Friday, March 09, 2007

Logbook: Antarctica II - Part 3

Antarcticaiipart31Our Wednesday morning approach to South Georgia Island was made in pretty nasty weather -- cold, wind, snow, etc. -- but that wasn’t what prevented our first landing at Cooper Bay. Instead, large sea swells created extreme changes in elevation between the ship’s gangway and the Zodiacs and it was deemed unsafe for us to board the small craft. Our consolation was a cruise through Drygalski Fjord, but the virtual white-out conditions prevented us from seeing anything except the snow accumulating on deck. Then, our planned afternoon landing at Gold Harbour was cancelled due to heavy beach surf which prevented even the expedition team’s “scouting party” from being able to land. All in all, our first day at South Georgia was pretty much a bust. Not wanting us to miss the day’s planned events entirely, the crew made the decision to anchor overnight at Gold Harbour and have us make a dawn landing on Thursday. What a landing it was!

Although conditions were still far from ideal, we were able to get ashore and were met by thousands upon thousands of magnificent King Penguins. Significantly larger and taller than their Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie cousins, the Kings are also far, far more beautiful and entertaining. Their silver-black backs, bright white chests and ink black heads make the perfect palate to show off their stunning orange plumage features. Parading around in groups both large and small, they look like friends who are out for a stroll and seem to take great pleasure in strutting their stuff. Best of all from my perspective, however, is their curiosity. Not only are the Kings not at all afraid of humans, they gathered around and followed us as we moved along the beach. Many times I simply sat on the beach and was rewarded with truly close encounters, including one incident during which a curious King nibbled at my camera and gloved hand while I had the video running. Spectacular!

Gold Harbour is also home to many fur seals and their pups. What an experience they are! In what our naturalists described as “practice for being aggressive adults”, the young pups charge at you -- often to within a few feet. Unlike the adults whom we are constantly warned to stay away from, the pups are not really dangerous and will veer away and back off if you as much as say “Boo!” The routine is a little unnerving at first, but once you get used to it, it all become quite a little game. By far the funniest interaction is between these mischievous little pups and the King Penguins who will often scold the pups for charging them. I can’t really describe it, but I’ve got some great video that I will put into a Report which may do it justice. Finally, although the Kings and seal pups were clearly the highlight of the landing, the presence of Elephant Seals was certainly a bonus. These behemoths -- mostly old males -- can weigh up to two tons and measure thirty feet long. To see them lie around in an immense pile, to hear them grunt, snore and sneeze, and to watch them sleep in oblivion to anything around them... Wow! So, after an unforgettable two hours on the beach at Gold Harbour we headed back to the ship for breakfast and steamed up the coast for our planned “morning” landing.

Antarcticaiipart32The scene at St. Andrews Bay was simply overwhelming as we landed on the broad sweeping beach amid hundreds of thousands of King Penguins. Literally, you had to watch where you walked because the Kings were everywhere. Without the presence of seal pups and their chaotic antics, our landing was quite peaceful and an excellent opportunity to further “hang out” with the extraordinary Kings. After another fabulous two hour landing, we went back on board for lunch and another repositioning to the old whaling town of Grytviken. Once there, we went ashore and visited the cemetery where Earnest Shakleton is buried and all toasted “The Boss” with a dram of Irsh Whiskey then walked around the tiny, rusted, ghost town and its small but interesting little museum. That night we invited the entire population of South Georgia -- two government officials, three staff from the preservation society/museum and a handful of scientists from the local BAS base -- on board for a BBQ, some music and just a bit of drinking. I have to admit that after three landings -- the first commencing at dawn -- I was pretty tired and was far from the last to leave the party!

Sometime during the night we repositioned to Stromness -- another old, abandoned whaling town -- and yesterday morning went for a walk up the valley to the famous waterfall that Shakleton descended on his famous crossing of the Island. It was nice to get some good walking in and the exercise made lunch all the more welcome. After a brief repositioning to Hercules Bay, the Zodiacs went back in the water and we had a little cruise around the cliffs of that scenic inlet. This morning we started early with a dawn landing at Salisbury Plain -- the largest expanse of flat land on South Georgia and home to an immense King Penguin colony with up to 250,000 birds! I enjoyed my last time on shore among these fabulous creatures by just sitting still and allowing them to move around me. Astonishing! Our last landing in South Georgia was at Prion Island where we hiked to the top of a hill and were treated to a very rare look at Wandering Albatross sitting on their nests and soaring overhead. The size of these birds -- with a wingspan of up to 12 feet -- is staggering, and it is only when you see them up close that you realize how big they truly are. It seems a wonder that they can fly, and seeing them soar effortlessly in the air is awesome. With yet another experience of a lifetime behind us, we headed out to sea and left South Georgia Island in our wake. It has been an incredible four days on and around what may be the most beautiful and amazing place I have ever been.

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