Salisbury Plain & Prion Island

Mar 19, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer

As the fog lifted off the shoreline, the awesome sight and sound of South Georgia’s second-largest king penguin colony at Salisbury Plain came into view. At the height of the season, 60,000 pairs of penguins may raise their young here, with the total colony estimated at 250,000 individuals. Zodiacs zipped us ashore to the abundant welcoming committee that seemed pleased to see us arrive. The king penguins raced rings around the Zodiacs, chirping their welcome. Nearer shore, fur seal pups played in the surf, testing their bravado in the waters, ducking, diving, leaping, and swerving as the Zodiacs landed on the steep, pebbly beach.

Fur seals lined our way across the plain to the site of the colony, baring their teeth and barking before realizing we were bigger than they thought and deciding to retreat. As we neared the bulk of the colony, we could distinguish the young squeals from the adult calls, and those of us paying attention at last night’s recap tried to distinguish the female calls from the male. The young, brown oakum boys—miniature, brown fuzzballs among the sleek black, white, and orange elders— were protected in crèches toward the middle of the colony. Some oakum boys were being fed, some were looking for their feed, and others huddled together as they waited for their parents to come back from the water. It was such a privilege to spend a couple of hours at the colony. Many of us will be editing photos of our experience for a long time.

With impeccable timing, fog shrouded the ship just as we headed back on board to recharge our batteries, warm our hands, and sit down to a delightful lunch. As we ate, the ship repositioned closer to Prion Island where we had a rare chance to see nesting albatross up close.

Back in the Zodiacs, we enjoyed a tour of the Prion Island shoreline exposed by low tide. Curling fronds of kelp swirled in ever-changing circular patterns with the rise and fall of the waves. Fur seal pups peered out from high, rocky ledges while giant petrels grabbed a moment’s rest on the water. We then spotted a Viking boat on the horizon—our friends from National Geographic Explorer bringing hot cocoa to keep us warm in the damp afternoon.

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About the Author

Gail Ashton

Naturalist/Expedition Diver

With a bachelor’s degree from Wales and a Ph.D. from Scotland, Gail has used her skills in marine biology to pursue her passion: investigating marine biodiversity all over the world. As a research scientist based in San Francisco, she has led projects in coastal marine communities from Alaska to Panama. A cold-water diver at heart, Gail jumped at the opportunity to lead a research project on the impacts of climate change that involved spending two years diving under the ice in Antarctica. Other projects have taken her to Florida, Guam and Indonesia.

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