Iâ€™ve traveled to a lot of mountainous regions in my life â€“ the Himalayas in Nepal, the Karakorum in Pakistan, the Spanish Pyrenees, the Austrian Alps, the Canadian Rockiesâ€¦ But of all the places Iâ€™ve visited, few can compare to the magnificence of South Georgia Island. Iâ€™m hard pressed to think of another place on earth that features such a spectacular combination of snow and glacier covered peaks, abundant wildlife, beautiful bays and fjords, a rich history, and very limited signs of civilization.
Iâ€™ve traveled to a lot of mountainous regions in my life â€“ the Himalayas in Nepal, the Karakorum in Pakistan, the Spanish Pyrenees, the Austrian Alps, the Canadian Rockiesâ€¦ But of all the places Iâ€™ve visited, few can compare to the magnificence of South Georgia Island. Iâ€™m hard pressed to think of another place on earth that features such a spectacular combination of snow and glacier covered peaks, abundant wildlife, beautiful bays and fjords, a rich history, and very limited signs of civilization. Even the approach was spectacular â€“ little ice â€œgrowlersâ€ became larger â€œbergy bits,â€ and then full-blown icebergs. Itâ€™s hard not to admire the beauty of these stark, white, floating islands of the most interesting shapes; but one also cannot forget that they are responsible for countless ships coming to rest on the bottom of the ocean!
We started our exploration of South Georgia on Sunday, February 10 at the Grytviken settlement in King Edward Bay. This former Norwegian whaling station was operated for 60 years and before it was closed in 1964, had â€œprocessedâ€ over 60,000 whales of all types. As I walked around the various rusting ship hulks, blubber boilers, and steamsaws, I found myself becoming quite emotional â€“ in fact, not unlike the feelings one develops when touring a concentration camp. Grytviken was a place of highly efficient, mechanized death â€“ now just a shadow of its former self, just rusting away. It gave me a chill to imagine the place in full operation.
But I also have to admit to mixed feelings of sorts. Iâ€™m viewing the station with the benefit of historical hindsight; at the time, the idea of a sustainable harvest was extremely new. The whalers provided food for a large numbers of people would have perished in Europe and elsewhere if it werenâ€™t for whale oil and other byproducts. I also couldnâ€™t help being impressed at the strength of the former inhabitants; these stations were a testament to humansâ€™ incredible capacity to do extremely difficult work under harsh conditions in extremely remote places. Still, I canâ€™t forget that Grytviken and the few other whaling stations around South Georgia were responsible for absolutely decimating whale and seal populations in the South Atlantic. The good news is that strict protection measures have succeeded. Seals have come back strongly; however, since whales have such long lifespans and few offspring, their populations are still far from a full recovery.
In any event, Grytviken is a fascinating and important place to visit. In addition to the old whaling station, there is a wonderful museum, chapel, and cemetery â€“ whose most noticeable inhabitant is one Ernest Shackleton. His wife insisted that he be buried in the land he loved and after our experiences the following day, I can easily see why.
The weather forecast for Monday, Feb 11 was unusually favorable, so we awoke at 4:45 am to prepare for our first of three landings Natural Habitat Adventures had planned for the day. By zodiac, we reached Salisbury Plain in the Bay of Isles before the sun was up â€“ and witnessed the second largest concentration of King Penguins anywhere on earth. Hundreds of thousands of penguins, and thousands of fur and elephant seals went about their business as we walked among them on the beach, collectively taking thousands of pictures. Some approached us out of curiosity, but most paid us little mind. I canâ€™t think of anywhere else where Iâ€™ve had so many animals in sight at one time. Words and pictures just canâ€™t do justice to the experience of actually being there, and I hope many more people get to visit (in an ecologically sensitive way, of course!).
Our second landing was at Prion Island â€“ an incredible place where Wandering Albatrosses and other seabirds nest. We followed a tight path up a small hill (a boardwalk is being constructed to minimize visitor impact on the land) and in front of a stunning panorama, viewed the nests and chicks of these magnificent birds. What sets Prion Island apart is that it is rat-free. The difference is noticeable in the concentration of nests and hatching success. In areas where rats are present, albatross chicks can get eaten alive on their nests by these invasive species. Even so, this is a very sensitive area and I was a bit wary of us even being there. But the birds showed no outward signs of distress at our presence, and I think it is important for people to experience these areas personally so they know whatâ€™s at stake in the fight for their conservation.
Those two landings alone would have made the entire trip worth the effort, but we had one more adventure ahead of us that day. Led by our historian, Jonathan Shackleton, we landed at Fortuna Bay and hiked the last 5 miles of Shackleton, Worsely, and Creanâ€™s journey to the salvation of the Stromness whaling station. Along the way, Jonathan read pieces of Ernestâ€™s journal to us, and we were able to see some of the same landmarks that were described in his writings. Not only were we passing through some of the most beautiful scenery Iâ€™ve ever experienced, but the added history of looking at the journey through Shackletonâ€™s eyes gave it a real reverence.
Stromness whaling station is shut down and closed to the public, but one can still view the old buildings and rusting equipment from a distance. At the small beach at the end of the hike, fur seals and Gentoo penguins were in abundance. We spent some time just sitting and letting the animals investigate us â€“ the fur seal pups were particularly curious and would come up to nip our boots. There were a couple big bulls there that watched us a bit warily, but fortunately left us alone. We returned to the ship tired, but exhilarated for having three of the most amazing experiences in one day.
We had one more day to go on South Georgia â€“ an exploration of Larsen Harbor and the Fjord of Dragaklski on the southern end of the island. As my husband put it, â€œanother day, another series of stunning vistas.â€ The weather was unusually cooperative, so we motored around Larsen Harbor on zodiacs, and landed near a lovely waterfall to explore the rocks and snowfields. Following that, the weather was favorable enough for us to take the Multanovskiy up into the fjord to view the spectacular glaciers that awaited. Conditions are usually such that few expeditions are able to even enter the fjord â€“ but we were extremely lucky in that the sun was out the entire time. Yet another experience never to forget!
As we start the 3-day sail across to the Antarctic Peninsula, we revel in South Georgiaâ€™s wild beauty. Itâ€™s important just knowing that places like this still exist and are relatively unspoiled. I am signing off for now â€“ next post will be from the 7th continent!