A gold star day


Our third day on South Georgia turns out to be our best day yet. Our first stop is at Gold Harbour, which is located towards the eastern side of the island. Expedition leader Kara tells me that Gold Harbour initially wasn’t on the itinerary, but that she firmly decided to insert it, as it is her all time favourite spot in the world. And I can understand why when we get there. It is a lovely spot, a black sand, crescent-shaped beach, decorated by hanging glaciers, that hosts an abundance of wildlife for which there are barely words to describe it.

Gold Harbour

But first we have to get off the boat, which is not easy this morning, as the swell is very strong and it takes good timing to get into the zodiac. Then, waiting for the others to board, it is not a pleasant feeling, but once on land, all that is forgotten. Kara did say you can’t walk very far and there is an obvious reason for it: you can barely move amongst the wildlife, there are fur seals, elephant seals, lots of weaners and lots of king penguins with the occasional gentoo penguin in between. The gentoos seem to like to mix in with the king penguins and sometimes you have to look hard to pick the odd one out. It is a magical place where you can just sit on the sand and the wildlife comes at you.

Spot the odd one out

The elephant seals are funny to watch. Big blobs of blubber sprawled on the beach, eternally seeming to snooze, but ever watchful, particularly if pesky brown skuas try to get a bit too close or peck at their skin. One has a grin of wayward teeth, others are toothless. Every now and then a side flipper goes up in the air, as if waving at us. Young weaners curl up and twist their bottom flippers before stretching out again.

Checking out the visitors

King penguins come and go, often walking in long lines along the shore, until one of them decides to have a dip, followed by the entire line. Penguins are indecisive birds, often looking very pondering, but the most indecisive of penguins we are yet to meet.

Giant petrel – the Airbus 380 of birds

We watch a giant petrel trying to take off from the sand, unsuccessfully. It is like watching a big A380 taking off from the runway and tentatively lifting itself in the air. If the run up is not long or fast enough, take off inevitably fails, but when it does work out, it’s amazing to watch.

But all good things must come to an end and eventually we have to leave this magical place. As we cruise around the corner towards Cooper Bay for our afternoon zodiac cruise, we get treated to a pod of humpback whales, who surface near the ship. It is a real treat to finish this delightful morning.

After we have swung around to Cooper Bay, we head out for a zodiac cruise. We are really lucky that Brad is driving our zodiac, who is absolutely fantastic at it, knowing how to keep it stable for the photographers amongst us, even in a swell. We see seals and penguins on the beach, a seal that skies down a snowy slope towards the beach (and obviously has done that before!), lots of birds, including Antarctic terns and seals swimming in the swirly waters between the abundant kelp.

Three king penguins marching in formation
An antarctic tern hovering over the water

Towards the end of the zodiac cruise we get close to the macaroni penguin colony. Macaronis are named after the British dandies who had their hair in a particularly way, similar to the crazy yellow hairdo these penguins are sporting. They are a delightful bunch to watch; quite different yet again from the other penguins we have seen so far. Eventually we reluctantly move back to the ship; we would have loved to stay out there longer, but others need to get to enjoy their zodiac cruise, so it’s time to make way.

Macaroni penguin preparing to bathe

As soon as we’re on board we receive the great news that we will cruise around Drygalski Fjord before rounding the easternmost tip of South Georgia and setting sail for the Antarctic Peninsula.

Drygalski Fjord is an absolute treat and it’s a stunning conclusion to South Georgia. The sun comes out in golden hues and illuminates the peak of Mt Macklin, which is being unveiled out of the clouds. It is the perfect finish of our visit to this remarkable island, which really grows on you as you spend more time on or around it.

Iceberg at the entrance of Drygalski Fjord
Our destination
Mt Macklin, kissed by the sun
Moon rising over South Georgia
The end of the fjord

In Shackleton’s footsteps


After our magical morning at Fortuna Bay, we sail to Grytviken in deteriorating weather. Grytviken is the “headquarters” of South Georgia and it is there that the British Government has its representatives, runs a museum and post office and has a research base. Before we disembark to explore the small settlement, we are treated to a presentation from one of the staff who tells about the rat eradication program that has been and is being carried out on South Georgia. The rats have had a devastating impact on the South Georgian Pipit population, a small bird endemic to South Georgia. But the program is succeeding and in every place on the island where the rats have been eradicated, the pipits bounce back immediately.

The South Georgia Pipit

It is slightly snowing when we land in the zodiacs on the beach at Grytviken and again we walk the gauntlet between fur seals and elephant seals. The main attraction in Grytviken is a visit Shackleton’s grave and in the small graveyard where his remains were laid to rest. There is also the museum that showcases the history of South Georgia, a church and the remains of the old whaling station. In order to avoid the last minute crush I start of by buying a few souvenirs and mailing some postcards , before I meander around the place. On a snowy day like today it looks like a bleak little spot, but it must be quite lovely when there is a blue sky and the sun is shining.

Old whaling vessels

One of the museum buildings houses a replica of the James Caird, the boat in which Shackleton and five other men sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia to find help. When you see the size of the boat you can hardly believe that he made it. It was so tiny and with six men in there, three were trying to rest under the cover of the boat – not exactly a big space – and the other three must have been crammed into the small space where they were steering. It hammers home what a remarkable feat of survival and navigation the journey was.

The old whaling vessel Petrel

That evening we meet two of the government representatives stationed on South Georgia on board, who have been invited for dinner, along with other staff from the museum. We end up having dinner with Simon and Adam who tell us about life on the island, how long they’ve been there and what they did before (army and law enforcement).

Salisbury Plain

On our second day in South Georgia we visit Salisbury Plain. Due to the weather conditions we can’t land close to the penguin rookery, as originally envisioned, but we have to land at a point much further out from where we walk in. Effectively plan D has been activated! And it’s a bit of a tightrope walk at first, having to avoid the fur seals around the place, who are particularly feisty that day. We also watch an angry elephant seal charge at another male elephant seal who is trying to get into a bit of his action. It’s amazing how quickly these blubbery big animals can move over land.




A bit over a week after our visit to Salisbury Plain, news reaches the ship that a British tourist was bitten by what was suspected to be a fur seal and his arm was so badly injured that the British Navy had to come in to do a rescue! The second time the Navy has been in action for tourists in a short period of time.

Fur seal with attitude
Young fur seal
All of us reflected in his eyes

Our walk takes place without incidents and when we get to the rookery we sink deep into mud, and scramble to find a good place on top of some tussock grass to watch the rookery and take photographs. Again, we see a lot of king penguin adults and brown fluffy chicks, squawking and feeding. The scenery around it is also spectacular, with tall mountains. Salisbury Plain itself is the largest flat area on South Georgia, which says something about the mountainous nature of the island.

The old whaling station of Stromness

In the afternoon we visit the old whaling station of Stromness, which is also the end point of Shackleton’s amazing journey across South Georgia, after sailing there in the James Caird. We walk to the waterfall which was the last obstacle Shackleton, Worsley and Crean had to overcome before they could reach safety at Stromness. We follow in their footsteps when we retrace our steps from the waterfall to Stromness. I found that a very special, sobering and emotional moment, to think about the condition in which these men walked those final miles and the incredible journey they undertook to save their mates. It is a privilege to be able to walk in their footsteps and have some idea of what they saw.

Retracing Shackleton’s steps to Stromness

If today was a special day, the next day was even better! Stay tuned.

Sea days to South Georgia


With phenergan in my system I am starting to cope much better with sea days and on the second day we start to see some wildlife. We spot a Southern Right Whale that briefly appears off the starboard side of the ship, but too briefly for me to capture. We spot a fur seal out at sea and in the afternoon we first catch sight of land when we near Shag Rocks, a couple of rocky outcrops in the middle of the ocean. We also start seeing the odd gentoo penguin, porpoising through the water. Penguins may not be able to fly, but they make a fine attempt at it when in the water!

Shag Rocks
Antarctic fur seal far out at sea
Porpoising gentoo

When we wake in the morning, we see the coastline of South Georgia, which is spectacular with its mountain ranges and glaciers dipping down into the ocean. The clouds still cover most of the peaks, but occasionally swirl away to reveal some spectacular mountains.

South Georgia ahead
Peaks and glaciers

Our first port of call on South Georgia is Fortuna Bay, which is home to a king penguin rookery, promising a fun morning. We land with zodiacs in the midst of elephant seal pups, called weaners, and Antarctic fur seals, who can be quite aggressive towards us intruders. This is our first experience dealing with them and we have been duly warned by the expedition staff to be very careful around them.

Welcome committee at Fortuna Bay

From the landing site we walk about a mile to a higher point from where we can look out over the penguin rookery. Our path there is an obstacle course in avoiding getting too close to penguins, not mistaking elephant seals for rocks, and dodging the territorial Antarctic fur seals. Seriously, the elephant seals are so massive that it is often easy to mistake them for a very large boulder, until you get the close and the boulder starts roaring at you, which is usually followed by the person making a quick scramble out of the danger zone, only to land in another one.

Walking towards the king penguin rookery
Cooling their feet
Hanging out together

When we get to the vantage point above the rookery, we see thousands of penguins, gorgeously glossy adults and brown fluffy chicks who still have to lose their coat. There are also moulting penguins, who look like dishevelled old men with bits of fluff sticking to them in irregular fashion. The image of Roman emperors hard on their luck is hard to shake.

Moulting King penguin
Weaner with tell-tale mucus and big liquid eyes that reflect the South Georgian landscape

After a while we notice a commotion amongst the penguins a bit further out and through my zoom lens I can see an obviously sick penguin chick that is being attacked by a giant petrel, who is pecking at it. The chick’s mother tries to defend its offspring, but the petrel is soon joined by a second petrel and together they lurch at the chick, which has now fallen over, starting to tear at it. Occasionally the chick still raises itself, but soon it is done for and the petrels rip into it, staining their beaks with its blood. It is not a pretty sight, but it is nature taking its course. I am somewhat surprised at how cool and detached I am watching the drama unfold through the lens. The photo below shows the mother defending the chick one final time. Note how none of the other penguins, adult or chick, are looking at the ghastly scene. It’s as if they’re pretending it’s not happening. Even the mother eventually turns her eyes away when the two petrels really get going with their killing.

Greek drama unfolding at the rookery

After a while on the outcrop, we slowly wander back to the zodiac landing site, taking in the wonderful scenery and wildlife which surrounds us. Penguins stand in streams to cool their feet; they walk in groups; elephant seals bellow and fart and the wearers sneeze, with most of them affected by a mite in their noses, resulting in white mucus staining their faces.

Those liquid weaner eyes again

I simply can’t get enough of it. There are fur seals with tiny little pups, just a few days old, nursed by their mothers. Male fur seals stand guard and the enormous and indescribable elephant seals, stretched out, and seemingly asleep, always keep an eye on where you are moving. Despite their size, they are fast movers if they want to.

Antarctic fur seal with pup

Eventually it is time to return to the ship, with more inclement weather starting to set in. It has been a wonderful morning and a magical introduction to South Georgia. It’s hard to believe I am finally here.