The weather on South Georgia just eases up enough to allow two runs ashore to witness some of the most stunning wildlife phenomena on earth
After a cold lumpy passage north-west (see previous blog) we arrive at
Prion Island in the Bay of Isles and drop the hook in its lee. Anything much smaller than Adele’s 180ft and 300 plus tons might find this anchorage untenable because it’s still howling and there’s a chop which will make disembarking in the rib exciting.
Eef, Rick Tomlinson and I forgo breakfast (a real sacrifice on this yacht), don our full wet weather landing kit including full oilies, chest high waders in Rick and Eef’s case – my Henri Lloyd wellies look pathetic by comparison – lifejackets, industrial gloves (they are the only things that stay dry), waterproof landing bags for camera kit, survival rations and clamber into the bucking tender. Deckie Quinton is at the controls and we head off into freezing wind and spray.
The tender, an Aquapro built in Auckland, is a neat bit of kit with a whacking great 36 hp Yanmar diesel outboard on the ‘back’ with a vast amount of torque, a built in tank and, the best bit, an aluminium bottom making it ideal for iffy beach landings like this one. It’s also light so that doubling as a safety boat for MCA it can be launched using manual winches.
Eef guides us through the kelp and we eventually land on a sheltered beach absolutely heaving with fur seals, king penguin, a few elephant seals and great southern petrels marching between them. But we’re not interested in these – it’s the wandering albatross we’re after and they can only be found on their nests in the middle of the island on a hillock to the north. We wade through the tussac grass being snarled at by the ubiquitous fur seals who, on Prion, seem just a little bit more aggressive. We are thankful of our broom handles.
Eef spots our first albatross, a mass of white feathers sitting atop a very carefully gathered mound of vegetation. While Eef returns to guide the next boat-load through the tussac, she leaves Rick and I to creep around the bird which seems totally at one with our presence. We clamber a little higher, out of range of the fur seals and there on a mossy, tussacy plateau are up to a dozen albatross sitting on their ‘penthouse’ nests enjoying the sunshine which has graced us with its presence. There are petrels here too with their chicks and air-born skuas swoop around us at head height, so close you feel the wind off them. It’s an ornithological wonderland.
Up close the wandering albatross, with a wingspan of almost 12ft is quite extraordinary with its large distinctive beak, beautiful eyes and mass of white plumage. At rest they are impressive enough but then two birds, a male and female put on a fantastic courting display, wings fully outstretched and a rapid clattering sound emanating from their beaks. They carry on with each other for 20 minutes and with the backdrop of South Georgia’s snowy peaks it’s an unforgettable experience.
On the wing the albatross is even more impressive and some of the statistics astound. They will regularly fly to Brazil and back, a round journey of 5,000 miles to collect one 5lb meal for their nestlings, a journey that may take eight days. They sleep on the wing and because of their brilliant ability to soar with the utmost efficiency they consume minimal energy while air-born.
Enthralling as the albatross were, we had to return to Adele, first for the much-awaited breakfast, which had turned into lunch, and then for a short chug across the bay to Start Point and Salisbury Plain. All sounds very English, I know, but we are 8,000 miles away from their namesakes in the UK – I can only imagine that the early discoverers were a little short on imagination that day.
The reason we are here is the king penguin – or to be slightly more accurate up to 27,000 pairs in the Bay of Isles, many of them nesting on Salisbury Plain at the foot of the Grace Glacier.
We prepare for another wet landing and having achieved that successfully have to wade thigh deep across a fast-running glacial meltwater stream before yomping across the plain. As Nigel Ingram observed: “You can see any amount of David Attenborough and Planet Earths but until you actually see and hear and smell a penguin colony you won’t appreciate the immensity of it – I looked down at this mass of birds and just burst out laughing!”
He’s right – your jaws drops and you gaze in disbelief at the sea of greys and white, topped with the oranges and yellows of the head plumage. They are amusing in their stature and will readily approach you as if to say ‘how do you do?’! How they count the things I’ve no idea but suffice to say the numbers defy belief. The king is one of seven species in Antarctica. Because of a long and complex breeding cycle they rear only one chick every three years – you wouldn’t believe that statistic when you look across Salisbury Plain! For the record there’s a high ‘divorce’ rate among the king – apparently penguins arriving back at their breeding ground have limited food reserves and cannot afford to wait faithfully for a late returning mate. Something not confined to penguin colonies I’d suggest.
The day is rounded off with a champagne toast to a wedding anniversary and a couple of birthdays deep in Adele’s warm interior. A brilliant day.
This morning I’ve woken up to snow blizzarding past my porthole. Big snow showers sweep across Rosita Harbour where we’d spent a quiet night at anchor. But we’re heading west again today looking for Macaroni penguin. Planning meetings are taking place to firm up a departure date for Brazil. The weather’s not looking kind but fuel levels aboard need to be kept an eye on and we’ll be forced to sail a lot of the way. That’s Adele’s forte – I’m looking forward to the 2,000-mile hike into 35 degrees C!