Right Whale Bay

Elsehul was stunning: our next stop at Right Whale Bay is extraordinary. After a foggy start the cloud lifts in the bay leaving dark cloud across the north eastern horizon against which Europa lies at rest on calm water.

We land stern first in surge onto a shelving black beach surrounded by seal pups and king penguins. Around the beach the 300m peaks are swathed in the mist which part to reveal glaciers or great swales of snow lying in suspended valleys between vertiginous slopes of grey-red scree.

Tiny pups rush at my feet, squeaking, red mouths open to emit strange, uncontrolled sounds. The bigger ones try a little harder to intimidate, but are still too young. Their mothers shamble about calling for their little ones, telling them off when reunited. Occasionally they too rush at the visitors, but mostly the females ignore everything before flopping on their sides to allow the pup a drink.

Two medium size elephant seals lie side by side on the beach, indolent but watching everything with little, beady eyes. One yawns once. That was it. 

Then there are the king penguins. Everywhere, penguins. Right Whale Bay is home to the fourth largest colony in South Georgia and the noisy, never-ending susurration is part of the experience. They flop in and out of the water, like cats in that way of never losing their dignity. They march, even bustle about, appearing always to have a purpose until they stop, stretch their necks, cry awk, and make an abrupt 180° back where they came from. Or maybe just 110° to go somewhere new.

King penguins breed in an irregular pattern, at most raising three young every two years, so there are always chicks in the colonies are different stages of maturity. (There’s a good simple explanation of their peculiar habits here.) Chicks bred later in the year have much less chance of survival when the adults take off for the cold season. By then the chicks really need to be sufficiently well grown and blubbery to live maybe five months unfed. This shaggy brown coat is not waterproof so they can’t hunt for themselves.

The adolescent chick is bizarrely different from its sleek parents: a smelly teenager in an afghan coat nagging its glamorous parents in their dinner jackets for yet another meal. It is no wonder that early explorers thought them a different species, a cuckoo in the colony rather than the rightful inhabitant.

Besides feeding, being lost and found, mating rituals and squabbling or playing in the surf, grooming is a big deal for all the species. Penguins peck at their coats, necks contorted to reach that difficult moulting itch on their back. Fur seals scratch behind their ears, the babies occasionally falling over when gravity defeats balance. Even elephant seals, in an agony of discomfort as their entire skin is shed, thrash the sand with their tails to kick up a relieving powder.

The geology of Right Whale Bay is fantastical too.  A riveret winds across the  flat beach, almost a complete circle, collecting water from the broad valley stretching back to the peaks. Over a small ridge, behind the next stretch of beach, a perfect U-shaped glacial cut is a text-book picture. It is maybe half a mile wide, cut and braided with streams wandering between silt banks they themselves have built with the mud brought from under the ice. On the silt banks bright, almost luminous green, the greens of fresh, wet moss and complicated lichens, of small alpine plants reaching upwards for a daring inch. Across this massive valley amble a collection of penguins, out of an exploration or maybe just a constitutional. After a while they stop, turn and start retracing their steps to the colony.

Scavengers and hunters, the petrels and skuas and the skulking snowy sheathbills are everywhere looking for the weak chick, the isolated egg or some neglected carrion. Bones are littered across the beach. Tiny pieces, maybe a claw, alongside the seven-foot jaw of a whale. Skulls abound, the eye sockets lying above the sightless stones. A rib cage lies agape at the hugeness of the sky. Great vertebrae are littered about, maybe from whales or else elephant seals, wingnuts of mammoth ships, the surfaces pitted, scarred, marked by licken as they slow rot, till only an outline is left between the stones, a ring with the two side-wings on its way to final disappearance.

We have been wandering the beach, awed by beauty, for several hours, and now it is time to go. Jordi and youngest crew member Toby are in dry suits, handling the zodiacs as they come into the beach to pick us up. Around them the penguins and seals splash in and out of the water. A few kelp-covered rocks are particularly popular with the pups, just beside the landing place.  Mostly, the pups avoid the men, flaunting their fluid grace in the water against Jordi’s angularity and Toby’s stumbling in his big orange dry suit that balloons up around him. One brushes against Toby and suddenly the men join the game, ducking each other as the seals do. Toby won’t stop grinning for a week.

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