Chronicles of South Georgia

Climate change looms over the sub-Antarctic island, known as the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean. Even so, the region’s Edenic majesty and bounty of rarely seen seals, birds and penguins inspire jaw-dropping awe.

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King Penguins, in their graceful coats, have a stoic beauty to them. Photo by: Sonia Nazareth

As places that defy comparison go,the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia stands out as unique. This mountainous region, a part of British Overseas Territory, which has no permanent inhabitants barring a miniscule scientific community, has frequently been described as a piece of the Alps dropped into the middle of the ocean. Most expedition ships make several chartered stops on the way to Antarctica, at the island of South Georgia. My first thought, upon sailing around these parts, is the feeling of being thrust into an ornamental placemat. Here, glistening glaciers. There, mindboggling fjords. Everywhere, a Wagnerian wind.

The wind, since we set sail from the Falkland Islands two days ago, has been roaring, temperamental, relentless. The sea temperature has plummeted several degrees. And yet, as opposed to the landmass further South, these sub-Antarctic islands see life unfold at a gentler pace. Cliffs and beaches offer snow-free nesting places for birds and breeding places for seals. The species are few, but the population of those that abound, prevail unparalleled.

The numbers stagger—over 2 million fur seals, 50 per cent of the world’s population of elephant seals, well over 10 million breeding birds, including several of the largest penguin colonies on our planet and four species of albatross. These, the world’s largest flying birds, are accomplished dynamic soarers, seemingly motionless, but in total control, master gliders inhabiting remote and stormy seas. Petrels, fulmars, gulls, terns, make it to the checklist of birds we’re invited to watch for. Seabirds are opportunistic. They’ve learned that a ship means food and they follow sea vessels such as ours mainly for kitchen scraps. Underlining yet again, that adaptability is key to survival.

Our first beach landing on Salisbury Plain implies negotiating a carpet of elephant and fur seals, and penguins of all permutation. The versatile Zodiac (inflatable boat), we take, to get from the ship to shore, is important for wilderness exploration. Eight passengers hop into each vessel, as we ready ourselves to land on Prion, an utterly uninhabited island. Home to packed nesting colonies of wandering albatross, these birds go about the business of daily life, nesting and building homes, upon rocky outcrops and scree slopes carpeted with tussock grass. With the privilege of being so close to the birds, comes the responsibility of not getting too near. A five-metre rule is in place, for a disturbed bird makes easy prey. Less inhibited birds are quick to take advantage of an unguarded egg. The skua bird, a crafty buccaneer, is known for its pirate-like behaviour. But the how-close-you-can-get-rule doesn’t preclude juvenile Gentoo penguins from sniffing at us with epicurean curiosity. These little wonders have no fear of humans as they see them so rarely.

 

Read the full feature in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India March-April 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Sonia Nazareth can be found brandishing pen and camera on various anthropology-based, literary, art and travel assignments across the world.

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