South Georgia Island sleeps alone in the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Rafts of king penguins and seals hint of a proximity to land well before it comes into view. Layer by layer, the almost constant blanket of dark grey mist and fog delicately reveal forbidding crumbling peaks stained blue and white by hulking glaciers tumbling down from summit spires. A myriad of shoals froth in the swell, protecting the black cobble beaches which are the only sanctuary for most of the living creatures on the island. The instincts I have developed at sea tell me to stay away from such a treacherous coastline.
A gentle offshore breeze caries with it a damp ferocity that attacks your nostrils. Partially digested krill and squid, fece (mostly krill and squid), mix together in a sticky brown mud which flows between cesspools of stagnant seawater growing algae in fifty shades of green. This is smell number one. You usually get your first taste of smell number one (you can literally taste it!) between 100m and 1km off shore. Smell number two arrives when you physically land on the beach where belches and open mouthed growls from giant southern elephant seals are mere metres away. Skunky sea breath emanates from the mouths of fur seals. Their fearsome canines stained orange with bacteria. Add to the mix a quarter of a million king penguins at any given time - half of which are molting - throwing plumes of feathers to the sea. Oh, and rotting kelp. Yummm!
Most glaciers here terminate into the sea. Calving large diamonds of ice into impossibly cold, deep blue water. But, the ones we are heading towards end on the muted green of a grassy plain. The colour seems out of place in such a barren monochromatic landscape usually reserved for higher alpine places. We weave in amongst purple kelp beds which are in constant motion and wait for the waves to subside before our dash to shore.
The trick with landing the inflatable zodiac is to aim for the largest gap (usually only a few feet) between imposing male fur seals guarding the waters edge. These beasts are the oceans equivalent to a grizzly bear and are very territorial. They don’t like their whiskers being touched so we arm ourselves with collapsable trekking poles and attempt to move them back and hopefully hold them in the bay while we pass. They charge and lunge with bites, but if you hold your ground, you’re usually fine. Although, one of my very experienced colleagues, Ewen, got bitten on the leg while trying to protect one of our passengers at the start of a hike. The tourist slipped on the damp grass, sensing a moment of weakness, the seal lunged. Ewen was right beside and in a split second, he decided better against kicking the seal out of the way. In this moment of hesitation, the seal bit Ewen on the leg and in close combat, all Ewen could do was grab the seal in a headlock. Not used to this style of combat, the seal used a more passive defense technique and threw his breakfast up onto Ewen’s lap in a putrid pink mess and squirmed out of his grasp.
As your nostrils adjust and gag reflex subsides, sound takes over. Black and white king penguin parents marked with bright orange ascots stand out starkly amidst a swarming city of eight month old chicks. Their thick down coats make them look like fluffy brown marshmallows. It sounds like thousands of kazoo players busking for their dinner, but each with their own unique voice which their parents can distinguish from hoards of chicks. Like a traveler hearing their native language, they are drawn to each other through these invisible vibrations. With a quarter of a million of these unique calls going on all at once, the sound is disorienting, even for us.
Large male fur seals whimper like lost puppies one minute, then race forward snarling to protect their precious harem. Elephant seals roar like great lions with undulating bullfrog barks. Their offspring lay on the sand like overstuffed sausages making farting noises, snot flying from large nostrils. Skuas the size of vultures squawk and fight over a nutrient rich fur seal placenta. The blind newborn struggling to find her exhausted mother. In this cacophony of sound, somehow the fragile call of a tiny pipet (the southernmost songbird in the world) floats above it all. And from us, rounds of camera fire shoot out in high speed bursts. Motor drives struggle to keep up with this slow pace of fat and happy animals.
We weave in and out of penguins and seals, making our way to the main penguin colony, the jewel of Salisbury Plain. Housed in from above by rocky moraines and ridge lines covered in mounds of tussock grass, the vast metropolis of penguins spill out onto the grassy plain. If you sit quietly, inquisitive penguins waddle right up to see what kind of strange creature you are. In moments you can become engulfed. With outstretched flippers, it seems like they are coming with a welcoming hug, but with a quick peck at your boot, they lose interest and move on.
As usual, the predictably unpredictable weather has turned our calm, grey day into an evacuation. Strong localized katabatic winds race down the glacier, hitting the beach with an immense force and turn the sea into an erratic mess. Getting back into the boat is an ordeal with waves crashing over the stern soaking everyone. As we motor away from the breaking waves, I look back at the scene on the beach. The wildlife don’t seem to notice our hasty departure or could even care less. The penguins are still being penguins and going about their penguin lives. The place is so surreal, that it seems like the director who scripted this whole scene would say “cut” and it would all disappear. This thought brings a smile to my face and I am so thankful to know that a place like this exists.
- November 2014