From the National Geographic Explorer in South Georgia
Nov 16, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
Salisbury Plain, Bay of Isles, South Georgia
On the southern edge of the Bay of Isles, Salisbury Plain meets the sea. King penguins are literally everywhere. As many as 250,000 – 60,000 of them breeding pairs – dot the beach and line the stream that runs from the Lucas and Grace glaciers to the sea. Southern Elephant seals are hauled out, with males defending their territory. Fur seals also share the beach. Skuas nest on the slopes above the colony.
It is springtime here on Salisbury Plain and love is in the air. Beachmaster elephant seals are fighting for the right to mate with females who have only recently weaned their three-week-old pups. Huge bull Antarctic fur seals are just beginning to come ashore to establish themselves, as soon females will begin arriving. A lone Gentoo penguin surfed into the landing and even though this is the third largest of the 17 species of penguins worldwide, it is dwarfed by the size and beauty of the kings all around.
Alternate sun and snow flurries created an ever-changing canvas for photographers to work with. Working for the establishing shot, the challenge was to make sense of the sheer chaos of so many animals interspersed across the plain.
When Captain James Cook landed on South Georgia on the 17th of January 1775, he attached little commercial value to his discovery. However he did report “sea-bears (Antarctic fur seals) were pretty numerous.” Excited by this report the first sealer arrived in 1786 to harvest the luxurious pelts. Within 50 years of Cook’s news an estimated 1,200,000 fur seals had been taken, plunging the population into commercial extinction.
Small groups of fur seals went undetected in the Willis Islands and on Bird Isle at the extreme northwest of South Georgia. This small group of seals is responsible for re-populating the island with current estimated population exceeding four million and an annual growth rate of almost ten percent. Today it can be said that South Georgia is literally being overrun by Antarctic fur seals.
This is exactly the situation we encountered aboard the National Geographic Explorer when we attempted a landing at the small beach leading to the important breeding site for the wandering albatross on Prion Island. Huge male fur seals were so densely packed and aggressive a landing was deemed impossible without creating havoc both for fur seals and visitors alike.