Today was our last day to experience the wilderness of South Georgia. Tucked away into a small cove at the northern tip of the island, the National Geographic Endurance was surrounded by a sampling of almost every species we had seen over the last week. Nesting albatrosses tucked away in the tussock grass eyed Zodiacs passing by, and thousands of macaroni penguins called out to each other and at passing skuas warning them away from their precious eggs. On the beaches, hundreds of Antarctic fur seals eyed us warily as we watched them battle for small parcels of territory on the cobbled shore; female fur seals fought the males off with even more vigor than other males – likely just wanting a moment’s rest with their newborn pups before the males claimed their rights over their harems. As the Endurance pulled anchor and started making her way north, she made one last stop to bow into a cove of Trinity Island. Here, thousands of macaroni penguins made a colony, and one hundred years ago, a small colony of fur seals survived the slaughter of the fur trade to repopulate the entire Southern Ocean.
We woke up to sunny day in Fortuna Bay. This is where Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worseley and Tom Crean started the last leg of their legendary crossing of South Georgia, following their unbelievable 16-day journey on the lifeboat "James Caird" from Elephant Island to King Haakon Bay. They knew that if only they could get in touch with the people of the whaling station in the next fjord, their remaining 22 men at Point Wild could have a fair chance to be rescued. We have learned that the incredible story ended well, thanks to the unconditioned help from Norwegian whalers on Strömness whaling station, and finally the Chilean ship Yelcho that brought the 22 men safely back to civilization. This morning, 39 guests and a handful staff and crew from National Geographic Endurance had the pleasure of walking in Shackleton´s footsteps to cover the last leg from Fortuna Bay to Strömness. Those who braved the walk were blessed with magnificent weather and got a hiking experience to remember. The fur seal bulls on the beach of Strömness, however, were bit of a challenge, but the hikers were safely funneled towards the Zodiacs, thanks to the experienced guards from the staff. After lunch, the ship relocated to Hercules Bay, a sheltered cove on the Busen Peninsula. The dead-calm weather was inviting for kayaking, which many of the guests chose to go for. Others preferred a Zodiac cruise, and everybody who went out got to see macaroni penguins up close. We also spotted a few gentoos and king penguins in addition to fur seals and elephant seals. A few light-mantled sooty albatrosses soaring over our heads were also a delight to see. Amazing lenticular clouds framing the mountains in the evening provided a spectacular finale to our last full day of exploration on South Georgia.
In the afternoon we repositioned to Stromness, the site of an old whaling station. Here, some of us Zodiac cruised while many kayaked amongst the abundant fur seals. We experienced pretty much every behavior possible as they were particularly feisty today. As the afternoon progressed, a fleet of alien spaceship lenticular clouds developed and as the sunset and the alpenglow developed, we enjoyed one of the most spectacular evenings possible. The magic and wonder of South Georgia continued today. We awoke to glassy seas as we approached Godthul, a beautiful bay that made for a perfect morning spot. Here, some of us Zodiac cruised, while others hiked to a lake and beyond. All enjoyed abundant wildlife and stunning views. Fur seals and elephant seals lined the beaches while pintail ducks and South Georgia pipits abounded.
While South Georgia never ceases to amaze, some days are beyond magic. Today was one of those days. From the very beginning, when we arrived on the beach at St. Andrew’s Bay beneath a patchwork of puffy clouds and warm weather, we were off to a great start. Just getting ashore can often be challenging but today, swell and weather were in our favor so we took the opportunity and traipsed amongst the din of 250,000 pairs of king penguins, South Georgia’s largest colony. These charismatic birds not only covered many square miles of post glacial landscape but were stacked thick along the small adjoining islands of the bay. Sea and penguin layered by cloud and mountain top. On shore some giant petrels were making short work of weak or sick penguins while, just off shore, others were cleaning up after their meal. These large, stocky, confident sea birds plunge their bloodied faces in and out of the water after a meal. Often oblivious to impressed onlookers. Our afternoon offered a slice of history and culture at Grytviken whaling station. This site has been preserved in an effort to educate contemporary generations about the former scale of whaling while also serving as the final resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Massive blubber storage tanks flank the station to the north while equally large diesel tanks mirror them to the south. Between are the various bits of machinery used to process and render blubber into useable oil. A grisly scene to any whale loving naturalist. Above it all was a long, sinuous lenticular cloud, which slowly built during our stay. As we headed away from the station the cloud grew in length and form and was joined by other lenticular clouds in every direction. As the light grew more dim the clouds began to glow. Smooth-edged, elongated formations transformed from pink, to orange, to steely grey as the evening matured. Before the full crescendo we joined our two sister ships, the NG Endurance and Resolution in Cumberland Bay. Side by side by side, beneath a riot of color, three of our Antarctic worthy vessels shared a moment of beauty. Three proud captains, supported by three teams of staff and crew all sharing hellos and “I miss you’s” via radio, aboard three beautiful ships, had a chance to share a moment in one of the most impressive landscapes on the planet. It was just one of those days. Beyond magic.
A guest once remarked, “What I don’t understand about this voyage is that yesterday was the best day of my life, but today is even better.” These words could easily be applied today – yet another spectacular day exploring the wonders of South Georgia. This morning the National Geographic Resolution visited one of the hidden gems along South Georgia’s rugged coast. Adorned with cascades and a waterfall, Hercules Bay is a great place to explore by Zodiac and is home to macaroni penguins and other birds nesting on the cliffs. There’s always a surprise when you explorer at water level. During the afternoon we visited St. Andrews Bay, one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles anywhere on Earth. Here king penguins and elephant and fur seals line the beach as far as the eye can see. In fact, it’s reported that many as 300,000 pairs nest here. The weather was perfect, the light was beautiful, and the wildlife sightings off the charts! And tomorrow could be even better…