South Georgia, December 2011

King Penguins, St Andrews Bay
South Georgia has been on my mind for a long time.   I visited the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007 and the Falkland Islands 18 months later – but South Georgia was the missing bit.  I talked with lots of polar enthusiasts who had ‘done’ South Georgia, and their comments were almost always along the lines of ‘fantastic place, shame we had so few days there’.  Most of these folks had done the classic Antarctic ‘long’ itinerary from Ushuaia or Punta Arenas – spending a few days in the Falklands, a few days in South Georgia and a few days on the Peninsula and quite a lot of days at sea going between the various points.

From everything I’d heard there was a huge amount to do and see on South Georgia and a few days was never going to do it justice, particularly give the unreliability of the weather.  It was clear to me  that I wanted to find a trip that offered more than just a few days – eventually step forward Steppes Travel, who I met at Wild Photos 2010 in London, who were able to find me a trip that focussed on South Georgia and, better yet, did so starting from Stanley in the Falklands which both reduced the sea time and gave me the perfect excuse to spend time in the Falklands before-hand.

Plancius, Stanley Harbour, Falkland Islands
The trip, 14 days starting and finishing in Stanley, was run by Oceanwide Expeditions on a converted Dutch hydrographic vessel, now called Plancius, on this trip with 95 passengers on board.  The crossing from the Falklands is about 780 nautical miles and even in good weather this does take around 72 hours.  This fact is rather glossed over in the pre-trip information which talks about two days at sea – and there was certainly some restlessness amongst some of the passengers who I suspect thought they might be seeing mountains and glaciers when they drew back the curtains on the third morning.
King Haakon Bay under clouds
We did finally see South Georgia late on the third day – almost exactly 72 hours after we steamed through The Narrows at Stanley Harbour.  Our first sight of South Georgia (King Haakon Bay on the south side of the island) wasn’t quite the picture book view the guide books might have suggested – we had low cloud and a decidedly unpleasant wind which meant that only ‘essential’ zodiac work could be attempted.  In the context of this trip, the ‘essential’ zodiac work was off-loading a large group of ski-mountaineers who were planning to attempt to cross South Georgia (the Shackleton Challenge) emulating Ernest Shackleton.   The rest of us we were torn between the desire to be off the boat looking for wildlife and the relief that we would be eating hot food and sleeping in warm berths rather than fighting the elements and sleeping in wet wind-swept tents.

Orca in South Georgia
Our first exposure to South Georgia’s wildlife came very early the following morning but wasn’t the expected fur seals or king penguins – it was the call of ‘whale’ over the ships intercom.  We found a pod of orca hunting in the waters off the north coast of South Georgia – the whales were between us and the shoreline, with the sun behind us. The mountains provided a back-drop, and the cold air ensured that the whales ‘blows’ were really clear to see.  The trip organisers had certainly got all the choreography just right.

Over the next seven days we had 12 successful off-ship excursions – and probably lost four other excursions to the weather.  These excursions were all on the north side of the island – this is the more sheltered side of the islands and also where almost all the wildlife is to be found.   Sheltered is a relative term in this part of the world – some of the bays are wide open and the winds can whip across very fast indeed.  The ‘nightmare scenario’ for all the expedition boats is putting 100 people ashore in calm conditions and then being caught out by rapidly changing weather.  On a couple of occasions we needed curtail landings to ensure that we didn’t get caught, and on one other occasion the expedition staff needed to resort to pulling the zodiacs onto the beach stern first to ensure that they were going to be stable enough to allow passengers to get back on.  Over the course of the week every one got to fully appreciate the term ‘wet-landing’.

I’m going to pick out  four of the sites we visited during the trip – three involved using zodiacs to get ashore, the fourth (Drygalski Fjord) was a ship-based cruise along one of the deep fjords at the southern tip of the island.  There will be more about all the locations I visited on South Georgia in the Place Notes site that I’m currently developing.

Our first big penguin colony landing was at Salisbury Plain and it introduced us to lots of aspects of being ashore in South Georgia.  We had a wet landing, aggressive fur seals, wild changing weather and lots of king penguins.  Salisbury Plain (named because of supposed similarity to central Wiltshire – although I couldn’t see it myself) is a big wide sweeping beach with a hill behind it and fresh water running down into the bay.  This is ideal terrain for seal and penguin colonies – but very exposed to the elements.   When we landed the weather was still and calm, by the time we’d been on the ground for two hours the ship was disappearing in low cloud and the dry sunny weather had degenerated into horizontal rain.  We did get to learn about the various techniques for evading fur seal (it involves a lot of growling back), and we also got to know the king penguins and their chicks.  December is a really good time to see lots of king penguins – at this time of year (early summer) all the penguins are on the beaches.  Last year’s chicks are going through their final moults, the mature adults are either moulting or are getting into their courtship routines or are sitting on eggs.  The one things the Kings aren’t doing, is spending a lot of time out at sea – so the beaches and colonies are full to bursting.

The landing at St Andrews Bay was, for me, the highlight of the time on South Georgia.  We needed two attempts to get ashore here – the first attempt was scuppered by high winds.  No one was saying this at the time, but the aborted landing was a good thing.  If we had got ashore on that day when the visibility was poor we wouldn’t have seen the colony in its real glory.  As with the Salisbury Plain landing, we went ashore quite a long way from the main colony site, in this case at the north end of the beach.  
We were then led inland up towards an outlook point which looked down on the colony – stepping up onto the outlook point and seeing upwards of 400,000 penguins in front of me is something that I’m not going to forget anytime soon.  One of the reasons for coming all the way to South Georgia was to see huge single species colonies like this.   I’ve seen David Attenborough talking about these sites on numerous television programmes over the years, I knew I was going to be seeing a lot of penguins, but somehow really seeing it was still a shock to the system.  

The Drygalski Fjord is the biggest inlet at the south tip of South Georgia – and it’s both big enough and deep enough to allow a reasonable sized ship to cruise in, and to go right up to the end face of the Risting glacier at the end of the fjord.  So that’s what we did. 

Our final landing in South Georgia was at Grytviken and is the one place where it’s possible to wander round an old whaling station – and to send postcards and buy souvenirs.  There were at one time seven active whaling stations dotted along the north coast of South Georgia.  Some of those have been completely cleared away, others (like Stromness and Prince Olav Harbour) haven’t been cleared but have been declared out of bounds (flying debris and asbestos being the main risks).  Grytviken has been made safe, so it is possible to wander round looking at the remaining buildings and some of the old, abandoned whaling boats – the most shocking aspect is the sheer scale of the machinery.

It’s difficult, from the perspective of the 21st Century, not to see this as anything other a monstrously barbaric industry, and to be thankful that the industry became uneconomic before the whale populations had been completely wiped out.  It seemed that there was something symbolic about our first real wildlife sighting of the trip being orca, and the final landing was at a disused whaling station.  The reminder that a species can recover from incredibly intensive hunting comes from the Antarctic fur seals that now occupy every beach in South Georgia.  These animals were really heavily targeted in the early 20th Century for their amazing soft thick pelts.  I found how soft they were by stroking a sample in the museum in Grytviken, I certainly wasn’t about to try and stroke a seal on the beach.  I don’t know if these animals were any more tolerant of man before we tried to make them extinct, however these days fur seals are extremely aggressive and will have no hesitation in coming after a Goretex-clad tourist. Their bite probable wouldn’t actually kill you, but I gather that their dental hygiene leaves something to be desired and disinfecting the wound probably wouldn’t be a pleasant process.  Grytviken and its museum are fascinating places – and my only regret is that we didn’t get more time to both wander the old station and to do the museum justice.

One of the things I learnt more about – and saw the impact of – was global warming.  Like everywhere else South Georgia is getting warmer.  The most visible impact of this is that almost all the glaciers are receding, which has the potential to completely change the environment on South Georgia.  Until very recently almost all the glaciers did reach all the way to the sea, now quite lot of them stop short of the coast.  Even just comparing guide book images to what’s visible on the ground highlights how rapidly this change is happen.  This change doesn’t make a huge direct difference to a lot of the species on the island in the short term, but it does to the rats!  South Georgia has had rats since people first got there (and got ship-wrecked there) – and where there are rats they have a really major impact on the ground nesting birds, and given the lack of trees, almost all the birds are ground nesting!  At the moment the areas that the rats have been able to get to are limited by the glaciers, but if (or when) the glaciers recede from the coast the rats will have the run of the island and would almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on the bird populations.  At the moment there is a pilot rat eradication programme underway on South Georgia with the aim of completely clearing the rat population while it’s still constrained to limited areas.

Shackleton survived the Shackleton Challenge, but he
died on his next visit to South Georgia in 1922.
The other impact of the global warming is on people, specifically the group attempting the Shackleton Challenge I mentioned at the top of the article.  When Shackleton did the ‘Shackleton Challenge’ in 1916 (he probably didn’t call it that, and he almost certainly considered the 800 miles in an open boat to get from Elephant Island as the greater challenge) he had the benefit of much colder conditions that climbers get now on the challenge.  Shackleton, Worsley and Crean were able to scramble up solid (and stable) ice – and to toboggan down a huge ice slide on their way into Stromness.  Today challengers face a much tougher challenge – much of the ice has gone so there a lot more rock to contend with, and where there is ice it is very heavily crevassed and therefore much more difficult to cross.  Of the 24 challengers on the trip with me, only 5 (all with really impressive mountaineering CVs) successfully completed the challenge the other 19 came out via an escape route.  I wouldn’t go as far as saying Shackleton had it easy, but global warming has certainly made the challenge a very different one these days.

I started by talking about having had this trip in mind for a long time – did it live up to my hopes and expectations?  The answer is a pretty emphatic yes.   I think we were pretty lucky with the weather – we got 12 good excursions in our week around South Georgia, and we also got to see how bleak it can be even in the southern summer.   I’m really pleased with some of the pictures I took, although I’m still working through some of them, and I’m really delighted to have seen the big colonies that South Georgia has to offer.  The sight of so many animals on the beaches is one that is very difficult to get out of my head.  Would I have wanted more time on South Georgia, again yes.  If anyone is planning a three week trip to South Georgia coming out of Stanley, sign me up.

There are two quotes floating around in the back of my head that relate to the trip.  One of the Frozen Planet team assured me that I’d really like South Georgia, “It’s like the Peninsula with the volume turned up”.  He was right.  The other quote was from of the expedition staff.   “If I had two weeks to live, I’d spend one of them on South Georgia, and the other one getting there”.  I think he was probably right too. 

UPDATED 18/01/2012: More pictures are now online on Picasa and on Flickr

Falkland Islands, November 2011

I don't have a good track record on going back to places - at the end of lots of trips I can be heard saying "I must go back there".  The reality is that the attraction of things and places I haven't seen often, even usually, over-rides the lure of the familiar.  The other problem is that if a holiday is really good, there is the risk (perhaps more percieved rather than real) that the repeat visit won't be as good and the memories of the first perfect trip will some how be sullied.

In early 2009 I spent an excellent two weeks in the Falklands, and this month I've just spent another fantastic two weeks island hopping in the Falkland Islands. In some ways this was a repeat of the 2009 trip, the key differences being that I opted to come south via Chile rather than using the MoD air-bridge from Brize Norton, and I've come much earlier in the southern hemisphere summer.  The birds are either sitting on eggs or are tending to small chicks rather than contempating their autumn migrations.

As with the last trip I opted to spend longer periods on a few islands, rather than trying to visit lots of islands for small periods of time.  I've spent time at Darwin and Stanley, both on the East Falkland mainland at the start and end of the trip respectively.  It is possible to fly out to the islands immediately on arrival off the international flights, but it does require significant faith in the punctuality of the incoming flight (and in 2009 I was over six hours late).  Most people spend a night or two within driving range of the main airport at Mount Pleasant at both beginning and end of the trip. Both Darwin and Stanley have some attractions and interest for both wildlife and history tourists, but for me the real Falklands is out in the islands amongst the wildlife.  I had long blocks of time on two similar but very different islands.  Sea Lion and Carcass Islands are similar in that they are small (i.e. walkable) islands with very good accommodation (including excellent cooking).  They are different in that they are at opposite corners of the of the islands (one in the south east, the other in the north west), and in that Sea Lion is flat while Carcass is mostly rocky and hilly (with just enough flat space to land a FIGAS plane - although the owner of Carcass assures me that the RAF have checked out the ground around the airstrip to confirm that it would be possible, in emergency, to land a Hercules).

On Sea Lion, the stars of the show this time really had to be the orcas, who regularly put in appearances spectacularly close to shore, with a close second being the ridiculously cute gentoo penguin chicks.  This, of course, in addition to the kelp and dolphin gulls, the rock and imperial cormorants and the huge number of snipe which lurk deep in the undergrowth where you can only see them if they move or decide to start announcing their presence.

On Carcass there were a lot of the same birds as on Sea Lion, however the Johnny Rooks were very evident, around the settlement at least partly because of Roldan's - the chef - habit of feeding them on a regular basis. I watched over 30 Johnny Rooks follow him down to the beach one afternoon - looking very much like the Falkland Islands answer to the Pied Piper.  It was particularly good to see a pair of magnificant Crested Caracaras roughing it alongside their distinctly more rogue-ish cousins the Johnny Rooks (Striated Caracaras).  However, my favourite birds on Carcass were probably the long-tailed meadowlarks and the Cobb's wrens, both very visible, and with a litle bit of patience ready to be photographed.

From Stanley, I now join the Plancius for a two week trip to see South Georgia. The boat is sitting in bright sushine in Stanley Harbour as I type, busily off-loading the current passengers to connect with the regular weekly LAN Chile flight.

Even as I sit contemplating South Georgia, I can't help thinking about when I'll be able to get back to the Falklands and what I'd want to do on that trip.  Maybe February?

Logistics and thanks.  I flew into the Falklands with LAN Chile via Santiago, and my local arrangements were sorted by Arlette Bloomfield at Falkland Island Holdays.  In Darwin I stayed with Graham and Fiona Didlick at Darwin House.  On Sea Lion Island I stayed at the Sea Lion Lodge with Jenny Luxton, on Carcass stayed with Lorraine and Rob McGill, and finally I stayed with Arlette Betts at Lafone House in Stanley.  The UK end of the arrangements were made via Sue Grimwood at Steppes Travel.  Thanks to every one who's looked after me over the last couple of weeks, without exception the accommodation and hospitality has been wonderful - and the food, in terms of both quality and quantity just amazing.

(Pictures eventually added in mid-January...)

UPDATED 18/01/2012: More pictures are now online on Picasa and Flickr