Come Along On a One-Day, Three-Stop Antarctic Wildlife Adventure

Dessert first, anyone? Never before had I wolfed down freshly baked butterscotch-chip cookies and coffee for breakfast, but trust me, it's not an unpleasant way to begin a day in the Antarctic (or anywhere else, I suspect). It's also a rapid way to fuel up if it's 4 a.m. and you're in a hurry to pull on boots, gloves, a hat and four layers of warm clothing and climb into a Zodiac boat for the first of three—three!—expeditions in the same day at major bird and seal breeding grounds on the remote, remarkable wonder of the world that is South Georgia Island. 

We arrived at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island in time to watch the Sun rise over a vast expanse of king penguins and elephant and fur seals.

Those of you who already have been following our three-week trip to Antarctica aboard the Russian oceanographic vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov (and if you haven't been following, please feel free to scroll down or look at the index on the right to find earlier posts) have seen amazing photos from Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, the open ocean and parts of South Georgia Island. Prepare for more.

On this day Pamelia and I and our shipmates would wander through the beautiful landscapes, wildly changing weather and extraordinary wildlife at Salisbury Plain, Prion Island and Elsehul, three of the gems of South Georgia Island. We would see a total of 25 animal species, including four types of albatrosses, three kinds of seals, and a trio of penguin varieties. It would be another day-of-a-lifetime, of which this trip had provided several already. I will let the pictures below tell the story. 

The king penguins and their brown, fluffy chicks filled the plain around us in every direction on South Georgia Island's largest coastal plain.

Salisbury Plain is home to South Georgia's greatest king penguin colony. See our previous posts, below, for more on these regal, remarkable animals. 

Waves of king penguins came ashore and joined the masses on the plain. The ocean is home to these penguins for most of their lives, during the months when they're not breeding or molting (as many of them were at this time).

Fur seals popped up between the clumps of tussock grass. I had learned the hard way about the aggressiveness of these seals (see our post "Don't Mess With a Fur Seal") and would hear several weeks later about a bloody encounter: A passenger on another Antarctic voyage soon after ours suffered a severed artery when bitten here at Salisbury Plain by a fur seal. The injury required the ship to rendezvous with a British Navy vessel at sea and transfer the man for emergency surgery in the Falkland Islands.

Southern giant petrels scouted the plain for prey, specifically penguin chicks.

The eyes and bill of the Southern giant petrel are equally striking. Note the tube on the bill, part of a system that seabirds have evolved over millions of years for excreting salt from the sea water that they drink.

Pamelia spent one-on-one time with certain king penguins for ink studies that she would paint later. We'll soon share more of those studies and her time-lapse videos of herself painting them.

Once again we felt we were standing in one of the most breathtaking places on Earth.

As many of you know, we've brought the young Charles Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook and he was with us, enjoying his first voyage to the Antarctic. He's been writing his own blog about his trip. 

The weather took a dramatic shift as we prepared to board the Zodiacs and return to the ship for a brief rest before heading to our next landing site, Prion Island. It was still just 7 a.m. 

 Soon we were on the rough seas in a Zodiac again, this time bound for Prion Island, home to wandering albatrosses on the nest and—at long last—rare South Georgia pipits for Pamelia and me to see.

Soon we were on the rough seas in a Zodiac again, this time bound for Prion Island, home to wandering albatrosses on the nest and—at long last—rare South Georgia pipits for Pamelia and me to see.

A male Southern elephant seal stood sentry along the narrowing channel we had to negotiate to reach Prion Island.

We caught our first good glimpse of a leopard seal—a species that can grow to more than 11 feet long and is second only to killer whales among Antarctic predators. He was resting and presumably waiting for a chance to devour one of the gentoo penguins that were nesting and swimming nearby.

We ascended an icy wooden observation walkway (the only such visitor trail we would encounter on our three-week Antarctic voyage) to get a look at the wandering albatrosses nesting in the tussock grass.

Wandering albatrosses are extraordinary birds. They have the largest wingspan of any avian species (up to 11-and-a-half feet) and can live for 50 years if not done in by getting snagged on baited longline fishing hooks, which kill about 100,000 albatrosses of all kinds each year. 

The wandering albatrosses that we saw on the nests were seven-month-old juveniles. Our ship ornithologist, Simon Boyes, affectionately called this one Albert. Young Albert had been waiting for days for his parents—amazing long-distance flyers, as all albatrosses are—to return from a 3,100-mile flight to the waters off Brazil to gather food that they would regurgitate to feed him.

Wandering albatrosses flying along with a ship have always been thought of by sailors as a good omen—a mythology made famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the mariner shoots an albatross that has just led his ship to safety from an Antarctic ice jam. The mariner and his ship suffer the consequences. We don't believe in omens, but seeing Albert certainly felt like a lifetime moment of good fortune.

Nearly as thrilling as standing a few yards from a wandering albatross was finding and photographing a South Georgia pipit, a species that had been endangered by the invasive brown rats in South Georgia. (See our previous Antarctic post for more on the extreme efforts underway to eradicate the rats.) These pipits hover in the air before diving into the tussock grass to catch insects. I was able to watch this one wandering and hunting in the grass for several minutes.

After a few hours back on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, we embarked on our final expedition of the day, to Elsehul, home to breeding gentoo penguins, fur seals, gray-headed albatrosses and light-mantled albatrosses. And also a macaroni penguin colony—that grayish patch within the green on the mountainside. 

Here's a (blurry) closeup of the colony. Macaroni penguins are closely related to rockhopper penguins and share the ability to climb up steep rocky hills to reach seemingly inaccessible spots like this.

Some of the macaroni penguins were swimming.

Pamelia and I were bundled up again the strong winds and pelting snow.

Fur seals were watching us. Often visitors are not allowed to go ashore at at Elsehul because the breeding male fur seals are too aggressive (or because the waves and weather make landings impossible). Throughout our time at Elsehul, we had to be extremely careful not to intrude on the fur seals' space—and there were a lot of them around, often blending in with the rocks.

We headed off on a rocky climb.

Seal (and skua and petrel and penguin?) bones littered the ground—so many of them that one of the expedition members, noted wildlife filmmaker Peter Bassett, later put together a comical mock horror film in which the nesting gentoo penguins were bloodthirsty killers responsible for turning Elsehul into a boneyard.

We were on our way through muck and tussock grass to see penguins and albatrosses.

We soon encountered more gentoo penguins stomping around with their webbed, peach-colored feet.

Gentoos are playful, long-tailed penguins and, at 30 inches, the third-tallest of all penguin species.  

Yes, this gentoo's nest was made mostly of bones. Cue the horror music! 

Most of the nests were made of mud and stones. Male and female gentoos take turns on the nests (which contain two eggs) for a month, trading places every one to three days. 

A nest builder in action.

Sometimes it was hard to believe that we were on one of the world's most remote and wildlife-rich islands watching these amazing animals.

The penguins and fur seals shared some of the same ground, though the penguins quickly moved aside if a fur seal charged through.

The albatrosses were nesting on the cliffside ahead of us.

Our first look at a gray-headed albatross, a threatened species whose numbers are continuing to decline. 

A nesting gray-headed albatross like this one lays one egg in a year. If the chick survives, its parents will take a year off before breeding again. In that year, these remarkable flyers might circle the globe more than once.

I had seen a light-mantled albatross once before on the trip (see earlier post), but not this close.

Beautiful.

As we started to make our way back through the nesting gentoos, the fur seals again watched us and sometimes rumbled threateningly in our direction.

This shot gives a feel for the density of gentoo nests we saw.

There's a glimpse of that long tail, a distinguishing trait of not just gentoos but also two other types of penguins (chinstraps and adelies).

On the Zodiac ride back to the ship, we again watched the swimming macaroni penguins and steered close to short to revisit their hillside colony.

By dinner time on this mid-November Monday at the bottom of the world, Pamelia and I were back on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, once again energized and exhausted and exhilarated. We had been phenomenally fortunate over the previous few days, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the One Ocean Expedition team and the Russian captain and crew. Visitors to South Georgia Island—and there aren't that many of them—sometimes are able to go ashore only once or twice (or not at all) because of waves, weather and breeding-season restrictions. We had gone ashore at an unheard-of seven spots on the island.  Seven. All of them unforgettable. 

Let by Mark Carwardine, the renowned British wildlife photographer, zoologist, conservationist and writer who had set up this entire trip, we and our fellow adventurers raised glasses of champagne in a toast to all we had seen. And to the final, crowning destination ahead.

"Next stop, Antarctica," said Mark. . —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood