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Day 7 - March 9, 2011 - Salisbury Plain, Prion Island and Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 54º01’S, 37º20’W
Weather: Bright sunshine, little to no wind – beautiful!
Air Temperature: 10C


Let me start by saying that I originally fell in love with South Georgia the first day that I visited it, three years ago – but today was so perfect that I fell in love with it all over again!!! I will try to tell you about our day, but I do not think I have the words to fully describe the sheer beauty and overwhelming wonder of what we all experienced.

We started early – by 6 am I was awake, fed and standing in a Zodiac on the way to our first landing site. The sun was just peeking up over the rugged mountain tops as the first Zodiac with guests arrived at the landing site. The morning stop was at Salisbury Plain, on the north-east side of South Georgia. After 2 full days at sea it was good to be outside walking.

Our destination was the huge King Penguin rookery on the other side – a few kilometers from the landing site. To get there we strolled through some tussock grass to the long pebble beach, then along the beach to the colony. The walk to get there was as much fun as the actual destination! Tucked in amongst the tussock grass there were hundreds of fur seals – mostly pups - that would dart out growling at us, all full of bluff, only to retreat hurriedly as soon as we turned and looked at them. These pups are so cute – huge dark brown eyes, short pointy snouts and long bristly whiskers.

But it was the site that greeted us on the beach that overwhelmed us – thousands of brightly coloured king penguins were strung out along the beach – like a brightly coloured necklace! It was a site that actually took our breath away. By this time the sun was shining brightly and the wind had died down so the temperature was amazingly warm (relatively!).

It took us over an hour to get to the rookery because we would stop and sit on the beach to watch these magnificent penguins – and the best part was that they would all turn and look at us with curiosity, then slowly but surely start walking towards us until they stood only a few paces away. It isn’t until they are that close that you fully realize just how large these birds are – they stand just under a meter tall. And their bright orange ear patches and yellow throat markings are really bright.

Even though I already have thousands of photos of these birds, I found that I just could not stop taking more – and as Will Wagstaff (our birder) says, “you just can’t take too many pictures of penguins”!

The rookery, itself, is another site to behold! Up to an estimated 250,000 king penguins are all crowded together to make one massive moving colony that spreads as far as your eyes can see – even up the mountainside. And the sounds!!! I wish I cold include a recording of the trumpeting and calling, but the best description that I have heard was from a guest today who described it as the sounds from a Formula 1 car race!

It was hard to drag ourselves back to the ship at 9:30, but we knew that we had another amazing landing coming up within the hour – Prion Island, where we were expecting to see several nesting Wandering Albatrosses – the birds with the largest wingspan of any seabird!

Last year, apparently, there was only a couple of nesting birds, but today we saw seven! One was only a few meters from the upper viewing platform, and although only a few people were privileged to see it, one was sitting on a small chick. After spending about 45 minutes viewing these majestic birds, the guests returned to the beach and since it was such a sunny warm day, spent more time just sitting on the rocks watching the fur seal pups playing in the surf.

Once back onboard the ship, the Expedition Team had only about 15 minutes to grab a quick lunch before heading up to the Bridge and out on the decks to look for whales. We actually had a Recap & Briefing scheduled for 2:30pm, but just as I was about to start my recap about Elephant seals, the announcement came over the loudspeaker that there were two humpback whales close to the ship – so needless to say, we all hurried outside to watch the mother and calf as they frolicked nearby. They stayed with the ship for about 45 minutes, then dove deep and did not resurface, so we gathered back inside The Theatre to continue our briefing. By the time that was finished, I was back on standby at the side gate to go ashore for our final landing of the day – Fortuna Bay.

Fortuna Bay is a lovely landing with a large King penguin rookery up the back end of the flat outwash plain, close to the glacier. One of the unique animal species that we see here frequently is reindeer – brought to South Georgia in the early 1900s as a food source. They were never hunted much, and have since flourished and are causing a fair bit of environmental damage. There were several of these reindeer grazing on the grass as the guests arrived, so everyone got good views.

My position for the afternoon was at Sealer’s Cave – a small cave in the headland rock-face that was once used as a shelter for sealers. This end of the beach was nice and quiet and many guests joined me just to sit and watch the fur seal pups and penguins along the coast. Near the end of the afternoon we spotted a large sub-adult elephant seal tucked up between some tussock grass – well…maybe I shouldn’t actually say tucked away – it is kind of hard to ‘tuck away’ a 3-ton animal! He was HUGE – at least 4 – 5 m long and weighing several tons. He already had quite a large proboscis and the sounds that he made sleeping would put any snorer to shame! At one point while we were watching he lifted himself up and rolled over onto his side, then started scratching. Very funny!

So…it had been an awesome day jam-packed with so many visions that when I shut my eyes I see an array of images flashing by. I am looking forward to another stunning day in South Georgia tomorrow, with a long hike that follows part of Shackleton’s walk across to Stromness, and two Zodiac tours at some beautiful glaciers. But for now, I must head off to bed – I have another 6am standby time tomorrow! Good night!

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