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

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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.

 

Chronicles Of South Georgia

Clockwise: A good vantage point to see the wildlife is from a Zodiac near Gold Harbour; Gentoo penguins seem nonplussed by human company; The skua bird, a power-happy buccaneer, is known for its pirate-like behaviour. Photos by: Sonia Nazareth

 

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.

 

Chronicles Of South Georgia

In St Andrews Bay, King Penguin families congregate in massive numbers. Photo by: Sonia Nazareth

 

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One of the payoffs of exploring South Georgia is the absolute lack of agenda. A meticulously planned itinerary can be overturned in a moment. A tumultuous sea or a beach full of mating seals makes carefully pre-planned landings impossible. We spend days observing Gold Harbour and the Southeastern beaches from the relative safety of the Zodiac. Upon the banks, elephant seals grunt ‘love me, love me’ to any willing female. Other seals lie around exhibiting deep contentment in repose. Clear, through binoculars, is the elephant seal’s big inflatable nose. This enables the sort of grumbles that attempt to scare off other bulls without getting into a physical spat. 

The zeal of my fellow travellers is high. It would have to be, to brave these blustery, harsh, inhospitable conditions. On board an ornithologist has been returning for years to document all species of birdlife, including the endemic pipit—the only resident songbird, the intricately patterned pin-tail duck and the blue-eyed shag, the sole species of cormorant found here. A marine biologist has her eyes trained on the water for whales—Blue, Humpback and Fin. To let the attention slide, even momentarily, is to lose a chance to experience something special. Amid brown fur seals for instance, there are a few naturally born blondes. Further afield, a chinstrap penguin perches on a cliff. Lichen, moss, and specialised algae plaster a rocky outcrop, determined to flourish, no matter the odds.

Chronicles Of South Georgia

Squatting in the grass every now and then, are fur seals. Photo by: Sonia Nazareth

Geologists have been coming back over years to study the inanimate features of the landscape—snow, ice, rocks—that are every bit as compelling as the animate. Bob, the geologist on board, points out glaciers that frequently calve and pepper the waters with icebergs, some domed and sloping, others pinnacled, blocky or weathered. The Shag rocks, six small islands in the western extreme of South Georgia, look forged out of some deep subconscious. True to their name, it is upon them that we find nesting the blue-eyed shag, the sole species of cormorant found in these parts.

On the day we arrive at St Andrews Bay, the transformation of the landscape from dark and blustery to bright and blue, is as sudden as it is immediate. Every detail stands out against a blue sky. Snow peaks glisten. Glaciers and snowfields draw out like carpets to the ocean. St Andrews boasts the largest King Penguin colony in South Georgia with over 1,50,000 birds. Spread out across vast tracts of land, we see for miles in the distance, enormous congregations of penguin families. Juvenile birds or “Oakum boys” are fashionable in their thick, downy, brown coats.

They find solace in company, warmth in togetherness, allowing both parents to go fishing, as they stay protected in their penguin crèche. Evolutionary reasoning backs all manner of behaviour. King Penguins, for instance, walk with stoic deliberation, in a manner that avoids overheating. Courting of penguins involves raucous calling and flashy displays of orange in the head patch.

A rambunctious romp also unfolds amid the elephant and fur seal community, that breed upon these wide, sandy beaches. As unfussy as a species, are the snowy sheathbill birds, who relish anything small enough for them to swallow, from the eggs of any other species to the mucus from a seal’s nose.

While there’s no underestimating the fact that these areas are havens of bio and geological diversity, they are also sites of irreparable loss. South Georgia’s whaling stations once saw whales (and other wildlife) being slaughtered and stripped of every profit-making substance. For instance, whale oil was used for lamp fuel and producing soap. The remains were left to rot and pollute the environment. In the mid-1960s the whaling and sealing industry came to an end. The evidence of this uneasy past, at abandoned whaling stations like Stromness, serve as reminder of human greed and its consequences. For safety reasons, we cannot go closer than 200 metres to these decrepit buildings.

 

Chronicles Of South Georgia

Noisy offspring of King Penguin, oakum boys, can be distinguished by their thick brown coats. Photo by: Sonia Nazareth

 

Unlike Stromness, the settlement of Grytviken, home to the largest whaling station, has seen a massive clean—the removal of hazardous material, the repair of historic buildings. The huge whale oil storage tanks that pepper the landscape are safe to approach. A whalers’ church and a museum, illuminate other aspects of the whaling era, including the challenges faced by workers who lived in this remote corner of the planet. A short walk away is the grave of legendary polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who in trying to cross the entire Antarctic continent from sea to sea via the pole, exemplified the tenacity of the human spirit.

With the end of whaling, sealing and the consumption of endangered species such as penguins, the wildlife here appears to have the upper hand. And yet, the seemingly robust ecosystem is fragile in the face of a new challenge: climate change. The ice is receding. The cold is shrinking. To prevent marginal lives from becoming even more marginal, a scientific community is active here —counting penguins, observing whales, monitoring fishing, instructing citizens on what they can do to be ambassadors in the protection of the earth on which we depend.

 

Chronicles Of South Georgia

Clockwise: Rusting whale oil storage tanks in Grytviken harken to its whaling past; The tombstone of the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton; Whaling was once so much a fact of community life here that the Norwegian Anglican Church is known as the Whalers’ Church. Photos by: Sonia Nazareth

 

Complying with strict bio-security measures before each landing, is only the tip of the iceberg, of what must be done in order to maintain the pristine nature of the landscape. As I scrutinise my clothes for soil, seeds, and animal products, wash my boots in biocide before each landing and ensure no fresh produce is taken ashore, I resolve also to learn more about climate change, its impact and what can be done to mitigate its effects. A journey to this part of the world without these unique creatures and scapes, would be far less meaningful.

 

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This feature appeared 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.

 

Essentials

Polar-ready ships leave from Ushuaia, Argentina, or from Stanley in the Falkland Islands. No matter what your point of departure is, you’ll require a two-three-day voyage across the Southern Atlantic Ocean to reach South Georgia. The writer sailed on the vessel, Hebridean Sky.

An abundance of flight combinations from Indian cities to Ushuaia exist (round trips may cost around ₹1,50,000 per person). Visit between the months of November and mid-February, when nature’s opera is in full spate. At that time of year, the king penguin population soars, whales frolic in open waters and the wandering albatross can be abundantly observed.

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

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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