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Day 9 - November 20, 2009 - Gold Harbour And St Andrews

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist lecturer

Co-ordinates: 54°37.486’ S, 03°556.343’ W
Weather: Bright sunshine, blue skies with few white puffy clouds – INCREDIBLE!
Air Temperature: 3°C
Wind: 1-5 knots

In all my trips to South Georgia, this was one of the best! It was an incredible day. As soon as I woke up I knew it was going to be good – the sun was shining brightly and the sea was sparkling! It was exactly the sort of conditions we needed to make the two landings that we had planned for today – Gold Harbour and St Andrews.

In order to have enough time at both landings, we started the day early, with disembarkation planned for 0630am. For me, as one of the Zodiac drivers, the day actually started even earlier – at 0545am. This was when we arrived onsite and dropped the scouting Zodiac. Robin West, the Expedition Leader, Juan Carlos Restrepo and I went out early to have a look at the landing.

By 0630am, the shore party was ready and we were standing-by to load guests into Zodiacs, but unfortunately, the swells coming into the bay were too large, and the side-gate pontoon was rocking too much – one moment it was high and dry, the next it was below the water line. So, Robin West and the Captain decided to wait an hour or so to see if the swell would diminish – which it did. So, by 0730am we were starting running Zodiacs between ship and shore.

It was worth every second of waiting!! As we landed the guests you could see their excitement – massive elephant seals, with the males reaching weights of over 4 tons, were scattered all over the beach. Feisty fur seals were also on the beach, as were the beautiful king penguins. There was almost too much to take in all at once!

So much was happening. Out of nowhere, suddenly two bull elephant seals would start bellowing and rising up for a fight. We watched a magnificent pair fight for several minutes – taking thundering passes at one another and causing great gashes in each other’s necks.

The more peaceful king penguins mingled freely amongst all the seals, as well as amongst our groups. They seemed to have no fear – peering intently at us and sometimes wandering right up to within a few feet to have a better look. Maybe they thought we were some new species of penguin with our matching red parkas!

All this activity had one of the most beautiful landscape backdrops you could imagine. The rugged dark grey mountains surrounding Gold Harbour were particularly beautiful this morning because they had received a fresh layer of contrasting white snow sometime in the past few days. Wow – what a morning!

Getting back onboard the ship was nearly as exciting as it had been getting off. The swell had not diminished as anticipated, so, as a Zodiac driver, we had to work very hard to control the Zodiac as it came alongside. But the real heroes of the day were the AB sailors at the side-gate. They worked so incredibly hard to catch the Zodiacs, get the ropes on them and help each and every guest out safely onto the pontoon. And through it all they always have a smile on their faces and a joke to make us laugh!

During lunch the ship repositioned about 25miles away to the next landing - St Andrews. The sea conditions were a bit calmer, so we knew we could make this landing! The highlight at this site was the king penguin rookery – the largest on South Georgia with over 100,000 breeding pairs.

The walk to the rookery took us along the beach and past lots of ‘beachmasters’ (large dominate male elephant seals) with their harems of females. There were also tons of the just-weaned elephant seal pups lying on the beach and wallowing in the melt ponds. They are so cute with their huge dark eyes and puppy-like faces.

I was leading one of the groups to the rookery, and we were amazingly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to see one of the most spectacular events that I have ever seen – a bull elephant fight from start to finish. We watched one male come out of the water and start bellowing – the second male, lying on the beach surrounded by his harem – started to respond. Suddenly, the males charged one another, then stopped within a few feet of one another. They were roaring and snorting – sending puffs of breath out with each one. Then, without warning, they reared up, remained posed for a few seconds, then came slamming down on one another – mouths gaping open. This battle kept going for several minutes – rearing up and slamming back together. Their teeth left great huge gashes on one another. Finally, the male who had previously been on the beach, backed off and retreated into the ocean, while the new victorious male took a rest on the beach before making his way up to his new harem and taking control of that section of the beach. The loser seemed utterly exhausted and remained resting in the breaking waves. We couldn’t believe we had been so fortunate to have watched that magnificent display!

There were also lots of the giant petrels on the beach here. These are so prehistoric looking – their webbed feet about the size of your hand and long, long wings. When they walk onshore they spread their wings out for balance and waddle in the most ungainly manner.

The walk ended at the top of a small hill where we could see the full extent of the penguin rookery. It was huge! It stretched as far as the eye could see along the beach and up the valley. With our bird’s eye view we could watch the comings and goings of the penguins – how they came out of the ocean with big fat bellies full of food, then made their way to the rookery calling out for their chicks. The brown fluffy chicks, meanwhile, were clustered together in crèches of maybe 50 – 100 chicks. How the parents can find their own chick by sound is amazing!

The best way to take in everything was to sit quietly at the edge and simply sit and observe and listen. As the sun set and the temperatures dropped, we headed back to the ship with some amazing memories and photos of this very special place. Our next stop, in two days time, will be the Antarctic Peninsula! YEAH!!

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