South Georgia 2011

Rosita williwaws

Our arrival back to South Georgia was one which is considered to be typical for the island. We rounded Shag Rocks, 100 miles west-north-west of SG in calm weather, 20 knots and a nice long swell, we were also treated to having the company of a sei whale playing in the surf alongside us. We left the rocks astern and were lifted further and further as we approached SG and the wind was steadily building. As dawn came and we were about 10 miles off of the rugged coastline (which was shrouded in mist) we put in a gybe which took us fairly well north to pass in between several of the off-lying islands. As I came off watch the wind had built to a steady 38knots, by the time I next came “on deck” (I use the phrase loosely as we in fact have a large pilot house so I only need to brave the elements for a ciggie or to put in a reef) we had over 50knots and were reaching along the north shore of the island heading to our first anchorage, Rosita Harbour. On our charge along the coast we could only catch glimpses of the alpine scenery of craggy mountain tops and blue tinted glaciers through the fog, mainly having to believe the radar and the charts that less than a mile to the south was land. We were also trying to decide on the radar which were wave crests giving reflections, and which were icebergs. Scary stuff at times, but far worse in a black moonless night like the previous one.

We rounded the headland which was to provide us with shelter for our first night in South Georgia, hoping to come into the lee and take a break from the 35-45knots we were seeing outside. Initially our wishes were granted and we dropped the main and lashed it to the boom in just 15knots, a big relief. Whilst sat on the boom securing the last sail-tie there was a call of “williwaw” and glancing up there was a visible white swirl of driven spray coming at us, dancing along the crests of waves. When it hit us, we heeled over 15 degrees just from the force of the wind on the bare mast, this one was only a small one, a mere 50 knots, as we motored upwind for two miles to make it to the anchorage we were battered by gusts which literally tried to blow you off of your feet. Setting the anchor in these conditions was a tough job, twice we dragged and so we decided to head to a slightly more sheltered looking bay a mile to the south, it was marginally more sheltered, we anchored metres off of the beach in as shallow water as we dared with as much chain out as we could afford, it was to be a sleepless night for us the crew as we slightly nervously stood anchor watches waiting for the wind to change direction and put us too close for comfort to the rocks on three sides of the boat!

After sending the clients ashore for a quick leg stretch we headed to Prion Island to see the wandering albatross on their nests. At this time of year there are quite a lot of fur seals ashore at this time of year, the bulls have been around for a few weeks to stake their claim for the prime territories, and the females slowly follow to give birth and shortly after to mate. As we pulled up to the beach in our zodiac we were greeted by the testosterone charged males who saw us as a threat to their dominance and tried to fend us off. After much backtracking and dodging of bulls growling and bearing their teeth at us we got through and up onto the walkway taking us up to the nest sites, here too were more bulls (less dominant though as they have to head further from the prime sites) reluctant to let us pass unhindered, but after some cajoling we got past them. At the top of the walkway you are afforded some wonderful views out over the Bay of Isles, as well as the majestic beauty of wandering albatross wheeling around above our heads and the courting dances amongst the tussock. In some of the nests there were also some young albatross, still covered in their downy feathers looking quite dissimilar to their elegant parents. Last year there was one wanderer chick sat less than a metre from the path, we were disappointed to see that it had fledged this time, but there was an adult sat there instead hopefully on a new egg.

On heading back down the track to the beach we were greeted by a bloodbath that reminds you of a Tarentino movie! In our absence a couple of bull fur seals must have had a disagreement over who’s turf it was and set about taking chunks out of each other. Sat close to the zodiac was one who had blood dripping from his mouth as well as from areas of his neck, seeing as he was the only blood drenched one around we must assume that he was the victor and his competitor must have been in a far worse state.

Climbers

From Prion Island we headed down the coast towards Cumberland Bay, in one of the fjords the government of South Georgia reside along with a British Antarctic Survey team in King Edward Point. We were interested in the west arm which is where we were to drop off two climbers whose purpose of coming down was to reach the so far virgin summit of Mount Nordenskjold. Having negotiated a little brash and a few bergy bits we got within reach of where Crag and Richard wanted to be dropped off, we loaded up the zodiac with some of their gear and went to look at landing them. The landing wasn’t to be that easy as all along the beach front there were lumps of grounded ice so finding a gap on the surging beach with the heavily laden zodiac was to make things more interesting. Two or three runs later we had dropped the gear without drama and so with no more we could do we abandoned them and went to King Edward Point where we could all have a good night sleep (after a bottle of wine or two).

Walking – Maivkyn, Mt Hodges

Bright and early the next morning we were up and about planning what to do with ourselves until we had to collect the climbers up to a week later. It was decided that the guests wanted a mixture of wildlife and walking. After packing some cheese and biscuits we set off walking over to another beach over the hill into the next valley to look for a Gentoo colony. We got distracted from that task when we reached the beach, instead we found some fur seals which had pupped within the last 24 hours, much more pleasant company than their grown up counterparts. In Maivkyn, the bay and beach we had walked to, we spent some time exploring, finding a sealers cave and exploring that before meandering our way back through the tussock onto the steep scree slopes back towards the boat. Coming over the final crest we were greeted by the sight of a cruise ship anchored in the bay and a flock of “yellow penguins” waddling around the whaling station. These yellow penguins turned out to the cruise ship guests, and a number of them were stood near the dock admiring Pelagic Australis, amongst these was the ships expedition leader (EL) who in fact was coming on our first Antarctic charter. We invited him on for a beer and a chat; he was in fact an entertaining Kiwi with many tales to tell and after several more beers we were invited onto his ship for dinner. The catch with this was we had to mingle and Miles had to give a 10 minute talk on being a yacht skipper in the sub-Antarctic regions. With a gin and tonic in hand we wandered around talking to people and answering questions, most commonly how did we cope on such a small boat and wasn’t it dangerous? With question time over we all headed to the dining room were we sat down to a rather bland meal. Half way through our starter, Graham the EL, had a message on his vhf from the captain saying that the anchor was dragging and only be able to hang around for 30 minutes more. Our main courses arrived and we as soon as we had started, we were told we had to leave! After being dropped back to Pelagic Australis, we proceeded to have a few bottles of wine and discuss how lucky we were to be on a small (74 foot) yacht exploring the wonderful areas rather than being herded like sheep through the variety of locations.

The following day (rather hungover) we headed off for another walk, this time we had a goal in mind: we were going to get a summit of our own. We set off up the hill behind KEP, towards the lake where the base gets its water from, and around behind the mountain we aimed to climb. As we rapidly ascended we came to a point where the easy climbing ceased and the shale started. After over an hour of tramping up the shale, making two steps forward and sliding one step back, we came to a ridge with more solid looking rock. We looked up and there was the bay, and we were very close to the scary over hang! But still a few metres to go to the top. We came on to the summit, clear above everything else close by and looked out, what a view: out over Cumberland Bay, looking down on the whaling station and Pelagic Australis. What a way to blow away the hangover!

St Andrews

We headed onto St Andrews beach, one with incredible quantities of wildlife including hundreds of thousands of king penguins. We waded across the glacial melt stream (which separates the only safe landing place and the penguin nursery) and headed into the thick of it. Once in amongst the penguins it is so easy to waste many hours, and we duly did! Sitting watching the interactions of parents and chicks, juveniles wandering around in gangs, chicks wandering around looking lost without a parent beside them, or parents returning from the sea ready to regurgitate a krill supper for their eager chick; the whole scene happening around you is an awesome experience and you do truly appreciate how fortunate you are to be there.

Gold then Ocean Harbour including a swim

The next stop was for us Gold Harbour, another beautiful penguin beach, smaller than St Andrews but more intimate as you arrive on the beach and you are straight in the thick of nursery. Here we had a dawn landing; we were fortunate that for the third time in three trips we have tried, the gods have obliged and given us the perfect clear start to the day. Seeing the morning sun lighting up the beach and the thousands of penguins is another wonderful experience. Before the weather closed in we headed up above the cliffs to where there are lightly mantled sooty albatrosses nesting. We were lucky enough to be able to sit on the edge of the cliff and watch these graceful birds performing their aerial acrobatics and courtship games right in front of us, and provide us with the finale of coming in to land on a tiny ledge on a vertical cliff.

Onto Ocean Harbour we headed, a small nook where one of the first whaling stations on the island was set up. From here we went for a bit of a leg stretch, heading off on a short hike to see a small colony of Gentoo penguins perched on a saddle between two hills. With the rain starting to set in we headed back towards the boat, interrupting a herd of reindeer and sending them galloping back into the hills. With the rain turning to sleet and not looking to let up, we opened a few beers and promptly set about putting the world to rights!

The next morning bought with it clear blue skies, and with the climbers due to be back at the pick-up point it was decided that the guys would walk over the hill to meet them, only four or five miles, but you would gain enough height to have a wonderful view over Cumberland Bay and over the mountains behind. With such a glorious day and (relatively) warm water a few of us decided to jump in and have a quick swim before lunch, it was actually quite pleasant the splash, 5°C rather than the chilly 3°C of the more common bays filled by glacial melt water. After an al-fresco lunch Miles and I watched Laura and the guests leave, before pulling up the anchor and motoring around to join them in Cumberland Bay.

Success for climbers

When we arrived at the arranged beach for the pick-up of both the climbers and our walkers, we could see neither. After closer inspection with binoculars we made out the shapes of the climbers snoozing on the beach in the heat of the sun, and our greeting party were strolling along the beach further along. We launched the zodiac and I went ashore to start collecting everyone and all of the gear the climbers had required.

We had been talking to the climbers every day – to update them on the weather predictions as well as to keep tabs on how they were getting on. A couple of days prior to the pick-up we had received the news that they had successfully summited Mount Nordenskjold; it had been achieved in a twenty hour push from a camp well below the summit with the climb being much tougher than expected, the brittle ice and knife-edge ridges making things challenging. After a rapid decent with their tent and all the gear they had carted around with them, our guys were waiting for us on the beach ready for a shower, a cold beer and a roast dinner. Congratulations to Crag Jones and Richard Spillett for conquering Nordenskjold!

Husvik and Stromness for the Shackleton walk

After another day spent in Grytviken we headed back north along the coast stopping in Stromness Bay home to the three largest whaling stations on South Georgia. We anchored off of the southernmost of these, Husvik. A brave group decided to brave the williwaws and sleety showers which the afternoon had come to, and went off for a walk up to a lake which up until a few years ago had been bounded by a glacier. Crag who had been harbourmaster for KEP in the late ‘80’s had known the lake quite well and was hugely surprised to see it completely dry and with the glacier retreated another half mile back up its’ fjord.

The following day we went within the same bay to Stromness Harbour, to walk (the wrong way!) the final part of Shackleton’s epic journey back to Fortuna Bay. After having his ship crushed and sink in ice whilst trying to sail across the Antarctic, working their way north trying to find salvation and ending up floating on pack ice to the remote Elephant Island, being forced to leave most of his team there while he and a select few set off with extremely slim odds of success to try and raise the alarm in South Georgia 1000miles away travelling in a 25foot open boat with rocks in the bottom to try give extra ballast. Amazingly they made it, largely down to Worsley’s astounding navigation, with one sun-sight managing to find the needle in the haystack of the Southern Ocean, with Worsley adamant that the island was charted in the wrong place, and he was correct!! After reaching the west coast of the island they still had to cross the spine of the island over high mountains and glaciers to find a place they last saw more than 18 months before. They managed it, crossing from King Haakon Bay to Fortuna Bay, finding that there was no whaling station there, and carrying on to Stromness Harbour and raising the alarm. The rescue party managed to get to Elephant Island and few if any lives were lost.

Our section of the walk was going from Stromness to Fortuna, nowhere near as epic, but a challenging enough stroll up shale slopes onto a ridgeline which looked out over both bays, passing the point where Shackleton and his guys heard the whistle from the whaling station and realised they were safe, the waterfall Shackleton and co abseiled down, Crean Lake and down over to Fortuna Bay.

Salisbury Plain

Our final stop of the trip was another penguin beach, this time towards the north eastern of the island, called Salisbury Plain. Of my three trips to South Georgia, this was my first time on the beach having stayed on board previously to do the day to day tasks. I had previously been reluctant to explore this beach because the backdrop is less spectacular than some of the others, and the beachfront is quite long, meaning you don’t get the intimacy of some others that we visit. In its’ own right though, this is another awesome place! We landed near a stream and followed it around towards the colony, weaving our way through fur seals and the occasional elephant seal, still not quite made it back to sea. We came right into the middle of the nursery, amongst the king penguin chicks in their fluffy brown down and these were the nosiest ones we had seen, after sitting down for a few minutes a gang of chicks came to explore us, gradually making their way up to us before one of us twitched and they turned and waddled away. Their confidence building they did make it to us and in their funny way they were checking us out. The method used by the chicks is to lean their head on one side and present you with one eye, then stretch to get in closer, occasionally over-balancing, before deciding that it was a bit too brave and backing off again. This game continued until the weather started to close in and we were forced back to the boat.

This ended our South Georgia portion of the season, and we set off heading north west with the amazing backdrop of the island staying with us until dark.

About David

David Roberts is the skipper of sailing yacht Pelagic, a charter expedition yacht working in Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn areas.
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