South Georgia is one of the most stunning places on earth. This small archipelago rears up from the Southern Ocean to a height of almost 3,000 metres and is home to millions of birds. The rugged landscape forms a dramatic backdrop to the many beaches and coves which are home to millions of penguins and petrels, thousands of elephant and fur seals and hundreds of albatrosses. Most South Georgia cruises form part of a longer itinerary to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands.
In addition to its amazing wildlife South Georgia holds an important place in Polar history. In April 1915 Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed from the James Caird 1,500kms from the Elephant Island (north of the Antarctic peninsula) to King Haakon Bay on South Georgia. He then hiked across the spine of the island to Stromness whaling station before returning to Argentina to try to find a suitable ship to attempt a rescue of the crew of the Endurance. In August 1915 Shackleton made it back to Elephant Island where all of the crew of the Endurance had survived. Shackleton’s last expedition was in 1922, he died whilst off the coast of South Georgia and is buried in Grytviken cemetery.
There are approximately 500,000 pairs of king penguins on South Georgia (and if you think that’s a lot South Georgia has almost 3,000,000 Macaroni penguins). King penguins, like all penguins, are very sociable, and live in large colonies, usually with many tens of thousands of pairs. There are many colonies along the east coast of the island with the largest colonies at Salisbury Plain, Fortuna Bay, Gold Harbour and St Andrews Bay. Their breeding cycle is such that you will always find adults and chicks at the colonies. The fluffy brown juvenile king penguins form into large creches whilst their parents are away at sea fishing. Once you have been fortunate enough to visit a colony it will only take the sound of their trumpeting calls to transport you back – a must!
In addition to being home to one of the largest colonies of King penguins on South Georgia, with over 60,000 pairs of these magnificent birds, the beach and surrounding areas are also home to gentoo penguins, light-mantled sooty albatrosses, snowy sheathbills, kelp gulls, southern giant petrels, northern giant petrels, white-chinned petrels, brown skuas, Antarctic terns, South Georgia pintails, elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals.
Settled in a natural harbour, this settlement offers many wonderful opportunities to explore: the old abandoned whaling station and whaling ships, Shackleton’s grave, and a wonderful museum are all within an easy walk. Wildlife is ever present – King penguins, South Georgia pintails, Antarctic fur seals to name a few.
For those up for a trek there are numerous options: perhaps a hike to a higher vantage point to look down on the whaling station or, for the ornithologists, a hike along the cliff tops to where light-mantled Sooty albatrosses breed. For those lucky enough to witness their stunning synchronised flying displays or their haunting mating calls, the effort is very much worth it.
It’s only on the very first voyages of the season that you can witness South Georgia’s Beachmasters (dominant bull elephant seals) going ‘head to head’ in the pursuit of passing on the genes. The one tonne plus males haul out onto South Georgia’s beaches in late October with the goal of corralling as many females as they can into their harem. They will be constantly challenged by other males until they are beaten either by a larger male or simply by exhaustion. By the middle of November, job done, they head out to sea to replenish their strength until they return to the beaches again next year.
As Robert Cushman Murphy put it, ‘’I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” The Wandering Albatross is among the most graceful and amazing birds in the world. Most at home on the wing, they will often be seen circling the vessel. These beautiful birds will circumnavigate the world many times during their lifetime.
On Prion Island a boardwalk has been built to afford easy and environmentally safe access (the boardwalk avoids trampling tussock grass and the resultant soil erosion) to areas of the island where several Wandering Albatrosses breed.
Just like on the Antarctic Peninsula some sites in South Georgia don’t lend themselves to a physical landing or may be best seen from water level. Zodiacs (rubber inflatable boats) offer a safe way to explore sites like: Drygalski Fjord, Elsehul and Cooper Bay. Many bays, natural harbours or fjords are quite calm and cruising along the shoreline is a fun way of exploring. Expert guides, often with years of experience, handle to zodiacs with ease and skill. Keen photographers need not worry as the guides will ensure everyone gets a good look.
Note: Please ensure you are adequately dressed as it can get cold; waterproof pants are essential
Most ships offer kayaking (for an additional cost) for up to 20 guests. It’s an incredible way to gain a very different perspective, with expert guides and a Zodiac close enough to offer assistance, yet far enough away not to disrupt the tranquillity. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, whales will come to investigate but don’t worry as the guides will form the kayaks into a ‘raft’ and you will enjoy a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience.
These luxurious ships combine more traditional-style ‘cruising’ with an Antarctic adventure. They offer large, very comfortable cabins with en-suite facilities and many have private balconies. The experienced expedition team enable you to explore the Antarctic Peninsula with Zodiac dinghies and come home to an exquisite ship with superior comfort and excellent cuisine options.
As the name suggests these ships are a hybrid of an Expedition Ship and a Luxury Ship. Focusing on maximising opportunities for exploring as on an expedition vessel but with the added comfort of having larger, more comfortable cabins and common areas. Generally cabins are larger or perhaps the ship is newer than an Expedition ship. The cuisine is of a very high standard.
Expedition ships have a greater emphasis on maximising time off the vessel or out on deck. The expedition team works closely with the ship’s captain and crew to get you out exploring on the Zodiac dinghies and on shore as much as possible. Most voyages also offer kayaking and sometimes camping. Cabins are simple and comfortable, the food excellent. The ships are stable, fast and manoeuvrable.