Sunday, 29 December 2013

South Georgia

South Georgia: showing a few of our landings.

My first view of South Georgia

Stromness - the old whaling station.

A drab kind of grey dawn broke. The wind was gale force, going out sea watching was decidedly perilous! But I did it anyway, hanging on to anything I could & trying to make my way to the stern of the ship & the fly bridge. The stern was fairly sheltered once you got there! The trick was trying to get there! I kind of crouched, one arm on my camera & the another on anything that was firm. What actually happened, is that one staggered/lurched from one dangerous situation to another! You were flung hard against anything as the ship pitched & rolled & basically tried to make life as difficult as possible. I did it anyway, but my, was it cold!
Southern Giant Petrel & South Georgia.

South Georgia is 200 kms long by around 40 kms wide, home to 20-25 million breeding seabirds. it is a world heritage site & one of the most scenic & staggering beautiful places on Earth! This should be a good day! But it wasn't! The conditions got worse (if that is possible). The wind was now of katabatic proportions, staying on your feet became almost impossible & it was wet, spray & rain all the time. We headed for Stromness, a whaling station on the more sheltered eastern side (bit of a joke that). I poke my head outside & promptly lost my Rockjumper beanie! However, as we rounded the headland the sun came out, but there was no way any kind of landing could be attempted in these conditions. So we hung offshore a while, hoping against hope for an improvement, but no chance. Even I had to admit the captain was right! So we sailed further down the coast to the very famous Grytviken. Then some wonderful happened! The sun came out & there was a break in the weather. Wet skins were donned & we were once again off on the zodiacs & we made landing on South Georgia! I was not to be disappointed!

A window of opportunity beckons!
We quickly head for our landing on South Georgia,
Grytviken Bay, with a research &
 supply ship in the background.
Academic Ioffe in the harbour.
Bio-security in action! Before landing any on new island 
we vacuumed every bit of our kit that we took ashore 
to stop the spread of invasive non-native species. 
The group, walking towards the cemetery.
The famous Grytviken Church.
Michael, toasting his hero!
Barbara, with a wee dram of the
original Shackleton Whiskey
in her glass!
The history of South Georgia is intertwined with the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton & his exploration of the Antarctic region. His life, his unbelievable navigation & survival skills (in the most appalling conditions) are the stuff of legend. The journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in an open boat defies belief & yet he, & his men did it! He is buried here in the cemetery on South Georgia & it was an honour & priviledge  to both visit & toast his exploits, in a manner which he surely would have approved of! 
The other major feature of South Georgia's history is the whaling and fur seal industry. The reminders of this horrific period are everywhere. The strench, the filth & the hardship must have been hard to bear for all who worked, lived & even died here. 
Wildlife & human habitation
 know no boundaries here!

Our group!
How big is it?
Photo courtesy of Avril.

Antarctic Tern - a common species on
& around the island.

 The bay where we landed.

 Antarctic Fur Seals were both abundant
 & quite aggressive!

 A young male Antarctic Fur Seal
 trying to stake his territory!

 A bull Elephant Seal - much more placid
 than the fur seals.

A cute looking young  Elephant Seal.

 A young Elephant Seal pup.

 A few Gentoo Penguins
 were along the beaches.

 Looking from the nearby hills down into Grytviken.
Cemetery in the foreground, whaling station
 & settlement in the background.

Brown Skuas on territory.



 A small group of us did a wonderful hike into the nearby hills to see a few pairs of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses nesting on cliffs. The scenery was superb, but the conditions steadily worsened, but it was a great hike in an unbelievable place. 

 John & Michael, looking at the Light-mantled 
Sooty Albatrosses on the nest.

 Looking through the lens! The quality of the photo 
is not great, because of the bad weather conditions.

 South Georgia Pintail.

 One of 16 birds seen during the afternoon.
The weather conditions deteriorated throughout the afternoon & we hot-footed it back to the comfort of the ship.
The next day was again dull & overcast, however, we were all excited, because we were going to land at one of the classic South Georgia localities - Salisbury Plain! A colony of 250,000 King Penguins dominates the scene but there is a lot of other wildlife to see as well. We had a fairly dry run into the beach & the dramatic scene unfolded around us! What a morning!

Quite an easy beaching - for a change! 

 The beach is covered in Antarctic Fur Seals.
 The poor penguins have to run the gauntlet
 to get into the sea!

 The scenery is staggering magnificent!
 All of these resting fur seals suddenly became
animated as you try & walk through their territory.
 Size does matter!
 Elephant Seals were in much lower numbers.
 More inquisitive than aggressive.
 Look at those eyes!
 The penguin rookeries are further inland
 along the plain.
 The size of the King Penguin colony
is beyond belief!

Due to this species 13 month breeding biology period,
 there are eggs & young of all stages in every colony.
 Me & a few of my newly
 acquired friends!
 Once adults have finished breeding,
 they move to the colony edge to moult.
Bernadette, mixing well with the locals!
Photo courtesy of Avril
Klaus, imitating Penguins! Amazingly, it worked,
they walked right up to him to take a look!
This walking like a Penguin thingy,
seems to be catching on!
 Brett, getting pretty close!
 What are you looking at?
 Both photos courtesy of Brett.

 Walking - trousers up!
 Resting - trousers down!
 Just a part of this immense colony - amazing stuff!
 Scavengers are never far away.
 Brown (Subantarctic) Skua.
 Not all King Penguins make it!
 Here everything is eaten, very little remains.
This was to be our third & last day on South Georgia. When I awoke to bright sunshine shining through the window, little did I realise that this was going to be one of the very best days of my life! A combination of wonderful weather, stunning surroundings (even by the high standards of South Georgia), a variety of magnificent wildlife spectacles & fantastic company, all came together in one long day of total ecstasy! Read on!

 The view from the zodiac! Wow!
Debbie, Brett & Barbara - all three
 wonderful travelling companions.
A tantalising glimpse, of what was to come!
Our gear on the beach, being closely examined
 by the local wildlife!
Others, find it strangely comforting!
Female & young Elephant Seals
 + a few King Penguins!

A few big males were still on the beaches.
It is a pity you can't hear this vocalisation!
It is very loud!!!
Far too much for you eh?
Two young guns having a bit of a go!
 But not too close to the beach masters!
Not everyone is impressed by this little show!
What is all the noise about?
It is just a man showing off! Nothing important!
 Someone is happy!
These King Penguins have finished breeding
 & getting ready to moult.
Some birds wander a long way inland.
That is my boot by the way! I was laid flat
 on my back, while taking this photo!
But wildlife is always watching very carefully!
Brown Skuas get down to it!

Avril, getting attacked by breeding Antarctic Terns!
Look at her back pack, it is from Abu Dhabi!
Antarctic Tern - breeding in the foothills.
 Stunning scenery!
Southern Giant Petrels nesting high up on the hills.
White-chinned Petrels were nesting even higher
 on the mountains - right up on the edge of the snowline.
Not a bad view at all!
Looking down at the closer beach from the hill.
Brown Skua, feeding on a long decayed
 bull Elephant Seal.
Snowy Sheathbills are constantly patrolling
 the beaches looking for tit-bits!
Back to the ship to reposition
for the afternoon excursion.
Sailing south along the eastern coast
 of South Georgia.
Then, the first iceberg was spotted!
South Georgia Shags flying by.
The afternoon excursion was a trip down the Drygalski Fjord. it was an incredible experience but the light was really poor for photography & the sheer sided huge cliffs made the entire trip in deep shade. Both Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses & my first Snow Petrels were breeding high up on these immense cliffs. Views through binoculars were good, but they were too far away for any meaningful photographs. A few South Georgia Pintails were around & a lone Macaroni Penguin was found among the more numerous Gentoo Penguins. I spent a long time looking for South Georgia Pipit without success, much to the amusement of my travelling companions, one who even penned a limerick in my honour! The rough conditions made a landing on nearby Compass island impossible & where the pipit is still common. However, it was hard to be down for long, it had just been an incredible day. 
Back in the zodiacs, for a little sojourn
 down the incredible fjord scenery.
Antarctic Terns were constant companions.
A population of Weddell's Seals live in the isolated
 micro-climate far to the north of the
rest of their population in Antarctica.
The glacier at the head of the fjord,
 bathed in evening light.
And so ended, one of the most memorable days of my life!

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