En Route to Grytviken, South Georgia we would cross the Antarctic Convergence and encounter our first tabular iceberg. These towering bergs, that appear to be the size of Rhode Island are awe-inspiring. These mammoth icebergs are pieces that have broken free of an ice shelf and roam the Southern Ocean like barges cut loose from their moorings, beautiful but dangerous.
Grytviken was founded in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, was the first whaling station in Antarctic waters. South Georgia is probably best known as the island where Ernest Shackelton found rescue for his stranded expedition team caught in the pack ice of Elephant Island. Shackelton is buried in Grytviken, where it is tradition to visit his grave, toast his adventures and pour a tot of whiskey onto the grave.
Although no longer an active whaling station Grytviken is anything but abandoned. It is home to a British Antarctic research station for applied fisheries research. A handful of employees not only conduct research but keep a museum, gift shop and church open to visiting cruise ship passengers.
Grytviken, South Georgia was our first call in “Antarctica’ which meant we would have to comply with strict environmental regulations enforced by members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. The regulations are designed to prevent unintentional contamination of the land and water. For us it meant that our boots, backpacks and jackets needed to be vacuumed within an inch of their lives to detect any seed or spore hiding in pockets or on velcro patches. The guidelines appear to be working, Antarctica was the cleanest, most pristine place I have ever visited. It shows what we can achieve when we make an effort.
South Georgia Island is also an exemplary example of how lands can be cleared of invasive species. The South Georgia Heritage Trust has undertaken the eradication of rats on the island to help restore the South Georgia Pippit, an endemic sparrow-size songbird that can, once again, be found singing on South Georgia Island.
We would make our “landings,” using polar cirkel boats. These craft are specially designed for use in very cold and very rough seas, similar to a zodiac but with a tough polypropylene shell and high sides. They were quite easy to board, especially when clad in waterproof pants and jacket, high topped mudbooots and a three point life vest we would be required to keep on at all times when ashore. Not since I waddled off to elementary school in a snowsuit have I been so ungracefully attired. Add thick warm gloves, a hat and scarf and you are almost totally immobilized.
Our first encounter with fur seals was on the beach at Grytviken. This would be the moment that we would come to truly appreciate the training and skills of our expedition team, who escorted passengers while onshore. Not only did they present very professional lecture programs, they were also adept at loading and unloading passengers from the polar cirkel boats, assisting not so nimble guests over difficult terrain and were seemingly unfazed by potentially rampaging fur seals.The males are particularly territorial and will charge at tourists with great speed. However, a long stick pointed directly at their sensitive noses was an effective deterrent. Elephant seals, nearly twice the size of fur seals, lolled indolently on the beach, sometimes throwing sand over their bodies, but appeared to have no interest in the visiting tourists. And there were, of course, penguins, mostly Gentoos and Kings. The fur seals, elephant seals and penguins all appear to reside in harmony with each other. A galumphing fur seal will occasionally cause a group of penguins to scatter but for the most part it is a peaceful day at the beach for all.
Unexpectedly good weather allowed the Fram to launch the polar cirkel boats for an evening cruise of Hercules Bay an idyllic little cove that a small number of Macaroni penguins call home. The bay was filled with waterfalls, glaciers and penguins, both Macaroni and Gentoo.
Next it was onto Fortuna Bay, a haven for breeding fur seals. The colony was so active that many fur seal pups were being born as we strolled and photographed our way along the beach.
The pups struggle to keep erect, their heads bobbing like those on bobble-head dolls. To be among those so very trusting animals was in equal parts magical and endearing.
Stromness was next, another abandoned whaling station and ship repair facility on South Georgia Island. Stromness has all the requirements of a ghost town, abandoned buildings in various states of disrepair, street empty except for a handful of fur seals or the odd penguin, and winds whistling at high speeds. Interesting as a historical site, but not one of the most attractive places to visit.
To be continued