Day 10 |
Mar 18, 2010

Underway In Cumberland East Bay, South Georgia Island En Route Sandebugten

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian, General Naturalist, and Cartographer

Coordinates: 54° 22' S, 036° 25’ W

Weather: Blue skies and sunshine!

Air Temperature: +3o C  (36o F)

Sea Temperature: +2o C  (35o F)

Pressure: 988 Hpa

Wind: 45 Km / hour

It was an absolutely splendid day! Early morning saw us underway after a peaceful overnight anchorage near Grytviken, which is one of the most protected locations in South Georgia Island. Our first destination of this very full and enriching day was Godthul, a small but stunningly beautiful cove, tucked in amongst towering, snow-flecked mountains. Some light fog seen before sunrise had already burned off and the hillsides glistened with green tussock grass that was blowing gently in the wind.

As usual, I assisted with getting the support gear loaded, then traveled with the Expedition Team on the scout boat to evaluate our first landing of the day. Godthul was also the site of a very small whaling support operation that had ended just less than one century ago, and the remains of an old whaling boat and hut can be seen near the beach. Of course, our arrival was also observed by large numbers of Antarctic Fur Seals and Gentoo Penguins.

One of my first tasks was to help transfer a large number of determined and intrepid hikers to the shore in preparation for their own unique experience, crossing the Banff Peninsula from Godthul to Sandebugten. This 8+ Km journey is both challenging but also spectacular in its interior view of South Georgia Island, something rarely seen by anyone. One portion of our Expedition Team led this group up towards their mountain-crossing trek while the remainder offered other guests the opportunity to explore both the shoreside of Godthul as well as the seaside cove area via Zodiac cruising.

While ashore, one of our guests spotted a fur seal in distress. Normally we do not interfere with the natural course of events in any animal’s life. However, this occasion was an exception since the fur seal had been caught in a plastic line that was beginning to cut into the fur. Robin, our Expedition Leader and Chris, one of our General Naturalists, devised a plan to safely but temporarily and briefly immobilize the seal using Silversea towels! Then they were able to cut the netting free, thus allowing the fur seal to give them a grunt and a dirty look before ambling back into the tussock grass with her friends.

The weather during my two Zodiac cruises was the best that I have seen this year at South Georgia with sunshine caressing the entire bay. Excellent photographic images could be found in all directions. I pointed out the hikers in their red Silversea parkas that could just barely be seen making their way over the mountain pass towards the interior. We then cruised over to view a spectacular waterfall crashing into the sea amongst a wide variety of kelp and sea birds, including cormorants and kelp gulls. However, the Wilson’s Storm Petrels put on the best display of the day. These birds are beautiful but small and very fast, thus making them fiendishly difficult to photograph. They ‘dance’ on the water, picking up phytoplankton, which makes for a great display but also often difficult to see. Fortunately I was able to place the Zodiac upwind of the flock and allow our boat to drift quietly towards them and soon they were literally flying right alongside our Zodiac; I don’t think that I’ve ever had such a great chance to observe their behavior from such a close distance and for such a long period of time.

Next we brought the Godthul group back on board so the Prince Albert II could re-position to the western side of the peninsula, allowing us to pick up the hikers just after midday. Our recovery point at Sandebugten is a quiet location that is only very, very rarely visited. Jarda, Chris and I zoomed in on Zodiacs towards the pick up point, and then carefully maneuvered through one shallow area mostly covered by kelp to greet the tired but exhilarated hikers. Everyone simply raved at the experience, particularly the wonderful vistas that they had the chance to see during this unique hike across the beautiful Island of South Georgia.

Everything was perfectly timed, such that all guests could enjoy lunch and rest a bit while the ship once again repositioned to our afternoon destination at Grytviken, King Edward Cove. This location (one of my favorites in the world) is another protected anchorage and the current site of the British Antarctic Survey research facility as well as the local magistrate for the Island. It was the first major whaling operation in the Southern Ocean, and operated in the first half of the 20th century, but is now in ruins.

By tradition, everyone first went ashore to visit the Whaler’s Cemetery and pay respects to the individuals who are buried there. However, the primary grave of interest was the one for Ernest Shackleton. He participated in four visits and led 3 expeditions to the Antarctic during an era now referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Antarctic Exploration’. He died of a heart attack while his ship was in Grytviken and rests on a very peaceful hillside overlooking King Edward Cove, which is surrounded by both glacier and snow-capped mountains as well as King Penguins, Fur Seals and Elephant Seals. As the ship’s historian, I was given the honor of providing a brief review of Shackleton’s life as well as a small eulogy, which led to the traditional toast in honor of his achievements. This is one of the best assignments that I can be given on any cruise and I always enjoy the experience!

After the toast and assisting guests to take many pictures and answering questions, everyone slowly walked out of the cemetery down a short distance into the remains of the old whaling station. The first and primary destination for most is an exquisite museum, which well catalogs the natural and human history of South Georgia Island, including whaling. This year, a new exhibit features a replica of the James Caird, Shackleton’s small 6.5-meter boat that he sailed from Antarctica to South Georgia with 5 other crew – an almost impossible task which they accomplished while working to rescue the remainder of their crew from the shipwrecked Endurance.

I helped to interpret some of the museum exhibits for guests before leading an optional hike from Grytviken to King Edward Point. This is a new experience offered this year and allows us to view a variety of wildlife along the way including the South Georgia Pintail. We also passed numerous penguins and fur seals as well as the research facilities before ending up on a point of land at the entrance to the Cove. This hillside offers a wonderful view of Cumberland Bay, a few icebergs and the surrounding mountains. The peaceful spot also contains a memorial cross to Shackleton erected by his shipmates in 1922.

All too soon, it was time to begin our return to the landing site. I had one last chance to say goodbye to my friend, Ainsley, who is the Museum Manager, and wished her a safe and enjoyable winter until the Prince Albert II returns in the spring.

Grytviken is always a special place for me. In addition to its always alluring natural beauty, wildlife and history, it is also the place where I met my wife, Lesley, and where we were subsequently married in the first wedding in history at that particular location. But that is another story for another day!