Tag Archives: South Georgia

Videos – and learnings – from the Southern Ocean

Sunday 31 March 2024 – I’m pretty happy with the way that the images that Jane and I captured during our time on Hondius convey the look and feel of the places we visited and the sights we saw.  However, there’s the small matter of the 460 video files that we accumulated during the trip, so I have spent the last couple of days trawling through that mass of content – about 100GB – for sequences that supplement or complement the images which you’ve already seen.

To be honest, the pickings are much slimmer than I’d anticipated.

It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with the videos.  Though many are utterly unusable, there are a good number of clips which will serve brilliantly in the future to remind us of the dynamism and variety of the scenes that unfolded before us. But I think you might find them dull, because of the lack of context; and buried within that bald assertion is the first learning.

For example, at Port Charcot, I took a video panorama from the ship

and it gives a nice impression of the place, the weather conditions and the scenery.  But from the point of view of showing you, dear reader, what the place was like, it’s not really any better than the photos I included in the blog posting about it.

The learning?  That sort of video has a place on Instagram in showing where I am and what it’s like there. But the restrictions on using internet bandwidth (oh, OK, the expense) meant that its value, as an ephemeral “Instagram-look-at-me” kind of post was negated. So I have several of these panoramas, but will keep them to myself for now.

That said, there were a couple of video pans that I think worthy of noting (as opposed to nothing) here: the view of Elephant Island, which was just, basically, lovely in the sunshine;

and the rather contrasting view of the south end of South Georgia.

So: no more landscape video pans, then;  I have numerous ones of bays, waterfalls or rivers, but their relevance is only to our memories, not to your insight.

I rather like, though, this view of Grytviken, on South Georgia, as we approached it from the water.

and, as a scenery/landscape topic, I thought the general amazingness of some of the icescapes was worth a collage, too.

Oh – and there was that spectacular crumbling glacier in King Haakon Bay, which makes for good viewing, I think.

So, enough of the scenery, already. What does that leave us then?  The wildlife, of course. It was a very rewarding trip for me, photographically, as I got several still images that I’m pleased with, and most of which you’ll already have seen, having assiduously read all my previous posts, you wonderful reader, you. But there are some times when a still image simply won’t do to capture or convey a scene.  Sighting a leopard seal, for example, gave me some good stills, but seeing it come under our Zodiac is a sight which stays with one.

(I have to credit one of our guides, Aitana, with the footage of the seal swimming underwater; I was unable to capture that, so I’m glad to have her snippet as a record.

Penguins, too, are very cute and photogenic even in stills. But one needs to see them doing penguinish things to get the full charm.

It was generally more rewarding to encounter wildlife on land – it gives one a better feeling of connection to what’s going on.  That sense of connection was a bit tenuous in places.  The Falklands, for example, was so windy that at times one felt one was going to be blown off the cliff face.  Here, video can give a sense of what it was like.

It was fucking windy.  I managed to get a vantage point elsewhere which felt a bit less dangerous, to capture a bit of albatross behaviour – feeding a chick until there was no more food, then flying away to get more…a parent’s work is never done.

Capturing footage like that is quite rewarding even if it feels a little perilous at some times. I suspect I’d have been OK; there were plenty of other photographers around to break my fall if I’d stumbled.

There was a second and third learning from gaining this footage. One is to listen to the experts; Ursula was nearby and told me that the parent albatross would fly when it had finished feeding.  All I had to do was to keep an eye out and I would be able to capture the decisive moments.  The other was – patience.  I had to stand and try to keep my camera trained on a particular parent-and-chick for quite some time (whilst being blown to buggery by the winds) in order to get the footage I wanted.

One development of my skill, such as it is, over the trip was to become more interested in behaviours, rather than simply seeking to get a good sharp close-up of an animal. Jane helped me a lot, and having the guides around for extra information and education was excellent, too.

Close-to was definitely the place to be for most photography purposes. But it was possible to see wildlife from the ship.  Most of the time, someone would shout “whale!” and there would be a surge of people to one side or other stare out of the windows or to rush on deck, there to catch (if lucky) the disappearing fin of a humpback some fair distance from the ship.  Having had a very rewarding whale watching experience in New England recently, I tended to stay in my place rather than join the giddy throng.  But there were some occasions where the sights were excellent even from on board. Here are a few: particularly, the fin whale feeding sequence is something that no still photography could do justice to.

And so ends our South America and Southern Ocean Odyssey, a very intense month in our lives, probably never to be repeated.  We might try an expedition cruise to the Arctic at some stage, which will be similarly intense and challenging, but I doubt we could ever be so lucky again as to the weather we had when Due South; the weather gods were incredibly kind to us and our experience was the richer for that.

That’s it for the pages about this expedition. There will be others; in the current plan we have one not-so-ambitious outing and one which could be astonishingly varied and content-rich.  As ever, an internet being available, I will write about them here, so Stay Tuned!

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.



True Gryt

Tuesday March 5 2024 – Even as we were leaving Pippa’s recap yesterday, we could feel the sea getting rougher.  During the night there was quite a lot of pitching and rolling; talk this morning was of gusts of 50-knot winds, which, if memory serves (because it has to; our expensive internet has given way to an entirely non-available one, which means Googling is now impossible) is bordering Storm Force 10.  There were no injuries, but suffice it to say that the rocking and rolling was sufficient to a) cause a slightly mysterious but weighty de-ioniser device to jump off its shelf in our cabin with a considerable thump at 3 in the morning; and b) tip over the cup of milk we had kept in our fridge for the purpose of making tea. A slightly disturbed night, then, but not too uncomfortable otherwise – we both managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep.

It was clear that the captain had had to do a lot of careful navigation; there were a lot of very large icebergs around.

However, as we entered Cumberland Bay, at the back of which the settlement of Grytviken lurks, the waters reverted to millpond stillness, and we could start to see the Grytviken government buildings on King Edward Point

and the settlement itself.

As I’ve said before, Grytviken is the centre of government for the island of South Georgia, which was the first whaling station on the island, established in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian who realised there was an enormous fortune to be made from whaling.  Up to that point, the island, which was claimed for King George III in 1775 by James Cook, had been a centre for sealing – fur seals were killed for their pelts, and elephant seals for their blubber.

As I’ve already mentioned, South Georgia operates a very stringent biosecurity policy, and Grytviken is the centre of government for the island; the already-high focus on biosecurity is particularly keen here.  So we experienced an iron fist in a velvet glove.  The glove was operated by Deidre

a nice Scottish lady from the South Georgia Heritage Trust who spent 15 minutes extolling the wonders of South Georgia and particularly the work of the Heritage Trust, whose fundraising has been critical to transforming the area from an ecological disaster to an ecosystem in recovery. And it was, indeed, fundraising for this very worthwhile charity which was clearly to the fore in her messages to us. We took away a sponsorship form from her colleague Bodil (also Scottish) and a determination to support the Trust in some way or other (see later).  The iron fist was the inspection we underwent before we were allowed on to the Zodiacs.  To be as sure as possible that this would not reveal any shortcomings in Hondius’s biosecurity measures, there were staff performing extra checks on people before the inspector got to them.

All of us disembarking on the first Zodiac were checked (we don’t know if those disembarking from the second shell door were also checked). The inspector was cheerful, but brisk, and raised no alarms in checking us over as we went through (and in fact, Pippa revealed later that we had had a 100% clear record, meaning that future inspections would need only to check a smaller sample of passengers).

Off we went to the shore where we were able to wander around some areas of the settlement – not all; some areas were closed to us because of the risk of avian influenza. But we were able to see a lot, and to note the extent to which nature was Taking Back Control over the years.

One had to be careful in walking around, as there were fur seals everywhere, including on the paths.  I nearly stepped on one little one as I was taking a photo; vigilance was very necessary.

So, what’s in the settlement?  As you can see from the above, there’s an old whaling ship, and, on the right is the museum, which used to be the station manager’s villa, with its fragments of whalebone and other items on the lawn outside.

Just behind the flagpole are some pots.

These are the old “trying” pots which were used for boiling up seal blubber, and were what Larsen first saw when he made ground here. It is these pots which give the place its name; Grytviken is the Norwegian for “Pot Cove”.

This nugget, and many others, were provided on our short but informative guided tour, which was led by yet another Scottish lady, whose name, shamefully, I have forgotten. (It seems that there’s some kind of a morphic resonance between South Georgia and Scotland, possibly because of similarity of climate?)

The old machinery used for processing the whales is a major presence across the site,

but regrettably we weren’t allowed to wander around amongst it.  Our guide pointed out that originally these machines would have been housed in buildings, but the preservation work on the site had them removed, as they were (a) unsafe and (b) toxic, particularly riddled with asbestos.

Other surviving buildings include the post office and shop

where one could buy all sorts of things, including, unsurprisingly, stamps, both ornamental, such as Platinum Jubilee or Coronation sets, or functional, to be put on the postcards that one can also buy there to send home or wherever. (“Next post”, a sign proudly announced, “March”).

The museum

has all sorts of items of interest, both historical, to do with whaling and that Shackleton chappie, and also the wildlife.

Above you can see an example of a leopard seal’s skull with its canines and filtering molars.  There was also a pleasing variation on the “Do Not Touch” you see so often in museums the world over:

a seal skin, stroking which gives a very good idea of why they were so sought after.

There were also some quirky exhibits in the museum’s retail area

and both post office and museum gave us the chance to donate to the island and its trust by buying a couple of things as well as making an explicit donation on the “Tap to Donate” pad so thoughtfully placed by the exit.

Another important building is this

which houses a replica of the James Caird, the little boat that you’ll have read about in previous posts, so I won’t bore you again with its story; it also, importantly, houses

the only public toilets on the island.

Inside the James Caird hut

gives an impactful insight into the stuff of which Shackleton and his men were made.  Remember, there were six men on this boat, which means that five had to be below decks

alongside ballast rocks and other supplies.  On the wall are Shackleton’s makeshift crampons

amid a plethora of other items pertinent to the momentous journey this little boat undertook.

Finally, there is the church

constructed in Norway, then dis-assembled, transported and reconstructed here.  It wasn’t apparently, used so much as a church as a cinema.  Inside

it’s well-maintained, and includes the lending library that was in use at the time.

It has two bells, which punters can ring.  I did (I have the video) and it gave me quite an insight into the skill of church bell ringing.

Outside the church, the guides from Hondius were organising a toast to “The Boss” (yes, Shackleton – difficult to get away from the man), led by Saskia

using his own blend of whisky (now made by Mackinlay’s according to an original recipe specified by the man himself, apparently).  Normally, this toast would have been conducted at his grave in the cemetery, but we were not allowed to go there.  Instead, we took a look from the shore as part of the Zodiac ride back to Hondius.

Shackleton’s headstone is the big grey one in the centre of the cemetery.

For all its dark past, the Grytviken settlement makes for an emotional visit, possibly because it shows that humans are beginning to pay more respect not only to the past but to the environment.  In any case, it was an absorbing morning, and we feel privileged to have been able to visit the site.

In the afternoon, the skipper took Hondius gingerly towards the afternoon’s site – gingerly because of the care with which he had to navigate.

The location for the afternoon was a nearby cove called Godthul.  Ursula was our guide for a cruise which was to be followed by a landing.

The cruise took us by more thundering great lumps of ice

some of which had penguins on.

It was engaging watching them leap out of the water on to the ice – not always, it has to be said, successfully. (Yes, I have video.)

The cruise didn’t reveal too much in the way of new wildlife, except for one fur seal which was leucistic – a very pale colour, but not albino. They’re apparently known as “blondies”.

After the cruise, we landed at a cove whence we could wander along the beach and/or take a hike to either a penguin colony or a freshwater lake.  The hike was through tussock grass. The lower part of it was up a steep bank (for an idea of scale, the tussocks are 2-3 feet in diameter and rather taller than they are wide).

It was at times difficult to see where to put one’s feet, the tussocks concealed some unsuspected deep gaps and holes, and there were some large steps to be scrambled up. Once you’d conquered the first, tough, part, the going got easier as it went across mossy ground.

We eschewed the penguin colony on the basis that we’d already seen quite a few gentoos by now, and instead headed to the glacial lake

where there were just a couple of penguins loitering nearby.

I’m not quite sure what penguins make of fresh water, but there they were.  On the way down, we got a decent view over the cove and Hondius.

As usual we were enjoined to follow the track laid down by the guides, who set up red poles to guide visitors.  Even so, to avoid stressing the local wildlife, one still had to extemporise occasionally.

And so ended the day’s entertainment, apart from the usual daily recap from Pippa, which was, as ever, well-attended by everyone, agog to see what was planned for the next day.

That plan turned out to be a bit of a gamble, since the lack of an internet meant that even she and the ship’s crew didn’t have an up-to-date wind forecast.  The dice were loaded in favour of decent weather, but, as with all random events like weather and dice, there was the chance of an unexpected outcome. But the plan was to go to Fortuna Bay, the place where (him again) Shackleton actually reached the coast after crossing the island from Peggotty Bluff – it’s next to Stromness so he could hear the whistle from the whaling station there to guide him to what passed for civilisation in those days in these parts. In order to reduce the chance of birds choosing to land on the ship, something which requires a special procedure to be followed to ensure that they take off safely again, we headed out to sea to make the short hop northwards along the coast from Godthul. There is the chance of rougher seas, therefore; with luck, it won’t be too rough, the conditions will stay calm and we’ll have a good final day on South Georgia at Fortuna Bay.