South Georgia: Penguins, seals and following in Shackleton's footsteps

As South Georgia is in the news, we revisit Wanderlust co-founder Lyn Hughes' up close and personal encounter with the king penguins and elephant seals of the South Atlantic...

7 mins

We’ve got a wandering albatross off the stern. If you’ve got antifreeze in your veins come out and see it,” announced Martin.

“Which one is it?” somebody asked as they peered out of the lounge window, reluctant to venture into the flurries of snow. “You can’t miss it,” retorted Martin. “It’s the one the size of a sheep!”

I was aboard Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the expedition cruise ship, approaching South Georgia, more than 2,000km from South America and 1,500km from Antarctica. A crescent-shaped island, its jagged, snow-covered peaks often draw comparisons to a bit of Switzerland dropped into polar waters.

It’s spectacularly beautiful and incredibly remote, with a population of just four people – but a staggering amount of wildlife.

The waters around South Georgia are a rich soup of marine life, attracting an abundance of seals, penguins and seabirds. Captain Cook visited in 1775 and reported back on the numerous fur seals. Sealers arrived within months, and between 1786 and 1825, 1.2 million seals were killed for their pelts.

In the early 20th century, it was the whalers who caused devastation until the 1960s when there were too few whales left to make whaling worthwhile.

Welcome to South Georgia

Two albatross on South Georgia Island (Shutterstock)

Two albatross on South Georgia Island (Shutterstock)

Our first stop was to be Prion Islet, off South Georgia’s north coast, which is home to around 50 pairs of nesting albatross. Access is carefully regulated – if we could land at all. As David, our expedition leader, warned: “We may not be able to get past the fur seals!”

South Georgia’s population of fur seals had been hunted down to around 100 by the 1930s. Numbers are now estimated at more than three million and rising – and causing serious concern as the seals spread, eroding the hillsides and displacing colonies of penguins.

“We’ll be trying to persuade the fur seals to give us a section of the beach,” David explained. “If they do charge, stand your ground. If you retreat they’ll chase you. Daunting, but not as scary as it looks.”

It was tempting to giggle at the briefing, but running the gauntlet of seals on the beach really did get the adrenalin going, and Martin and the other guides had to fend off some particularly thuggish brutes with paddles.

The next hazard was deep mud

An albatross chick in its nest on South Georgia Island (Shutterstock)

An albatross chick in its nest on South Georgia Island (Shutterstock)

As we squelched our way up the steep hillside, we’d occasionally sink up to our knees as the thick goo sucked a Wellington in.

However, the sight that met us at the top of the hill made all the dramas worthwhile. Several pairs of wandering albatross were on their nests, a couple of them with huge fluffy chicks. There wasn’t much wind but every now and then an adult would stretch and flap its wings, leaving us to marvel at the 3.5m wingspan.

Wandering albatross figures have been plummeting by 10% to 15% a year, largely due to birds getting snagged on the hooks of long-line fishing operations.

South Georgia has introduced fishing regulations to protect albatross and other seabirds – such as only allowing lines to be dropped at night (when birds aren’t feeding), and demanding heavier weights are put on the line so they don’t hang near the surface.

A few years ago, long-lining was responsible for 20,000 seabird deaths a year in South Georgia’s waters. Last year, it dropped to 15 birds, none of them albatross.

Plain of the penguins

The king penguins of South Georgia (Shutterstock)

The king penguins of South Georgia (Shutterstock)

If the albatross made many of us emotional, our next shore landing was to give us complete sensory overload. With a glacier spilling on to one end of the beach, the huge expanse of Salisbury Plain would be an impressive spot even without the 100,000 or more king penguins dotted along its length and up the hillside behind.

Second-largest of all the penguins, the kings seemed oblivious to our presence as they went about their daily business. Some were chilling out alone or in pairs, seemingly in quiet contemplation.

Others followed each other around in threes or fours, sometimes moving in formation like ballerinas performing the pas de trois from Swan Lake. Every now and then a fracas would break out as a group of penguins started slapping each other noisily with their flippers.

In the midst of them all was a huge crèche of woolly-coated youngsters, as large as the adults; other juvenilles shuffled around behind their parents, looking like stooped old men in scruffy overcoats.

Born the year previous, they were almost at the stage of moulting into adult plumage, prior to taking to the sea for the first time. Some had already started moulting and looked like fancy French poodles with pompoms above their webbed feet, while others were like hunched youths in hoodies.

We’d been told to keep a distance of five metres from the wildlife, but the penguins clearly hadn’t been at the same briefing, waddling past just a bird’s-length away. Some of the young birds were particularly curious.

“This is Freakball,” said eight-year-old Megan, introducing me to a particularly tatty specimen that kept investigating her daypack. Sit down, and you became one of the melee, a blob of Gore-Tex in a sea of brown fluff and sleek black and white.

The Harbour House & Whaling Station on Stromness Island (Shutterstock)

The Harbour House & Whaling Station on Stromness Island (Shutterstock)

It’s impossible to visit South Georgia without immersing yourself in the Shackleton story. Having been trapped in pack ice for 10 months in 1915, the explorer’s vessel, the Endurance, was finally crushed and had to be abandoned.

Shackleton and his men camped on the ice for several months until it broke up and they could take to the sea in open boats. After several days they landed on Elephant Island, and the bulk of the men stayed there while Shackleton and five others carried on to South Georgia for help.

After 16 days of rough seas they landed on the southern side of the island – but all the settlements were in the north. Only Shackleton and two others, Crean and Worsley, were fit enough to cross the mountains that lay in their way. Walking through the night, they knew they were saved when they heard the welcome sound of the steam whistle used to wake up the workers at the whaling station at Stromness.

Weather conditions permitting, it is possible to follow in the footsteps of Shackleton’s crossing. We walked the last section of it, from Fortuna Bay to Stromness, a three-hour trek through tussock grass and snow. We paused for a breather at the heavily frozen Crean Lake, which poor Tom Crean fell in – no fun in polar temperatures and with no change of clothing.

Reaching the top of a saddle, we gazed on the derelict buildings of Stromness – and a steep slope of snow, right in front of us. “It took Shackleton and his men several hours to get down from here,” said David. “We can do it a lot more quickly!”

A few minutes later, I found myself at the bottom of the incline with a huge grin and a very soggy behind. Ironically, the most hazardous bit of the walk was yet to come.

I’m sure Shackleton didn’t have dozens of belligerent fur seals as a welcoming committee when he reached the whaling station. All former sympathy for the previously persecuted fur seals evaporated as I found myself clenching my fists and roaring back at them in a bout of “Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough!” frustration as we ran another gauntlet.

A dram for the man

The Norwegian church on Grytviken (Shutterstock)

The Norwegian church on Grytviken (Shutterstock)

Shackleton returned to South Georgia in 1922 en route to Antarctica once more. However, he died of a heart attack in Grytviken, another former whaling station, and was later buried in its little cemetery.

Situated just around the bay from South Georgia’s settlement at King Edward Point, Grytviken is the main landing for ships visiting the island, and as David explained: “It’s become a tradition for crews to stop at the cemetery first to raise a toast to ‘The Boss’.”

We carried on the tradition, knocking back rum as we gathered around the tribute-strewn grave. Some plastic roses and a dedication had been left by Shackleton’s granddaughter, who had visited in January 2005. She commented on his ‘persistence and determination’.

His character is also summed up by a quote on the back of his tombstone from his favourite poet, Robert Browning: ‘I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.'

There are further tributes to Shackleton in Grytviken’s pretty Norwegian church. Restored a few years ago, it is still used for services by some ships – there have even been marriages, the most recent being last Christmas.

From here it is a short walk to South Georgia’s museum, run by Tim and Pauline Carr, who are legends in the Southern Ocean. The museum may be small, but it must be one of the world’s most interesting, crammed full of exhibits on the island’s history and wildlife, as well as hosting South Georgia’s only retail outlet.

Pauline spotted some of us studying a photograph of Stromness, so familiar from the previous day’s walk. Shackleton made for the manager’s house on arrival there, and it is often pointed out in photographs. A bath had been removed from this house in an attempt to preserve it.

However, Pauline revealed that a Norwegian had recently found some old plans that showed the building that for years had been presumed to be the manager’s villa was yet to be built in 1916. As Pauline said: “The bath was the ‘Holy Relic’ of South Georgia. Now there are lots of red faces – it’s obviously not the right one!”

An elephant seal on South Georgia's shores (Shutterstock)

An elephant seal on South Georgia's shores (Shutterstock)

South Georgia’s climate is described everywhere as being cold, cloudy and windy, but so far we’d been extraordinarily lucky with the weather.

The next morning we woke to glorious sunshine – some of the hardier types were on deck in T-shirts. “This is ridiculous,” chuckled one of the guides. “We’re using up all the season’s luck in one trip!” However, we were warned that our planned landing at Gold Harbour might not happen: “There’s a savage swell out there.”

Fortunately the Zodiac I boarded rode the waves perfectly, and Martin ‘surfed’ it onto the beach at a speed that made us whoop. We were struck dumb by the beauty of the spot, and all headed off in different directions through yet another huge colony of noisy king penguins.

Having waded into the crush of the central crèche, I wandered back down to the shore, only to find one fluffy youngster following me, avoiding my eye whenever I turned round to look at him.

The waves were strong and penguins were surfing back in from their feeding forays. Sometimes they disappeared under the water to reappear spluttering; some lost their balance as they hit the beach. One was thrown out of the water in a spectacular somersault – shaking himself down, he took a moment to compose himself before waddling off, head held high.

It was warm, and some penguins were flopped out on their bellies on the sand, basking in the sunshine. The shore was littered with elephant seals, and the huge males were visibly steaming in the surprising heat. They scraped out hollows to lie in, then flicked sand over themselves with their flippers.

The Zodiacs were ferrying people back to the ship, but I’d found my piece of paradise and didn’t want to leave. Taking my lead from the penguins and elephant seals, I scraped a little hollow in the sand and lay down. Bliss.

The trip

Lyn travelled to South Georgia in 2006, when this article was originally published.

High season is the southern summer (November to February). You will see penguins at different stages of the breeding cycle in all months.

Fur seals are more of a problem early in the season when they are breeding. Whales tend to be more common later in the season.

Related Articles