One morning on a faraway beach, I stared into the big, dark eyes of a stranger and fell in love on South Georgia Island.
In this case, those eyes belonged to a southern elephant seal pup who had lumbered up near me, all 250 pounds. The pup, known as a weaner for having been recently weaned from its mother, looked at me with pure innocence and curiosity.
Elephant seal pups loll about in the “baby pool” at Gold Harbor with king penguins for neighbors. This scene is quintessentially South Georgia, except for maybe the existence of sunshine.
Flashback to the summer of 2009, when I was in my office at National Geographic in Washington, DC, working on a story called 50 Places of a Lifetime. My photo editor colleagues and I had drawn straws to divvy up the task of finding images for 50 different places from all over the world. I didn’t know how lucky I was, but South Georgia Island was on my list.
At the time, I had to Google this magical isle to locate it on a map. If you’re picturing somewhere in the state of Georgia, move your mental map much further south to the continent of South America. Picture the rugged spine of the Andes Mountains running all the way to the continent’s southern tip. Now imagine that 50 million years ago, a chunk of land broke off of that tip and swung out into the ocean, landing about 1200 miles to the east. This 102-mile long isle, with its jagged snow-covered mountains, sits in the churning, nutrient-rich waters of the Antarctic convergence and plays host to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
At the editing desk, with a location plugged into my mental globe, I pored over images of albatross breeding colonies on rugged mountainsides, beaches where king penguins bounded out of the surf under psychedelic sunrises, and elephant seal weaners looking wide-eyed into lenses. There was no doubt this place was special and I had to make my way there one day.
Last November those efforts became a reality. I followed in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton on a hike into Stromness, the former whaling station where he arrived in search of aide 16 months after his ship the Endurance was trapped in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica. I toasted “the Boss” at his gravesite in Grytviken and then walked through the ruins of the whaling station there, the rusting tanks and flensing platform vivid reminders of the destructive period when South Georgia was the center of a prolific whaling and sealing industry. In the early twentieth century, this industry brought multiple species to the edge of extinction. According to A Marine Fisheries Review article, over 2.9 million whales were killed worldwide from 1900-1999.
But nature, when left to its own devices, has a remarkable way of bouncing back. That is how I found myself giving my heart away on the beach at St. Andrews Bay, home to the largest king penguin colony and elephant seal beach on the island. I looked out as far as my eye could see past over 100,000 breeding pairs of birds. I’ve been close to animals before (like in Galápagos where animals have no fear) and witnessed some unbelievable wildlife sightings, but nothing could prepare me for the staggering amount of life on that beach. It was a humbling, beautiful moment that brought me to tears and is seared into my memory forever and also happened to be captured on camera (see below).
Now, although I’m back in my office thousands of miles away and unable to travel, I still have South Georgia on my mind. As most of the animal populations of South Georgia have managed to rebound from tragedy, I know that humanity will rebound from the setbacks of the pandemic we are currently grappling with.
The king penguin is hands down my favorite penguin species. I’d happily sit all day staring at the beautiful patterns formed by their vivid hour-glass shaped ear patches.
The colony is massive and busy, as seen in the main photo above, but there were still quiet moments occurring around me like this affectionate pair who wandered up to the edge of a pond. Without anthropomorphizing too much, the tenderness that I saw between king penguin pairs was touching.
Elephant seal weaners are thigmotactic, or contact-loving. If ever there was a more adorable cuddle puddle, I haven’t seen it.
Using the National Geographic Orion’s fleet of inflatable zodiacs, we explored Elsehul, a massive bay which is home to macaroni penguin colonies.
Of course, exploring nature involves seeing both life and death. This giant petrel was washing his bloody face after feasting on a dead Antarctic fur seal.
A massive Southern elephant seal bull hides his giant proboscis in the sand while snoozing. Although we never approached any animals, luckily the males were not aggressive because of breeding during our visit so they were not an impediment to making beach landings.
After making landfall at King Haakon Bay, Sir Ernest Shackleton hiked with two of his men for 36 hours at Stromness in a successful attempt to obtain help to rescue his men left at Elephant Island in Antarctica. We took the easy version of his hike, from Fortuna Bay to Stromness, under much more forgiving circumstances.
From the destruction of the whaling days, most wildlife populations have rebounded on and around South Georgia Island. Now whaling stations, like Grytviken, host living animals amidst their ruins.
Tradition at Shackleton’s grave is to make a toast with whiskey in his memory. I hadn’t realized how many graves were at all of the whaling station, which shows the human toll of the whaling industry as well.
A gorgeous striated piece of glacial ice floated in front of Nordenskjold Glacier.
I loved the beautiful snow petrels resting on an iceberg.
Glacial ice eaten away by the lapping and crashing of waves revealed a beautiful pattern of snow and sediment.
The scale is hard to capture in a grandiose landscape like South Georgia.
If you still haven’t gotten enough of South Georgia Island, visit the gallery on my Photoshelter website. I plan to return in January of 2022, won’t you join me? Watch my page on National Geographic Expeditions for updates.