The isolation and relatively hospitable conditions of South Georgia have made the island an important breeding site for millions of sea birds and pinnipeds. It lies between 54° and 55° S latitude, but is constantly bathed by cold Antarctic currents and is therefore much colder and less hospitable than one would think. Even though the island is south of the Antarctic Convergence, placing it within the Antarctic environment, its coastline remains ice free...apart from the occasional ice berg that drifts past. The island is long and narrow, measuring about 100 miles long and 20 miles wide. The southern or windward shore is exposed to the prevailing westerlies and is often buffeted by storms. The northern or leeward shore, however, is protected from much of the stormy weather by the interior spine of mountains and consists of a very crenulated shoreline providing numerous fjords, inlets, and bays. Most of the historical and wildlife sites are understandably on the northern side of the island.
South Georgia was discovered in 1675 by the British merchant Antoine de la Roché, when his ship was blown way off course as he rounded Cape Horn. He found a safe anchorage in what is now called Drygalski Fjord at the southeastern end of the island. The next sighting was made in 1756 by the Spanish ship Léon and the island was named Île de St. Pierre by a French passenger. The first recorded landing was made by Capt. Cook in 1775, during his second voyage around the world. Cook landed in Possession Bay on the north coast and claimed the island and named it for King George III. He felt the island had little value, but noted the abundance of fur seals. This brought the sealers, and within 25 years, the unimaginable numbers of fur seals were virtually wiped out. The sealers then had to search farther afield from their bases in New Zealand to find other populations and quickly discovered the remaining Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic islands, and eventually Antarctica itself in 1820. Later, it became an ideal site for the establishment of shore-based whaling operations to take advantage of the incredible concentrations of baleen whales that came to the feeding grounds in the far south. They also were nearly wiped out and operations shut down in the 1960s.
Today, the most famous denizens of South Georgia must surely be the king penguins. It is estimated there are more than 500,000 breeding pairs on the island. The king penguin is remarkable because the rookeries are occupied all year, and like its larger relative the emperor penguin, lays only a single egg and builds no nest. Instead, the egg is incubated while balanced on the adult’s feet and covered with a warm fold of bare skin. During the summer, we may see them with eggs or small chicks, as well as large chicks with their dark brown down (called oakum boys by the whalers of old). Therefore, individual pairs can only raise one young every two years. Unlike most of the other penguins we have seen thus far on our voyage, king penguins do not feed upon krill, or even squids...they prefer small fish. They eat primarily lantern fishes which they find at depths of 300 to 1,000 feet, and perhaps more than 200 miles away from their nesting colonies.
We always try to visit several king penguin colonies during our voyages to South Georgia. The landings near the colonies, some of which contain literally hundreds of thousands of king penguins, generally afford easy walking and exploring, and most of these sites are also inhabited by numerous other species, such as gentoo penguins, skuas, gulls, albatrosses, ducks, sheathbills, shags, elephant seals, and fur seals. Read about our incredible Arctic cruises and glaciers as well!