So here we are, standing back to back. The once solid, but now crumbling beach stones Sophie and I are clapping together are rapidly disintegrating with each frantic impact. I don’t want to reach down and grab whatever fresh rocks might be at my feet as that would require taking my eyes off three of the five large, aggressive, Antarctic Fur Seals who are currently surrounding us. A distant relative of the Grizzly Bear, Fur Seals are very territorial, willing to defend their small batch of beach to the death.
Cooper Bay is more of a mild indentation than an actual bay, on the wild southern coast of South Georgia Island. Really, every centimeter of coast line on South Georgia is wild and inhospitable - unless you have flippers. At this latitude, storms rage with hurricane force, constantly circling unencumbered around the globe. Traveling predominantly from west to east, rolling waves the size of apartment buildings abruptly end their journey in mass explosions of water and foam right here. The bare pyramidal hulk of Cooper Island sits 1.5 kilometers to the south, funneling this swell and wind directly into the southwestern exposure of the bay - making landings here extremely difficult and rare.
With uncharted offshore reefs and kelp forests with an appetite for outboard engine propellers, why would anyone want to come here? Macaroni penguins, that's why. Being the most numerous penguin on the globe, you might think they would be common place, but despising comfort, they frequently make their homes on steep rocky cliffs fully exposed to the horrendous weather.
Today is the calmest day I have seen in my 3 years working this stretch of coast - the sun is shining with ‘calm’ 10 knot winds. The last time I was in this area, fearing for my life, I struggled to lash boats to the outer deck of our ship in a raging blizzard and 80 knot winds with a large swell threatening to toss me into the frothing sea. But today is different - the scouting party consisting of Sophie and myself, are lowered from the ship in our zodiac like a giant fishing lure into the deep blue water. A 2-4 metre swell is more than apparent as I struggle to unhook the lifting straps from the crane with the boat rising and falling with the waves. A minute later we are off towards land, speeding over the hills of water which obscure the ship from view each time we dip sharply into the troughs.
No one on the ship has landed here before, so I blindly aim our little boat for the more prominent topographical features we could define from outdated British Admiralty charts. As we head for a maze of sharp volcanic reef - foaming with whitewater and surging waves, I get the feeling that today is not our day for a landing. Concealed behind the line of reefs is the small pocket beach I was hoping to land on. We sat and anxiously watched as rogue waves swept through the kelp choked channel between jagged sea stacks.
Optimistically, we make our way west around a small prominent of land, tacking our way through small keyholes between partly submerged reefs. A few minutes later we were hauling our boat up into a small bay with tiny waves gently lapping at a grey sand beach. We had made it to land, but the penguin colony was still a fair distance away. Ahead of us lies a beach with a strangely large number of large adult and adolescent male Fur Seals. A desolate bachelor pad at the end of the earth.
In our haste to get moving, we had forgotten our battle gear (collapsable trekking poles) on the ship. When something like a trekking pole touches the seals sensitive whiskers or flippers, they generally back off, or bite the pole. Without our sabers, we grab a few rocks to clap together as the seals also don’t like the sharp sounds. Feeling slightly vulnerable, we try to make ourselves as big and bad as possible (Sophie is 5’1’’) and forge our way through the mob of seals towards the Macaronis.
Reaching a dead end along the beach, we scramble up a gully (also filled with seals) to a plateau covered with the only greenery on the island - tussock grass. Tussock grows in large cascading mounds which create tunnels and pathways, camouflaged by the long blades of grass spilling from the plants summit. Like a zombie movie, seals pop up out of the trenches with a vicious snarl everywhere around us. Dodging bites, lunges, and fake outs from mouths filled with long, sharp canines stained orange with bacteria, we hop between tussock pedestals trying to keep our balance. It’s not long before it is evident that we cannot bring a group of tourists here to dance with the seals, so we descend back to the beach.
A final option is a narrow ledge which might connect to the pocket beach which was our original landing site. Yet again, we find this to be blocked by seals! As we turn to leave, we see that our exit has been filled in by three big males who are not keen on moving for two gore-tex clad intruders such as us. Behind us, the seal on the ledge is reinforced by another male clambering out of the water for a grand total of five - each one doubling or tripling us in weight.
Trying to think of anything we can use to pry our way between two of them, my thoughts are suddenly brought to our boat - equipped with two large hard plastic paddles.
‘SHIT!’ I yell aloud.
When I tell Sophie, we are both burst out in fits of nervous hysterical laughter. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid making one last stand, we face them head on in one unified screaming charge, shooting for the biggest gap. I put my boot out to block a bite and hop out of the circle of death. They pursue us for a few metres, but we made it! We strut back to the boat like the confident gangsters we are, daring any seal who's feeling lucky. We own this neighborhood! Even as we motor out through the reefs and over the waves, new seals join the resistance and lunge hungrily out of the water at our rubber pontoons.
- January 2015