I had high expectations of today and I was NOT disappointed!
At 7.00 am I was enjoying a smoked salmon and scrambled egg breakfast as Silver Explorer arrived in Drygalski Fjord; this fjord at the south-eastern end of South Georgia is a geologist’s dream, displaying visibly different rock types on each side. Larsen Harbour – named after Carl Anton Larsen, the founder of Grytviken whaling station – lies at the entrance of the fjord, just to the south. This was the focus of our first activity today, a Zodiac cruise meandering along this beautiful, narrow, steep-sided inlet. Swell made its presence felt as we disembarked the ship, but once inside Larsen Harbour itself, conditions were calm and intermittently sunny. It was a joy to experience wind-free moments on South Georgia!
Our Zodiac cruise took us gliding past high rocky peaks, whose lower slopes were covered with verdant greenery. Shore-side boulders were encrusted with vary-colored lichens. Our first stop rewarded us with an elephant seal sighting and as we reached deeper into the harbor, we were surrounded by Antarctic Terns diving for food. The highlight of the outing for some was a number of sightings of Weddell seals, which are known to haul out here. I caught a glimpse of one swimming in the kelp beds, with three more lying comatose on their beach-beds of stone, occasionally raising a somnolent head to gaze at our Zodiac, or lazily waving a tail flipper. There were a number of fur seals in the vicinity too; and a glimpse of what at first appeared to be a Chinstrap Penguin high on a cliff turned into a South Georgia Shag upon closer examination!
As we progressed towards the end of this waterway, we passed increasing numbers of small, braided waterfalls flowing down the grassy slopes, interspersed with patches of snow. And at the end of Larsen Harbour we found a small glacier, whose impressive layers and folds were magically illuminated when the sun emerged from behind a cloud. I basked in the sudden warmth of the sun’s rays. How tiny our Zodiacs looked in comparison with this majestic landscape. As if to reassure us, however, South Georgia was showing us its benign face today.
After our Zodiac cruise, Expedition Leader Mike announced that we would ship-cruise the main Drygalski Fjord itself. Peaks towered on either side of us, with folds and fault lines clearly to be made out in the rock as we neared the large glacier at the head of the fjord. The sun was full out when we reached the turning point and outside decks were crowded with red-jacketed figures pointing cameras - though I had to brace myself against the gusts of wind that swept down from the ice mass and hit Silver Explorer. Still, I lingered outside and took a few more photos before heading to The Restaurant for lunch. Dazzling ice vistas such as this are few and far between and this one was extremely photogenic.
Lunch had a Mexican flavor today and shortly afterwards Mike notified us of a large and exotically-shaped iceberg to our portside, so it was jackets on and cameras out again! With the iceberg in the foreground and the Salvesen Mountain Range in the background it was hard to take a bad photo…
Increasing swell greeted us as we sailed out of the shelter of Drygalski Fjord, en route to our afternoon landing/Zodiac cruise at Cooper Bay. I have never before seen Cooper Bay almost windless and bathed in sunshine and it was a treat for sore eyes. We divided into two groups for this afternoon’s activities, which included both a landing and another Zodiac cruise. Those going to land first found themselves disembarking onto a rocky beach with plenty of action going on – fur seals, Gentoo Penguins and a few elephant seals kept those who did not want to experience the somewhat strenuous climb up to a Macaroni Penguin rookery, well entertained. I took a deep breath (big mistake – the odor of penguin was extremely ripe) and started up through the tussac, dodging fur seals as I went. Very soon views over Cooper Bay became spectacular, with blue seas and craggy rock formations, swirling kelp and playful seals all drawing the eye and providing a perfect excuse to rest from time to time.
Once at the top of the steep slope it was a case of wading through mud and penguin guano between tussac clumps, in order to reach the edge of the rookery. This was hard going and required a lot of concentration in order to stay balanced; a few seconds of carelessness would result in many minutes of parka-cleaning later! As I tentatively worked my way through the mire towards the Macaroni Penguins, a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross glided past at eye level, almost close enough to touch. This was one of the most glorious moments I have ever had on South Georgia.
Arrived at the penguins, all the trials and difficulties of the trail through mud and guano faded into insignificance. Macaroni Penguins (even when they are moulting and muddy) are SO elegant. Their flashy yellow crest feathers and large red/purple bills are SO ostentatious! I watched, spellbound at the spectacle of penguin pairs preening each other, a parent feeding a fluffy chick, an adult raising its bill to the sky and calling for its mate, Snowy Sheathbills feeding on anything and everything, a skua busily pulling out the innards of a dead penguin – so much going on. The smell is difficult to describe: a very rich, very rotting parmesan cheese suggests only slightly the strength of the experience, which I, for one, found unforgettable.
Then I was slithering back through the slime and grime to the beach in order to enjoy the other half of the afternoon’s activities, which was a Zodiac cruise round the bay, especially targeting Chinstrap Penguins, a species we will not be seeing again. Their rookery is only accessible by Zodiac and Kevin positioned the boat to give us great views of the Chinstrap Penguins, fur seals playing in the water, more Macaroni Penguins arranging their feathers on the shore side, large elephant seals lying in moulting wallows on the beach and a raft of Giant Petrels (including a White Morph) floating all around us. I – and others in my Zodiac – took an incredible number of photos! There was general agreement that a sea boiling with fur seal pups, all competing to get a better look at us, was maybe the cutest sight of all the wonders of nature we have seen today.
I was back on board by about 5.30 pm. There was much scrubbing and washing of gear in the Mud Room (thank you for your help, Riette!) before we all made our way back to our suites. There was just time to change into odor-free clothing before heading up to Recap & Briefing in The Theatre.
Jonathan started, recounting some of the key moments we have shared together today, followed by Dayo on the dynamic soaring patterns of albatross. Kevin brought Recap to a hilarious close with an account of the day he was assaulted by a King Penguin – surprisingly painful and very humiliating!
All that remained was for Mike to brief us on tomorrow – we will be in Cumberland Bay early in the morning and intend to spend the morning visiting Grytviken, a truly iconic stop for Shackleton lovers. And in the afternoon we hope to see South Georgia’s largest King Penguin rookery, at St Andrew’s Bay.
But for now, Bon Appétit; and thank you to Captain Alex for taking the wise decision to anchor Silver Explorer in a small, sheltered bay tonight so that we can avoid a passing storm. Sweet dreams – we have much to look forward to tomorrow.