Day 9 |
Nov 18, 2010

Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay, South Georgia

By Franz Gingele, Geologist

Co-ordinates: S 54º 47.31’, W 35º 47.53’
Weather: Sunny and partly cloudy
Air Temperature: 4ºC
Pressure: 1006 hPa
Wind: 14.3 km/h

We have learned to use the early morning hours in South Georgia, and so we are up for an early short breakfast at 4:45 am. The first Zodiacs are lowered at 5 am and soon we are on our way to the beach at Gold Harbour. The wind is somewhat gusty, but fortunately there is not a big swell on the beach and we have no difficulties landing. Hundreds of female elephant seals are gathered in harems on the beach and closely watched by the big males that are strong enough to defend a territory there. The ones that were not so lucky hang around at the edges or in the water, waiting for their chance to grab a female. Usually they back off when the “beachmaster” roars or charges, but sometimes a short fight is inevitable. Luckily there is not too many of our fur seal friends around and it is quite relaxing to walk around without fending them off constantly. The big elephant seal bulls are easy to step around and usually mind their own business. There is also a multitude of king penguins, some gentoos, giant petrels and skuas. Lightmantled albatross soar overhead on their way to and from their nesting sites in the cliffs. Gold Harbour is probably the most scenic spot on South Georgia with the variety of wildlife and the backdrop of the Bertrab Glacier.

Today I’m in the water to catch the incoming Zodiacs, together with two other Expedition Team members. Although we are in waders, it can be a very wet and tiring job if the swell is up. Today is a good day, with only a low swell, but at times strong winds. Every time the wind gusts up to 40 knots we are sandblasted down at the beach and so are the elephant seals. In contrast to us, they don’t even seem to notice it and just continue with their nap. After we landed our last guests, there was some time to sit down and enjoy the scenery. Almost immediately the “weaners”, the elephant seal cubs, approach us and investigate if we have some spare milk for them. With their flat round face and their huge eyes they look very cute and it is tempting to pat them. Of course that is against the rules and we try to keep our hands on our backs. Weather conditions are stable and we manage to finish the landing and bring everybody back on board for a more extensive breakfast by 8:30.

It is only a short 15 miles to our next destination, Cooper Bay, where we’ve planned an extensive Zodiac cruise. Cooper Island shelters the bay from the larger ocean swells and even the wind has died down somewhat. I’m one of the first Zodiacs to take off with guests and head straight off for the southeast corner of the bay to get a good look at the Chinstrap Penguins breeding here. Chinstraps are the smallest of the four penguin species breeding in the bay. Big ocean swells are breaking on a rocky reef just outside “Chinstrap Cove” and the water surges in and out of the little cove. In this maelstrom it is not easy to keep the Zodiac close to the beach so everybody can get a good shot of the little penguins. From here we continue north along the very scenic coastline with rocks, sea stacks and plenty of kelp. In the “Main Bay” we find a small King Penguin rookery, complete with chicks. The beach is lined with the usual suspects, giant petrels, fur seals and elephant seals. South Georgia Shags are breeding on a grass-covered sea stack further north, and in the next small bay, aptly named Center Cove, we discover a “blond” fur seal. About one in a thousand fur seals can have this colour variation. The very calm and sheltered Albatross Cove is again ruled by giant elephant seals with the “beachmaster” busily chasing off the smaller competitors.

Finally we reach a small cove that is the access path for Macaroni Penguins breeding higher up in the Tussac Grass. Again the cove is more exposed to the ocean swells and it takes quite some maneuvering to keep the Zodiac close to the kelp-covered rocks. Quite a few Macaronis are resting here after returning from the sea before they start on their strenuous climb up the hill to their nesting sites. With their yellow hairdo they are quite pretty penguins and somewhat smaller than the Gentoos, which can also be observed on the nearby rocks. After 90 minutes we have to leave our feathered friends and head back to the Prince Albert II.

By 3 pm we are ready to leave Cooper Bay and one hour later we are rounding Cape Disappointment, the southeast corner of South Georgia. Our new course is southwest to Antarctica!