JAN 14: South Georgia Island 2

Saturday, January 14, 2017
South Georgia Island, Antarctica

Jan 14th, 2017: South Georgia Island: Gold Harbor; Drygalski Fjord

The weather is starting to close in on us, so we have made our way further south along the eastern shore of South Georgia Island, to Gold Harbor (see map). Gold Harbor lies at the foot of the Salvesen Range and is considered one of the most scenic spots on the island. It features an amphitheater of hanging glaciers and vertical cliffs which rise straight out of the sea and the towering snow-capped peaks of Mt. Paterson create an unforgettable backdrop to an exceptional abundance of seabirds and seals. King penguins, Gentoo penguins, and Elephant seals jostle for space on the beach while Light-mantled sooty albatrosses soar above the cliffs out toward Gold Head.

Roger went on an early morning (5am) trip to Gold Harbor for a sunrise shore visit. WOW. Great colony of King penguins, Southern fur seals, Southern elephant seals, and Gentoo penguins. King's of all ages dominated the landscape with pretty snow capped peaks and numerous waterfalls in the background.

The Southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus), which we also observed here, is also known as the Antarctic giant petrel, giant fulmar, stinker, and stinkpot, and is a large seabird of the southern oceans. The Southern giant petrel achieves sexual maturity at six or seven years of age; however the average age of first breeding is ten years. Its breeding season begins in October. Its nest is a mound of moss, grass, and stones with a depression in the center and is located on bare or grassy ground. They form loose colonies except in the Falkland Islands where the colonies are much larger. One egg is laid and is incubated for 55–66 days. When the white chick is born it is brooded for two to three weeks and it fledges at 104–132 days. This petrel will feed on krill, squid, and offal in coastal and pelagic waters, and unlike most other Procellariiformes, this bird will eat carrion and even attack smaller seabirds. The males exclude females from the carcasses that they are feeding on.

During the 19th century, the “stinkpots” were in fact the scourge of sailors, basically because they didn't want them around! They attacked seamen who fell overboard, and were known to use the hook at the end of their bills to target their faces and eyes. There were accounts of sailors having their arms cut to ribbons as they tried to defend themselves, and one tale told of a boatswain who, in 1840, fell off the HMS Erebus during an Antarctic survey, and was immediately set upon by a large, frenzied flock of giant petrels who assaulted him so viciously that he sank before the ship could double back and pick him up. Sometimes contempt is the price an animal pays for reminding humans that we can be prey just like anything else.

The thing about Antarctic wildlife is that the species diversity is quite low (e.g., only 39 nesting seabird species), especially given the huge geographic scope of the area and the rich and readily available food. The ecological compensation for the low diversity is that nearly all species have huge populations (e.g., Crabeater seals are thought to be the most numerous mammal on earth with 10 million individuals in the Antarctic). The impression we have from cruising around on our ship is that nearly every beach has a few to dozens of Fur seals and penguins hanging out. Then you get to a place like Gold Harbor and see a hundred Elephant seals, a couple thousand Fur seals, and perhaps 10 thousand or more penguins, the number of individuals is just mind boggling. And they are so much fun to watch up close doing their thing -- calling, head bobbing, chasing, greeting, feeding, preening, fighting, protecting, and going in and out of the surf while the Southern giant petrels and Polar skuas (which are scavengers/predators) are constantly looking and probing trying to snatch an isolated chick, a week youngster, or dead adult. The plumage of both male and female Kings is an absolutely gorgeous combination of orange, black, white, and yellow. While the chicks, which take about 18 mo. to mature enough to molt and head out on their first foraging trip to sea, initially look like a very stuffed fluffy brown hand muffler. They don’t move much but when they do they look even sillier. Interspersed among all the beautiful adults and the silly looking chicks are birds of various ages in molt, including adults, which molt annually as well. Most of these molting birds look pretty homely, with unruly tufts of feathers sticking out every which way and a few mature pretty feather tracts. The new feathers push themselves out of the feather follicle, displacing the older existing feathers, but they don't all do it at the same time, so the resultant look is clearly a piece of "art work" possibly more reminiscent of a Dali painting than a typical bird...

While it was fun to watch all the antics of the Kings and Gentoos and the sparring of the young male Fur and Elephant seals, the biggest thrill for Roger was having a Leopard seal swimming all around his Zodiac for about 4-5 minutes. Talk about a cool and scary guy, Leopard seals are just amazing to watch. Roger has been interested in pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) for over 40 years and he conducted his Master’s Thesis on these critters. To Rog, a leopard seal is simply nothing like any pinniped he has encountered. Of course they share much of the same basic biology of all pinnipeds (large marine mammal, fore and hind flippers, prominent vibrissae (whiskers), big eyes, a layer of fat covered with dense brown hair, pup on land and similar skeletal features). Where leopard seals differ is they have a large reptilian head with huge jaws that are remarkably thick and squared off, their long body (9’+) is especially flexible for such a large animal and their movement in the water seems more snake-like then pinniped-like. Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are very inquisitive and seem to like to play, but the overall impression is they are playing with you just like a cat plays with a mouse. Roger got the distinct feeling that at any moment this seal might decide that play is over, now its time for dinner and guess who is on the menu today. This particular Leopard seal was a sub-adult male measuring around 8’ and weighing perhaps 800-1,000 pounds. He was very quick and smoothly glided in his snake-like manner all around and under our boat sticking his head up within two feet of us along the back and side of the boat several times. Our Zodiac driver (Michael) was very experienced and told us that Leopard seals commonly play for a while, then decide the rear pointed end of the Zodiac pontoon looks tasty and they have often punctured boats, which would not have been an outcome we would have appreciated with 10 of us in the Zodiac. Sure enough, after several minutes checking us out closely, the seal opened his mouth wide and came rushing up to the left rear pontoon. Fortunately, Michael was ready and gunned the engine. The seal did not pursue us, he simply cruised back to the beach to 'play’ with the many other Zodiac toys lined up to ferry passengers. We heard he became more and more agitated as the morning wore on. Fortunately, no one and no Zodiac were harmed in the telling of this story... My guess is that since he was frustrated from snagging a 'tasty’ Zodiac morsel, he probably ruined the day for a few penguins which are Leopard seals primary food/play-thing. While we didn't get a good photo of the "little" fellow around our Zodiac (we were a little preoccupied figuring out how to avoid him), here are a few photos (not ours) to show you what they look like... Oh, Leopard seals are also one of the main hazards of Shackleton's expedition while on the ice floes since these guys would occasionally launch themselves out of an ice hole and try to capture one of the Endurance crew members. None were eaten...


After the Gold Harbor beach excursion, several of us "attempted" to go kayaking, even with Leopard seals in the vicinity... (Stupid, or what??!) Kayaking in the Antarctic involves wiggling into a thin dry suit in order to keep your several (3-5) layers of thermal undergarments dry. Typically, these undergarments are some combination of wool and/or polyester with cotton always being avoided as it does not hold in heat when wet.

It is now getting colder by the day as we move further south toward true Antarctic waters. Sixteen kayakers got dressed and then we waited another 30+ minutes inside the mother ship before we could get into a larger Zodiac that was towing the kayaks to be taken over near the shoreline to start clambering into our kayaks.
At that point we were BOILING inside our 5-7 layers of insulation! By the time we got out to the kayaks, it started raining, sleeting and blowing, and the seas were starting to build up higher than the 2-3 ft waves/swells at the beginning of the day. The two of us (Tom & Roger) were the 2nd pair group to climb over the side of the Zodiac into our 2-person kayak. It took one the guides about 5 minutes to adjust our foot stops/rests (which really should have been done on the ship before departing) and by this time our hands were starting to get pretty cold despite our many layers of clothing. We paddled around the Zodiac a couple of times as another couple started to get ready. By this time, the swells and wind had started to increase rapidly and the waves were now running 5-6 ft and continuing to build. (The guides told us later that we were disappearing behind the swells).  

Seeing that this was not going well and could become dangerous, the guides called off the kayak exercise. At least for us it wasn’t a total bust as we were mostly having fun paddling around a little in the big swells (at least Roger thought it was fun as his fingers were not quite as cold as Tom’s, and he had control of the rudder). The guide that was already in his kayak trying to adjust the foot rests had holes in his gloves and he indicated that he was becoming so cold that he came close to barfing from the pain. As you can see from the shots of us paddling and returning to the Zodiac (look closely), freezing rain was significantly overtaking us and at least Tom could SEE, but not FEEL his fingers any more. Finally back in the Zodiac, you might be able to tell that Tom was NOT a happy camper…

After rounding up all the Zodiacs, some of which had drifted a short distance away, we finally got back to the mother ship. Getting back on board was a challenge now that the swells were raising the Zodiac 2-3 ft above the exit platform on the ship that was getting swept with a couple feet of water with each rising swell. The good news was as soon as we got inside we were handed a nice warm cup of hot chocolate. THAT WAS A COLD EXCURSION!
(Side Note): The swells had become so large that after transferring all the kayakers back onto the ship one of the pontoons of a Zodiac got caught beneath the metal landing bridge in an especially large swell and was punctured. Fortunately we have extra Zodiacs on board.

While we remained on the east side of South Georgia, we were somewhat buffered and protected by the mountain range that spanned the N-S length of the island. From Gold Harbor we attempted to travel to the north end of the island along the east side, but as soon as we rounded the northern end, it became impossible to venture further, with sustained 60-70 mph winds and much higher gusts. SO, we headed back down the eastern coast to Drygalski Fjord near the southern-most end of the island (see the map) where we observed many beautiful hanging and tide-water glaciers, often a deep light blue color to the ice and a similar color change in the seawater containing glacial milt. Deep blue ice is created by tons and tons of pressure within a glacier or ice sheet, which squeezes out all the air bubbles and when it is extremely dense, it appears a deep blue, which we saw in many different locations. Also witnessed and heard several incidents of glacier calving into the sea, and behind those we could trace the glacier meandering down from the high country back as far as the eye could see. Two birds, Snow petrels and Snowy sheathbills (both relatively small, but gorgeous birds) were also abundant in Drygalski Fjord. The sheathbills are a family of birds, Chionididae. Classified in the wader order Charadriiformes, the family contains only one genus, Chionis, with only two species, the Snowy sheathbill (C.albus) and the Black-faced sheathbill (C. minor); we only saw the former. They breed on subantarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Snowy sheathbill migrates to the Falkland Islands and coastal southern South America in the southern winter; they are the only bird family endemic as breeders to the Antarctic region. And, they are also the only Antarctic birds without webbed feet. They derive their English name from the horny sheath which partially covers the upper mandible of their stout bills.They are commonly known in the Antarctic as "Mutts" because of their call which is a soft "Mutt, mutt, mutt". One of them landed right on the railing of our ship, curious about these insulated mammals, running around on this metal "iceberg"... The Snow petrel (Pagodroma nivea) is the only member of the genus Pagodroma. It is one of only three birds that breed exclusively in Antarctica and has been seen at the South Pole. It has the most southerly breeding distribution of any bird.

As we are now traveling into true Antarctic waters, we are beginning to see our first icebergs. MAGNIFICANT icebergs, several hundred feet high!



• Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17):

With two Antarctic expeditions already under his belt, Shackleton published details of his new upcoming expedition, grandly titled the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition", early in 1914. Two ships would be employed; ENDURANCE would carry the main party into the Weddell Sea, aiming for Vahsel Bay from where a team of six, led by Shackleton, would begin the crossing of the continent. Meanwhile, a second ship, the AURORA, would take a supporting party under Captain Aeneas Mackintosh to McMurdo Sound on the opposite side of the continent. This party would then lay supply depots across the Great Ice Barrier as far as the Beardmore Glacier; these depots would hold the food and fuel that would enable Shackleton's party to complete their journey of 1,800 miles (2,900 km) across the continent.

Shackleton used his Antarctic experiences and considerable fund-raising skills, and the expedition was financed largely by private donations, although the British government gave £10,000 (about £680,000 in 2008 terms). Scottish jute magnate Sir James Caird (keep that name in mind for later in this story) gave £24,000, Midlands industrialist Frank Dudley Docker gave £10,000 and tobacco heiress Janet Stancomb-Wills gave an undisclosed but reportedly "generous" sum. Public interest in the expedition was considerable; Shackleton received more than 5,000 applications to join it! His interviewing and selection methods sometimes seemed eccentric; believing that character and temperament were as important as technical ability, he would ask unconventional questions. Thus physicist Reginald James was asked if he could sing; others were accepted on sight because Shackleton liked the look of them, or after the briefest of interrogations. Shackleton also loosened some traditional hierarchies, expecting all men, including the scientists, to take their share of ship's chores. He ultimately selected a crew of 56, twenty-eight on each ship. 

After traveling from England to South Georgia Island, he finally set out from here (Grytviken Harbor on South Georgia Island) for the Antarctic on December 5, 1914.  

Stay tuned..... for further adventures...



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McClanahan, Pamela

Fantastic job! Enjoying the journey...

Pete Weiler

Hardy kayakers!