In this journal:
- a baby seal screams at a bird;
- penguins, lots of them;
- penguins, even more of them;
- penguins, still, more of them.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
South Georgia Approach
Day 5, October 28th
overcast/snowy, 24 knots northwest wind, 6°C/43°F
The long, long days at sea, ah…
Now thinking backwards, I would take those nonchalantly sleepy days gently rocking from side to side on the open ocean over anything else . The wave direction had shifted overnight, so instead of pitching back and forth like a toy horse during the previous leg to Falklands, the tiny Ushuaia was rhythmically jerking from side to side. Though it sounds much more tolerable, it was nowhere near as comfortable. Since the ship was much shorter in width than length, the extent of the tilt felt much more vehement. I could imagine someone easily thrown overboard by the jerking movements if he or she does not pay attention.
The rolling was perpetual, unrelenting, overwhelming, and quickly the inevitable realization came to me that I could not hold on much longer, and so I forewent the headstrong ego and obtained the dreaded sea sickness pills. As a result of the medication, chronic lethargy accompanied this wary traveller during the remainder of the journey, but at least dreariness trumps unconsciousness. The morning lecture was one about penguins, and we learned how to discern penguin types, and took a glimpse of their life cycles. The afternoon was yet another lazy one, as people were dozing off left and right due to the sickness pills, and I decided to go on deck H for some fresh air. It was snowing, and only a handful of seabirds remained at our rear on our long, long journey to one of the most remote places on this planet. Oh boy, what was I getting myself into…
Day 6, October 29th
hail/cloudy, 19 knots southwest wind, 2°C/36°F
Today was a cleaning day. Everyone had to organize their things in preparation for a new round of landings. However, this time it was mandatory. South Georgia government has extremely strict rules regarding its territories. Anything brought onto the land had to be inspected and cleared of potential invasive species. And trust me when I say strict, as a well-travelled person, I have never seen anything like that. The notorious ecological requirements set forth by New Zealand or Australian governments cannot shine a light on what was going on there. A video was demonstrated as an introduction of the islands, and why they were so sensitive to this issue. A rat invasion was still threatening the entire island’s biodiversity, and the local government wanted to be absolutely sure it does not happen again.
Every incoming foreigner had to vacuum their clothes, check every pocket, brush off dust from cameras, and scrub the shoes until they could serve sushi on the shoe surface. Falklands’ vegetations were mostly viable and potentially invasive, so we had to be especially careful. Frankly, I had never seen my shoes this clean ever since they day I bought them.
Lectures today were about commercial whaling and seals’ lives. Commercial whaling was especially traumatizing as South Georgia was a major whaling destination even until recent history. This topic will be discussed in detail below. At night, we had to be educated on the code of conduct set up by the Antarctic Treaty. We could not approach penguins too closely, and we were ABSOLUTELY prohibited to remove anything from South Georgia as well as Antarctica.
Day 7, October 30th
overcast/blowing snow, 5 knots south wind, -4°C~4°C/24°F~39°F
We anchored into position in Elsehul after days of navigation. The name Elsehul comes from Norwegian’s “else’s bay” since they were the ones to rediscover it. I never felt so happy to step onto ground ever before, despite we were in clumsy boots on a particularly crowded shore, even by Chinese standards. Elephant seals completely took over this little patch of sand daring to be called “beach”, leaving little space for the fur seals, penguins, other seabirds, and us.
The fur seals thriving here were actually closer to sea lions than to real seals. These guys are called Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella). They have prominent ears and muscular flappers, which enable them locomotion on all four limbs, and even fast bursts of “running”.
I found these cute fluffy fur seals almost identical to dogs. They can run fast, have sharp teeth, and bark loudly. They also like to play with anything that approaches them, and potentially able to play fetch base on my evaluations. If given the chance, I would absolutely get a pet fur seal and name him Approval. (Heh, get it? Seal of approval? Why I am a genius!)
The island of South Georgia is home to more than 95% of these seals. These furry torpedos mostly eat squid and krill for sustenance, but sometimes resort to penguins as times get rough. They breed with a harem system. Yes, they are actually called harems. A dominant male can sometimes have 2 dozen females in his harem, and the gestation is usually around a little bit over 1 year.
Males are usually much bigger than females. A typical large male can grow to about 2m/7ft, and is generally considered harmless to humans unless he is protecting his harem. Interestingly, they have a chance of 1/1000 to be blonde, instead of grey.
Elephant seals, on the other hand, are the real deal. Not only are they real seals, but they are much bigger than their furred cousins. These behemoths have no prominent ear, or any fur; additionally, their flappers are simply wrapped bonely skin, so they had to resort to wiggling as the primary method of locomotion out of water.
They are so big that they are actually the biggest carnivore alive today, weighing a whopping 7 times more than a polar bear. The males generally double their female counterparts in size and 4 times heavier in weight. The biggest males usually weigh around 4000kg/16500 pounds. The biggest one on record was 6.85m/22.5ft long and 5000kg/22000lb heavy. That is about the weight of a school bus, just letting you know.
They breed in a similar fashion as fur seals, as they have harems, with the male constantly on the watch for potential competitors to steal his girl(s), which usually devolves into a brawl. The gestation is also about one year, and the milk a mother seal gives out is so rich in fat that a baby seal can grow 10kg/25lb a day!!!
A fight between 2 alphas can be extremely bloody, as they swing their heads around and struggle back and forth with no regards of surroundings. Sometimes, a fight between two bulls can kill a dozen baby seals unaware of the situation, but for the males it did not matter, since the baby seals were likely not their kids because they were results from last year’s harems!
Besides the seals, there were so many other animals that had to share this little bay with the giants. Snowy sheathbill (Chionis albus), the scavenger of the Antarctic is well-adapted with eating just about everything that is not ice. They can eat seal feces, baby seal placentas, and penguin eggs; sometimes, they just straight steal penguins’ food prepared for baby penguins! But hey, as the only land bird in Antarctica (they do not have webbed feet so they cannot swim), desperate times call for desperate measures.
There was also another kind of bird called blue-eyed cormorant (Leucocarbo atriceps). This specific subspecies of the blue-eyed cormorant shown below only lives in South Georgia, and is quite a sight to behold. They build their nests on rocky coasts, and their blue eyes cannot be mistaken.
Of course, what experience can be called Antarctica if there are no penguins? Our tuxedo-ed friends could not be even closer! Here a new kind of penguin emerges above from the previously monotoned gentoo, Magellanic and rockhopper penguins: King penguin. The most beautiful penguin in my opinion, these chubby birds possess a bright yellow patch so pronounced that they took the spotlight immediately, even though they were vastly outnumbered by seals thousands of times their weight.
These penguins are the second biggest in existence, and can easily reach a meter in height. The chicks are born in a different kind of coating that is not suitable for swimming, and upon hatchingm they quickly grow to weigh heavier than their parents in a metter of weeks!
There were only about ten penguins resting on this beach, since they did not have a rookery here. Thus there was no baby penguin, or any nest. The entire group were elated to see them nonetheless, as we could barely imagine any penguin other than gentoo after so many days of seeing them around in the previous leg of our Antarctic journey.
The expedition took a short hike to the top of a nearby hill, which afforded a view to the other side of the beach, filled with even more elephant seals. Some huge harems had been formed, and their bulls were busy spreading genes. A rather quiet beach was therefore filled with bulls fighting, mother seals calling, baby seals crying, snowy sheathbills cawing, penguins trumpeting, and all the wind trying to blow all this commotion far into the open ocean…
We then took a short zodiac cruise around the bay, trying to look for the elusive sooty albatross. However, lady luck seemed to be on vacation that day. The swells suddenly surged in, and the tiny zodiac was bobbing up and down between the waves like a helpless leaf carrying stranded antes in a storm drain. Each crest came with the complete disappearance of the horizon, as waves were much taller than the boat itself. We managed to find a sooty albatross gliding above the head, but I could not capture a photo of it without tossing myself overboard.
We also saw large groups of penguins trying to come ashore. They usually hunt in groups of dozens, and sometimes hundreds, yet they are almost always perfectly in sync. The entire groups either swim left or right, dive or surface, with no rogue penguins completely out of the command. Their sychronized surface ballet was nothing short of fascinating, and really it is hard to describe the excitement watching penguins jump by you with lightning fast speed!
Right Whale Bay
Welcome to Right Whale Bay, where all whales are right and none of them have left. (I am so sorry I will show myself out.)
The afternoon landing was on this snowcovered sandy estuary, which included an enormous king penguin colony, supposedly. Of course everyone was beyond ecstatic, and lined up for landing wayyyy before schedule, eager to be the first in walking towards our newest friends.
But why is it called “Right Whale Bay”? Well, my inquisitive and ever-so-smart reader, there is this type of whale called Southern Right Whale, and you could find quite a few of them around here, emphasis on “could”. It is called the right whale because back in the days, the Europeans needed whales to produce whale oil, a key component to many industrial lubricators, as well as powering oil lamps. The North Atlantic Right Whale was the perfect candidate to be hunted for a rapsheet of reasons.
Firstly, they are small enough to be towed by the ships, and big enough to be profitable. Secondly, they are very docile, very slow, and very easy to spot due to their surface skimming feeding patterns, as well as they love to stick close to the coasts. Lastly, and this is the most important, they have a lot of blubber, and this makes them highly valuable and they float once they are killed, meanwhile other whales like minke whales and sperm whales sink. This allows the ships to drag them easily into the factories like dragging baby carts on a stroll in the park.
Europeans, and later Americans called Yankees, quickly drove the population of North Atlantic Right Whale to not commercially viable by 1750. The whales never recovered, and are still practically extinct nowadays in Europe. They needed a new place to hunt, and they found out about the Southern Right Whale. The rest was easy to guess: they came here to the newly discovered South Georgia where stories were told about hundreds of whales surrounding ships, and they hunted whales to almost extinction. Moreover, these commercial boats stuck around to make sure they never recover until the world banned the practice of whaling altogether nearly 2 centuries later. No, don’t weep! Just another typical human massacre of a species, no surprises here.
Back to the landing. Upon landing onto land, we could not see anything, anything. The extremely harsh katabatic winds blew faster than 80km/hr(50mph), and we could barely even stand, let alone looking at our hands that have lost feelings how bad was the frostbite. Coupled with some snow blown off the ground, you got yourself an extremely miserable white-out. I could not stop shivering as my parka was being filled with snow funneled straight from the glaciers like those movie theatre popcorn machines that blow large kernels as if they are confettis, with wind travelling across my sleeves and out of the neck. The visibility was 0, perhaps even negative, as we could only follow the penguins’ footsteps towards the colony that could have existed in this vision field whiter than the line of a Minnesotan Starbucks.
Luckily, the wind quickly came to a halt, and visibility instantaneously improved. A long line of penguins appeared in our view, and they moved towards the colony on the far side of the bay like the congested 405 freeway in Los Angeles: slow, noisy, and unbearably long. They follow this road religiously, and if you stand in the middle, they will just stop. Every penguin will just stop. They will not go around you; they will not go back; they will just stand there and stare at you, perplexed while wondering why the giant colorful penguin is not waddling towards home.
And this was the first time I see them “belly flopping”. It can only be done efficiently on ice or snow, as they lie on their bellies and paddle forward with their flippers and legs. It saves energy and is somewhat faster, of course, by penguin standards.
The highway was more than a kilometer long. We followed it towards the colony, and found out it was filled with thousands of these cuties. They were noisy, muddy, and especially smelly despite my nose had already practically become another frozen TV meal stuck on my face. This is the true Antarctic experience, not as glorious as one would imagine, eh?
These penguins have a very unique breeding cycle, one that is not present in any other species. Most of the penguin species take a bit less than 5 months to molt and be fully fletched, so that they can be put to the test of sea before the harsh winter comes. King penguins use a very different strategy, as the chicks winter over for an entire year without going to the water. This forces the parents to go fetch food even during the dead of the winter, dragging the breeding cycle to 2 years.
The chicks are thus covered with a full layer of brown downy feathers to insulate heat, making them look exactly like chubby kiwi fruits on legs. Ulrike, one of the companions of mine during this trip, kept insisting that they did not look like kiwis, but even at the end of the voyage, after witnessing thousands of these fine specimens, she had to admit they do resemble the fluffy fruits to an uncanny degree.
The chicks are kept in groups like baby penguin kindergarten called crèches, watched over by a few adults to prevent skua attacks. As a result, the chicks are kept away from us, and it was difficult to capture any photo. However, in the next journal you will see them up close.
The parents trumpet loudly when approaching the colony, which is their way of telling kids that they are home, which is really remarkable, as they can tell the call of their chicks among literal millions of others, in an area larger than a small village.
To put the breeding cycle in a timeline: November is mating season, then in December the egg is laid; the egg is hatched after 50 days of incubation, with the chicks able to stand by themselves at the 6 week mark; from then on the parents both go out and forage, until the end of next year’s December, when the chicks fledge themselves and are ready to explore the world. Their parents take a 3-month vacation before starting this entire shabang next summer.
In Antarctica, we have a saying: there are only two kinds of penguins, one that is black and walking away from you, and one that is white and walking towards you. And finally, you now know why. We ended our visit in Right Whale Bay with a heavy load of memories and photos, and likely even more frostbites.
The swell came in hard, and we had a very difficult time going back to Ushuaia. We circled around it a few times before she aligned herself with the direction of the waves to minimize the effect of undulations. Within an hour, luckily, everyone safely returned to the warm cabins. Ushuaia slowly pulled away from the bay, and made its way east. I carefully warmed my feet with a hair dryer so it went back online after 4 hours of numbness, narrowly avoiding an amputation. Upon regaining bipedalism, I quickly fell asleep, dreaming of penguins, of course.
Day 8, October 31st
sunny, 8 knots south wind, 3°C/38°F
It was an incredibly beautiful morning in South Georgia. The irradiance of our sun was perfectly balanced with a fresh wift of wind skimming through the surface of Southern Ocean. The majestic backdrops of those mountains covered with snow like a layer of sugar provided a hue of white amongst the picture-perfect blue water and sky.
We dropped anchor a bit further east than Right Whale Bay at the mid of the night in a secured natural harbor, and we finally had a night of tranquil sleep without my shoes flying into my bed. The beautiful beach in the distance echoed with loud noises of king penguins trumpeting, causing tiny ripples propagating throughout the seemingly-dead waters. Many people frantically lined up for the landing, some even stealing a few bagels off the breakfast buffet to take them to go, yet none of them were as aggile as yours truly, who was amongst the first to set foot on this gorgeous beach.
When they call it a plain, they are not joking. This is the glacial outwash formed by Grace Glacier retreating (thanks, global warming!), and the large flat 2 km² is the largest flat terrain in the entire South Georgia. This made it a safe haven for penguins and seals alike. I had not been on grounds so flat ever since Salar de Uyuni, and I was about to frolic around before one of the onboard staff Monika stopped me.
There were penguins, everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. As far as my eyes could see, there were penguins running, walking, sleeping, yawning, trumpeting, waddling,
yoddling angelically, cuddling, and berating their children. They were on the plain, amongst the grass, by the river, in the river, on the slopes, up above the glacier, on the beach, right behind me, in the sky, you name it. (Okay maybe not in the sky but you get my point.)
I could barely comprehend the sheer number of the population, and yet I realized there was so much more than penguins, hidden among millions of ear-piercingly loud birds that cannot fly.
Salisbury Plains was also the location of the largest elephant seal group, with hundreds of them just casually lying around on the beach. A lot of large harems had been formed, so the alpha males were busy in the bed as well as busy defending their territories. Some pregnant females still were waiting for their cubs to be born, and a few cuties who had just come into this world were curious to check out these newly-arrived beautifully-colored penguins that were of unusual sizes: us.
We were discovered by the active fur seals as well. I wanted to approach them, but I knew exactly what that would bring me if I get too close to these adorable furry sea-puppies: a lost limb, and likely a disemboweled death. Not that I would mind, though.
We continued heading east from our landing site, in order to approach the core of the colony, where thousands upon thousands of chicks were screaming at the top of their lungs for food perpetually. However, the pace of progression was constantly slowed down by a variety things, including a cute little squad of South Georgia pintail seemingly on an important mission: to make us squirm with smiles. They are tiny ducks about the size of a large artichoke, and who does not love ducks that always look like ducklings?
I also picked up a strange sound echoing in the sky. It was not unpleasant; in fact, it was the opposite. It was too pleasant. It was a songbird chirping in the distance. After hearing penguins’ trumpeting for days exclusively, any songbird’s tune was a relief. It was the mysterious South Georgia pipit. It is the southernmost songbird in the world, and I will tell a very interesting story about them in the next journal.
It felt so much warmer, despite the colder temperature, because of the bright sun busking everything in its glorious rays, and the expedition team quickly approached the heart of the colony, with a plethora of penguin kindergartens dotted at every corner.
The beach only got busier since our landing. Groups of penguins hopped onto the beach to deliver food to their babies, and the large number of seals crawled from side to side, leaving many trails. Bulls fighting; mothers feeding cubs crying out so loudly that they might as well become air raid sirens; snowy sheathbills trying to steal food scraps; penguins trimming their plumage… It was like a busy airport on a Monday morning.
Before it could be realized, we were completely, utterly, indisputably, surrounded by penguins. I felt like a stupid bank robber surrounded by penguin police with multiple SWAT teams and bomb squads, ready to put me in penguin jail, FOREVER. And if that exists, please convict me for a life sentence, your honor!
There were as many as 200,000 pairs of breeding penguins here, as estimated by Julieta, our onboard biologist. The cuteness was too overbearing as we humans were greatly outnumbered, like a litter of newborn puppies in a popular petting zoo. All the noises, smells, and coldness slowly faded into the background, as my field of vision expanded, and expanded, into infinity, into the edge of the very universe, into the beginning of time: everything was filled with penguins. A city made of penguins with bustling centers just like this. The discovery of gravity? A penguin dropped an apple onto penguin Newton’s head. The creation of the sun? A 5th dimensional penguin burped too loudly after eating a space-burrito. Penguins have become the very fabric of space-time continuum. Penguins have created history, Earth, and everything else…
Yes, everything is penguin.
There were so many of them that we could barely walk, and they were so loud that we could barely talk. It was like being brought inside a foreign bar by a friend on a Saturday night: I felt very restricted but somehow it is still enjoyable.
The penguins themselves fight quite often as well, and I witnessed one of the chicks being pricked multiple times as it was getting group-bullied. It ran towards us for help, and yelled at us like it was a rant of anger.
Calm wind, lots of glaciers, and the sunny day made it perfect to station myself by one of the little ponds, and watch the reflection of the mountains and the penguins. I wish I can do this for a full week, wait, scratch that, I misspelled the word “lifetime”.
A lot of them were still molting, though, and that made the little streams and rivers clogged with old feathers fallen from their round bellies. Penguins molt once a year, and they do so right before their breeding season. However, a molting penguin is not the prettiest thing one will see here in South Georgia, and it is quite uncomfortable for them as well. They cannot go into the water during the process, so that means no food, and minimal movement.
In some places, the ground was so cold and moist that it produced a layer of fog by itself, as if this is the setting of another cheesy ghost movie. It was rather surreal watching it happen in real life as I only learned about the ground layer in theoretical meteorology, yet on this journey, I have seen way too many unreal occurrences that this had to go and line up in the back.
To be honest, I was completely overwhelmed by this scenario. It was such a beautiful day and I was suddenly airdropped into a field of penguins. My brain and my heart were never prepared for this kind of situation, and simply blanked out. I did not know what I was doing, and my usually-logical mind went offline completely. I just stood there like an idiot, and stared into the millions of penguins, with a gaping mouth, for seemingly forever…
We must had spent a good four, five hours before going back to the ship. It was possibly one of the hardest place to leave for me, as I needed likely weeks in order to understand what was exactly going on. Penguins come; penguins go; yet my mind was stuck in shock.
During lunch back at the ship, Ushuaia slowly repositioned herself to another island just off the shore, and we had a landing for the afternoon. Due to the island’s small size, we had to be split into two groups, one would land after the other one returned.
The main attraction on this tiny island was a tiny colony of wandering albatrosses. Now this is an important bird: they are the biggest flying bird in the world! They mate for life, and keep together to breed once every 2 years, since their chicks fledge within a year, a painfully long time, just like king penguins.
This is one of the moments that make you feel you are so small in this world. On a tiny island tens of thousands of miles away from home, the largest bird in the world is busy living another life, a life that is free from the bonds of society and money, with the only limit being the blue, blue sky…
I returned back to Ushuaia, and sat on the H deck for a great view of this brilliant day. I may not have a lot in my life, but I feel so happy with it. Antarctica may seem like a barren wasteland, prohibitive even to the most daring adventurer, yet South Georgia was completely opposite: full of life,
Ushuaia gently raised her anchor, and began sailing further east. The next day we would visit one of the smallest capitals in the world, Grytviken, and afterwards, be completely shocked by even more penguins… Yes, we are not done with penguins. Who can be done with penguins anyway? South Georgia Island, ahhhh, South Georgia Island… Now you have a little bit of idea why I love this piece of faraway land so much, but just by a half. In the next part, you will experience it in its glorious, absolute, purest entirety.