Adele should arrive in South Georgia this afternoon
After three days ‘steaming’ – yes, I’m afraid we’ve had to motor a good deal of the way due to following winds and the need to keep on schedule – South Georgia was sighted just before breakfast this morning.
As we approached on this cold, grey morning, the 10,000ft high island and its outliers appeared as a stark charcoal line of barren rock, their snow and ice capped peaks truncated by a layer of cloud.
After gazing at a relatively wildlife-free ocean (bar albatross) for three days, suddenly the surface is alive with seals leaping around Adele. Albatross continue to soar across our stern. Adele’s owner Jan-Eric Osterlund believes South Georgia has the potential to be the highlight of our south Atlantic exploration.
This remote outcrop, 170km long and between 2km and 40km wide, is one of the greatest breeding grounds for Antarctic wild life. Lying 800 miles to the east of the Falklands, it’s home to almost one million King penguins, up to four million fur seals and is a vast breeding grounds for many species of albatross. There are elephant seal, the dangerous looking Leopard Seal and if you’re lucky you will see Blue Whale. Less common are Minke, Humpback, Sperm and Southern Right.
For sheer numbers though it’s the bird population which seems quite incredible. The Prion, a relatively small seabird with a wingspan of about 12in, breeds here with an estimated 22 million pairs in existence! Hard to get your head round that sort of statistic. The reason for this abundance is that South Georgia, unlike The Falklands, lies within the Antarctic Convergence Zone, the area of glacial water where food is more plentiful. Unlike the Antarctic mainland, which becomes completely ice bound, the island is accessible year round, thus enabling many species to complete their breeding cycle. The Emperor Penguin, which manages to winter on the Antarctic mainland, is, of course, a noted exception.
The proliferation of the fur seal, which at one point not long ago was almost extinct on SG, is due in part to the decimation of the whale population through hunting. This left the krill to the Fur Seal which has subsequently flourished. The re-establishment of the whale population has been painfully slow by comparison, not helped by the fact that Japan, Norway and now Iceland no longer abide by the ban on hunting.
Before we go ashore at Grytviken, which we should reach later this afternoon, we will be armed with long sticks. Yes, sticks. Eef Willems, our guide, briefed us last night as we sat around the dining table in the deck saloon. Fur seals are not too keen on visitors who get too close. They can out-run you and will take a chunk out of your leg with their powerful tearing ability. If you do get bitten infection is highly likely. Poke a stick in their deceptively sweet looking faces and they will resist attack. You must back off immediately and check there is not another of the four million inhabitants coming up behind you.
Another oddity here is a reindeer population introduced by the Norwegians who established some of the whaling stations decades ago. Their numbers are naturally controlled by the extreme winter weather conditions which will kill off the weaker individuals.
Members of the British Antarctic Survey are the only human inhabitants here and number a handful. For visitors – and sometimes they are here in their thousands thanks to the cruise liner – there are strict rules. “Animals on South Georgia have right of way” is one I liked. One must be very careful not to tramp on scree in which some birds burrow and nest and taking anything off the islands is forbidden. You must clean boots and foul weather gear to prevent introducing disease and non-indigenous flora. Rapidly changing conditions mean you must go ashore fully prepared to weather a storm and possibly spend a night. Among the attractions are a museum, remains of long abandoned whaling stations, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave and of course many landing areas which lead to various breeding grounds – the sea conditions will determine whether or not we can get ashore safely.