06 Nov 2015

Expedition To South Georgia Island by Maureen

9/23

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Woke up bright and early this morning, had a nice breakfast, went back to the cabin to bundle up, and then hopped in a Zodiac for a cruise around Cooper Bay. Hugh, our chauffeur for the morning, took us right up into a tiny inlet where fur seals guarded the beach, but Macaroni Penguins were the highlight. The Macs were landing ashore and then making their way up a steep hill to the colony. Another Zodiac joined us in the inlet and we played bumper boats through the surf until our Zodiac managed to get stuck between some rocks. At that point, Hugh had asked some of us to jump out onto the beach to lighten the load and let the boat dislodge itself from the rocks. I was out first in knee-high water, letting the male fur seal closest to me on the beach, Mr. Grumpy, who barked his presence, know that I knew he was there, but that I was bigger than him (which I was not) and that I'd leave him alone if he left me alone. I helped a couple of the gals to the beach while keeping an eye on Mr. Grumpy (he's in the photo below). After 4 of us gals jumped out, the boat was light enough that a couple waves dislodged the Zodiac and Hugh was able to sidle up to a big rock about 10 feet away. I again helped the ladies to the boat and then hopped back aboard. It was a mini adventure :-)

Top photo: Mr. Grumpy (foreground), Macaroni penguins hopping up the penguin highway to their colony
Middle photo: Macaronis on the rocky beach just after they came out of the sea
Bottom photo: Skuas "sharing" a carcass

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After that, Hugh drove us around to some other small inlets in search of wildlife. We did find a King penguin with a bit of blood on his chest standing on shore -- Hugh tells us the most likely culprit was a leopard seal, but we saw no sign of it (too bad, but they are more common in the Antarctic and less common up here). Hugh did give us a mini lecture on the geology of the area because it does look very different from the other regions we've visited. This part of South Georgia is remnant of Gondwanaland. (I'm sorry I don't remember everything he told us, just the Gondwanaland part.)

Top photo: Inlet scenery
Middle photo: Blue-eyed shag
Bottom photo: View of Ted's Zodiac as we neared the next beach

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We headed back the opposite direction in the Zodiacs along the shore. We found a beach with a ton of elephant seals hauled out and some gentoo and king penguins present as well. Then we headed a bit further around the coast and came across a major find: chinstrap penguins!

Chinstrap penguins were almost wiped out about 15 years ago when a native avian cholera broke out, then when the population rose up a bit, it was hit by the cholera again. Now, making landings where chinstraps are present is prohibited: humans don't carry the virus, but we want to leave the population unstressed and able to recover its numbers. In fact, Cooper Island is a protected area where no one can land, so it is now home to millions of birds who can breed and live there undisturbed.

The chinstrap beach was quite a sight! Beautiful birds against an always beautiful backdrop of snowy mountains. There were a few king penguins also hanging around, looking like mob bosses as usual. The beach also had a few elephant seals hauled out, and one in particular had been in a recent fight and injured its left eye pretty badly. After we made a couple passes along the beach from the Zodiac for the photographers on board, we headed back to the Macaroni penguin colony.

Top photo: Little chinstrap gathering on the beach
Middle and bottom photos: Chinstraps!

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After we viewed the chinstraps, we headed back to the beach where we could land and then hike up to the Mac colony. The hike was steep and covered in snow, but it was short and the snow was pretty well packed down (which was good sometimes and very slippery others). The Macs were atop a bluff in tussock grass. I ended up spending over an hour watching these guys in clear windy and then snowy windy weather. They were doing a fair bit of behaviors such as preening, calling (where they bob their heads from side to side, shoulder to shoulder), eating snow, laying on their tummies, hopping and walking around, and fighting. The view from the bluff was also really beautiful of Cooper Island, the Ortelius, icebergs in the distance, and the penguins in the fore. (The cover photo for this travel journal was taken from here.)

Top photo: Macaroni colony
Middle photo: Parading penguins
Bottom photo: Beautiful guy

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We're staying on the ship for a cruise up Drygalski Fjord. The scenery is STUNNING! The mountains here are part of Gondwanaland = old! There are quite a few glaciers coming down through between the mountains. Some glaciers come right down to the sea; others now stop further upslope, but where they end, they look like an avalanche that has been stopped mid-collapse, like the rest of the ice and snow is about to come down in a massive ka-boom! There is also lots of sea ice floating in here, mostly small chunks.

There's not much wildlife on this part of the island. This is supposedly a good region to see whales, but we've seen nothing. There are many snow petrels here due to not being decimated by the invasive rats which never came into the Fjord.

Top photo: Iceberg, looking back towards the opening of Drygalski Fjord
Bottom photo: Iceberg in front of a glacier

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They are offering Zodiac rides up into Larsen Harbour now. Ray and I walked around the deck to test the weather which looks pretty awful from the warmth of the Bar. And... it is miserable outside. It's cold which is now normal, but the wind is gusting like crazy and the snow is coming down in painfully hard little balls. Riding in a Zodiac for an hour and a half in this weather? Nope, nope, nope.

Update around 5pm: per the people coming back from the Zodiac cruise, they saw a mom and pup Weddel seal, a snow petrel getting into its cliff-side nest, and it was cold, though calmer in the harbor than what we could see from the ship.

Top photo: Foggy opening to Larsen Harbour
Bottom photo: Better look at the foggy opening