Pamelia and I heard the news when we climbed out of a Zodiac onto shore at Gold Harbor on South Georgia Island. "There's a light-mantled albatross nest at the top of the hill," said one of our Antarctic expedition leaders. "If you want to come along, we're going up to take a look."
Of course I wanted to come along. Never mind that the beach was alive with tens of thousands of king penguins, southern elephant seals and predatory sea birds in a spectacular setting with two glaciers as a backdrop. They could all wait for a moment. I had to look at the nest.
I had never seen a light-mantled albatross, described by some as the most beautiful member of the albatross family. Light-mantleds are smaller than most varieties—their wingspan is 7 to 8 feet compared to the world-record 8 to 11 feet of their more famous cousins, wandering albatrosses—and their distinct coloration has been compared to that of a Siamese cat. Their light-gray eye rings almost glow against the darker feathers on their heads.
I began trudging in the muck between large clumps of tussock grass. I had taken only a dozen steps up the hill when I heard a bellow to my left. In a flash an Antarctic fur seal was charging at me from 15 feet away. He'd been hidden by the tussock grass. He was more than a little agitated to see an intruder in his territory in breeding season.
We expedition members had been warned about this. Earlier in this journey to the Antarctic, everyone on board our ship, the Russian oceanographic vessel the Sergey Vavilov, been shown a slide of a human hand that had been chomped by a male Antarctic fur seal. The hand was bloody and mutilated. Tendons were severed. Yikes. This was not your typical welcome-to-the-Antarctic! photo, but that was the point; none of us would ever forget it. We silently swore to give Antarctic fur seals—95% of whose world population breeds on South Georgia Island—abundant room and respect.
This utterly accidental meeting was my first encounter with one. I retreated as fast as I could, slipping and stumbling as another climber slammed her ski pole on the ground and hollered to distract the seal. He stopped, watched me and in a few moments returned to his original spot in the tussock grass. Victory was his. No blood had been shed. I was rattled but relieved.
Truth is, if I were a fur seal—Antarctic or otherwise—I wouldn't look upon humans so kindly either. Consider all that we have done to them even though they're fellow mammals which used to live on land (before they adapted to their changing environment and developed fins) and whose DNA is estimated to be 80 to 85 percent the same as ours. At the sight of these all-too-handsome animals, some humans have felt the urge to hug them (bad idea) but too many others have acted upon the urge to club them and wear them as coats or boots (worse idea).
Later I learned that I was not alone in my hillside experience. At least six other fur seals had chased away members of our expedition, even though we were trying to avoid them. I now understood why some landing sites on South Georgia are closed off to visitors when larger numbers of fur seals show up in breeding season and establish their territory.
I resumed my climb, slip-sliding every other step before taking a blooper-reel splat onto my backside. It was all worth it. I caught a glimpse of the nest and spent time watching and marveling at a light-mantled albatross in flight. My afternoon was already made—and I hadn't made it yet to the wildlife extravaganza on the beach below me.
I descended to the Gold Harbor beach. Would you like to imagine yourself there for a moment? A cold, sunny November afternoon (spring here in the Southern Hemisphere) is turning grayer and the wind is picking up. Mountains and those dramatic, spilling glaciers are in front of you. You are standing on a beach relatively few humans ever see, on one of the world's most remote and remarkable islands and breeding grounds, South Georgia, the Sergengeti of Antarctic wildlife.
Pause and look out at the expanse of seals, penguins and birds before you. Are you ready? Let's explore:
Before too long, dark was beginning to settle in and we needed to return to the Sergey Vavilov. Over a delicious dinner that night, One Ocean Expeditions team leader Boris Wise tantalized us with the news that early the next morning we would reboard the Zodiacs and go ashore at Salisbury Plain, yet another of South Georgia Island's seemingly endless variety of astounding sites, one that would be packed with more than 100,000 animals and possibly reveal to us a rare bird called the South Georgia pipit. We might explore two other breeding grounds later in the day.
Boris did add a caveat. The winds might be picking up a bit more overnight, to, um, gale force. Gale force? Sleep tight.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood
Coming next: Rough seas, icebergs, a bird rescue and the trail of Ernest Shackleton.