Coordinates: 54° 11' S, 036° 41’ W
Weather: High overcast and relatively warm with patches of sunshine in early afternoon
Air Temperature: +2o C (34o F)
Sea Temperature: +0o C (32o F)
Pressure: 991 Hpa
Wind: 30 Km / hour
Could not have asked for a better day as ship’s historian than to be given the opportunity to assist in guiding the ‘Shackleton Walk’ from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Bay over a portion of South Georgia Island. This hike replicates the last portion of Shackleton’s epic journey across mountainous South Georgia to seek rescue for his 3 person crew trapped both on the Western Shore of the island as well as 22 others still living under overturned lifeboats on Elephant Island over 1,350 Km to the southwest.
Of course being anywhere in South Georgia Island is always a treat, as it is literally my favorite place in the world. In addition to landing our long distance ‘walking’ group representing about 40% of our guests, we also placed the remainder safely ashore within relatively close proximity to a King Penguin colony in Fortuna Bay. Everyone had a great opportunity to observe this 2nd largest of all penguin species along with their brown, fuzzy chicks that are now just beginning to moult to their adult plumage. Some keen-eyed guests also spotted some of the ‘2nd eggs’ now being incubated. These penguins have an 18-month breeding cycle, which is unique amongst all other penguins.
The Shackleton hiking group moved quickly through the tussock grass and Antarctic Fur Seals that lined our landing beach in Fortuna Bay. Quite soon I began to climb towards the interior of the island over a combination of loose ‘scree’ rock interspersed with the odd outcropping of grass and lichens. Every so often I got a chance to stop with the group, not only for a rest but also to admire the stunning scenery with tall, rugged, snow-capped mountains peaking out through the layers of high overcast. In addition, these stops also gave me the opportunity to provide some additional historical background regarding Shackleton’s amazing journey across South Georgia Island over the same terrain that we had the privilege to cross today.
Slowly we climbed up, crossing a narrow stream and stopping nearby Crean Lake where one of the 1916 crossing team ‘discovered’ the lake by falling in! Fortunately Stefan, Will and I could provide just a little bit better guidance and we avoided getting wet this time. Soon the big moment arrived and I was able to stand at the top of the highest pass and look down on the abandoned whaling station at Stromness. This was the most enjoyable portion of the hike because I thought to myself ‘I’ve done it!’ despite the challenge and despite still having about 40% of the track to complete.
Now it was mostly downhill. Our descent allowed us to also pass by ‘Shackleton’s Waterfall’ where the three individuals in 1916 had to climb down pure frozen during the winter. Soon after I found myself along the river plain of relatively flat terrain where we could enjoy additional sightings of fur seals, penguins and the occasional reindeer. The latter animals were introduced by the Norwegians during the early 20th century and now roam freely.
During our walk, the Prince Albert II brought the Fortuna Bay guests back on board, then re-positioned to Stromness Bay to pick up the Shackleton Walkers.
After returning to the ship and a superb lunch, everyone had the opportunity to land at the abandoned Stromness Whaling Station. This time the Expedition Team offered three options: a relatively flat terrain hike to the base of Shackleton’s Waterfall as well as a guided nature and historical walk around the perimeter of the old station.
I had the great chance to guide the latter walk and it ended up as even more interesting than anticipated. This is just one of the truly great and fun things about guiding exploratory walks. I get to explore something new and never quite know what we might find. This time the walk started out with an Antarctic Fur Seal that just would not leave us alone! For a short while it seemed like I was having a date with this animal, as she was quite interested in everything that I was doing. Never one to miss an opportunity, I spoke with the guests about the lifestyle, biology and physiology of this fascinating animal that was almost hunted to extinction during the 1820s but is now on the rebound.
My group continued on for a relatively short distance and then I asked them to keep quite still. I had heard but could not see what I thought might be an Elephant Seal. But no, that should not be as we were some distance from the ocean. I scouted ahead to determine the conditions and found just over a small rise in a direction that I had not originally intended to traverse, a grouping of molting elephant seals along with several individuals about 100 meters away. Now we had a chance to discuss the differences in seals with the males of this species reaching up to 3,000 kg in size!
During the hike I also utilized the ruins of the whaling station to discuss the long term whaling history of this island that stretches back to 1904 and continued through the 1960s before shutting down. We were able to travel three-quarters of the way around the station to observe the cemetery from a distance before slowly returning to the landing beach after an afternoon filled with discovery.
It was truly a magical day and I almost forgot to mention that it was a real treat to be able to assist guiding Shackleton and other exploratory walks across South Georgia Island, also known as the ‘Alps of the South Atlantic’ or the ‘Galapagos of the South’, on my birthday!