From the National Geographic Explorer in South Georgia

Nov 18, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer

To the victor belongs the spoils
King penguins on the beach at Gold Harbor
Macaroni penguins at Cooper Bay

Gold Harbor and Cooper Bay, South Georgia Island

Today was our last day on South Georgia, and, boy, did we pack in a full day!

Last night at our evening recap, photo team leader Ralph Lee Hopkins proposed that we begin this day with an early-morning landing. A wave of incredulity swept through the lounge as we realized the hour of dawn at this southern latitude. But no, he was serious, and there we were at 4:00a.m., lined up in the mud room of National Geographic Explorer to board our Zodiacs and head for the beach at Gold Harbor. The hoarse roar of bull elephant seals resonated even before we could make out their massive bodies on the beach. Our object was a quest for photographs in the soft, magic light of dawn. Soon we were all seeking the unique angle, the perfect background, soft or sharp focus, and resplendent reflections that would set our photos apart from the ordinary, for South Georgia is most definitely far from ordinary. Glaciers spilling over the crest of the coastal mountains set the stage of this most remarkable place.

Massive male elephant seals competed for control of the remaining harems of females. Every trespass was met, first, with a loud roar, and then, if that failed to repel the interloper, with a blubbery charge. The huge males rose up to their full height and crashed together in a battle of titans. Pups of the year, newly independent of their mothers, looked on and tried to stay out of the way. Some day, given luck and a whole lot of squid, they will not be quite as consummately cute as they are today, and they will take their turn in the elephant seal mating game.

By the time we returned to the beach after breakfast, things had calmed down a bit. The seals mostly rested with only occasional territorial disputes, and we could focus our cameras and our attention on the stately king penguins coming and going through the surf, and on the brown "oakum boy" chicks from last year, whistling (mostly unsuccessfully) to be fed.

For the afternoon and our final South Georgia outing, we moved to Cooper Bay, near the southeast corner of the island. Here, Zodiacs were our tool of exploration. Where else can we find four penguin species (king, gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni) on a single outing? Antarctic fur seals, not yet established on the breeding beaches, played around the rock islets, getting a free massage from the ropey kelp that grows there. As the elephant seals finish their breeding for the year, the fur seals are just starting theirs. The beaches are rapidly filling with large males, fresh from a spring spent feeding on krill in the Southern Ocean northeast of South Georgia. They compete violently for small territories and the right to breed with any females they can corral there. Elegant light-mantled sooty albatrosses signaled their breeding in a much more gentle way, soaring over their nesting cliffs in an aerial pas de deux of beautifully coordinated flight, accompanied by a haunting, plaintive call, a call that fixes the Antarctic island of South Georgia indelibly in our minds.

And now we are off to Antarctica.

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About the Author

Steve Maclean


Steve is a zoologist and ecologist, broadly interested in the ecology and natural history of plants, birds, mammals, and insects. Steve received a doctorate in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley and spent 26 years on the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks as Professor of Biology and Director of International Programs. He taught courses in ecology and authored over fifty scientific papers.

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