South Georgia on my mind

This is our third full day in South Georgia and we are having an astonishing cruise. I have over 30 pages of notes about the behaviour and appearance of penguins, seals, petrels, gulls, skuas of different kind and colouration. It is hard to know where to begin.

We anchored last night in Fortuna Bay, a deep fjord. (At least I think it is a fjord: may purists forgive me if it is a calanque, ria or some other geology. It is surrounded by ice covered slopes rising steeply from the water, which suggests fjord to me.) This is where Shackleton first returned to sea level after yomping from his initial landing place at King Haakon Bay on the other side of the island. Fortuna Bay was almost the only spot on this side without a whaling station. He, with Crean and Worsley, continued onwards to Stromness, a further six kilometres, a lot of it very steep.

This morning many of the group are replicating that last section, albeit in bright sunshine with a warm (warm!) breeze blowing, and in modern equipment including hiking boots. I opted out, not least to catch up with some writing, and to give my knees a break. Europa took the outside route and we are now anchored in Stromness Harbour. The harbour is one of three small bays in the larger coastal indentation called Stromness Bay. Much of the area is protected by a large rocky island covered in tussac grass and penguins, called Grass Island. The glacial valley down which the three explorers walked to knock on the door of the manager’s house is called Shackleton Valley. A lot of effort went into the naming of places in this extraordinary landscape first adopted by hard-nosed, driven men.

The whaling station now is off limits, but we have a good view from the deck. The buildings are rusting and decayed, and full of asbestos. At the outer end is a wooden, white clapboard house. Here is where Shackleton knocked and introduced himself to the startled inhabitants. Here began his quest to rescue the rest of his men, left on the desolate beach of Elephant Island. We are not done with Shackleton yet on this cruise, but this is where the James Caird party finally reached the rest of humanity.

On a different note, the fringes and coasts of South Georgia are bursting with life. The whales are absent, driven away by two centuries of intensive assault. The fur seals have bounced back from a small colony here and their numbers are ere exploding as their natural competitors for krill – the whales – are not around. Fur seal pups continue to enthrall us with their cute antics: Walt Disney or Pixar need look no further for their next animation stars.

King penguins are also abundant.. They have chicks at every stage of growth from newly hatched, wrinkle-necked, poker-beaked little ones to the nearly adult moulting adolescents. These youngsters are brown, and while moulting resemble ancient, shaggy teddy bears, very round with gaping beaks. The first explorers thought them a different species and it’s not hard to see why. Next to them, their hard working parents are models of dapper elegance with their gold chests and orange necks and beaks.

This afternoon we have some choices as to walks, and will anchor tonight just around the corner in Leith harbour. Now I will go back on deck to enjoy the sunshine.

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