Tag Archives: King Penguins

Good Fortuna

Wednesday 6 March 2024 – The journey out round and in again was unremarkable in terms of pitching and rolling en route. What was remarkable was the continued calmness and stillness in the waters of the bays we’ve visited.  We parked in Fortuna Bay within reach of two separate expeditions: Anchorage Bay, offering a hike to a land-terminating glacier; and Whistle Cove, whence a one-mile walk takes one to a colony of king penguins. “What? I thought. “More ‘king penguins? Can there be much added value in that?” Misguidedly thought, as it turns out.

The two landing sites had significantly different distances for the Zodiacs to cover – Anchorage Bay was close by, Whistle Cove a longer ride.  We were headed for the former, and there was a bit of a wait for the next bus to take us along; it looked like the steward helping us on to the Zodiac had to flag down a passing taxi.

We arrived to a desultory reception committee from the local wildlife.

There were a few fur seals on the beach, but the life there was mainly penguins, mostly king penguins, which are very handsome creatures.

They quite often stand in groups of three, something we noted a lot during the course of the day. From their behaviours (I have video, of course), we guess that the third in a group seems often to be a gooseberry, trying to muscle in on the action.

As well as these little groupings, some penguins seemed very curious as to what had just arrived.

The glacier appears to be relatively close.

This is a false perspective; when you breast the rise above, you are faced with a veritable Serengeti of mainly fur seals.

They are all young, some very young, and not particularly habituated to human contact – we were indeed fortunate to be able to land here today; not many people get that privilege, apparently.  The team had mapped out a route for us with red poles, taking the path of least disturbance to the wildlife, but still one would quite often get rushed by a pup; if very young, one could simply ignore it, but some of the larger ones required you to face it off by clapping and raising your arms to make you appear bigger and less rewarding as a target.  There was also the occasional penguin, and sometimes the seal pups would try to play with them, in which case they often got short shrift and sharp beaks.

Once across the Serengeti, onto an expanse of rocky terminal moraine, there was no wildlife, but some great landscapery.

As we found at Shingle Cove (goodness me, less than a week ago!), there were some very varied colours among the stones.

We returned to the beach and wandered along it for a while.  There was a lot of wildlife activity – young fur seals frolicking in the surf, and penguins coming and going; all excellent video content – but little of new interest to talk about in these pages.

Particularly in the overall context of the day; the afternoon was exceedingly – and for me, surprisingly – content-rich, even though it really only involved king penguins.

After lunch, then, we took the longer Zodiac ride to Whistle Cove. From the landing area, it’s about a mile, mainly over grass, to the king penguin colony, and you pass some nice landscape.

You can see the colony from a distance

and, at “only” 7,000 breeding pairs, it’s not as large as the one we saw at St. Andrews Bay.  But there, we weren’t allowed to land; here, we could get really very close, and could get some sense of how densely packed the colony is.

King penguins are, we’re told, so named because when they were discovered they were the largest penguins yet seen.  This gave a tiny problem when an even larger species was discovered; that species, though, spends its time in more central, less accessible parts of Antarctica, and so are very rarely seen by punters like us from Hondius. However, they’re larger than king penguins, which is why they’re called emperor penguins.  Emperors, apparently, trump royalty. Really?

Having been told we had over two and a half hours at Whistle Cove, I had been expecting to get rather bored; after all, seen one king penguin, seen ‘em all, yes?


Being so close to the sight, smell and extraordinary sound of the colony was a completely different experience from viewing them from a Zodiac. It was rewarding to start watching for behaviour patterns and other characteristics, rather than just getting nice photos of penguins.  Those were, of course, easy,

(another group of three, see?) but there was a lot else going on. Jane, particularly, was good at spotting points of interest within the colony and alerting me to them so I could take a look and some photos.

We had to be very careful, for example, because some of the penguins were incubating eggs.

These two were particularly charming; they each have an egg in their special brood pouch and balanced on their feet as they sit on their heels – and they’re fast asleep as they incubate the precious egg.

Further round the colony, we could see some chicks, which have such different plumage that at first they were thought to be a different species.  Some are nearly as large as their parents

but the younger ones are smaller and engagingly dumpy.

Jane even spotted an egg; it was such a warm day that the parent will actually release the egg from its pouch to stop it overheating.  It takes patience to wait and spot, but eventually I managed to get a shot of one, too,

as well as catching the parent checking the egg and coaxing it back into the pouch.

Jane also alerted me to some chick feeding activity.  A chick will pester a parent for food,

and eventually will get it, from the store that the parent has managed to accumulate in a special pouch in its craw.

The chick may take more than a year to fledge so king penguins mostly breed biennially. As a result there are incubating eggs alongside newly-hatched and last year’s chicks side by side in a continuously occupied colony. However young need to be fat enough by April to survive the winter when food is very scarce; not all those emerging from the eggs we saw will have time to reach that point.

We also spotted an adult in the late stages of moulting.

Re-growing your entire set of feathers is a very energy-hungry process, so moulting penguins will stay as immobile as possible while the process completes – until moulting has finished, they are not waterproof and so cannot enter the sea to get food.

Nature being what it is, not everything is fine and wonderful.

This is a skua, feeding upon the corpse of a penguin, whilst others wander around, seemingly unaffected by the scene.

Just beside the penguin colony was a group of another local bird, the South Georgia pintail,

with its distinctive yellow bill.

And Jane caught a picture of a South Georgia pipit, which one could just hear singing above the racket of the penguins.

Finally, on the way back to the landing area after an absorbing couple of hours, we saw another leucistic fur seal, obviously very sleepy but equally in need of a good scratch.

So ended an excellent day’s expeditioning – tiring, but rewarding.  We’ve been astonishingly lucky with the weather, which has enabled great progress, granting us four days on South Georgia and still allowing an extra day “in the back pocket” for expeditions in the Falkland Islands, our next port of call.  The weather can be capricious and so that extra day might come in handy in case it’s difficult to get off the ship after we arrive.

Which is in two and a half days.  There will be no scenery now until Saturday, when I believe we’ll be putting into Stanley, all other things being equal.  So, there are two “sea days”, at least one of which will allow some rest and recuperation (and laundry!) after several days of relentless expeditioning.  There may be some wildlife visible from the ship – who knows? We can be sure there will be interesting lectures to educate us more about the area, its geography, oceanography and wildlife, so we still have a great deal to look forward to, even without leaving the ship.



(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…