’ Day:

“We all die three times. The first is when the body ceases its function. The second is when the soil covers our grave. The last is when our name is no longer spoken.”

Ernest Schackleton will live forever.

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The back of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Grave

The back of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Grave

Ocean Notes Day 8

Ocean Notes Day 8

My Travels: Amazing Wildlife Spectacles with South Georgia on My Mind

Overnight we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, where the icy waters of the Antarctic mix with the warmer waters of the Atlantic.

Map of South Georgia

Map of South Georgia

The ship maintained a blackout with no outside lights except essential navigation lights and all cabins had to have the blackout curtains drawn. We were doing this to avoid petrel mortality as they flew into the light like moths.

I awoke a new man. No sickness. I was so happy to be alive!

I was up before breakfast and went upstairs to the lounge and to the deck to suck in the sweet cold dry air and be faced with glaciers a few hundred meters away on either side of the ship. After being laid low I had forgotten all this port and starboard stuff.

I was looking at South Georgia, a long island running north south with a western seaboard that was hammered by Antarctic weather systems, and the eastern seaboard that had numerous bays that had been carved out by glaciers that still reached the sea, although in some places they were receding. The sea was ice blue, the sky clear with some wind. It was 1 Degree Celsius. Penguins were porpoising along side the ship and seals played like puppies around us in the water.

The Bay of Isles, South Georgia

I sat at the bar and had one of Amanda Jurinen’s famous Smoothies. It paid to get there early. Amanda always had a smile on and with her soft voice a Amanda at her smoothie barwarm greeting and a story to tell. She was a wonderful hostess.

Sailing Along Salisbury Plain

After a light breakfast we readied ourselves for an excursion to Salisbury Plain, which is found with the Bay of Isles.  The expedition team tried to land but decided it was too rough with big surf breaking on the black gravel beaches. We ended up riding the Zodiacs behind the backline, which was only 20 meters or so from the beach, so we would get good close ups of the view.

What a view it was: silver-white waves rolling onto the beach that was home to a breeding colony of King Penguins of more than 300 000 birds. Fur seals too numerous to mention. The colony stretched up from the beach, which was the widest point up into a low valley in the Alpine setting between the Grace and Lucas Glaciers. Yes, the mountains of South Georgia rise above the glaciers like the Alps rise above the plains of Italy and Germany. Except here he plains are the sea.

In the Zodiacs we could almost touch the penguins and seals. They launched themselves into the surf and played, some penguins swimming backstroke while others dived. They played in groups and broke away to hunt. On the beach the masses thronged and it was truly one of the amazing wildlife spectacles of this fragile earth of ours.

The breeding colony of 300 000 King Penguins on Salisbury Plain

The breeding colony of 300 000 King Penguins on Salisbury Plain

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King Penguin doing backstroke in the surf

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Seal swimming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Squadron of King Penguins readying to dive

Squadron of King Penguins readying to dive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Lucky in Fortuna Bay

We boarded the Vavilov and made our way further down the island to Fortuna Bay. This was much more protected than Salisbury Plains and we landed easily and in the midst of penguins and baby seals, or wieners. There was a King Penguin breeding colony at the base of a glacier about 1 kilometer inland, but I was so engrossed with the wieners and the young penguins in their brown down that I hardly moved from where we landed.

Fortuna Bay

Fortuna Bay

 

Seals sparring in Fortuna Bay

Seals sparring in Fortuna Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were clear streams of water flowing in the green grass, while the waterfalls not a few hundred meters away that fell into the wetland were frozen. The peaks were high and covered in snow, the valleys lined with glaciers.

As we stood to take pictures and compose penguins and wieners would come up behind you, and when you turn around the wieners would bark and feign attack, just like a playful puppy.

Seals in action

Seals in action

Both Salisbury plain and Fortuna bay were stellar introductions to the spectacular wildlife of South Georgia.

Ocean Notes Day 7

Ocean Notes Day 7