nature, Travel

Visiting South Georgia

In March 2020 I went for an expedition cruise on MS Fram, an explorer ship run by Hurtigruten. We visited the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

This is the second of the accounts of that trip, showing the pristine nature of South Georgia.

We were two days at sea for the journey from Antarctica to South Georgia. During our time at sea we saw lots of birds including white-chinned petrel, diving petrel, prion, light-mantled sooty albatross and my favourite, the wandering albatross. We’ve also seen whales.

Wandering albatross
Wandering albatross

We had to clean our boots meticulously in preparation for South Georgia, picking out any stones and tiny bits of grit from the soles of our muck boots. They were inspected by the expedition team. We had to hoover out rucksacks and the velcro from our clothes – all to ensure we weren’t taking any foreign organic material onshore. My boots were rejected first time as I had several bits of grit left, and then again after I’d washed them as I’d left some penguin poo behind. Once boots and clothing were passed we had to sign that we had read and complied with the regulations for South Georgia. They were later inspected by officials from South Georgia before we were allowed on shore.

First sighting of South Georgia
First sighting of South Georgia

Eventually we arrived at South Georgia, coming from the south and seeing Cooper Island, then passing by the coast northwards to Grytviken, the capital of South Georgia and our first landing place.

Grytviken
Grytviken

As soon as we were in South Georgia waters there have been many more birds from albatrosses, to blue-eyed shag, to macaroni, king and gentoo penguins in the water. We also saw a whale diving close to the ship and lots of seals.

Penguins swimming
Penguins swimming

Outside the harbour at Grytviken was HMS Forth, an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) of the Royal Navy.

HMS Forth
HMS Forth

There were lots of seals ashore at Grytviken among the ruins both on the grass and on the paths. They were mostly pups as the parents had gone fishing. Some of the pups came quite close to us and barked at us.

Seals among the remains of the whaling station
Seals among the remains of the whaling station

Grytviken is an old whaling station. Dotted around were the remains of the equipment they had used. There was also an excellent museum and a post office and shop.

The grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton is in the cemetery at Grytviken. In a building near the museum is a replica of the John Caird boat that he travelled from Elephant Island to South Georgia on, to get help for his expedition team.

Replica of John Caird
Replica of John Caird

The next, and last, day in South Georgia, we anchored in Fortuna Bay. There is a massive king penguin colony here with approximately 7000 breeding pairs. There were also hundreds of fur seals that we had to walk through to get to the penguins. They were mostly young pups and kept coming towards us, not worried by our presence at all but seeing what our reaction would be as they came closer. The penguins just carried on their walks ignoring us.

Seal pups in Fortuna Bay
Seal pups in Fortuna Bay
King penguin colony
King penguin colony

In the afternoon the ship moored the other side of Fortuna Bay so that those of us who were going on the Shackleton trek could go ashore.

As we landed, we saw a South Georgia Pipit, the world’s most southerly songbird. It nearly became extinct but the numbers are rising after a rat eradication programme was successful on South Georgia. It is only found on South Georgia.

South Georgia pipit
South Georgia pipit

I took part in and completed the 6 k Shackleton trek. We climbed up to 300 m over tussac grass and slate. This was the last part of the trek that Shackleton did in South Georgia when he was finding help for his shipmates. We walked half way up and stopped for a break, then stopped again at the highest point.

View back to the bay
View back to the bay

While we were on the trek the ship went around to Stromness to pick us up. It was good to see the MS Fram waiting for us when we got to the other side. It was a very steep slope down to the shore. The weather was perfect – sunny skies and a couple of clouds. At the top there was a cold wind but apart from that the temperature was perfect for walking.

MS Fram waiting for us at Stromness
MS Fram waiting for us at Stromness

Stromness is an abandoned whale factory but you couldn’t look inside the buildings as they were unsafe and also had asbestos in them. There were loads of seal pups around.

We left South Georgia. The next morning there were a group of fin whales around and coming close to the ship. I counted six of them at one time. There have been many albatrosses flying round the ship all day and several seals in the water. It was reported that dolphins have been seen but I didn’t see them.

Fin whales near the ship
Fin whales near the ship

In the distance were some pointed rocks – Shag Rocks – 250 k from South Georgia and 1000 k from the Falklands. As we got nearer South Georgia shags (blue-eyed shags) flew over; more and more as we got closer. Looking at the rocks there were thousands of shags standing on the rocks and flying around.

This was our last sight of land until we reached the Falkland Islands two days later.

You can see more pictures of South Georgia through my YouTube video:

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