Tag Archives: Antarctic

(South) Georgia On My Mind

Sunday 3 March 2024­ – The observant among you will have noticed a lacuna in the updates to these pages.  That’s because nothing of any photographic import happened yesterday. It was a Sea Day as we headed towards South Georgia – in surprisingly calm conditions, bearing in mind that we were adjacent to the Drake Passage and could well have had some unsettled weather as a result.  But we didn’t.  We just had fog,

Even the best efforts of my image processing software couldn’t improve much on the view.

The weather did cheer up to the extent that we could infer the presence of sunshine via a fogbow.

That’s not to say that the day was dull, or content-free. There were some lectures, about the geology of South Georgia and about the whaling industry, which developed from a start around Grytviken on the Island and plundered the seas of a significant proportion of the whale population before humanity came to its collective senses (just about) and banned the practice. Pippa, who gave the lecture, pointed out that at the time, whale oil was as important to the world as fossil fuel oil and gas is to it now; a commodity which it was necessary t exploit.

More importantly, there was a mandatory procedure to go through before we would be free to visit the Island.  It’s a UK Overseas Territory, and has its own governance committee; a passport is essential for all visitors to the area.  More importantly, it has very, very strict rules and controls regarding biosecurity.  The rules are substantially similar to the ones we’d been briefed about for visiting the Antarctic region, but the stakes are higher. A particular concern is that avian flu has been raging across South Georgia since October last year and the importance was impressed on us of not putting anything on the ground, or sitting or lying down anywhere, and keeping at least 5 metres away from wildlife if at all possible. (I wonder, from what we were told, if the situation in some areas of South Georgia might be similar to the Galapagos, where wildlife is so ubiquitous that it’s actually impossible to keep your distance.)

A key part of the briefing was a “Visitors Guide” video, narrated by David Attenborough, which is well worth a watch by anyone, not just those planning to visit.  South Georgia was, at one stage, an environmental disaster area; the strict controls that are in place have actually made it almost unique on the planet in that it is a recovering ecological system.  Our boat will be inspected by officials from the island; the inspection will include a dog team to ensure there are no rodent stowaways and a sample of passengers will also be inspected to ensure their boots and other outerwear are free of any trace of biological material.  To try to ensure that the boat is compliant, a significant part of the day was spent with the staff doing a preliminary inspection of every passenger’s gear to make sure that it was clean and clear. And every cabin has blackout blinds, which must be lowered before dinner to try to ensure that no birds land on the boat.

Thus it was, having steamed all day and much of the night, that Hondius was just off the south-eastern tip of South Georgia, in Cooper Bay.  The scenery was a sharp change from what we’d been accustomed to on the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was green! The centre of South Georgia is covered in glaciers, but tussock grass is very widespread, and it’s this that gives the very different appearance.  The sunshine helped make it a gorgeous day.  Our guide for our first Zodiac cruise, Elizabeth, said that she had never seen weather like it at Cooper Bay; once again, we are very fortunate.

The plan for the day involved two Zodiac cruises.  Landings, though they have been part of previous expeditions, were not possible for us because not permitted – avian influenza means that the landing sites towards the south of the island are off limits.

But we had a great morning, nonetheless.  There were new species of penguins to look for, as well as seals and plenty of bird life.  The scenery generally was outstanding.

It included an area which is known as “the cathedral”, which was spectacular.

The penguin species we were expecting to see most of was macaroni penguins.  The name derives from foppish and elaborate 18th century wigs, following Italian fashion, which in the UK were nicknamed after a familiar type of pasta. (It’s probably why Yankee Doodle called the feather in his hat “macaroni”, by the way). Anyway, the penguins indeed sported a foppish and elaborate hairstyle!

Among the adults were some fledging chicks,

some of which were beginning to grow the punk fringe that marks the species out.

As well as the macaronis, there were numerous king penguins.

More of them later.  Many, many more.

Other wildlife included several fur seals,

and I was able to catch a few photos of the many sorts of bird life in evidence:

giant petrels,

(including one in a white morph

and a sequence of one taking off from the water);

the inevitable shags;

several snowy sheathbills, known, because of their dietary habits, as shit chickens;

a juvenile kelp gull;

an Antarctic tern


and – at last! – my stormy petrel on a stick!

It was a great morning, with uniquely lovely weather.  After lunch, we moved around the island, amid a forest of icebergs,

to St. Andrew’s Bay, on the north-east side, where there was a colony of king penguins.  There were lots of them.

Really, lots.

No, seriously, really lots. ‘king loads of them.

There are something like 200,000 nesting pairs in this colony.  That’s 400,000 adults, plus their young and “teenage” chicks.

Really, a lot of penguins.  To the point where I was a bit bored, to be frank.  There are only so many pictures and video one can take of penguins, after all.

One “teenage” chick was very engaging, half way between the brown down he had when born to his adult plumage.

There was other wildlife, of course.  Elephant seals;


kelp gulls;

as well as the giant petrels.  The videos I have show that there was quite a lot of sparring between the young fur seals and the penguins on the beach, so there were a few things to distract one, but I felt the Zodiac cruise was about an hour too long.

Back at the boat, the kitchen had organised a barbecue, which was quite fun, if a bit chilly.

The beer and wine were free and the food was very good; but I was quite frozen by this stage so didn’t stay long.

We are undergoing quite an extraordinary period of weather.  Normally, the west coast of the island is battered by winds, and hence seas, which would make it impossible to mount any kind of expedition from the ship.  However, for us tomorrow, the west side offers a better forecast than the east, so the plan is to visit the sites on the western side, in King Haakon Bay: Cape Rosa and Peggotty Bluff, where the sainted Shackleton first made ground on the island in the former before seeking a way, via the latter, to get to the whaling station to seek the help of the men who had told him not to go out in the first place.  Two cruises and a possible landing await.  If the conditions are right…

The Scenic South Orkneys

Friday 1 March 2024­ – In following Shackleton’s route, i.e. heading towards South Georgia, the benign conditions and lack of icebergs in the way had enabled the skipper to make sufficiently good progress that Pippa could plan an extra stop, rather than just blatting our way directly to South Georgia.  So we found ourselves at Shingle Cove, which is on Coronation Island, part of the South Orkneys.  In sunshine! And light winds!!

The sunshine made the scenery quite spectacular.


But equally, we could see that we were in Iceberg Alley, so once again the captain had done a good job of not bumping into anything.

This meant we could undertake a brief expedition from Hondius. The specifics of the timing meant a slightly unusual sequence of events – Blue Group went before lunch and Orange Group after – but it was nice to get off the ship in light winds and sunshine.

The landing area was, unsurprisingly, a shingle beach, or at least a beach with small stones on it rather than inconveniently large boulders. Right by where we climbed out of the Zodiacs were several elephant seals, one of which, although not a full-grown adult, was quite huge.

You can see that his size dwarfs the other seals on the same stretch of beach.  You could tell he wasn’t full grown because his nose hadn’t grown out into the elephantine proboscis that marks out adult elephant seals; but you can see it starting to develop.

Even if he wasn’t fully grown, he was nonetheless an impressive sight.

Eventually he got fed up with people staring at him and lumbered off to face away from us, looking like nothing so much as a grumpy Vogon.  Well, all Vogons are grumpy, so I suppose that’s a bit tautological.

The views from the island continued to be spectacular.

but there were other things to be seen apart from just the view. Turning one way led us to a glacier that was unusual in that it debouched on to land rather than the sea.

And heading the other way led to what was once a colony of penguins.  Since all the chicks had fledged, there were actually very few penguins left

and the main inhabitants of the island were seals, mainly elephant but with a leavening of fur seals.

There was somewhat gruesome evidence of the demise of many penguins

but we weren’t sure whether these had been predated or had just expired.  There were skuas around

and these are sufficiently nasty pieces of work that they might p-pick a p-penguin if they felt p-peckish.

The rocks that lay around on the walk were very colourful in places

and the paths that the landing party had marked out for us with red poles led past rocks decorated with moss and a striking orange lichen

that we were enjoined to be careful not to walk on, as it is fragile and takes centuries to grow.  And all the way along our walks there were more seals, all of whom were evidently conserving energy, since they moved not a muscle as we went by.

One of the main reasons for their lack of movement was that they are moulting.  Like penguins, these seals undergo what’s called a “catastrophic moult”.  Here’s a good example.

During the moult, they cannot go into the water to feed, so conserving energy is an important tactic.

Apart from the bit where I fell over, slightly damaging both my camera and my wife in the same moment of clumsiness*, the expedition was a delight, partly because of the scenery and partly because of the sunshine.  We headed back to Hondius, which eventually set off in the general direction of South Georgia, passing south of the South Orkneys and providing the passengers with views of blowing whales and some more wonderful scenery.

There were many vast icebergs, as big as apartment blocks.


There were also a handful of fishing vessels nearby

which we reckon were probably fishing for krill.  Whilst this is not illegal, there are supposed to be quotas for krill fishing; but there’s no policing mechanism, and there is a significant danger (and some evidence) of krill overfishing.  Although these small shrimp-like creatures are astonishingly plentiful, the human appetite for them for purposes that are unnecessary – omega-3 supplements, skin care products, dog food (!) and, most irritatingly of all, food that will turn farmed salmon a more marketable shade of pink – is not only endangering the food chain, since practically everything is utterly dependent upon krill, but also contributing to climate change, since Antarctic krill (if left to themselves) sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than the Amazon rain forests.  This is a sobering message, and one hopes that people will come to understand the seriousness of the situation and start changing purchasing decisions away from products which use krill or krill oil.

One can but hope that matters will improve.  Indeed, the way the Antarctic has been internationally recognised as an important part of the planet is evidenced by the international Antarctic treaty, originally signed up to by 12 member countries and now involving some 27, either as claiming some territorial rights or wishing to enter the area for research purposes.  The conditions of the treaty lay down strict rules about what may and may not be done in the region. It’s heartening to know that countries, even ones which traditionally compete such as USA and Russia, can work together for some kind of common good.  As we head for South Georgia, leave the Antarctic and cross the 60th parallel heading north, I feel better educated about the critical importance of this region, with even a glimmer of hope that the human race might not, for once, fuck something up.



* Not too seriously, thank goodness.  However, my wife will repair herself, but the camera, whilst still capable of taking pictures, is going to need a visit to a service centre.

Three Elephants in One Day

Thursday 29 February 2024 – After a spell of weather sufficiently wild and woolly that one chap we know actually lost his glasses on the expedition that we decided not to participate in, and which has kept us all on board ever since, the day dawned bright and sunny, and there in front of us (well, actually to port, if you’re being picky) was the first of our three elephants.

Elephant Island is probably most famous as being the place from which Sir Ernest Shackleton launched his renowned and ultimately successful rescue attempt, by striking out in a 22-foot boat with two other men, aiming for South Georgia, where he knew there was a whaling station.  There, he hoped, the whalers would be able to help him stage a mission to rescue the 16 he’d left behind (see later).  He was ultimately successful and is therefore regarded as a hero*; and in his honour, today was being referred to on Hondius as “Shackleton Day”: an opportunity to review his exploits and then to follow in his tracks towards South Georgia.

Our captain took Hondius around Elephant Island to the north side, where we would be able to see Point Wild, the place where Shackleton’s men sheltered whilst he struck out heroically to rescue them.  From that side, the weather was less clement,

but merely overcast and breezy, a nice change from the horizontal rain of the previous days.

Whilst we’d been taking this circumnavigation, we had our second elephantine encounter, something which was actually quite magical, but very difficult to capture photographically; a huge pod of fin whales, feeding.  Fin whales are huge; second only to blue whales in size, and growing up to around 25 metres in length. There were, according to some estimates, as many as 40 of them, swimming around, blowing and feeding on the krill and fish that were disoriented by their antics.  As ever, I have some video, but the various stills Jane and I managed to get between us didn’t do justice to the sight, which was truly majestic.

If you look at the photo below, you can see that there are spouts right across the frame. It’s not a perfect image, but I hope it conveys the scope of what was going on.

Of course, all this disturbance in The (Oceanic) Force brought out all sorts of other creatures to feed on the fallout from the whales’ feeding.  There were porpoising penguins,


Black-browed albatrosses

and even a stormy petrel on a stick.

OK, it wasn’t on a stick. Or even a petrel.  We think it was actually a light-mantled sooty albatross. But I didn’t want to let the truth get in the way of a cheap laugh.

Eventually, we reached Point Wild, named, not because of any weather conditions, but after Frank Wild, one of Shackleton’s men, who had found it and deemed it a suitable place for the rest of the men to shelter whilst Shackleton was off doing his heroics. In the end they were there for 4 ½ months… It doesn’t look all that inviting, to be honest.

There’s an area between the large rock on the left and the smaller one in the centre which is a sort of cove.  The smaller rock was absolutely covered with penguins (the tiny flecks you can see below).


I should pay tribute to the navigation skills of the captain at this point, because, in order to give us passengers something extra to see, he gently let Hondius drift on the wind towards Point Wild, something that must take some nerve, as it’s probably expensive to get it wrong.  Anyway, that’s what he did, and we were able to get an eyeful of this special sight.

You have to look rather carefully to see it, but there it is;

a bust of Luis Pardo, who was the captain of a Chilean ship, Yelcho, which was the vessel which actually performed the rescue of the stranded men.

So, Kudos to the captain for his skill and daring, and it was out with the rum and hot chocolate as we passengers celebrated the memory of the kind of derring-do which marked out the heroic age of Antarctic exploration**.

Shortly after setting off again, we had our third and final elephantine encounter.

Can you see it in the photo above?  A thin grey line stretching from  horizon to horizon?

It’s an iceberg.

One, single, iceberg. A23a. The biggest iceberg currently extant.

It broke away from the ice shelf in 1986, was grounded and therefore stationary for some time, but is now floating freely at a speed of around 3 miles per day.

It’s unimaginably vast.  If you were to pick it up and pop it back down centred on Charing Cross (the middle of London as far as signposts are concerned), then I, for one, would be very cross, because it would crush my house. My house is in Surrey, 25 miles (40 km) to the south west.  So A23a is bigger than Greater London, covers a greater area than the M25.  Of course you can’t capture that in photos.  But here are a few, anyway.

It varies between 20 and 40 metres tall above the sea, which means that there’s some 300 metres of it below the water.

Mesmerising. Mind blowing. A privilege to see it.

What a day we’d had! Such sights and experiences!

There was some light relief available in the evening, as the staff staged a Film Night, with popcorn an’ everyfink.

The film was, of course, “Shackleton”, starring Kenneth Branagh, sporting a particularly heroic hairstyle.

And that was it for the day.  We’re headed along a similar track to Shackleton’s rescue mission, and so will eventually reach South Georgia. We have one stop en route where, conditions permitting, we’ll make landfall for the first time in a couple of days.  I’m hoping for benign weather conditions, and time, as ever, will tell…



* His rescue mission was, indeed, a heroic exploit and totally admirable.  Both Jane and I, however, regard the whole thing as an exemplar of How To Get On In Corporate Life: cock something up quite badly and then move mountains in a very obvious way to rescue the situation.  Management only remembers the heroics, not the cock-up.  Frankly, in our humble opinions, Shackelton should never have left South Georgia in the first place; the whalers there – and they knew this stuff – told him not to because of the dangers of particularly bad sea ice that year. He went ahead anyway, and that sea ice destroyed his ship, the less-than-ideally named Endurance.

** Less well-known was the other half of the Shackleton expedition.  Shackleton’s original objective was to cross the continent from one ocean to another (the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, actually).  He could take with him sufficient supplies to get him to the Pole, but needed further supplies for the other side of it.  To this end, a party of men set out from New Zealand to the Ross Sea end of Antarctica, to forge south towards the pole from there to drop supply depots for Shackleton’s second half.  This mission, although apparently successful in that it did drop three supply depots totalling a couple of tons of food, was a disaster – poorly-led, badly-planned and resulting in the deaths of three men. And, of course, ultimately pointless because Shackleton barely even got started before losing his ship. Such was the stuff of which men were made in those days.