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South Georgia 2007

On board are Hamish, Kate, Helen (7), and Anna (5), and four guests who joined us in the Falkland Islands.

13 November

King Edward Point, 54 : 17 South 036 : 30 West

photography from the bow of yacht SealYesterday was a day for cruising on Seal ... we called in to several sites en route - first stop was a macaroni penguin colony that we viewed from Seal's bow. We've seen several macaroni colonies but most were too inaccessible to see the penguins well, so it was great to have a good look at them finally. Staying on board the boat or dinghy is one of the best way to view wildlife, because they don't pay much attention to the yacht.

We then anchored in Hercules Bay and made a dinghy tour of the inner harbor, before motoring around to Leith and Stromness whaling stations. By Leith we came across a fur seal carcass surrounded by giant petrels squabbling noisily over their meal, so we shut down the motor and drifted near them for about half an hour, while everyone photographed their behavior.

Stromness was interesting as it is where Shackleton finally reached after his boat journey from Elephant Island and crossing of South Georgia. (Many adventurers with modern equipment and with GPSs have tried to reenact Shackleton's journey ... to date, a few have achieved the boat journey and many have made the crossing through the mountains, but no one has achieved the entire route. The closest was Arved Fuchs a few years ago, but even he had to be towed the last bit to King Haakon Bay by his support yacht through 50 knot winds and icebergs.). Two groups of climbers have made the "Shackleton Crossing" so far this season.

The wind was coming around to the north however, so we headed around to Jason Harbour for the night. A light mantled sooty albatross was flying over the cliff when we arrived, next to a grazing reindeer. (The reindeer were introduced by Norwegian whalers for food, and they have done remarkably well on South Georgia. Plans are underway to eradicate one of the herds.) We closed the door to keep from bothering the light mantled sooty albatross with our dinner conversation, but we could see the fur and elephant seals out of the windows while eating our lamb curry dinner.

At last light, Hamish and I made a quick reconnaissance of Jason Lagoon with the dinghy. It's an almost perfect circle - a glacial cirque - and we could just get the dinghy through over the moraine at the mouth. Fur seals and elephant seals lined the beach. In the water, the fur seals are so relaxed that they don't even notice the dinghy engine. When we were heading back out over the moraine, there was a fur seal right in the way. He was lolling in the water, rolling like a barrel, and paid no attention to us. We had to wait for him to clear out so we could get through the pass.

Everyone was quite keen to explore Jason Harbour in the morning, but time in South Georgia is always weather dependant, even though we've had unusually good weather so far. Hamish woke first at five am to the sound of ice chuckling outside the boat. From the noise level, we expected to find the boat completely surrounded by ice, but in fact, it was just one smallish iceberg that must have contained an unusually large amount of air. The wind instruments were clogged with snow, and there was a wet 4" fall all over the deck. Hamish shovelled out the dinghy while we waited until first light before heading off to Grytviken. A swell had started to come into the bay, so it was time to head out ... we have come alongside the government / BAS pier at King Edward Point, as it has the best protection around from this NE swell. We'd planned to come here today in any event to take on water.

Shortly after we arrived, we were sitting down to bacon and eggs when a great belching and semi roaring came through the door. We jumped on deck to find a large male elephant seal, mouth opened, a foot off the stern. We're not sure if he was offering a commentary on the boat's name, or merely complaining that we were on his circuit. (He's now floating in the water off the small boat launching ramp, with his nose and top of his head and a bit of back visible ... rather like a hippopotamus. There's another lying on the pier along with his females.)

12 November

Fortuna Bay, 54 : 09 South 036 : 49 West

We had a great day yesterday in Fortuna Bay. The variety of wildlife here is just amazing, and we had the extraordinary good luck to have light winds the entire time we've been here. We have to leave today as the wind is turning to the north which will make beach landings impossible.

We continued to watch the elephant seals -- Hamish and I are finding them the most interesting, because we haven't been to South Georgia this early before, so it is new behavior for us. Everyone took hundreds of photos of the King Penguin colony and a handful climbed the hills to look for light mantled sooty albatross. Nigel set up his tripod at a light mantled sooty nest for three hours, but the albatross kept his or her head firmly under his wing and wouldn't look up. Cold feet drove him off for more walking before the mate arrived. Snow petrels flitted past nearby.

Up on the other side were Antarctic tern nests and reindeer, and as ever there were plenty of fur seals, including a blonde one. (About 1% of the fur seals are blonde; a BAS scientist said to us a few years ago that the blondes suffer no prejudice: "fur seals hate everything; they don't treat the blonde ones any differently.")

young fur sealFarther down the beach where the fur seals are more concentrated, they are definitely more aggressive. On this end of the beach they are unusually passive.

There's an elephant seal and a reindeer skeleton on the beach which make for excellent comparative anatomy for Russell (our vet) and for Helen and Anna, who have a keen interest in bones.

Cecilia sat near the king penguins for several hours with her tripod, and after about an hour, the chicks (fluffy and brown, totally unlike the sleek adults) came over to check her out. She didn't dare move to change lenses, but she had too long a telephoto to capture them. They walked right up to her and pecked at her camera bag.

11 November

Fortuna Bay, 54 : 09 South 036 : 49 West

We left Elsehul early yesterday morning, waving goodbye to two other yachts there for the night. Golden Fleece was bound for Stanley, and Abel Tasman for Grytviken.

The wind was perfect - 25 knots on a broad reach in the shelter of South Georgia. SEAL leaped along with the log pegged at 8.5 - 9.5 knots for hours at a time, which is pretty good going for a heavily laden boat. The sky was clearing as we approached, and we arrived at Fortuna Bay at about 6 pm. The wind settled down once we were in the harbor, and dinner plans were forgotten as everyone went ashore for the evening. The sun sets at about 10 pm, so we enjoyed the excellent light and stayed ashore until cold feet sent us back to the boat.

Helen and Anna overlooking elephant sealsThere is a large elephant seal harem next to us and we were able to climb up a hill and watch the harem by the hours. The beach master was kept very busy, mating with about six females in the hour we were there, and meanwhile repelling advances from two smaller males coming in from either side hoping to catch him unawares. He left the harem alone for a few minutes to have a splash in the water, and one of the smaller males nearly made it in, but a chorus of belches from the females brought the beach master back in to see off the rogue male, nearly crushing a pup in the process.

Quite a few of the pups are still in their black pelage (which means they're about three weeks old), but there are a host of bigger ones on their own. The older lone pups stay near but not in the harem ... perhaps to keep from being crushed in the fights. The young pups are right in the thick of it, as they are staying close to their mothers to nurse. The prime elephant seal action is considerably earlier in the year, but we're still seeing quite a bit.

yacht Seal at anchor in Fortuna BayThe fur seals here are considerably more relaxed than the ones in Elsehul. Since they must be in the same exact phase of their breeding cycle, we can only assume that is because there are far fewer seals here. Fortuna Bay is quickly becoming populated with fur seals. The first one sighted here was in 2001, and already there are significant numbers.

There are reindeer, which came right down to the beach last night and we were able to get a good look at them through the raised saloon windows while we ate dinner. I hiked up to a gentoo penguin colony, and others hiked down the beach to a king penguin colony.

The cove we're in is called Whistle Cove. We guess that is because it is where Shackleton heard the work whistle at Stromness when he and Worsley and Crean were on their epic crossing of South Georgia. Until he heard that whistle, he didn't know for sure if the whalers were still at Stromness, but once they heard it, they knew they'd been saved, as long as they could make it across the low mountains to Stromness.

A few of us are considering retracing the final part of the crossing ... we can walk from here to Stromness. There were quite a few keen on doing the walk yesterday before we arrived here, but today, the lure of the wildlife on the beach may keep everyone at sea level.

10 November

departing Elsehul, 54 : 02 South 037 : 58 West

We're sailing away from Elsehul in a snowstorm. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day. Great day for exploring Elsehul and probably our last day to get ashore with the fur seals. The beach is noticeably fuller since we arrived and the fur seals (almost all males still) are considerably more aggressive. A cruise ship arrived yesterday but abandoned attempts to get their 100 passengers ashore. With only eight of us on board it's a bit easier, especially for those willing to scale sheer sided shore from the dinghy.

Everyone went ashore and went immediately for height. It's extraordinary how high the fur seal damage goes ... at the moment the fur seals are high in the tussac, but we can see where the grass has been eroded in previous seasons. Official estimates put the population at TWICE what it was when Hamish and I were last here ... four million at the peak breeding season. During the breeding season, fur seals eat krill ... although the fur seals were almost wiped out completely by sealers, they were able to recover when sealing ended ... because the whales had also been wiped out, the fur seals have been able to exploit that food niche very successfully. In a natural state before humans arrived at South Georgia there were probably about a million fur seals, but the hundred thousands of whales in the region put a cap on how many fur seals there could be (there are no land predators for fur seals, apart from the odd one killed as the result of its territorial battle wounds). Now, scientists believe the fur seals are impeding the whales' recovery because they are eating so much of the food supply.

Helen, Anna and I went way up a dry gravel river above the height of the fur seals. At the top, we found nesting gentoos and a group of king penguins. It had been a tough enough walk on our long legs; it's amazing to think of the penguins trekking all that way up, but it was the lowest altitude that wasn't trampled by fur seals.

After a banner day for photography, we are taking advantage of the low cloud and favorable winds to sail farther south, hoping to position ourselves in a new spot for when the skies clear.

9 November

Elsehul, 54 : 02 South 037 : 58 West

male elephant sealMost everyone went ashore fairly early. There are grey headed and light mantled sooty albatrosses here, as well as giant petrels, and a host of male fur seals, marking their territory before the females arrive. Several bull elephant seals share the shore - one with a large harem and the others with just one or two females. Helen and Anna and I went ashore a bit later, and walked up over the isthmus to Undine harbour, quite unrecognizable from the last time Hamish and I had been there in a 60-knot blow. We sat in the tussac and watched king penguins. This small colony had all ages of penguins from the fluffy downy brown chicks, to nearly ready to swim adolescents, with tufts of down on their sleek feathers, to the full grown adults.

One unusual find was an very large pellet of penguin feathers that looked like an owl pellet (owls regurgitate unedible substances in pellets). Tyto albas (Barn Owls) have been seen on South Georgia, so perhaps there are some here, although we haven't seen any.

Walking through the tussac was a bit hard going because there were so many fur seals, so in the end, Helen and Anna settled on a rock on the beach and used pebbles to play "fur seals and elephant seals."

fur sealDinghy cruising is actually the best way to see Elsehul and stay away from the fur seals. We went around into Joke Cove, and explored the notches of the harbor. We found a whole group of newborn fur seal pups with their mothers, quite out of range of the males on the beach. They'd pupped on the uncomfortable rocks. These seals are a bit early from the main fur seal pupping time; it is interesting to see them without a protective male. (The females don't need the protection for their pups; it's just the males protecting their females from other males. Pups get trampled in the fights, so it's probably a good strategy of these females to raise their pups off the beach.)

Light mantled sooty albatrosses were visible soaring on the cliff faces. They are spectacular fliers and have a haunting call.

light mantled sooty albatross Lunch on board went uneaten as everyone wanted to stay ashore. There was a celebratory air on board in the evening as all the digital photographers went through their day's take at the saloon table. Outside the window, a gang of fur seals chased a gentoo penguin, and the sheathbills continued to peck at the boat.

Earlier Entries from South Georgia 2007

October 5 - November 8

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