Voyage to the Falklands and South Georgia Part 3: The Serengeti of the Southern Ocean

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This part 3 in an ongoing series I’m writing about my travels to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia with Lindblad Expeditions earlier this year. If you haven’t read the first two parts, and would like to, you can find them here and here.

When I last left off in my story, the National Geographic Explorer, my home home for the three-week journey, had left the Falkland Islands behind and we began the journey to the remote island of South Georgia. To get there, we would spend two days at sea, leaving behind the Atlantic Ocean and South American continental plate, as we crossed over into the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Plate instead. Along the way, there was a noticeable chill added to the air as we made our way south, providing some indication that we had indeed traveled to an entirely new part of the world.

Anyone who is familiar with the sailing route to the Antarctic also knows that in order to get there you must first pass through the infamous Drake Passage. Named for the English sailor Sir Francis Drake, who discovered the waterway that links the Atlantic, Pacific, and Souther Oceans back in 1578, this lonely stretch of sea is famous for its turbulent waters. Fortunately for us, it was extremely calm on our passage south, with very few issues at all. That said, the Drake still rocked the Explorer enough that those susceptible to sea sickness still found the it to be a bumpy crossing, with some of the passengers confining themselves to their rooms for the duration. The crew even put up safety ropes leading in and out of the dining area to assist travelers as they came and went. Despite calm conditions, the ship still listed here and there, and it wasn’t uncommon to have to shift in one direction or another as the Explorer moved under us. A few days in, we were still getting our sea legs, but slowly we would acclimate to the movement.

While en route to South Georgia we continued to spot an array of sea life. In addition to the occasional dolphin, we also spotted several more species of whales, including humpbacks and fin whales. But, one of the highlights of the entire trip was when we came across a pair of blue whales swimming amongst a pod of fins. I had never thought to see a blue whale in my lifetime, but there they were before me. The largest animals that have ever lived, the blue whale can stretch up to 30 meters (98 ft) in length and can weigh an astonishing 173 tons (380,000 lbs/173,000 kg). Watching these amazing creatures swimming right along side our ship was truly a wonder, and it is a sight that has stayed with me long after I’ve returned home.

After two relatively uneventful days at sea, which were filled with lectures, photography workshops, and videos, we finally caught sight of our destination. South Georgia is a hallowed place in the history of Antarctic expedition, as anyone who knows the story of Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance expedition can attest. We’ll get into that in another post, but suffice as to say the island played a central role in that story, which for my money is amongst the greatest survival stories of all time. Knowing that story all to well, I was thrilled to be figuratively walking in the footsteps of a legend like Shackleton, knowing full well that in a few more days, I’d literally be following the man as well.

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But before that would happen, we had the chance to meet some of South Georgia’s most famous residents – namely the penguins that lived there. Our first stop was along a rocky shoal off the main island where were able to spot Magellanic penguins living along the rocks. The little flightless birds moved up and down the near vertical landscape with ease, climbing to and fro with almost effortless balance. It was amusing watching them leap off the rocks into the ocean, while others popped up from under the water and appeared on land as if by magic.

As much fun as that was to watch however, our wildlife viewing was just getting started. South Georgia has been dubbed the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean thanks to is vast numbers of penguins and seals. We’d learn exactly what that meant later in the day as we made landfall at a place called Salisbury Plains. There, we were greeted be thousands of fur seals, most of whom were sunning themselves on the beach.

Our guides told us that it was near the end of the mating season, and that many of the seals had already returned to the sea. There were only a few big males still there, but numerous mothers and their pups still wandered about the area, eyeing us cautiously. The pups were playful and liked to follow us, occasionally nipping at our boots. The moms kept a keen eye on are whereabouts at all times, and could get aggressive if anyone wandered in too close.

But the real attraction on Salisbury Plain could be found further down the beach. It was there that we came across a massive King penguin colony, numbering into the tens of thousands. One of the naturalists from the ship told us that there were 200,000 mated pairs, plus their chicks on South Georgia. That means that nearly 500,000 King penguins called the area home, and one look over the beach that was easy to believe. It was a magnificent sight to see, particularly for someone who has always wanted to wander amongst the penguins.

We were told that we should maintain a distance of 10-15 feet at all times to help protect the birds. Of course, no one told the penguins that, and it was not uncommon for them to wander right up to you. As we walked about, two or three of the Kings would sometimes fall in line behind us, marching along in perfect unison. It is impossible to not fall in love with these animals, which are just as funny and expressive as you would believe.

Visiting in March, it was once again late int he penguin breeding season, so most of the chicks had grown to a larger size and had begun molting off the fuzzy hair that they are born with in favor of the streamlined and waterproof feathers that they’ll bear for the rest of their lives. While the adolescent birds were in this transitory stating between hair and feathers, they looked absolutely awkward, like a teenager still coming into his or her own. Several of them could often be seen grouping together, almost as if they were seeking solace in each other’s company. Soon however, they would be ready to take to the sea, and in the future they would only return when it was time to care for a chick of their own.

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This wouldn’t be the only stop we’d make where penguins and seals took center stage. We visited several other colonies along the way, and the sight was often the same. Thousands of animals stretching out across the area, creating an impressive view to say the least. In fact, I’m told that during the high point of the mating season, South Georgia is home to the largest concentration of wildlife on the planet. It is little wonder that it draws comparisons to a place like the Serengeti, another destination that is near and dear to my heart.

Two animal that you hopefully won’t see on South Georgia any longer are rats and reindeer. Both species were brought to the island by Europeans when they colonized the place. The rats came as stowaways aboard ships, while the reindeer were transplanted there on purpose to provide a source for fresh meat. But the two invasive species caused great harm to the environment there. The rats ate the eggs of some of South Georgia’s bird species, bringing populations down dramatically, while the reindeer destroyed vast stretch of grasslands that were home to other creatures.

But, a systematic eradication of both rats and reindeer has cleared these creatures from South Georgia, and already it has begun to bounce back, with even more bird species appearing there in greater numbers. To help protect this special place even further, the passengers aboard the Explorer had to clean our hands and boots before embarking on any shore excursions. The fear is that another biological agent could be introduced there that could do more harm, so special care is taken to avoid such possibilities.

But, South Georgia has much more to see than just its abundance of wildlife. Soon, we would explore the history of the place in more depth as well. This crown jewel has much to offer visitors and we were just starting to scratch the surface. More on that in our next installment.

Kraig Becker