Antarctica Tour: Shackelton's Footsteps

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

9 January 2012

Jim’s view: There’s nothing like looking out the porthole and seeing sunshine and high mountain peaks. After paying our 'dues' yesterday, I was looking forward to improved conditions. Fortuna Bay is a grand area with glaciers and mountain peaks that lead to a wildlife-rich plain. The shore of the bay is loaded with Fur Seals—small, medium, and large—all playful, but a force to be reckoned with. Small ponds near the shore held many “furries”, innocently swimming and enjoying this time of plenty in the sub-Antarctic summer. The pups are incredibly cute, though they have a menacing growl. Their antics always put a smile on my face. 

I had King Penguin colony duty, so I set up at the colony and then waited for the clients to arrive. Standing about three-feet tall, King Penguins are beautiful birds with a very confiding manner. With 7,000 pairs, this colony is a mere fraction of the size of the one at Salisbury Plain, but much more manageable. A key behavior that I hoped to see was an egg exchange—the bird with the egg balanced on its feet transferring it to its partner. There’s an elaborate ritual around this event, but alas, I did not witness it today. 

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The abandoned station at Stromness is a morbid reminder of whaling that once occurred here. Seals and reindeer are today's denizens. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

Highlights of the morning included Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nests and reindeer. The reindeer were introduced by Norwegian whalers as a supply of fresh meat and to remind them of home. The population has dramatically increased to the detriment of nesting seabirds. My afternoon was spent on the Shackleton hike, a three and a half mile walk from Fortuna Bay to the Stromness whaling station—Sir Ernest Shackleton’s final leg of his epic Antarctic voyage of discovery. This hike was much easier than Shackleton's. I had the latest in comfortable chest waders, a lightweight backpack, 74 hiking companions and chocolate. He had a rope, deteriorating shoes, and two comrades who must have been hanging on by a physical and emotional thread. The countryside is stark. Rocky outcroppings and scree slopes replace the moss-covered lower terrain. Unlike previous years, there was no snow, so no glissading. We ended our hike at the defunct Stromness whaling station. The stations is a morbid reminder of the demise of the great whales. It now hosts thousands of Fur Seals and a small colony of Gentoo Penguins. It was good to return to the ship for a shower, hot dinner and a good night’s sleep. 

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Reindeer, introduced by Norwegian whalers, share space with Fur Seals. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

 Ann’s view: “Don’t stampede the reindeer through the penguin colony” is one of the most bizarre instructions I’ve ever received, but was important for our stop at Fortuna Bay—yet another picturesque beach and another beautiful day on South Georgia. The reindeer herd was situated between the beach and the penguin colony, and as directed, we took care not to cause them to stampede. Brought to the island as game for the sealers, whalers and visitors, in the early years of the last century, the feral herds are scheduled to be eliminated next year to protect native species. 

The King Penguin colony lay to the left of our landing site, but a stroll to the right provided great opportunities for photos of even more Fur Seals, including several male “beach masters” and their harems. The seal pups continued to put on shows for us, frolicking in small puddles, tussling with each other in the tussocks, bleating for their moms and practicing their growls. I witnessed several mother and child reunions. The mom would often start calling for her baby before she even landed on the beach. The baby would call back. It was like the “furry” version of Marco Polo. Even my inexperienced ears started being able to pick out the pairs, which allowed me to anticipate the reunion. It was fascinating to witness the two call back and forth eventually working their ways through hundreds of other seals to get to each other.  

This King Penguin colony is smaller than the one at  Salisbury Plain, which gave us a chance to have a closer look at individual birds. Being in the right place at the right time meant that several of us saw copulation and egg manipulation, but we didn’t actually witness an egg exchange—yet. I’m told that our best chance could be in a couple of days at St. Andrew’s.  

Nearby, at a waterfall, we saw two Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nests. The hike up the hill was worthwhile just for the view, but good looks at a skua chick and a South Georgia Pintail—an innocent looking carnivorous duck—were unexpected bonuses. We ate lunch on the beach as groups of King Penguins strolled by, then we took a short Zodiac trip across the bay to the start of our historical retracing of Shackleton’s walk to Stromness. The hike ascends 1200 feet in about a mile and a half. Footing was moderately challenging, as the route up consisted of scree— broken fragments of sedimentary rock, pried apart and shattered by repeated freezing and thawing. I stepped carefully, having heard rumors that a woman had fallen to her death here last week. 

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The Shackleton route was followed by 75 passenger and crew from the "Ortelius." The scree slopes made the walk a little treacherous at times (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Along the way, we saw two Giant Petrels on nests and numerous holes that were probably the entrances to Diving Petrel burrows. At the summit, we could see the remains of the Stromness whaling station on the shore below. The descent was much trickier than the climb, but ended in the boggy edges of an alluvial river basin. Gentoo Penguins held their ground on a few of the hillocks, and King Penguins mixed with Fur and Elephant Seals on the Stromness beach. Several of the pups lounged in the abandoned equipment. While seventy-five of us hiked, the remainder of the crew and passengers came to Stromness with the ship, which was waiting to pick us up. 

1

Is Stromness where Shackleton is buried. I could Google it I know, but I want a fresh lived “google”. lol
Thanks again.
Vern

2

What amazing sensory overload you must have! The picture of the multitudes of animals looking like a river is transfixing.
Have more fun, look forward to more updates!

3

Sue, sensory overload is right! I’ve already taken thousands of pictures, with several days left. We’re about to go Zodiac-cruising among icebergs within the hour.

Vern, Shackleton is buried (and preserved) at Grytviken. That episode is coming up soon. Thanks for following our journey!

4

I am really enjoying the blog.. great writing, especially with the dual point of view. Looking forward to the rest of it.

5

Grade A stuff. I’m unqusetionbaly in your debt.

6

The death of Eileen Larrimore on the Shackleton walk occurred on January 3rd, 2012. It occurred on a Zegrahm expedition and a Falkland Coroner’s inquest is on going. Regrettable this information has not been disclosed to ALL Antarctic travelers so that extra precautions can be taken at this uniquely treacherous spot on the trail.
It was my sad misfortune to witness her fall less than ten feet in front of me. Simultaniously her husband dove after her in a vain attempt to save her and also fell 50 feet to the bottom of a cliff. Miraculously he walked away with minor injuries. She was dead within 90 minutes.
JK

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