Weather: Cloudy and windy
Air Temperature: 4ºC
Pressure: 988 hPa
Wind: from calm to up to 45 knots
During our nightly passage from Grytviken to the Bay of Isles, we could already feel quite some movement of the ship, indicating that the mighty swells of the Southern Ocean weren’t going to make our day easy. As usual, Conrad, our Expedition Leader, had an ambitious Plan A for the day. After a very early landing at the huge king penguin rookery at Salisbury Plain, we intended to go on a mid-day hike in Rosita Harbour and for a Zodiac cruise at historic Prince Olav Harbour.
The weather looked promising in the morning, some fog dissipated once we came into the bay and there was no wind to speak of. At 6 a.m. the scout boat took off to find a possible landing site. A landing at the primary landing spot on the main beach of Salisbury Plain was impossible. We could hear the crashing surf already from the ship! Unfortunately most king penguin rookeries are close to the open ocean and landings on these beaches are dependent on the surf conditions. A bit further up the beach, a sandy headland parts the main surf and also gets some shelter from offshore Prion Island. We landed the shore party there and then I headed back to the ship to pick up guests.
On these exposed beaches with surf we usually land stern first, and with 3 experienced drivers and 4 strong members of the Expedition Team catching the Zodiacs in the water, we had no trouble getting the first 2 groups of our guests ashore dry. On the beach they were greeted by thousands of king penguins and 3 staff members led small groups through the minefield of fur seals to the main rookery. It is an amazing sight to see thousands of king penguins just standing there, in all stages of their breeding cycle or heading to and from the water in big groups. There was also a great number of inquisitive chicks. These fat guys in their brown feather coat are almost the same size as the adults, just fatter! No wonder the early sealers thought this was a different kind of penguin!
Spread across the beach and the rookery was the usual assortment of predatory and scavenging birds, like giant petrels, skuas and snowy sheathbills. And of course: fur seals, fur seals and more fur seals of all ages, from big bulls to females to newly born cubs!
While we were waiting in the boats for the first 2 groups to enjoy their allotted time ashore, we could feel a light breeze coming down the Grace and Lucas glaciers. By the time the first 2 groups came back to the landing site for the flying exchange, the breeze had developed into a steady 25 to 30 knot katabatic wind. The next 2 groups to come ashore got a bit of a taste of South Georgia when the wind picked off some spray from the crest of the waves and doused the Zodiacs and guests. Nevertheless, the exchange went smoothly and the second half of our guests could enjoy their time amongst the penguins in the second largest king penguin rookery in South Georgia.
Meanwhile the wind increased steadily and Daniil, Conrad and I had to motor steadily against the wind to keep the Zodiacs in position. When it was time for everybody to return to the ship, the wind was at a steady 35 to 40 knots with gusts of up to 45 knots. Luckily the ride back to the ship was downwind, so everybody stayed reasonably dry until we reached the sidegate where we had to turn the Zodiacs into the wind. Under these conditions I really appreciate our experienced sailors on the platform. Now 3 of them were positioned there holding the boat and helping the guests onto the platform so that the Zodiac driver could stay at the engine and gently motor ahead to keep the Zodiac from being blown away. We just about had all the guests onboard when the wind increased even more. With the katabatic winds developing during the morning Salisbury Plain is really a landing that has to be done very early.
Given the weather situation that developed during the morning, it was very unlikely that it would be possible to land in Rosita Harbour or cruise in Prince Olav Harbour. So Conrad decided to move to Plan B, a landing in the old whaling station of Stromness and a short hike on the traces of Shackleton and his men, who came down the valley behind Stromness on the last part of their epic journey.
After a short lunch break, we arrived in Stromness around 2 p.m. The winds were still blowing 30 knots in the bay, but there was no swell and the beach looked ok for a landing. The Captain managed to anchor only a short distance from the beach and quickly the first 2 groups arrived ashore. Our guests were greeted by thousands of fur seals of all sizes. The small pups seem to be particularly numerous here. On tiptoe we carefully stepped through the sleeping fur seals on the beach to reach Victoria who gave us a five-minute talk on the history of the whaling station. Luckily most of the bigger fur seals seemed to have a full belly and were taking their lunch nap and we certainly want to keep it that way.
Once we had navigated the fur seals, I led the first group 2 km up the valley to Shackleton’s waterfall. We retraced the last steps of Shackleton and his men after they sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia and crossed the unexplored interior of the island. The wind was still blowing strongly into our faces, but it took us only 40 minutes to reach the base of the falls. It is hard to imagine how Shackleton and his men negotiated these steep and unexplored mountains at the brink of exhaustion and without proper equipment. Even with modern equipment their feat has never been repeated in the same timeframe.
On the way we could observe some of the reindeer, which were introduced by Norwegian whalers and still inhabit some parts of the islands. Gentoo penguins breed on a ridge in the valley, about one kilometer from the ocean and we could see them commuting to and from their nest sites. Much too soon, our time was up and we headed back to the ship for a nice dinner and an early sleep! It has been a long and exciting day!