Seabourn’s Antarctica and Patagonia – Goldring Travel’s Third Expedition – Part III (South Georgia Island)

After years of “You have to go to South Georgia Island” it was time. I was finally going to get there. And Seabourn let us know that there was a change in the schedule: Rather than the two days in South Georgia we would have three full days there!

South Georgia Island

During a coffee with Captain Joost Eldering he suggested I be up at 4:00 AM for the sail in to Grytviken, South Georgia Island as the sunrise is supposed to be amazing and it would be a beautiful start.

  • I awoke at 4:00 AM. Fog.
  • Back to sleep.
  • I awoke again at 4:45 AM. Fog.
  • Back to sleep.
  • I awoke for a third time. Bright sun and the Seabourn Quest was already anchored. Missed it! (But still quite a view to wake up to!)
Grytviken, South Georgia Island

Making matters worse, the guests are broken down into five color groups for landings so that no more than 100 people are on shore in Antarctica.  I, of course, was in the last group so I would not be landing until 10:00 AM.

So I paced the ship, overlooking this former whaling center, thinking about the history that Trevor Potts has passionately, but understatedly, told over the past three Antarctic journeys, the return of wildlife after man’s decimation of fur seals, elephant seals and whales as well as the eradication from South Georgia of rats and mice introduced by man  that would attack the chicks of nesting birds, as Brent Houston has passionately conveyed.

The former Whaling Factory at Grytviken, South Georgia Island

I repeatedly said to myself, “Just get my ass off this ship and onto the beach!” And then it finally happened.  And my initial feelings were totally different from what I had expected. I thought about the history more than the animals.  And, to be sure, that was quite something as the fur seals were literally just a few feet from the zodiac, both big males and tiny pups grabbing one’s attention.

Quite the welcome to Grytviken, South Georgia. He wasn’t exactly thrilled!

But in this moment, after taking a few photos of the seals, it was a wander over to the cemetery and a moment of respect at the grave of Ernest Shackleton.  Before I was there I consider it more of an obligatory stop, but once I was in front of the grave it was a moment of deference and perspective.

After, it was a wandering around what was a massive facility for processing huge numbers of whales juxtaposed with fur seals, young elephant seals, giant petrels, skuas, King penguins and a couple of wayward Gentoo penguins…and then a touching moment that made this journey so  much more than I  had ever expected.

I will always remember this King Penguin

I was bantering with my friend, and Seabourn Expedition team member, Jennifer Fought (Geologist and Naturalist) when a young blind woman and her mother (not knowing at the time that her sight was just lost and happened unexpectedly) asked a question of Jennifer. Jennifer explained there was a baby elephant seal behind her, fur seals and king penguins in front of her. The woman asked different questions, which Jennifer answered softly and with such kindness.  You could feel the excitement in this young woman’s voice. She then asked Jennifer what that sound was and was told it was a big male fur seal.  Would she mind videoing it? Of course not.

And then Jennifer asked her if she wanted to make a Merry Christmas video. Jennifer guided her a bit closer to a King Penguin and the woman started to cry. She said, “I can see white!” This young blind woman somehow saw a King Penguin!  Well, both Jennifer and I got emotional too. It was a truly heartwarming experience that two kind and enthusiastic women created.

I ran into this young woman the next day as we waited to get our boots for our second landing (Yes, the Seabourn Expedition Team is that good!) and I told her how much she touched me the day before. She said, “You are going to make me cry. Can I give you a hug?” Truly an experience that I had the privilege to soak in.

Fur Seal Pup
Elephant Seal “Weaner”

Anyway, after seeing some old abandoned whaling ships, the huge vats and buildings as well as the post office (yes you can mail yourself a postcard) and museum,

it was time to head back to the ship.

Our day, however, wasn’t done. After all of the groups returned the Seabourn Quest headed to two bays that previously were used for whaling factories.  I was on the bridge while Trevor talked over the PA about these sites and while Ross Ellingwood spoke of the geology of the island Trevor chatted with me about what went on in each building and what he saw when he went into these now too dangerous to enter places. 

The history, human hardships and the horrific exploitation of whales and seals is truly overwhelming…as we continue to destroy our environment placing quickly made riches over the long term health of our world.

I went to sleep that night knowing that the next day was Christmas Day at the Salisbury Plain and I was to receive the best present ever: The Day of 200,000+ King Penguins!

200,000+ pairs of King Penguins on South Georgia Island
as seen from the Seabourn Quest

Well, it turned out, not exactly.  First, our day would not begin until 2:00 PM as another ship had an earlier time slot. Second, the swell at the beach was just too high to make the landing there.  The Ponant ship had been there earlier in the day and could not do a landing, so what were we to do?

Unfortunately, this is a close I could get to the King Penguin colony 
due to high swells and surf. 
Good excuse to come back!!!

Well, this is where having the best Expedition Team on the seas, comes into play. Chris Srigley and team did some scouting. I watched them from my balcony looking all over the coastline for a safe place to make a landing, for if they didn’t find one we, too, would have been relegated to a zodiac ride…and that would have been heartbreaking.

And then the word, “Green Group we are ready for you!” The Expedition Team found a landing site, but not where we could experience the huge King Penguin colony.  It was, however, absolutely amazing and, to my mind, having experienced King Penguins twice on the Falkland Islands, probably even better!

Yes there were some King Penguins (mostly all waiting to molt), but there were young elephant seals, thousands of fur seals and, among those, countless incredibly cute fur seal pups.

It was quite the experience having to walk among some aggressive male fur seals that were not happy we were there. I was walking with Brent Houston a few steps ahead of me and as one big male came charging out of the tussock grasses Brent turned and said, “You! Get out of here. We talked about this!” and so it did. A bit later I ran into Jennifer who, with equal confidence, but not quite the bravado, waved a flag on a stick at a big male sweetly but firming saying, “Go away!”  Yes we were that close among so many seals.
The fur seal pups were so much fun to watch. You could see the different personalities come out as they played. You could also get the sense of which ones were probably males as they postured and barked at you.  Some would stare right at you, bark and show their tiny teeth with great bravado…and then scurry away as there was only so much courage in those tiny furry little bodies.
Fur seal pups look like bear cubs to me
This pup tried to be really tough, giving me “that” look while barking at me with the cutest high pitched bark.
But when is courage gave out, he ran away.
I always tell people the most important thing to do is “Pull up a rock and just take it in”. There was just so much to take in.  From giant petrels feeding on a seal carcass to young elephant seals (called weaners since they have just been weaken) looking so forlornly at you as if they just want a cuddle (“I miss my mommy”), to King penguins wandering occasioning giving out a call, to breathtaking landscapes.

King Penguins with Fur Seals

Elephant Seal

King Penguin
Elephant Seal not looking so cute

Giant Petrel guarding its meal
(The Circle of Life is real)

A scavenger in the summer months, but also preys on penguin eggs and young chicks.

Gentoo Penguin

A rather plump King Penguin 

Sheathbill – A true scavenger

I was chatting with Brent (always enlightening…and amusing) and he said, “I think I see a white giant petrel over there. Let’s check it out.” So off we went and there it was, a very unusual color morph, as they are usually brown.

“Oh look, there are some seal bones. Don’t tell me that doesn’t look like a human hand”

We are all more closely related than one might think!

Our third day in South Georgia on the Seabourn Quest was a zodiac tour day in Cooper Bay, South Georgia.  I was excited because we would see Macaroni penguins; a new species for me.  These penguins have wild yellow feathers that stick out around their heads.  The have a somewhat similar look to Rockhopper penguins that I saw on the Falkland Islands last year, but are definitely different and, apparently, not nearly as death-defying as the crazy Rockhopper.

Macaroni Penguin
Macaroni Penguin
A colony of breeding Macaroni penguins.
Located high on the hillside away from predators like the Leopard seal, but within striking distance
of Giant Petrels and Skuas

We continued our zodiac tour visiting a small colony of Blue-eyed Shags (of the cormorant family)

and I was able to grab a photo of a King Penguin swimming. The difference in coloration when wet is quite remarkable and almost reptilian. Cool!

It was then off to a sandy beach where elephant and fur seals lazed, King penguins and a few gentoos waddled about…and then a leopard seal was spotted. These are definitely the “bad asses” of the sea world and have faces that are almost snake-like.  I was quite fortunate to get a shot with its mouth wide open, showing off all of its teeth.

Leopard Seal

I do recall the first leopard seal I saw on my first journey to Antarctica where one lazed, looking very reptilian, on a small iceberg as well as the one I saw on my second journey as the Seabourn Quest sat just outside the Lemaire Channel watching the sunset. That is when I looked down at the ice and a leopard seal was looking right back up at me, unfazed, with a “This is my ice and I’m not moving for anyone” sort of power.

During my time on the zodiac as we worked our way through the kelp forests and clear blue waters, it reinforced my earlier thoughts that if there was so much life above the water with hundreds of thousands of birds and seals just right in front of me (not to mention the rest of South Georgia and it smaller outer islands were birdlife is in the millions and the seal populations are even more enormous), what is going on under the waves has to be incredible.

It seems no matter where I visit in this region a single Chinstrap penguin shows up!

So one thing is for certain:

I will return on the Seabourn Venture and explore the even more diverse and productive underwater world 
in one of its submarines!

It was, alas, finally time to depart South Georgia Island and head to Antarctica.  Captain Joost gave us a little bit of a tease just as we set sail: Icebergs.  They were small but beautiful.

Now for two days at sea before we reach Antarctica. I can’t wait!  (Notice a theme?)

Interested in booking a Seabourn cruise to Antarctica or elsewhere? Please give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!

US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY (877-246-5898)
UK: 020 8133 3450
AUS: (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530 562 9232