Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

Mar 18, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer

During the night, National Geographic Explorer slowly made her way along the South Georgia coastline and entered Fortuna Bay just before daybreak. The wind conditions were better than forecast, but it was still a little murky outside—rainy with low clouds. Only the highest mountain peaks were visible, stark against the gray skies. Promising weather for us to retrace the last few miles of the Shackleton hike!

Guests interested in the hike gobbled and early breakfast and went ashore. We ascended a steep slope covered with tussock grass, then headed up a steadier and gradual rise over vegetation that was soon replaced by loose rock. With the wind at our backs, we made good progress and took in the surrounding landscape while thinking back to what Frank Worseley, Tom Crean, and Ernest Shackleton must have experienced as they neared their treasured goal: to reach help to rescue their three shipmates at Pegotty Bluff and the 22 men left under Frank Wild’s leadership on Elephant Island.

We passed Crean Lake and when we reached the high point of the walk, we spotted the Stromness Whaling Station in the distance and even further out in the bay, our ship! We made our way down a scree slope and ended our descent at the foot of the famous waterfall where the three men, no longer wanting to backtrack, hung their climbing rope from a rock and slid down the freezing-cold waters within 100 or so yards from the glacial plain that leads to the whaling station.

For guests left on the ship, breakfast was a more leisurely affair—until they heard an announcement of a possible blue whale sighting. It did indeed turn out to be a small blue whale and, thanks to the expert maneuvering of the ship, guests were able to get great views of this massive cetacean before heading for Stromness.

Once in Stromness Bay, we sighted Leith Whaling Station, the largest of the stations to operate on South Georgia and also a part of the Falkland Islands Conflict. The ship parked ridiculously close to the landing beach, where fur seal pups frolicked in the gentlest of surf. In no time, groups were ashore and off to do their different activities. Guests could, if they wished, participate in a BioBlitz—a citizen science project with the objective to record photographically all that we saw on our various walks.

Our undersea team also participated in this activity using plankton tows to look for evidence of microplastics—one of the scourges of time.

It was evident that guests took to this idea with great enthusiasm, and all the way up the glacial plain ending at the foot of the waterfall, orange jackets were stooped over as we sighted and photographed the many plants, lichens, mosses, birds, mammals, and even insects we saw along the way. Our photos from the BioBlitz will be shared with the South Georgia Heritage Trust to be included in their efforts to monitor invasive plant species on the island. We will also upload our photos from the BioBlitz to the iNaturalist website so the data is available to anyone who wishes to use it around the world.

In the afternoon, we headed out into windy and rough seas to Prion Island. Once there, however, it was decided that we would make another attempt tomorrow when the weather was a bit drier.

But this under no circumstances meant that we had the afternoon off! Before tea, we heard guest speaker Shelly Carson lecture on “Your Creative Brain” and Kerstin Langerberger gave a talk called “Life on South Georgia.” Our usual recap was followed by dinner and afterward, we met in the lounge to hear our own Doug Gualtieri and the Spice Boys shake up the old limbs on the dance floor.

It was a fantastic day—and what a lesson in humility. The bulk of the images taken during the BioBlitz were not the usual charismatic species but rather, those living organisms that we often overlook—plankton, mosses, lichens, and other plants. It was good to be reminded that the health of our planet depends on the well being of these species just as much as those that are more evident.

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About the Author

Edward Shaw


Edward Shaw has travelled widely as a naturalist and guide. For the past 29 years he has lived with his family in northwestern Patagonia, initially working as a teacher and subsequently working in community projects before returning to expedition ships. Edward is deeply committed to the principles behind sustainable development. He is happily married and the father of five children.

About the Photographer

Kerstin Langenberger


Kerstin Langenberger is deeply in love with the Polar regions. Originally from Germany, she lived in Iceland for seven years where she graduated with a degree in environmental science. She later spent a year on Svalbard, Norway, where she became an Arctic nature guide. Since then, Kerstin has been working on expedition ships traveling to both polar regions and strives to be an ambassador for the rapidly changing ecosystems found there. The quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” sums up Kerstin’s drive to live a life centered around nature and conservation. In addition to being a hut warden and ranger in Iceland, she spent a year working in conservation in New Zealand and joined the crew of Greenpeace's flagship Rainbow Warrior in Scandinavia. Recently, she spent two summer seasons on the subantarctic island of South Georgia where she supported the important work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust.

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