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Day 11 - March 19, 2010 - South Georgia (Salisbury Plain Am, Prion Island Pm)

By Juan Mazar Barnett, General Naturalist / Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: 54º03.2S 037º19.4W
Weather: cloudy and cold in am, almost clear and cold in pm
Seas: good seas and fairly calm landings
Temperature: 1 C

It is virtually impossible to have a better way to spend a day in South Georgia than visiting two iconic sites: Salisbury Plain and Prion Island. And this was certainly a spectacular way to end our three-day visit to the islands.

We had another super early start today because that was the only way to take full advantage of the day. Luckily, the landing site on the beach at Salisbury was ok, and we decided to proceed with disembarkation. It only took a short walk to the edge of the penguin pack, and then a short way further along the edge of tussock grass to enjoy the sights.

All guests had a fantastic time in Salisbury Plain, where we found one of the most amazing faunal concentrations in the world. About 150,000 pairs of King Penguins were right in front of us! And we saw them in all stages of breeding. There were birds incubating an egg, chicks of various ages and even some older chicks already moulting their downy layer into the feathers that would enable them to go to sea.

But it was not ‘just’ the penguins found here, there was much action going on indeed! Penguins were moving to and from the beach, fighting with each other as they passed by, as well as couples performing their loud displays. Also, Antarctic Skuas patrolled the colony, and we saw them landing often right in the middle of the colony, probably going after a dead or lonely chick. At one point I found an abandoned Penguin egg by the edge of the tussock and after rinsing the mud off it I placed it where it would be visible and obvious, between us (some of the guests) and the Penguin colony. One adult King Penguin played with it for a bit, as if wondering if it was worth a try to incubate it. But it took the Skuas just a few minutes to eventually dare to land next to it and turn it into breakfast. A couple of sharp pecks and the feast started. We witnessed quite a strife among three Skuas for the bounty and the egg was done and over with it in just a matter of minutes.

By about 9 am we all headed back to the Prince Albert II and had a proper breakfast, though The Restaurant crew had done a great job at a much earlier breakfast up at the Panorama Lounge this morning!

The good news for the day of today had started yesterday, when we were granted the permit to visit Prion Island, and continued today with the fairly good weather we were experiencing. Thus, all the Staff got ashore at 12 pm to scout this location and get acquainted with the improvements there. A new boardwalk had been built at Prion Island that took us to two viewing platforms, overlooking one and at least six nests respectively. Fantastic! And the landing conditions and weather couldn’t have been better!

Prion Island was one of those places in the world that I had been longing to visit for a very long time, and my experience here today, as well as that of all the guests, far exceeded my expectations. Guests were divided into four groups that took turns at each platform, as there was a limit of twelve people per platform at a time. And the sights were unbelievable. Wandering Albatrosses were gliding along the edges of the higher plateau; some were resting on the ground, and a group of about eight individuals were engaged in their courtship displays and calling, all of if within a very reasonable distance. The afternoon was fairly windy, which helped the Albatrosses to perform fabulously. Also, seeing their courtship dances with wings spread and bills pointing skywards was priceless.

And to top it all, there were seven nests around both platforms! They were clearly identifiable as the birds sitting on them had a horizontal posture and sometimes the nesting platform was visible among the tussock. It was breathtaking to see the birds sitting so quietly and peacefully on their nests, seemingly completely undisturbed by our presence. At least two of them had a recently born chick, as the adult at some point stood up and the little one could be seen clearly.

But Prion Island was not all about the Wandering Albatrosses. There were also Giant Petrels using the nesting grounds and flying about, together with some Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses. To me, however, the other highlight of the day was finding several individuals of the extremely tame South Georgia Pipit, a remarkable small songbird that reached the island and has established and differentiated as a full species here. Many of the guests were able to see and photograph this bird as well as the other endemic species: the South Georgia or Brown Pintail. There were also quite a few Gentoo Penguins and, of course, a lot of Antarctic Fur Seals seen on the shores through the tall tussock around where the Albatrosses were nesting, which, by now, almost every one of the guests considers to be cute!

So the day finished off with a last Zodiac shuttle back to the Prince Albert II before dusk, to later sail off westwards towards the Falkland Islands. Today we experienced pretty much the quintessence of South Georgia. And for me it was certainly one of the best experiences with nature in my life! Today will forever stay within my most joyful memories.

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