South Georgia

I headed straight from the grey, rocky sand toward a lush ridge of tussock grass, only to stop dead in my tracks halfway there as what I presumed was a boulder tossed its head back and let out a bellowing roar. Startled, I looked more closely and noted that all the “rocks” scattered throughout the surrounding grasses were elephant seals. The one I’d intended to put my bag on was a good specimen of the world’s largest seal species, at least 12 foot long and probably three or four tons heavy. A troop of King Penguins waddled up the coast from my left side as a fur seal emerged from the waves on my right side, Antarctic terns dove into kelp beds just behind me and  a pair of endemic South Georgia pintail ducks dove into a little pond just to the right of my elephant seal boulder. This was Pegotty Bluff in King Haakon Bay, the spot where Earnest Shackleton and his small search party camped briefly while seeking rescue for themselves and the remaining shipwrecked crew abandoned at Elephant Island. It was an appropriate introduction to South Georgia – an island burdened with human history and teaming with wildlife.

South Georgia is 900 miles southeast of the Falklands, seemingly a piece of Antarctica stranded too far north to be fully Antarctic but too far east to be related to South America. The result is an island endowed with stunning peaks and glaciers but also with more green and an amazing abundance and variety of wildlife. My next stop, Salisbury Plain, only reinforced this impression as swimming fur seals and penguins glided to shore alongside the zodiac. On land, I picked my way around sparring fur seals, slumbering elephant seal pups, mischievous Snowy Sheathbills, and huddles of King Penguins that literally covered the coast. The true wildlife spectacle, though, were the thousands of King Penguins densely packed onto the muddy plains behind the beach, stretching into a jostling mosaic of brown, black and white as far as the eye could see, even up onto the surrounding peaks. Fuzzy, brown King Penguin chicks, ten months old and exceedingly plump, clustered in curious packs among the wandering, elegantly sleek adults, hopefully haranguing any nearby for a feeding. Being the fourth or fifth largest King Penguin breeding colony in the world, there was an endless  supply of chicks, but parents recognize their own and reserve their precious food supplies for them. Unwarranted requests were generally ignored, though one adult responded to persistent harassment by sharply whacking the offending baby with a wing, sending the baby into a tizzy. The disciplined baby spiraled haphazardly through the masses, wings outstretched and flailing, starting a domino affect as several other babies whirled into beating frenzies in response to their received blows.

Adding to their entertainment value, the penguin babies were clearly unaware that there was a required distance of fifteen feet between humans and wildlife at all times. Gangs of fattened chicks waddled up, bold leaders eyed me and pecked at my camera lens as others tugged at rain pants. No amount of scolding nor backing up stopped their curiosity-driven endeavors, quite a contrast to the teenagers. Far less bold, these youngsters seemed to seek refuge in the middle of the pack, unsure of where they belonged in their half de-fuzzed states.

Gold Harbour was the spot that made me decide that South Georgia was like the Galapagos – times ten – a wildlife mecca with heaps of huge, uninhibited animals, no trails, and no barriers. My introduction to this beach was a pre-dawn battle between two elephant seal bulls. They towered several feet above me as they smashed their chests against one another, sinking teeth into flesh whenever possible. Further down the beach were clashing giant petrels, avidly defending a fresh seal pup carcass that provided a bloody feast. Unshy wildlife behaved unabashedly in every direction, treating humans as they would any other part of their environment, ignoring or interacting with us as suited their purposes. Also unaware of the fifteen-foot rule, elephant seal pups teethed on rubber boots, toppled camera tripods and occasionally rose up on their tails to propose play fight right up in an unsuspecting human face. Later in the day I found myself scurrying from one spot to another, avoiding elephant seal bulls that quickly shifted from lazily tossing sand on their backs to keep cool in the so-called heat of the day to plowing down the beach like a freight train, all tussling over a single female who became fair game when she abandoned the protection of her harem to head for the water. Her journey was delayed as the winning male captured her with a fin and enveloped her under his impressive mass. Males throughout the area continued their rumblings until the act was complete and the female disappeared into the waves. The same surf delivered a raft of unruffled King Penguins. Elephant seal politics concerned them not at all, they had chicks to re-locate and feed in the colony beyond.

A zodiac cruise through Cooper’s Bay yielded two new species of penguin for me – chinstraps and macaronis. The chinstraps were small with a delicate black stripe outlining their face on an otherwise white front. The macaronis looked like giant rockhoppers with particularly long and brilliant orange forehead tassels, sleeked back to look like awkward toupees. These and Gentoo Penguins were nested high up on tussock-laden hills. They painstakingly tripped up and down the steep banks from their hunting waters to their protected nests, filthying themselves in their clumsy efforts. The waters below teamed with gracefully bathing penguins, much more comfortable in their liquid home than on land. All around the shore, pools were alive with assorted seabirds, seals and undulating kelp forests, their activity and proximity seemingly dissolving the rubber barrier of the zodiac.

The prevalence of wildlife on South Georgia is actually a testament to nature’s resilience. Once a hub for commercial whaling, sealing and Antarctic exploration, fur seals on and around South Georgia were hunted for their pelts through the late 1800’s and, when fur seals were already thought to be extinct, the carnage shifted to elephant seals for their oil in the 1900‘s. This entire British overseas territory now serves as a wildlife sanctuary and is happily overrun with seals and other fauna. A massive restoration project is currently underway to eradicate introduced rodents and reindeer in an attempt to end seabird predation, protect endemic species and restore the environment to its pre-human occupation state.

No longer threatened with extinction, fur seals now dominate old whaling stations as they and other wildlife utilize rotting ships, deteriorating buildings and rusting propellors for protection against the elements. The animals are so pervasive and in charge that I had to step around elephant seals to enter the Grytviken Museum. I had to wait my turn in a line of King Penguins to access the Grytviken Church. I had to navigate around seals and enter a white picket fence, placed there to keep wildlife from knocking down headstones, to toast Shackleton’s grave. My visit to Prion Island, site of one of the only accessible nesting colonies of Wandering Albatross in the world, the largest albatross species, was stymied by contentious, sharp-toothed fur seals who claimed the boardwalk and refused to relent their hard-won breeding territories. Disappointing as the latter was, this is as it should be. South Georgia is now ruled by the wildlife and you’re welcome to become part of their world, if you can battle past the defending fur seal bulls.

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