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    Jan '17
    south georgia island penguins at gold harbour

    Absolutely STELLAR morning at Gold Harbour, with the beach thronged with southern elephant and Antarctic fur seals, framed by an exquisite rainbow arcing over the colony of 36,000 King Penguins. © Jonathan Rossouw

    south georgia island at gold harbour

    Absolutely STELLAR morning at Gold Harbour, with the beach thronged with southern elephant and Antarctic fur seals, framed by an exquisite rainbow arcing over the colony of 36,000 King Penguins. © Jonathan Rossouw

    Surprises and Serendipity on South Georgia Island

    Posted by

    in Polar Regions

    Naturalist and expedition team member, Kevin Clement, describes a most extraordinary day on South Georgia Island on his recent Apex expedition aboard Silver Explorer. Today, he reports from Gold Harbour, Cooper Bay and Drygalski Fjord. Read on!

    It has been a day of turnarounds and surprises, of reversals of fortune, where nothing seemed to turn out the way we expected. It was our last day on South Georgia, a place that is synonymous with unpredictability.

    Gold Harbour Sunrise

    The day started early. Our landing this morning was in two parts, and the first was timed to take in the sunrise at the spectacular Gold Harbour—which meant going ashore at 0430. Those of us who were up at about 0415 saw the leaden sky suddenly burst into flame in a broad swath along the horizon. Somewhere the sun was rising behind the clouds, making fire dance across the water.

    But then the sun rose into the heavy clouds, and as though that were a signal, rain began to fall from them. There was wind as well, and it was not warm. Still people poured out of the ship and into the Zodiacs, boatload after boatload.

    No doubt they were all motivated by Peter Harrison’s inspiring description of a Gold Harbour sunrise at the briefing last night (“…the sun rising like a frosted orange from the sea!”) and by Expedition Leader, Russ Evans’ assertion that it was his favorite landing on South Georgia. Indeed the backdrop of mountains and glaciers was magnificent even through the rain, and the masses of king penguins on the beach didn’t seem to mind the drenching. The elephant seals in their noisome piles probably appreciated it. And so, apparently, did our guests: 83 of them came ashore. On a percentage as well as a numerical basis, that is an unprecedented number for a pre-dawn South Georgia landing.

    And then another shocking event: around 0830, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun beamed down. The rays of light picked out the oranges and yellows of the penguins’ markings and shone off the taut sausage-like skin of the elephant seals, and in that moment, the harbor truly was golden.

    Macaroni Penguins at Cooper Bay

    In the afternoon we arrived in Cooper Bay under sunny skies. As we dropped anchor, the wind whipped up, and the surface of the bay, which is a bay in name only, was soon choppy and spray-blown. We have been through worse on this trip, however, and we continued without hesitation.

    Our primary goal at Cooper Bay was to see the macaroni penguin, which we are unlikely to find elsewhere on this voyage. One of the most extravagantly attired of the whole family, the macaroni is a stout, pugnacious little bird, bedecked with outrageous yellow-orange plumes that shoot from the sides of its head like the tails of twin comets. Both in their muddy colony and from our Zodiacs, we got eyeball-to-eyeball looks at them. Had we not managed to land at Cooper, we likely would’ve missed this species entirely.

    Cruising Drygalski Fjord

    That was our last scheduled stop on South Georgia. But the wind was laying down and the sun was still out. These are rare events in these latitudes; and it seemed a shame to waste the weather. So another surprise, delivered over the PA: we would be deviating from our route southward to cruise up into Drygalski Fjord.

    Drygalski Fjord, etched by a major fault line and carved out by a massive glacier, penetrates the southern tip of the island. It is one of the beauty spots of South Georgia, and therefore of the world. The sides rise sheer for thousands of feet, with hanging glaciers dangling from the walls and waterfalls threading down them. The ship slid between them while we stood on deck, sipping hot spiced wine, shooting photos, and gaping at the scenery.

    Then the wind came again. It came pouring down from the icefield along the tongue of the glacier at the end of the fjord, right into our faces. Nevertheless, the foredeck remained full. Nor did our next visitor seem bothered by the gale: a lovely storm petrel, a bird we see only around large aggregations of ice, pure white and fairy-like, truly the grace note of this rugged place.

    Expecting the Unexpected on South Georgia Island

    Looking back at the day as we round the southern end of the island and the ship starts to heave and pitch, it seems to me that nothing ended as it began and none of our plans worked out exactly right. Still, it was a phenomenal day, and, listening to the buzz around the ship, one I suspect people will remember for a long time to come. After all, that’s the nature of expedition travel in untamed places; things change, plans go awry. But when they do, you just make a new plan, find an alternative, maybe explore a new place. Often these alternatives turn out to be the highlights of a trip. And this same flexibility allows you to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities.

    In the expedition travel business, we not only expect, but also honor, and even relish, the unexpected.

    Join Kevin and the Apex Expeditions team in January on our Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands Small Ship Cruise.

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