Day 7 |
Dec 01, 2011

Sailsbury Plain & Stromness, South Georgia Island 

By Liz Bradfield, Naturalist

Co-ordinates: S 54º03’08”, W 37º18’50”
Weather: Cloudy, sunny, snowy, windy
Air Temperature: 2.3º C

This was a BIG day. My alarm went off at 4:20 this morning, and after a quick bite in The Restaurant and a cup of coffee (oh, how grateful I was that everyone got up to make this possible), I jumped into a Zodiac with the rest of the expedition staff and headed ashore.

Our morning destination was Sailsbury Plain, a long flat valley that one of South Georgia’s many glaciers left behind. The green floor and the steep hills that rose up from it were teeming—king penguins and fur seals in droves. In fact, this is one of the largest king penguin rookeries on South Georgia. The air rang with their strange trills as well as the squeaks, huffs, and growls of the fur seals.

After setting up a line of flags from the shore through the feisty Antarctic fur seals and out to the rookery edge, we were ready for guests to come and join us. It’s a bit scary to negotiate a beach of fur seals, because every few meters there’s a bull who thinks the unmarked zone around him is his alone. We had to convince him otherwise. Luckily, a careful route and a bit of attention circumvents actual confrontations.

It’s hard for me to describe what it is like to stand in the noise and awesome stink of 250,000 king penguins. Big, downy chicks (Oakum boys) were huddled in groups, and the sky was swept by skuas, giant petrels, and kelp gulls. We had a few hours to just soak in the hugeness and allow ourselves to begin to see the details: a parent feeding a chick, three adults flapping their flippers against each other, the high and song-like cry of the young. Even with sleet slashing our faces, we felt lucky. And the sun did break through, highlighting the peaks and glaciers all around us.

The last Zodiac headed back to the Silver Explorer at nine, and the ship moved further down South Georgia’s rugged coast toward Fortuna Bay, where we dropped off about half the guests to hike over the ridge and down Shackleton’s waterfall into Stromness Harbor. I stayed aboard and enjoyed a bit more of the coast—as well as my first southern giant petrel in white morph.

At Stromness, we anchored again, and those of us on board set ashore to meet the long hikers at the foot of the falls. Stromness is an odd combination of beautiful and desolate. Old buildings from whaling days slumped into ruin while fur seals, elephant seals, gentoo penguins, king penguins, and even reindeer, introduced to the island long ago, teemed.

I walked out along the valley floor toward the falls along with others from the ship. Shackleton’s famous decent to this outpost looms large for me, and it was moving to look up and see the point at which he realized he might be able to help the men he left behind, after all. Looking up, we could see our shipmates coming down the steep hillside—their red parkas stood out, giving scale to this huge land.

On the way back, after admiring some South Georgia pintails in a stream, an endemic duck, I walked up by the gentoo penguin colony on the hillside—broken eggs were scattered at the perimeter and many nests were unused. The answer to this strange situation might be found in the scat and sign of reindeer that also walked the hillside. Imagine a reindeer walking through a penguin colony; this might serve as the perfect distraction, allowing skuas to sneak in and grab eggs in their large gape. Did the skuas here look burlier due to their rich diet? We couldn’t decide.

Back at the Silver Explorer, I was ready to shower, eat, and reflect on the full day. Tomorrow is another early expedition and hike. I can’t wait.