In the previous post in this series South Georgia (day 3), I described our landings in Grytviken and Fortuna Bay. But what many think is the most beautiful site in South Georgia was saved for our last landing...
Thursday, 9th March 2016: Gold Harbour: Sitting with Seals, Walking with Penguins,
The option of an early morning landing at 5.30 a.m. was offered to allow the sunrise to be enjoyed from the beach. Although I’m no stranger to early rising, I’d been feeling rather tired and decided to go for the ‘normal’ landing at 8.30 a.m.
Overnight, the ship had sailed from Fortuna Bay and, at 4.45 a.m.on our arrival in Gold Harbour, the noise of the anchor chain being run out woke me up. In the forward cabins like mine, the noise of both the anchor chain and the use of the bow thrusters is quite loud on this ship. Once awake, I thought I might as will make the early landing, although the time it took me to get ready meant that I wasn’t able to try the “Early Risers Danish and Coffee” laid on in the Panorama Lounge.
There were at least three Zodiac trips to ferry the “sunrise landers” ashore. The temperature wasn’t bad and there was little wind but light snow was falling. It was light enough to see but, of course, in the low light conditions photography was not ideal for my fairly modest camera. We landed on a curved sand and pebble beach. In places the stones were quite large making walking harder. The rocky foreshore was framed by green hills with mountains behind. Snow capped the mountain tops and thinning snow remained on much of the grassland. In the distance on our left, the Berntrab Glacier inclined towards the sea.
Most remarkable, however, was the population of this landscape. The offshore rocks were crowded with fur seals and, approaching the shingle beach, the Zodiac driver had to slow and wait for a continuous knot of fur seals to be ‘shooed’ away by the shore party. The landing area had been chosen to be away from the main penguin colony which lay to our left but there were still hundreds of King Penguins near the landing, some simply standing erect like colourful statues, others moving in small convoys in various directions and managing to look very determined as if late for the office. Sprinkled amongst the King penguins there were a few Gentoo and Chinstrap. On our right were a number of Elephant Seals of various ages, the largest longer than our Zodiacs. Generally, the Elephant Seals were content to lie huddled together on the sand, but occasionally one would move into or out of the surf with an improbable undulating motion whichh left a shallow identation in the sand. Finally, there was birdlife large and small, the smaller birds fluttering overhead, the larger soaring above us. Certain birds were happy to wander around the beach looking for food whilst some of the sea birds would just sit on a patch of sand, ignoring all activity around them, including humans passing by. Walking past these creatures brought home how large some of the seabirds are.
Sunrise over King Penguin Colony: Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
I joined Peter’s group for expert explanation about what we were seeing as we made our way parallel to the shore skirting the the main colony. The timing of our visit allowed us to see various phases of the penguin’s period on land all at once - immature, adult, moulting, even a few ‘late breeder’ pairs still incubating the single annual egg produced. With an estimate of 70,000 breeding pairs in Gold Harbour (counting the main and various smaller colonies), the noise of the ‘trumpeting’ call of penguins was incessant and the distinctive odour of their waste matter was all pervasive.
As we continued our walk, the sun slowly broke through the cloud cover and it started to become lighter. At the end of the main beach, a low rocky hill covered in tussock grass rose up and Peter led the group to the summit. I followed but more slowly and when I stopped for a breather and sat on the tussock, I lost contact. Looking around, I could see that the whole hillside was covered in fur seals, just lying around, occasionally play-fighting and periodically raising their heads to sniff the air.
I continued to the flat top of the hill which commanded splendid views of the bay, our ship, the main colony I’d just traversed and, looking in the opposite direction, a lake and smaller King Penguin colony.
King penguin colony, Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
Within a few feet of me, half hidden in the tussock grass were at least a dozen fairly small fur seals. I was captivated by the scene and found my own tussock on the edge of the group to sit on. Considering the effort I’d had climbing the hill, I was amazed that fur seals, provided only with flippers which make them elegant swimmers in the water but are less-than ideal for locomotion on land, should choose to spend time on top of a hill. Most of the fur seals just ignored me. From time to time, curiosity would induce one or other to approach me.
Jan and new friend: Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
My technique was to talk softly to them, expressing my perfectly genuine admiration for their beauty which either soothed or puzzled them, but at no time did I have any fear of attack. These were wild animals and it’s dangerous to anthropomorphise but it’s hard not to feel some sort of kinship with creatures sharing so many human characteristics. Half-buried in the long tussock grass, the seals had the same sort of appeal as meerkats.
Sitting with Seals: Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
I must have stayed in these idyllic surroundings for at least half an hour before rather reluctantly descending to the main beach, where I watched a South Georgia Pipit hopping across the rock face.
This time on my own, I retraced my outgoing route back towards the landing point, taking a few photographs but mainly trying to absorb the scene. With such a crowded scene, it was hard to avoid closely approaching creatures. The penguins stood alert, walked in groups, came and went between the beach and the sea where shoals swam up and down. Fur seals either lay relaxing, scampered around looking for play fights or took to the water where their rather clumsy movements were instantly transformed into a elegant ballet. I passed a few isolated elephant seals who merely relaxed, occasionally relieving an itch by languid scratching with a front flipper. So, I found myself walking with penguins and other species and, after a while, it seemed quite normal. I tried to keep my movements slow and steady so as not to ‘spook’ the creatures but, from time to time, they would appear to not notice me and nearly run into me. Again, my technique was to talk quietly to nearby creatures, reasoning that if it works with dogs (admittedly partly domesticated by man), why not other species?
King penguin: Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
Arriving back at the landing point, I’d originally intended to explore in the opposite direction but expedition staff were clearing that area following an incident where one of my fellow travellers had been bitten by a small fur seal! Instead, I had a good look at the group of elephant seals before perching myself on a suitable flat rock in a shallow stream to watch the behaviour of a small group of King Penguins for a while.
It was now after 10.00 a.m. and so, tired after my early start, I returned by Zodiac to the ship after a very special experience at Gold Harbour.
After the exertions of the morning, I was glad of a more relaxed afternoon. The ship left Gold Harbour on a heading of about 30 degrees east of north for four days sailing to our next landfall at Gough Island. The afternoon had become sunny and it was pleasant being on deck watching South Georgia recede behinds us. There was considerable interest as we passed two icebergs. On the television in my room I watched the Milestone Films extracts from the early film ‘Southward on the Quest’ about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1916 Antarctic exploration mission. At 5.15, I attended Luke Kenny’s interesting lecture on the two years he spent at King Edward Point Research Station, Grytviken, carrying out research to support the current policy on fishing in South Georgia waters.
But the afternoon brought more excitement: a large iceberg had been seen on radar about 13 nautical miles ahead, slightly to the right of our track and the Captain would give us a slightly closer view. And what a view! We were approaching a tabular iceberg where the vertical ice wall facing us was at least 2 miles in extent, rising above the sea at least 150 feet. Most of the passengers were on deck to admire this unexpected spectacle, although the wind was quite strong. In addition, when the wake from the ship bounced off the wall of the iceberg and returned, the sea became quite lively and spray was being thrown at the side of the ship perhaps 20 feet above the water. Once we passed the second corner of the iceberg, it was clear that the adjacent ‘side’ was at least as long as the first. It was an unbelievable sight.
The evening meal was a very special Centenary Dinner to celebrate 100 years since the Shackleton Endurance Expedition 1914-1917. The food on this trip, under the supervision of Executive Chef Pia, had been uniformly excellent, with a varied selection of menus at each meal.
That was the end of our period in South Georgia. There were four full days sailing to reach the final islands on our itinerary - the Tristan da Cunha group.
Next South Atlantic post.
All my South Atlantic posts.
You can find all my pictures on the trip in the Collection Cape to Cape (still being added to, at the time of writing).
There are a few pictures of the trip in the album South Atlantic Voyage.
['Cape to Cape' collection added 5-Apr-2016]