What do half a million penguins look like?
After a rough two days at sea crossing the Southern Ocean we made landfall at South Georgia Island. South Georgia was the center of the Antarctic whaling industry in the early 1900s and is best known as the location of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s landing at the end of the Endurance expedition (more on that later).
Today our destination was St. Andrews Bay and it was spectacular! Amidst a snowstorm that at times created white out conditions, we met the over half million king penguins who make this bay their home. King penguins are the second largest penguin species on Earth, with the Emperors being the largest. St. Andrews Bay is home to one of the largest King penguin colonies anywhere and to see all those creatures span across the snowy landscape was unbelievable! Once we got on to land and started to walk among them, we found them to be friendly and curious.
Each grown King penguin is 2 ½ to 3 feet tall and the average weight is around 30 pounds. So, imagine a half million toddlers waddling around and squawking all at once.
Among the King penguins were many fur seals and their pups. The pups reminded us of our dogs, Mia and Nica as they were playful with each other and ornery at times. Some of the young seals tried to test their strength by charging toward us but the ship’s crew were right there showing us how to make ourselves look bigger and the seals seemed to back away.
On March 5, 2017 we visited two sites on South Georgia Island. Our first stop was Grytviken, South Georgia’s first and longest running whaling station. It operated from 1904 to 1965. At its peak in the 1937-38 season, South Georgia’s deep sea whaling operation killed over 46,000 whales, almost 90 percent of the world’s catch for that year. At that time South Georgia had over 2000 inhabitants. Today there are only three permanent residents who are government officers and in the summer there is a staff at the South Georgia Museum, which we visited.
Grytviken is a fascinating place, for the whaling history as well as for the role it played in the Shackleton expeditions. Sir Ernest Shackleton led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1916. After the expedition’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice and sank far to the south, the men made a treacherous journey over the sea ice and across the ocean to finally reach land on Elephant Island, Antarctica. A smaller contingent of the crew then set sail for South Georgia by small boat to seek help. The journey across the Southern Ocean took 15 days until they landed on the west side of South Georgia, only to have to hike across the icy, mountainous, glaciated island to reach the whaling station at Stromness (our afternoon landing location).
While in Grytviken we visited Shackleton’s grave in the Whaler’s Cemetery and saw remnants of the expedition, as well as artifacts from the whaling era in the South Georgia Museum. While at the small church I rang the bell for Mom.
Our second landing today was at the old whaling station Stromness. The relics of the old operation are still standing, albeit rusting and off limits due to asbestos. Fur seals have overtaken the area and were the main attraction at this stop. We saw fur seals nursing, an albino pup, and one very large Elephant seal on the beach.
Steve took the longer hike, through an on and off again snowstorm to the waterfall Shackleton crossed during his heroic landing on South Georgia. Winter is definitely knocking on South Georgia’s door. We were lucky enough to be here for the first big snow of the season. Our ship-supplied expedition jackets and muck boots kept us warm though, and it was a great visit.
After South Georgia we had a two-day sail to our next stop: The Falkland Islands.