The deep inlet of Elsehul, its steep sides coated in tussac grass, was out introduction to the wild, extraordinary beautify of South Georgia. The water is shallow enough for kelp forests to wave in the choppy surface for the fur seals to play in, and home to fish, birds and seals everywhere. We did a zodiac cruise here, rather than land, to see the astonishing diversity of wildlife in the nooks and crannies of the bay. Both zodiacs, and this hard dinghy (nicknamed Sloopy) were pressed into service.
There wasn’t much swell but it was choppy, making for a lot of slightly out of focus picutres. All the pictures in this post except my blurry but close up petrel, were taken by Jordi who somehow achieves stability even in those conditions.
Elsehul (Norwegian for Else Cove) was called that in around 1905, when the whalers rediscovered it. Before that, it was known as Paddock Cove, named in the 1780’s by a sealing captain. From our very first arrival, the chart offers no escape from the industrial heritage of these islands. Whatever the past, Elsehul is now a beautiful wee harbor, offering a welcome refuge from the swells of the south.
Even from the deck, crowds of curious young fur seal pups were everywhere, and they come up to Europa and our zodiacs to look us over. In Antarctica, we had seen plenty of bigger seals. They were often unafraid and some even playful, but we were all enchanted by the babies we met for the first time here. When we were deeper in the bay we also saw adult females and a few bulls, alongside our first elephant seals lounging on the beach.
The birds were amazing. They took very little notice of us, as they rushed and dived and called and hunted. Fur seals never shut up, and neither do penguins: here we could also hear the clacking of bills in mating and threat displays and even the splash of webbed geet in take-off and landing. Just in Elsehul alone, we counted three species of albatross, snow sheathbills, blue eyed shags and Gentoo penguins. Most excitingly for those with decent eyesight, people saw the South Georgia pipit. This is a small bird (a ‘little brown job’ indeed), the only songbird on the islands and the first one we’ve encountered since leaving Puerto Williams. They came under huge threat from rats so their increasing range was a very welcome sight.
The bay was my first introduction to tussac grass (poa flabellata), big mounds of a grass with wide, flat leaves harbouring oat-like seed stems. Underneath and between the tussocks run secret paths, burrows hidden for the pipits and the petals. From a distance, tussac looks like a very deep-pile carpet, luxurious and plush, utterly different from a sward dropped close by sheep or deer. Up close, near the beach, you can see the fur seal damage, the bald tops of the tussac humps and the revealed paths between.
But the pups are so cute it is almost impossible not to forgive them anything. Up there with otters and fawns, they are adorable, endless fun.
We also went close to the rocks on the eastern side of the bay to see the Macaroni penguin colony. Jordi and Katelynn heroically steered in large swell and surge so we could watch these determined birds climbing up their steep highway to the main colony. They are so cute with their absurd yellow hats but hardy too.
In South Georgia, ships should display as little light as possible. All the cabin portholes were blacked out, and shutters put over the windows the deckhouse. All our decklights were off, and only red lights allowed in the wheelhouse. If ships don’t do this, birds fly at the light, injure themselves and damage the boat. It was very dark on deck, moon and stars hidden behind the steep rock walls and thick cloud, adding to the sense of excitement and adventure ahead.