South Georgia is one of the world’s most amazing natural environments. Just a speck in the vastness of the South Atlantic Ocean, and lying wholly within the Antarctic Convergence, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are a life-sustaining haven to some of the world’s largest congregations of wildlife. The surrounding sea is one of the most productive areas on Earth and supports the life of millions of seals, whales, penguins and other seabirds.
A 3,000-metre / 9,842-foot mountain range forms the spine of this long, narrow island. Between the mountains, shattered glaciers carve their way through tussock grass to the deeply indented coastline – a landscape that is synonymous with the epic expedition of survival by Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean. Abandoned rusting whaling stations and remnants of explorers reflect a time of long ago, while summer workers conduct scientific and regeneration projects.
Politically speaking, South Georgia lies north of 60° South latitude and is therefore not part of the Antarctic treaty. It is a wholly British possession, claimed and named for King George III on 16 January, 1775 by Captain James Cook.
Originally a Norwegian sealing and whaling station, it was finally closed in 1965. Now it is the administrative centre and a hub of activity in South Georgia. The former whaling station stands as a solemn testament of the whaling days, but the museum offers much more than glimpse into Grytviken’s whaling past, including exhibitions of many of the local animals on display as well as the island’s history of exploration. As you wander around the site, skirting the ruins of factory buildings, peering into the past, you must be careful to avoid sleeping elephant seals or disturbing small groups of king penguins as you imagine what it was like when whale processing was in full swing. Abandoned ships lie sunken alongside hundred-year old wharves, while pitted concrete walls remind us of the more recent Falkland's War, which started here.
Sir Ernest Shackleton died from a heart attack during his final expedition on board the Quest on 5 January, 1922. His body was laid to rest at Grytviken. We pay our respects at his grave and possibly visit the cross his men erected in his memory looking out across beautiful Cumberland Bay.
St Andrews Bay
The long black sandy beach fronts a broad valley that stretches well back from the sea. This valley shelters the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia. Toward the landing beach on the north end of the bay, the beach is a resting place for hundreds of elephant seals that haul out on the shore to moult. Behind the beach and as you move along to the south, the sight and sound (and smell) of over 200,000 pairs of King Penguins at different stages of their breeding cycle will be overwhelming. The colony can be so dense that the penguins prevent even the seals from using the beach! The glacial river that runs into the sea here will be alive with penguin chicks and elephant seal pups testing their skills. If we lift our gaze from the wildlife for a moment, we will glimpse the snow-capped peaks of some of the world's most spectacular mountains.
Imagine indented bays lined with bleached whalebones, teeming with fur seals and penguins just ‘hanging about’. In Godthul you have the opportunity to clamber through the tussock to a spectacular plateau offering magnificent views across the island and the waters beyond. A careful descent leads us to a magnificent Macaroni penguin rookery.
Salisbury Plain has one of the largest King Penguin colonies on South Georgia. With about 100,000 pairs, the shore and beach can be completely crammed with penguins. Along the beach you will also find fur and elephant seals in the mix. You will have plenty of free time for walking and exploring independently during this landing, allowing you the opportunity to enjoy some personal time amongst the kings.
Fortuna Bay & Stromness
Fortuna Bay is surrounded by high mountains with glaciers pushing down from the high country to terminate in the open valley that is home to a small king penguin colony. This is where Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean descended from the treacherous glaciers of the interior on their way to Stromness whaling station. If conditions allow, we can retrace the footsteps of the explorers and follow their track over the last mountain pass. It’s a moderately difficult 6 km / 3.7 mi. walk over a 300-metre pass, and is well worth the experience for those that are fit and able. The Greg Mortimer will meet us as we arrive into Stromness Bay.
Bay of Isles
One of the wildlife highlights will be visiting the serene wandering albatrosses sitting proudly on their cute downy chicks. We can observe within respectful distance of these magnificent gentle birds while they perform intimate courtship dances, feed their young or clumsily launch themselves into the air, bound for a fishing trip.