Sub-Antarctic South Georgia 2012 Logbook

By Joe Van Os on Dec 20, 2012

It’s been said: “If God took a vacation, ‘he’ would go to South Georgia.”  Obviously, God has high standards!  (And I’m pretty sure this does not refer to Atlanta!)

Our voyage to South Georgia was one of the earliest departures ever offered for a specially designated trip to this amazing sub-Antarctic island.  We traveled in early October when we could be reasonably assured of encountering some snowy landscapes on the island, have thousands of adult king penguins preparing to molt on shore, and have some of the huge beach master elephant seals still present on the beach.  Later in the season, when most ships visit South Georgia, the big bulls have returned to the ocean leaving only females, large “weaner” pups and juvenile males on shore during the “tourist season.”

Our group flew from Chile on the once-a-week flight from Santiago to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.  Since the trip was completely focused on South Georgia, embarking on our voyage from Port Stanley—rather than starting the photo cruise in Ushuaia, Argentina—eliminated almost a day and a half of ocean crossing time.

Along with Americans, our leader/passenger list included travelers from thirteen countries, comprising half of the passengers on board—making this the most international assemblage of photographers we’ve ever had on our photo expeditions.  When tallied with the number of nationalities in the crew, there were people from 22 countries on board!

Saturday, 6 October–Monday, 8 October, 2012, Embark from Port Stanley & Crossing the Southern Ocean to South Georgia
After clearing customs at the RAF Mount Pleasant Airport situated outside of Port Stanley, we traveled by bus to our ship, USHUAIA, and located our cabins.  While our luggage was loaded on board and distributed to our rooms, several bus runs were offered into town for last minute shopping or a quick look at the Port Stanley visitor center.

Once last minute preparations were completed and all passengers were back on board we departed directly into the open ocean for our 3-day crossing.  Dinner followed our mandatory safety/lifeboat drill.  As we sailed away we were accompanied by a squadron of pintado (Cape) petrels, black-browed albatrosses and southern giant petrels—species that would be our almost constant ship-following companions and back-deck photography subjects for the next several days.

Numerous lectures were presented on photography in the southern latitudes, Photoshop and Lightroom techniques, and on topics pertaining to wildlife and geology of South Georgia.  Impromptu discussions and instructional sessions were offered in the bar area.

Our crossing was a relatively easy one, yet it took some people several days to acclimate to the rhythm of the ship.  The dining room was continually full of passengers and the conversations were lively.

Tuesday, 9 October, Arrival at South Georgia
We awoke to an overcast sky and a “following sea” with the seabirds still tracking the foam of the ship’s propeller.

Anna gave an interesting talk about the “Seabirds—who are they? what are they doing? and where are they going?” citing new information on how widely the Procellariidae (albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels) travel broad expanses of ocean in search for food.

At about 1030 hours we sighted the Willis Islands with the highest peak of this tiny archipelago looking sharp, jagged and looming out of the mist.  Next, we spotted the Trinity Islands, low and dark, and then Bird Island—the British Antarctic Survey scientific base.  The main island of South Georgia and its towering snowy peaks and stark white glaciers showed spectacularly in the improving light.

Due to high winds, our proposed landing site at Elsehul was too exposed, so we checked Right Whale Bay and finally chose Rosita Harbor as a safe and fairly sheltered anchorage.  There was a strong cold blasting wind funneling down onto the main beach at Rosita, so a smaller beach sheltered by a belt of kelp was chosen.

We were greeted by immature Antarctic fur seals porpoising in the water around the rocks and Antarctic terns calling above us, heralding our arrival.  A small family of southern elephant seals was on the beach with two small pups, one very newly born with the afterbirth still present.  A leopard seal checked us out briefly, cruised around the Zodiacs causing the fur seals to scatter.  Some of our shipmates climbed the deep snowdrift for scenic views of the bay from higher up the slope.

This was the first landing on South Georgia, so photographically it was the first try at land-based wildlife and landscape photography and, of course, those wide open panoramas showing the dramatic scenery and changeable weather of this magical island.  For some, it was just a treat to get off the ship after almost three days at sea!

Having tested our layered clothing and outerwear for the first time, we returned refreshed from our landing to the warmth of the ship.

For the first time in several days the ship was not rocking and rolling and we sheltered in the safe anchorage at Rosita as hard blasts of snow-laden winds swirled around the ship.  Even for most of our seasoned “Antarctic” travelers, night-time darkness in these southern latitudes was a new experience due to the early season timing of this trip!

Wednesday 10 October, Salisbury Plain
It was a dark and stormy night.  (I’ve always wanted to use that cliché opening phrase!)  It indeed was a stormy night, as we had two or three inches of fresh snow on the ship this morning.  Our destination for the day:  Salisbury Plain, in the Bay of Isles, with its large colony of king penguins, for an all-day landing.  Snow is exactly what we want here, and fresh snow is best of all.

The two big king penguin colonies in South Georgia, one at Salisbury Plain and the other at St. Andrews Bay, are in my estimation two of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.  Shortly after breakfast we were offshore the long sand beach that fronts Salisbury.  To the left of the Plain is Lucas Glacier and, to the right, Grace Glacier.  From the ship we could already see a constant flow of penguins into and out of the water.  Elephant seals were along the length of the beach, but the mass of aggressive Antarctic fur seals had not yet arrived, a fact for which we were thankful.  Snow squalls filled the air, and we knew we were in for a cold, blustery day.  Everyone donned one extra layer of clothing—better to leave it in a dry bag, if necessary, than to need it but not have it with you.

The beach at Salisbury drops off fast, so the landing can be wet.  Today we were lucky—the breaking surf was not so strong as to make holding the Zodiacs difficult.  Watch the ocean, slide to the front, a few quick steps through the water, and we were ashore.  From the ship the massive penguin colony seemed to have distinct margins, but from the shore the boundary is far less easily discerned.

We are met on the beach by large groups of curious king penguins.  Just behind the beach, masses of penguins huddled together, while against the bottom of the hill, groups of the brown chicks formed crèches in the midst of surrounding adult birds.  The scene is so overwhelming for the first-time visitor that it’s hard to decide where to start.  Individual penguin portraits?  Groups along the shore?  Birds in the surf?  Masses of penguins in the main colony area?

Joe kept one area “out of bounds” for a while, so that everyone could get a shot down the length of the beach without other photographers in the scene.  Then we were free to roam, just as long as we followed the minimum impact rules.

One particular small group of penguins, alone by themselves in fresh snow, drew many of us.  To get there, however, required crossing a partially frozen stream—which proved to be not as frozen as it looked.  Consequently several photographers discovered the stream was also far deeper than expected.  Getting extricated from the ice/water/slush/muck while trying to keep camera gear out of the ice/water/slush/muck turned into a major undertaking.  But getting to this group of penguins proved it was worth the trouble.  The penguins stood totally isolated, often almost disappearing in the blowing snow.  The scene was a stark black and white—the only color was the spot of yellow on the birds’ necks.

Many of us also ventured over to the main colony area and a short distance up the grassy hills, in order to gain a photographic vantage point of the masses of birds.  Here the snow was gone, trampled by all the penguins, so after a few shots most of us retreated to work the edges of the colony and the beach area, trying to take more wintery-looking pictures.

One great thing about an all-day landing was that, if so desired, you could go back to the ship in midday to get warm, eat lunch and recharge batteries.  About half the group did this, while the other half spent the entire time ashore.  By around 1600 the light was fading fast as the clouds were thickening, the wind was rising, and the temperature was dropping.  By 1830 we were all back on ship, wind-burned from the weather, but extremely happy with our day at Salisbury.

Thursday 11 October, Prion Island & Stromness
The day dawned bright and cold with a stronger wind than yesterday, the sea churned, and huge breakers rolled onto the shore—so a return visit to Salisbury Plain was cancelled.  But the visit to Prion Island was on as the landing beach is sheltered by a rock reef.  By 0830 Zodiacs were moving everyone onto the landing beach.

The beach at Prion was a medley of wildlife on a small scale—a few hyperactive fur seals were playing around in the water and on the rocks, and gentoo penguins were establishing a breeding rookery right down on the beach.  This is a rat-free island, so the endemic birds are in abundance.  The South Georgia pipit was actively singing at the tops of the tussock grass and the flesh-eating South Georgia pintail ducks were seen flying around and waddling across the mud and up the boardwalk.

At the top of the boardwalk slope three wandering albatross chicks were on their nests fiddling with the tussock grass around the nest and occasionally lifting those long wings out for flapping exercise.  Not easy to control in the strong winds!  The sprigs of gray fluff were still abundant on their necks and shoulders.  No adults flew in to feed these youngsters during our short landing. We enjoyed 360-degree views across to the main island and saw Salisbury Plain enveloped in swirling snow from the high winds.

The winds remained strong.  The program was adjusted so we could try for a landing at historic Stromness where Shackleton finally made contact with civilization after his epic journey from Elephant Island.  USHUAIA anchored at 1600 hours and the landing, onto the shingle beach and soft green grasses and snowy slopes of the valley, followed swiftly after.  The defunct whaling station is out of bounds due to asbestos and flying sheet metal hazards, but in the softening evening light the rusty hulks of the sheds and machinery still provided superb architectural shapes in contrast with the high mountains and scree slopes.

A few fur seals played around the metal structures and elephant seals clustered in their predictable harems.  Some bull elephant seals had taken up residence in the sheds and their bellowing calls reverberated around the site.

After two and a half hours of intense photography we returned to USHUAIA for drinks at the bar and a wonderful colorful sunset of lenticular clouds lighting up the sky, marking the end of a day filled with so many different images.

Friday 12 October, Grytviken & Godthul
The ship anchored overnight in Cumberland Bay West and, early in the morning, headed into the Grytviken anchorage to “drop the hook” at 0800 hours.  Monika made contact with the government officer and passengers were soon cleared to go ashore.  So much to see here!  Larsen’s beautiful white clapboard church in the snow, the remains of the whaling station, Shackleton’s grave, the museum full of treasures and, of course, a place to buy gifts and mail postcards.

There was a general call for all to meet at the graveyard at 1130 hours where the Shackleton toast was completed by Chris Edwards.  A wee dram of liquor was sipped by all who wanted to drink to the “Boss’s” memory.  Somewhere under the snow were Frank Wild’s ashes, only recently interred next to his good friend and Boss.

The wooden picket-fence cemetery gate was shut behind us to make sure the pesky fur seals did not attempt to take up residence when we left the carefully-tended graves of the whalers and sailors.  It was back to the ship and a wonderful scenic sail out of Cumberland Bay past the Nordenskjold glacier glinting in the sun.

USHUAIA headed southward during lunchtime to our next sheltered landing at Godthul.  “God’s own place” or Godthul greeted us with gusty blasts of cold wind, a beach full of elephant seals, and the bones of countless dead whales from the devastating whaling era.

Reindeer trotted away from us through gentoo colonies and over deep ravines and tussock.  A few fur seals decorated tussock grass pillows with the distinctive acrid musk smell of animals approaching the breeding season, but the dominant animals on shore were the bull elephant seals and their newborn pups contact calling, feeding and basking in the warm evening light.  Elephant seal bulls rested on pillows of tussock, pups nursed, and cows jostled their neighbors.  I have often mused how unfortunate it would be to be reincarnated as an elephant seal!

The rusting remains of the whale processing station with an iceberg in the background provided some nice creative scenic shots.  Reluctantly we returned to the ship as the gentoos started popping out of the water—like corks from a bottle—as they returned, fat and glistening, from fishing trips.  On the southern headland of the bay a sinuous tongue of low cloud was seen moving in from the sea and drifting over the contours of the land.

Saturday 13 October, St. Andrews Bay
After our pleasant but full day yesterday at Grytviken and Godthul the weather gods seem to have favored us, for a bit at least.  A warning was issued to everyone that there would be an early start in order to get the “sweet light” of the early morning.  The wake-up call was made at 0500 and Zodiacs were ready to get everyone who wished to be ashore at 0530.  An initial show of hands the night before had suggested that half the passengers would be up for the early start, but nearly three-quarters of the passengers, or more, made it ashore in the first wave.  The last Zodiac also brought in packed breakfast sandwiches.

The weather initially was fairly dramatic, but unusually calm for St. Andrews, which made the beach landing very easy compared to what it could have been.  The clouds overhead were a mix of medium and high cumulous and, over the encircling mountains, a veil of stratus hid much of the detail.  Gradually the rising sun changed the scene from a warm orange glow to the harsher bright white light of the day.

The beach was littered with harems of female elephant seals with their beach masters keeping an eye out for possible interlopers.  Infrequently, rivals tussled or roared their defiance while less interested animals dozed, casually flicking damp sand over their bodies to help keep them cool.

Most of the massive penguin concentrations were restricted to large patches of snow or the fringes of streams where molting birds were able to keep cooler. The woolly penguin chicks were further along the beach in larger ill-defined crèches with the attendant adult “on-duty” birds.  The overall scene was overwhelming to the senses and the choice of what to photograph and where to go seemed limitless.

Chris Edwards initially walked over toward the small hut where three British Antarctic Survey personnel were encamped and climbed the steep snow slope to obtain a perspective and a panorama viewpoint.  On his return to the alluvial plain he was invited in for a cup of tea.  It was only on returning to the beach some time later, and turning around to view the scene anew, that he discovered the clouds had lifted from the mountains and the sky was almost a pure unsullied blue with only a faint banner cloud downwind of the highest peak.  Meanwhile, everyone had dispersed far and wide along the beach and into the valleys of the moraine ridges.

At 0900 hours the remaining passengers who had remained on board for a leisurely breakfast were ferried ashore to delight in the spectacle that is St. Andrews beach.
With the sun rising higher in the sky and light becoming harsher, some took the opportunity to return to the ship for lunch, but many chose to remain on the beach and soak up the atmosphere—and continue to shoot for the entire day.  From 1600 onwards there was a steady trickle of people returning to the ship and, with the setting of the sun behind the mountains around 1815, the day drew to a close.  How many gigabytes of data were acquired on that perfect day can only be guessed, but there was much downloading to be done in the evening.  Dinner was very noisy—the sign that everyone was excited at the day’s events.

Even for a veteran of so many trips to the Southern Ocean, this was certainly one of the best days there ever.

Sunday 14 October, Gold Harbor & Drygalski Fjord
The weather this morning was overcast and somewhat windy as we steamed round from St. Andrews Bay to Gold Harbor.  As we anchored off the beach the view of the shore was impressive.  Large congregations of elephant seals were present along the length of the beach, and king penguins were just behind the beach and into the tussock grass where gentoo penguins were also nesting.  Behind the beach and overlooking the whole scene was the tumbling Bertrab Glacier, partially obscured by low clouds and occasional flurries of snow.  The wind recorded on the Bridge was a fairly constant 30 knots, but there were sustained gusts of 50 knots or higher which, made both the Zodiac operations risky and a visit to the beach a less than appealing option.  It was decided to remain at anchor for a while to see if the weather would stabilize.  But nothing much seemed to change in a couple of hours, so the ship set sail for the possibility of calmer conditions in the deep fjord at the extreme southeast end of South Georgia.

Drygalski Fjord is aligned NW–SE and can provide shelter from a raging sea.  But, having penetrated the outer reaches of this deep cleft and experiencing constant 50–60 knot winds, it was clear that any likelihood of a Zodiac cruise in the raging wind of Larsen Harbor was out of the question.  A few comments on the geology were provided by Chris over the PA system, outlining the various peaks which were lost in the lowering clouds, before the ship returned to the sea and continued northwestward looking for shelter.  On our way, some hearty passengers braved the perils of the outside decks to get photos of the roiling sea.  A brief respite was found in Moltke Harbor, part of vast Royal Bay, which was the site of the earliest of scientific expeditions to South Georgia in 1883–1884.  Clearly the weather was against us and, in anticipation of tomorrow’s program, the ship headed even further northwestward.  The poor visibility and wind encountered during the day was in marked contrast to the previous day on St. Andrews—but all part of the South Georgia experience.

Monday 15 October, Mucky Weather
Yesterday we departed Drygalski Fjord and headed north about 40 miles in search of a location where we could temporally hide from the wind and swell of the storm that had been pounding us for several days.  We eventually eased into Jason Harbor in Cumberland West Bay under cloudy skies.  Despite a change in location the wind never slackened and blew at a steady 30 to 40 knots, gusting to 60 knots.  A chart on the wall of the ship’s Bridge described our conditions as a Beaufort 7 storm—near gale-force winds that heap up white foam from breaking waves.  These were not the conditions in which one should launch a Zodiac and attempt a foolhardy landing.  Despite the inclement weather, the ship was surrounded by seabirds reeling in the wind.  There were angelic snow petrels, patchwork pintado petrels and “brutish” giant petrels.

Throughout the day we attended lectures.  First up was Wayne Lynch who discussed those familiar photo flaws that seem to plague every photographer.  Later in the morning Chris entertained us with the travels and triumphs of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the legendary polar explorer.  A geologist from Shackleton’s era, Raymond Priestley, had described the British explorer with these words:  “Incomparable in adversity, he was the miracle worker who would save your life against all the odds and long after your number was up.  The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.”  An afternoon lecture by John Shaw explored some of the tools available in Photoshop, that remarkable software program that has revolutionized the creative capability of photographers in the 21st century.  We also enjoyed a remarkable slideshow of spectacular panorama shots by several of our Russian passengers.

In the early evening, Monika, Joe and the Captain mutually decided to leave Jason Harbor and travel north to Rosita Harbor, which would put us in a better position for an early-morning landing at Elsehul where we might be able to photograph nesting gray-headed albatrosses.

Tuesday 16 October, Elsehul
Trying to get out of the weather for a calmer night, we stayed in Rosita Harbor overnight for a quiet sleep.  This morning, with the wind still blowing fairly hard—and reports of more bad weather facing us on our crossing back to the Falklands—we decided to make one last landing, at Elsehul, on the far northwest coast of South Georgia.  Our goal was to find Thalassarche chrysostoma, the gray-headed albatross, which nests on the steep bluffs along the bay.  Captain Jorge positioned the ship quite close to shore, and the Zodiac ride to the beach was relatively dry.  Joe and Wayne climbed the hill, searching for nests, while the rest of those who decided to come ashore assembled on the beach.  About a quarter of the passengers had opted to stay on board, given the cold, windy weather and the prospect of a climb up frozen tussocks to where the birds would be found.

About half of those who did land at Elsehul stayed on the shore.  There were numerous subjects to photograph, including elephant and fur seals, a group of king penguins, some gentoos, sheathbills, and, of course, the surrounding scenery itself.

The “scouting party” on the hill radioed back to the beach that indeed they had found nests of the gray-heads.  However, getting to the location demanded a dicey hike up a very slippery slope.  What appeared at first to be the easiest route, along a small stream, was actually the most slippery, ice-covered way.  Back to the tussocks.  Part of the way up the ground flattened out, claimed by a colony of gentoo penguins, which meant a detour route around them.  When at last the climbing group reached where Joe and Wayne waited, the situation demanded using our longest lenses while standing fairly close to the cliff edge.  But what a sight—two albatross nests just below our shooting position!

Also catching our attention were several light-mantled sooty albatross soaring on the updrafts along the cliffs.  Quite a few of us shifted our photography efforts to them, trying to freeze them against a backdrop of either the sea or the surrounding mountains.  We also found a light-mantled nest tucked into the cliff wall at roughly eye level to our position.

As we began to slowly leave, another light-mantled nest caught our attention.  This one was just 65 feet or so down the path from the gray-headed nests.  We had noticed this particular nest on our way up the hill, but the albatross had been sleeping, its head tucked in under its wing.  It was now awake and calling.  As we watched, the mate landed at the nest!

Finally, it was time to go.  The ride back to the ship was noticeably rougher, and wetter, than the earlier trip to shore.  The swell at the gangway made getting out of the Zodiacs a “leap of faith,” and we were extremely glad for the helping grip of the sailors.  As soon as everyone was aboard, lunch was quickly served—as we knew what was in store.  We had just enough time to tuck away all our camera gear and computers, and anything else that might fall and be broken.  Then the ship turned out of our protected bay and headed into the open ocean.  Immediately we were rocking and rolling.  The weather forecast had indeed been correct.  For the rest of the afternoon and evening, most of us kept to our cabins.  The few who were up and about certainly understood the correctness of the maxim, “one hand for you; one hand for the ship.”

Wednesday 17 October–Friday 19 October, At Sea
We experienced quite a bit of variability in sea conditions for these next days.  Even though we sailed through some relatively rough water, by Southern Ocean standards we experienced next to none of the really turbulent water that it is possible to confront on a crossing of this length.

Our return crossing took almost a half day longer than our initial crossing from Port Stanley, since we were sailing both against the wind as well as the prevailing current.  During these crossing days we enjoyed more lectures, a photo critique session, photography of flying birds from the back deck, and general shipboard camaraderie.

Thursday 18 October, Arrival at Port Stanley
We arrived at the dock at Port Stanley in the morning hours, sorted our luggage by destination, and off to other adventures.  About 30% of our group stayed in the Falklands for an additional week of photography, while a few were traveling to Patagonia and Easter Island. Others made their journey homeward.

Logbook written by:  Anna Sutcliffe, John Shaw, Darrell Gulin, Chris Edwards, Joe Van Os and Wayne Lynch
Expedition Leader:  Monika Schillat
USHUAIA Ship Captain:  Jorge Aldegheri