Tag Archives: Macaroni Penguins

(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…