At 2 a.m., like a child on Christmas morning, Pamelia lay awake in her cabin bed, anticipating one of the most extraordinary days of our life.
Our Russian oceanographic ship, the Sergey Vavilov, had traveled 1,500 nautical miles from the bottom tip of South America to South Georgia Island, one of the most remote places and remarkable breeding grounds on Earth. Only 7,000 people set foot on this mountainous, 100-mile-long island each year. Landings must be made with inflatable Zodiacs. Tricky conditions (including gravity-pulled "katabatic" winds that roar down off South Georgia's glaciers at 60 mph) and bad timing (areas that are off-limits in key breeding months by international agreement) frequently block visitors from going ashore.
Not us. By the time a friendly 4 a.m. wakeup call came over our cabin's loudspeaker, dawn had broken on a crisp, beautiful morning: patches of blue sky, temperature 30 degrees F and the wind 17 miles per hour, a third of what it had been the previous day (scroll down for our earlier posts). We looked out and saw only a slight chop on the waters of St. Andrews Bay, the first of the day's two planned South Georgia landing sites. Game on!
After a quick breakfast—not too much coffee, for we would be on shore for six hours with no bathroom options, as is nearly always the case on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic landings—Pamelia and I pulled on our many layers of winter clothing and grabbed our orange waterproof backpacks of camera gear. We headed off to take a 15-minute, wind-in-our-faces, cheek-burning Zodiac ride to the wildest shoreline we've ever seen.
"Don't panic. Stop for a few minutes to absorb the scene around you. Take your time. Then pick one animal or a small group. Concentrate on watching them for a while."
One of the trip leaders had offered those words of advice for our landing at St. Andrews. He knew how electrifying and overwhelming the up-close-and-personal sight of 200,000 penguins and seals can be, especially for nature lovers who have cameras in their hands and are eager to shoot photos, as nearly all of us were.
The words echoed in my head as I swung my legs over the side of the Zodiac, plunked into the shin-deep 34-degree water, waded ashore in my rubber boots and entered a world that was...electrifying and overwhelming.
For the next six hours, we were wide awake to life. In a spectacular setting ringed by snowy mountains and the rapidly retreating Ross glacier (hello, climate change), with a sparkling bay in front of us and the sky constantly changing, Pamelia, I and our 90-odd fellow expeditioners wandered among, photographed and studied these fascinating animals. We watched dramas unfold—predatory birds called skuas coming after penguin chicks, male elephant seals doing battle with each other, sometimes bloodily, penguin chicks pestering their mothers for food until the moms gave in and disgorged a mouthful into the chicks' bills.
The beach was carpeted with feathers—many of the adult penguins were molting—and adorned with white, yellow and green squirt-blotches of penguin guano. It also was littered with the remnants of dead penguin chicks and sea birds. Some of the chicks may have succumbed to the long Antarctic winter that had just ended; others might have fallen to one of the skuas that were gliding just overhead and wandering the grounds looking for feeding opportunities.
Because the beach was so large, we all were all able to explore different scenes and animals that caught our interest. As was evident from photos we saw later, each of us experienced St. Andrews slightly differently. Pamelia plunked herself down in a few spots and had long stretches with individual penguins and elephant seal pups. I roamed more widely.
Many of us followed the photographic advice given to us a couple of days earlier by trip organizer Mark Carwardine, the great wildlife photographer and zoologist. He said to drop to the ground for shots and see the animals at their level. Having a dirty jacket and pants from doing that became a badge of honor throughout the Antarctic trip.
As we neared the six-hour mark, we wended our way carefully around resting beachmaster seals and back to the Zodiacs. The Sergey Vavilov had to move on to our afternoon landing spot on South Georgia, a seal, penguin and albatross breeding site called Gold Harbor. The photos here scarcely do justice to what we had just experienced. We left feeling awed and humbled by the extraordinary animals and the dramatic landscape, which only one in a million humans will ever get to see.
And we weren't even halfway through this astounding day. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood
Coming next: Glaciers, Gold and why you shouldn't get too close to a male fur seal...