„Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.“
Friends and relatives were positively surprised when we told then that this time, our travel would not be going to the north. Still most had a pretty inaccurate conception of what we meant with going south. Once you travel far enough, cold and snow will become dominating again, so when we started planning, we wanted to get all the way to the Antarctic. Not only does it seem an appropriate place for us, I always wanted to see penguins in their natural habitat.
Travel options are fairly limited, though. And the Antarctic mainland has several restrictions, regulations apply especially for the large cruise ships in regards to how much time passengers can spend ashore. Not an option for us, so the choice was done that we would travel with a smaller ship to South Georgia, one of the sub-Antarctic islands. South Georgia is bigger than most people realize, with an area of roughly 3900 square kilometers (1500 square miles). Compared to Switzerland with 41200 square kilometers, it is only a little bit less than 10% of it’s size. And the mountain ranges go up to an impressive number, with the highest peak Mount Paget having an elevation of 2935 meters (9629 feet).
The Zebra needed to stay at home. The amount of streets was very limited, on the account of only 20-30 people living there. So a place barred of people, with hundreds of thousands of penguins and other animals, quite cold even during summer with the chance of encountering snowstorms… what more can you wish for?
Likely the Zebra sniggered a bit in regards to the difficulties we had to get there. Obviously traveling with the mighty Zebra is both more reliable and comfortable, but even though the snorkel is giving some better capabilities handling water, it does not handle oceans all too well. A shame. Our flights had been booked many months in advance, first segment was to Rio de Janeiro. After quite some waiting due to two flights having been cancelled, the next stop was Santiago de Chile, where we planned to stay for two nights just to make sure we have sufficient buffer so that our luggage might arrive as well. With over 70 kilograms per person (154 lbs), we wanted to avoid all unnecessary risks. The plan was to take the one plane that was going over to the Falkland Islands once per week, unfortunately the first day the flight was cancelled as well. And we have not been delighted that on the second day, the flight was directed back again although we already reached the Falklands, due to circular winds that prevent save landing. Rumors said that there was an important rugby game going on as well…
Finally after two days of delay we set foot on the Falklands and were transferred to Port Stanley, with the ship already waiting for us. Adventure time starts.
The ship is an old Finnish, ice-strengthened research vessel now supporting expeditions that take passengers as well. The Polar Pioneer is sailing with a great Russian Crew, under charter of Aurora Expeditions, an Australian organization that we definitely recommend. The expedition itself was organized by WildPhoto Travel, a group of fantastic photographers based in Svalbard. With the other passengers coming from various places around the globe as well, the trip could be considered fairly international. With a length of only 71.6 meters, the boat is small enough to get into the many bays of South Georgia.
Did I mention the size of the ship? The crew told us that we are very lucky with the forecasted weather conditions and that we would likely encounter waves with only 6-7 meters. Did I mention that I get seasick really easy? I spent my 50th birthday in our small cabin wondering what the heck I was doing all the while trying to cope with the nearly neglectable storm that tossed the ship over 60 degrees one side to the other, something the crew was barely mentioning at all. Quite a feeling when you have to hold tight when lying down to prevent being thrown out of your bed, listening to waves crashing against your porthole in a cabin on 5th floor. The food on board was really good, but I did not gain a lot of weight on this trip.
Photo is from the very calm sea, when the storm hit the ship, it was forbidden to go on deck.
After the first day, I was able to get up, then after the second day at sea my stomach calmed down. Observing the first iceberg I tried to forget about the trip back that would bring us out to open waters again.
I’m not a birder, still the many huge companions our ship had during the passage were impressive. The albatrosses had a wingspan of over 3 meters.
Finally we arrived in South Georgia and made landfall. There were several small zodiacs that offered a shuttle service in between beach and ship. You needed to be extra careful protecting your equipment and with a heavy backpack plus tripod entering and exiting the zodiacs at ship-side was indeed dangerous.
On shore, we met the first inhabitants, the southern fur seals giving us a nice welcome by more or less completely ignoring us. It is considered nice and friendly because those animals protect their territory fiercely and are fairly aggressive, we have been warned not to get too close to them. Which was tricky, because on most beaches, fur seal population was dense.
Driven by anticipation, everybody was looking forward to see the first penguins up close. And right on cue, four King penguins came along to welcome us to South Georgia.
With roughly thirty people on the same spot, those four felt completely relaxed (although one looked like he forgot something). They walked down the beach…
…turned around and walked back. Not sure how many photographs were made at that moment, but cameras were clicking like crazy. It was an overwhelming moment, but really just the beginning.
The amount of penguins we met is hard to describe. At one place, it was endless penguins, no matter what direction. It was literally hundreds of thousands of animal and the level of noise was impressive.
In addition to the penguins being noisy, they were quite smelly as well. The first two days it was raining a lot, so the smell was dampened, but the request from the organization to bring rubber boots started to make a lot of sense – the material shown in this picture is not mud.
Best part about penguins is their curiosity. There is a general rule that you are not allowed to get too close to penguins. Once they start to back away from you, you must stop. Especially with the young ones. Luckily, there was no such rule for the penguins. They came very close, sometimes distance was less than a meter. Interestingly enough, if you stood really still, they did not show interest. But waving your arms and uttering friendly greetings made them aware of you and they came waddling closer.
The animals are a photographer’s dream. Not only didn’t they show any sign of fear, it felt like they were used to professional posing: Look to the left, look to the right, look at each other, look away from each other. Perfect.
The King penguins were the most common ones, but there were other species as well, this is a Gentoo penguin.
The Macaroni penguins are the most fashionable ones, taking extra care of their hairstyle.
Definitely extra cute.
And they know it. This one was shooting for a hair shampoo advertisement.
Rockhoppers. Actually we took those photos on the Falkland islands on the last day before our plane departed. Seeing them jump up and down rocks was hilarious. Still their eyes told a different language, there is not much evolution in between them and dinosaurs. Again, those animals did not show much fear. They breed in between tussock grass and with every step you had to take care not stepping on a penguin.
In general, penguins have a tendency to being cute and cuddly animals coupled with some fairly objectionable behavior in regards to being very selfish. For every activity, no matter the amount of danger, they will select one that needs to play scout. Only once the scout has not been eaten, the rest will follow. Based on some good debate first, naturally. Even for such an elusive endeavor like climbing down an almost insurmountable river bank.
Cuddling, young sea elephants. After penguins and fur seals, they are the most common animals.
They are even more curious than the penguins. This one was carefully coming closer a small little bit at a time, making sure I would not get afraid and run away. My tripod and the camera was apparently highly interesting and smelled of big, wide world.
We had a good chat as well, it shared it’s experiences with other expeditions and explained to me how to best frame the pictures of the penguins in the background.
And yes, the video was not recorded using a smartphone, I tend to carry a lot of equipment when traveling. The results can be seen in the video section of the website.
While they are still young, sea elephants are cute. The females will not grow very large, but the adult bulls are huge, heavy and have zero manners. The noise at the beach is penguin shrieks and sea elephants burping and farting. Something you do not learn from documentaries. Some suggestion: Please stay away from the large bulls that managed to gather a harem of females, they can be extremely aggressive.
Up close to fur seals. You had to keep distance. Once they start to move towards you, back away slowly and show them that you respect them. Make sure that moving backwards will not put you in danger, though. Don’t try to run, they are fast and will pick up the challenge of a chase.
Even their young ones train being proud and fierce animals. This one made sure I got the message.
Penguin offspring is mainly annoying and wants to be fed a lot.
Our trip had two days of rain, two days of snowfall and one day that could not decide in between friendly sunshine and heavy overcast. Only rarely, it was possible to see the mountains of the island. But what was visible was quite impressive.
The one day that could not decide for a specific weather was great for my inner landscape photographer.
Plus on this day, we visited the only settlement on South Georgia: Grytviken, close to the King Edward Point research station. There is a museum with a gift shop, a church and a post office and the only other building demonstrates how strong the winds must be in this area – it was tied to the ground!
Best part about the post office, the content of the post box was collected daily at 12pm (Saturday and Sunday at 11:45pm – not sure whether this was a typo or they work very long hours). Yes, South Georgia is a very, very British British Overseas Territory.
The rest of the settlement is equipment used for whaling, left to decay.
Rarely there is signs of humans on the island, we found some rotting wooden construction close to a waterfall. Although we mainly stayed at the beach where all wildlife is, we took a small hike inland up this river and climbed a small hill to get a view to the surroundings. It feels absolutely remote up there.
It was wet, it was cold – and it was fantastic.
The two days with snow were especially nice. It is supposed to be summer down there, but a snowstorm hit us, giving us a white out for 15 minutes. In an area heavily populated with animals that are very willing to bite off one of your fingers (or more), this is not trivial. But for animal photography, the light is superb, no shadows and no hard light.
The penguins were careful as well, this one was holding back it’s colleagues.
In general it seemed like the animals were absolutely ok with the weather as well. Compared to winter, it was likely very mild temperatures.
In this area, a river split into two distinct riverbeds and left a small elevated area. Covered with penguins like every other place. But fortunately, those pictures could be taken without lying on the ground for a change.
Still for the best perspective, you get down into the dirt. My jacket was white before of the trip. Not for the superior camouflage, it was the only color still available my size.
In one place, the beach was famous for the large amounts of penguins getting in and out of the water. Basically all the time, a group would come swimming and walking up the beach. You could actually see which fur seals were more or less aggressive, some of them the penguins avoided, some they passed close by. I decided that I would be extra careful with those that the penguins avoided.
No idea what those birds are called, but they pecked at anything (Edit: My clever girlfriend told me that these are Snowy Sheathbills). Pretty sure many people complained afterwards that their dry bags leaked. I was tempted to leave one of my cameras switched on to see whether they are able to make better photos than I do.
Technically one of my best. You have to look out for reflections. And minor annoyances like wet feet should not matter to you at all.
And if you are brave enough and willing to face of all of those challenges, you might be rewarded with penguins glistening in the sun…
… or being better swimmers than you can ever be.
You remember the small iceberg from the beginning of the travelogue? We had others as well, this was the largest one. Chinstrap penguin inserted for size comparisons.
The trip was fairly expensive and comfort was quite low (well, still better than lying in a tent on rocky ground). And the ratio traveling and actually being on shore was lousy, it took us over three weeks for five days spent with penguins. Would I do it again? Oh hell yes, I would!
But for this time, we left South Georgia behind us, our minds and hearts filled with penguins.