South Georgia is arguably the most stunning place I’ve ever visited for wildlife and photography. This is the most photo-heavy post I’ve ever made, but I think you’ll agree that it’s worth the bandwidth!
The island of South Georgia is only 165 kilometers long and <35km wide, but it contains incredible mountain landscapes, with peaks up to 2,934M, and more wildlife than imaginable.
Incredibly, I hadn’t heard of South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands until beginning my search for Antarctic cruise options; rather astonishing for a geography nerd like myself!
Stunning South Georgia
South Georgia is a British Overseas Territory located 1,300km south-east of the Falkland Islands. Captain James Cook circumnavigated the island in 1775, claimed the territory for Great Britain, and named it after King George III. Although claimed by Argentina, South Georgia remains under the power of the United Kingdom to this day.
South Georgia does not have an airstrip and is therefore only visited by way of ship. Our Russian vessel, Akademik Sergey Vavilov, departed Sea Lion Island in the Falkland Islands and set course across the Scotia Sea, giving us several days to adjust to life on board.
While nearly 3 days at sea may sound boring, I thoroughly enjoyed my time aboard the ship. The staff gave very interesting presentations on Tourism in Antarctica, Sea Birds of the Southern Ocean, Glaciers and Glacial Landform, Photography Basics, Antarctic Fur Seals, and William Shackleton. We were also equipped with our expedition gear (heavy jacket, trousers, boots, and dry bags) and conducted a thorough “bio-security scrub” to ensure no foreign seeds were transported on to South Georgia once we arrived.
While other travelers were struggling with sea-sickness, I spent late nights in the observation deck / bar watching for wildlife and getting to know other travelers, many of whom are now friends for life, that were also not feeling the effects of the constant rock n’ roll of the ship.
In addition to hundreds of seabirds, we saw numerous mammals including fin whales, humpback whales, blue whales, killer whales, hourglass dolphins, and Peale’s dolphins. The beautiful thing about the Southern Ocean is you never know what you’re going to see!
Historically, South Georgia Island served as a base for seal hunting and whaling. Grytviken’ means “pot bay” in Swedish, and was given the name after a Swedish expedition found old English try pots used for rendering seal oil at the site.
Grytviken, South Georgia
Grytviken is an idyllic place for a settlement and offers flat land, shelter, and plenty of fresh water. The settlement operated as a whaling station from 1904 to 1966, with up to 300 men working at the station during the southern summer.
Abandoned Grytviken Whaling Ship
Unfortunately, the presence of whalers in South Georgia caused a lot of environmental destruction. Along with drastically reducing the population of whales and elephant seals through their hunting, they introduced reindeer (intentionally, for meat) and rats and mice (unintentionally, as stowaways), which destroyed the South Georgia’s vegetation and bird nesting sites.
Prior to landing on South Georgia, we were given a presentation about the South Georgia Heritage Trust’s efforts to eradicate invasive species, including the reindeer and rats. Between 2013-15, over 6000 reindeer were culled and ~300 tonnes of rodent bait was dropped by helicopters all over the island to kill rats and mice. The efforts appear to have been successful and bird populations, including prions, pintails, and pipits, are quickly increasing in number.
Elephant Seals Relaxing in Front of Grytviken’s Old Whaling Station
Grytviken is also closely associated with the famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton and his crew set out on a Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, on their ship, Endurance. Tragically, the pack ice trapped and crushed their ship and the 28 crew members had to flee the ship. While most of the crew waited at Elephant Island, off the Antarctica Peninsula, Shackleton and five men made their way to the southern coast of South Georgia in a small <7 meter boat called the James Caird. Eventually, they made it to Grytviken and Shackleton was able to organize a rescue operation for the men on Elephant Island, inspiring the name “Bring ’em Back Shack”. The story is exceptional, and even more impressive after seeing how nasty conditions can be in South Georgia and the South Scotia sea!
The graves of Shackleton, and his right-hand man, Frank Wild, are located in a cemetery next to Grytviken. Upon landing on South Georgia in the morning, our first order of business was to toast the lives and adventures of these exceptional men, and their crew, with a dram of Johnnie Walker Black.
Churchill may have been on to something by kickstarting his day with a whiskey and soda “mouthwash” as it certainly took an edge off the morning cold!
Toast to The Boss, Sir Ernest Shackleton
As large flakes of snow began falling to the ground, we had a chance to explore the settlement of Grytviken. There are a few buildings of interest remaining in Grytviken, including the South Georgia Museum (in the former whaling station manager’s house) and a Norwegian church, where a few of us vigorously rang the bell.
Norwegian Church at Grytviken, South Georgia
Grytviken is the only place in South Georgia where you can obtain souvenirs, other than your own photographs. There is a small gift shop offering typical clothes, posters, and books and it is also possible to buy and send postcards. The ship’s staff also took everyone’s passports to be stamped with what I assume to be a relatively rare passport stamp!
The afternoon expedition took us to Jason Harbour, where we were able to stretch our legs on a hike above the bay and observe more wildlife, including elephant seals, fur seals, and molting king penguins.
Views from Above Jason Harbour, South Georgia
Work it for the Camera Baby… Elephant Seal
Fur Seal, Jason Harbour, South Georgia
King Penguin Selfie #Insta #Selfie #GoPro #King
We arrived at Stromness in the evening dusk, later than planned, making it difficult to see much of the former whaling station from the ship. Stromness is now primarily known for its role in the rescue and survival of Ernest Shackleton and his crew.
Stromness at Dusk, South Georgia
I had inadequately researched the story of Shackleton and the Endurance prior to the trip but thankfully Jay, a fellow voyager, explained the significance of Stromness to me from the upper ship deck. Basically, when Shackleton and his small crew landed on the unpopulated southern coast of South Georgia, they still had to hike 42 kilometers across the interior of the island to Stromness, without a map, under the light of the moon.
Given how mountainous, glaciated, and crevasse-filled South Georgia is, Shackleton’s success is unbelievable. Mountaineers have replicated the trek in modern times, with mountaineering equipment, maps, supplies, and training, and still struggled to make the perilous crossing. It’s hard to imagine how Shackleton and his men managed to find their way and survive in 1916, with limited supplies, after 17 days in a lifeboat on some of the world’s stormiest seas.
Day 6 began with a yawn-inducing 04:45 wake-up call, but seeing Gold Harbour in the morning light, with a coffee in-hand, made me think I was still in bed dreaming. The scenery was that unbelievably good!
How I Wish Every Day Began – Gold Harbour, South Georgia
Gold Harbour was certainly one of the most memorable excursions of my entire Antarctic Cruise. The quantity of wildlife and glaciated mountain backdrops were too unreal for me to describe much further. These photos only give a glimpse into how incredible it was to experience firsthand.
Elephant Seal – Gold Harbour, South Georgia
King Penguins – Gold Harbour, South Georgia
King Penguin Feeding Chick – Gold Harbour, South Georgia
There were so many penguins and seals along the beach that it was impossible to maintain adequate distance from the wildlife. To avoid disturbing the wildlife, many of us hiked up above Gold Harbour to absorb the landscape in full. The resulting views showed how much wildlife there really was!
Wildlife and Landscapes – Gold Harbour, South Georgia
How Many Penguins Are in This Photo? – Gold Harbour, South Georgia
While I didn’t have the time to count on my fingers and toes, I heard estimates of there being 400,000 king penguin pairs in Gold Harbour that day. Mixed among the penguins were hundreds of elephant seals, each weighing up to 4000kg. Truly an unforgettable sight.
Our expedition in Royal Bay was spoiled by too much wildlife. Wait, what?
That’s right. There was so much wildlife that we were unable to do a shore excursion since the entire beach was FULL of penguins and seals. Since there were no places to land without disturbing the wildlife, our expedition leader elected to do a zodiac excursion instead.
Chock-Full of Wildlife – Royal Bay, South Georgia
The zodiac excursion was still great as it gave us an opportunity to see macaroni penguins up close for the first time. While macaronis are the most abundant penguin in South Georgia, and the world, they are often the hardest to visit since they nest on hard-to-reach scree and tussock slopes.
Zodiac Excursion to See Macaroni Penguins – Royal Bay, South Georgia
Macaroni penguins are a crowd pleaser given their bright yellow bushy “eyebrows”. The macaroni name has nothing to do with pasta but was rather the term used in 18th century England to describe men who dressed outlandishly.
Macaroni Penguins – Royal Bay, South Georgia
Macaroni Penguin – Royal Bay, South Georgia
I dreaded our 04:45 wake-up call on Day 7, thinking nothing could even remotely come close to our morning at Gold Harbour the day before.
It was one of those rare instances where I was happy I was wrong.
St. Andrews Bay was breathtaking. Like Gold Harbour, there were scenic glacial mountain views complimented by hundreds of thousands of penguins. Unbelievably, even more penguins than we saw in Gold Harbour.
Mind Blown, Yet Again – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
King Penguins – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
Hundreds of Thousands of King Penguins – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
King Penguin Chick Crying for Food – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
Skua Flying Above the King Penguins – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
Fur Seal Pub – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
Elephant Seal, Dreaming of Seafood – St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia
Our final expedition in South Georgia was another zodiac excursion in Cooper Bay. Given all we’d already seen, Cooper Bay was tame in comparison, but certainly beautiful in its own right.
Cooper Bay, South Georgia
From a distance in the zodiac boats, we saw macaroni penguins nesting in the scree and tussock slopes, shags, and numerous fur seals.
Macaroni Penguins Nesting – Cooper Bay, South Georgia
Fur Seal Family – Cooper Bay, South Georgia
As we departed South Georgia towards Antarctica, we were treated with stunning landscape views across the southern part of the island.
Southern South Georgia
While leaving South Georgia’s incredible scenery behind was difficult, I still had Antarctica to look forward to. Onwards to the 7th continent…