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Day 8 - November 19, 2009 - Drygalski Fjord / Larsen Harbour

By Chris Srigley, General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 58º59’S, 36º00’W
Weather: Overcast with 35 knots of wind

This morning we would approach Gold Harbour, one of thee most beautiful landings in South Georgia, a stunning amphitheatre of vertical cliffs and hanging glaciers. Within the amphitheatre, there are some 3600 breeding pairs of King Penguins, and a beach close to 1km long covered in breeding Elephant and Fur Seals.

Through the night the rough weather that had been following us since our arrival here in South Georgia continued. As I struggled to work my way through our dark stateroom, I stumbled into Stefan. With a barely audible groan Stefan said, “I’ll bet you we aren’t landing”. I mumbled in agreement before finding the light switch.

Arriving on the Bridge several minutes later, my eyes confirmed our thoughts before I could ask the question. The landscape before me was not Gold Harbour. If I had my bearings correct, Cooper Island was off of our Starboard bow, we had continued south past Gold Harbour in hopes of finding shelter.

As our Expedition Leader Robin West spoke with a few ships in the area, it was evident we were lucky to be heading in the direction we were. Both had spent yesterday at sea in the weather with canceled landings. While we had obviously canceled our intended landing we had hopes to still offer activities for the day.

Shortly thereafter a plan was hatched. Captain Peter Stahlberg and his officers would bring the Prince Albert II farther south along the coast to Drygalski Fjord where we would cruise its length before stopping briefly in front of the Risting Glacier at its end.

On one side, this 14-km-long fjord is lined by some of the oldest rocks in South Georgia, remnants of Gondwana land. On the other, rocks formed by sea floor spreading, millions of years younger.

With the winds at our stern, all onboard crowded onto the outer decks to take in the scenery. However, as Captain Stahlberg turned to take us back out, most ran to the stern sun deck for shelter. Here, we were witness to the Snow Petrel, a beautiful all-white bird who nests in the area, circling the Prince Albert II several times before heading off.

After lunch, we gathered in Reception to board our fleet of Zodiacs for our afternoon activity – a Zodiac cruise of Larsen Harbour. Within this harbour we were looking for the most northern breeding group of Weddell Seals as well as the South Georgia Pipit, which has been eradicated from most areas of South Georgia because of the introduction of rats by early sealers and whalers.

When I first mentioned to the staff to keep an eye out for the Pipit, our ornithologist Anja reacted in doubt with “Oh sure, and get a photo of it also!” …

As I cruised amongst the kelp within the harbour I explained where the name for this location came. Named for C.A Larsen, a Norwegian explorer and whaler who started the whaling industry in South Georgia as well as being involved in one of the greatest stories of survival in Antarctica. He also was the builder of Grytviken that we had visited yesterday.

Coming to the end of our cruise, we had spotted the Weddell Seal, we had viewed the Fur and Elephant seals on shore. We had seen Pintails and Terns, we had watched the Kelp Gulls feeding along the tidal zone, but we had not found the endemic South Georgia Pipit.

As the Zodiacs in front of me called in their return to the Prince Albert II, I decided to make one last tour into a small cove around the bend. As we spent several minutes cruising the shoreline it looked as if we had been stumped.

Suddenly one of my guests screamed at the top of her lungs “THERE, RIGHT THERE. THAT BIRD!!” Perched on a rock was a tiny bird, the South Georgia Pipit. I dove for my camera and snapped away as it flew off.

We had seen something that very few are able to see, and I had made a group of guests who had no idea an hour before shout in excitement at its sight. We had another great day here in South Georgia.

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