South Georgia

Cumberland Bay glacier, South Georgia

On arrival in South Georgia, I immediately understood the comparison to the amazing Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. The sheer volumes of the wildlife, predominantly seals and penguins, was breath-taking as was the scenery. As if we didn’t already have enough to contend with when trying to make the landings (what with the katabatic winds, fickle waves and high swells in these ever changing microclimates), on some beaches it was also difficult for the expedition team to find a good spot to land, simply because there was just so much wildlife on the beach.

The male Antarctic fur seals were pretty territorial about their patches of beach (which were reserved solely for them and their harem) and woe betide any intruders who could be charged down irrespective of size. While their “homes” may not have looked that much to the casual observer, let’s just say they were a pretty house proud bunch and the advice was to stay off their patch although in practice, this was a little tricky as stepping off one fur seal’s domain typically put you squarely into another’s!

Antarctic fur seals and king penguins

We were advised that if we were charged, rather than fleeing, we had to stand our ground and make ourselves look as tall and big as possible raising our hands above our heads (in a sort of hands-up surrender-like position) while taking the opportunity to heartily roar back. And it seemed to do the trick at least against what I would probably class as mini charges rather than full on charges which are apparently more common earlier in the season when the animals spend about 4 weeks mating during which they don’t leave their patch of land not even to feed and can lose as much as 1.5kg a day while they are fasting. In fact, when we were there, the vast majority of the seals seemed pretty chilled happily lolling around on the beach even doing some sun bathing when the weather was kind. What was quite amusing was getting “charged” by the pups who were just learning the ropes and were hugely endearing although I suspect a nip from them would not have been that pleasant so still best to avoid.

As I’ve already said, what was incredible was the sheer volume of seals that we saw, particularly given that during the height of the whaling and sealing industries in the first half of the 20th century, apparently the numbers of Antarctic fur seals reduced to only 100 animals in total. Today, apparently there are between 4 to 6 million of the furry fellows globally, with about 95% living happily (now unhunted) in South Georgia. Isn’t that a wonderful rebound story – and it certainly felt like we saw a significant percentage of that current population, there were so many of them.

The disused whaling station, Stromness. Every single one of those dots in those photos is an Antarctic fur seal (the numbers were simply crazy!)

Antarctic fur seals are not a predator of penguins, at least not normally, so in South Georgia you find penguins and fur seals living pretty harmoniously side by side.

Elephant seals (they also go through an annual moulting process like the penguins)

As well as fur seals, other neighbours of the penguins are the massive elephant seals. When I say massive, I really mean that: some males can grow up to almost 5 metres in length and weigh up to 3000kg! However, despite their size, again they are pretty harmless if you happen to be a penguin unless you get in the way of an elephant seal bull fight during which time all bets are off and apparently penguins and even seal pups (including even their own elephant seal pups) can and do get regularly crushed in the charge. Again during the peak sealing and whaling period (South Georgia was the global whaling centre until the industry collapsed in the 1960s), elephant seals were hunted aggressively: apparently despite their size they didn’t put up much of a fight and were easy targets known as “sea elephants”.

The king penguin colonies seemed to go on forever!

But probably the crown of our wildlife spotting in South Georgia went to the king penguins of which we literally saw hundreds of thousands – some simply enormous colonies including at St Andrew’s Bay which I understand is home to the world’s largest king penguin colony comprising of over 160,000 mating pairs. By the time we were there most of the chicks had already hatched and were wandering around in their rather ugly brown suits, eager to explore and also to check us out. Other older penguins had come back onshore for their annual catastrophic moult which can take between 2 to 5 weeks during which the penguins effectively fast as they don’t return to the sea to go fishing. This process led to some quite odd looks being sported during this moulting phase which is done to replenish the penguin’s waterproof feathers.

King penguin chicks

There are predators here too of course – after all, the circle of life continues no matter how upsetting it was to see injured or even dead penguins. On land, large skua birds steal eggs and chicks while in the water leopard seals aggressively hunt for penguins which is why we quite often saw relatively sizey groups of penguins on land tentatively approaching the edge of the water in case there was a strategically placed hungry leopard seal hanging around. I guess the theory was that there would at least be some safety in numbers.

King penguins: the “headless” look (as per the picture on the left) always makes me laugh

A simply stunning place to visit and even though sometimes the weather was unkind to us and we weren’t able to make all our hoped for landings, we had such an amazing time there, albeit all too short.

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