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.
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.
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.