Antarctica Tour: Beauty and the Beast

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

10 January 2012

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The cool blue waters of Hercules Bay contrast with the orange-brown of the local kelp. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim’s view: It was a beautiful morning for a landing and Hercules Bay was today's destination. Although logistically challenging with two landing sites and Zodiac cruising involved if the weather held, the scenery and the birds are stunning. The first landing is on a small beach showcased by a waterfall and a small flock of King Penguins with the usual Fur Seals and Elephant Seals. 

The highlight of Hercules, however, is the colony of Macaroni Penguins. Macaronis are larger than the Rockhoppers seen in the Falkland Islands, but like the Rockhoppers, these crested penguins also had a perilous uphill climb to their nests among the tussocks. We watched as they scampered down the slopes onto the beach before their eventual return to the sea. Like all the wildlife we had seen, they were both the observed and the observers. Driven by curiosity, they approached quite close to me. 

The outer landing site offers a shoreline sprinkled with loafing Macaronis and a few King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, and my first Chinstrap Penguin of the trip. Overhead, at least three Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses flew over repeatedly. Further exploration revealed several nesting birds on the mossy ledges overlooking the bay. The raw physical beauty of this location is matched by the wall of sound emanating from penguins, fur seals and albatrosses. 

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The museum at Grytviken includes a history of whaling, Antarctic exploration, natural history, and provides passengers with an opportunity for retail therapy. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

In stark contrast to the beauty of the morning, the afternoon was marked by a grim visit to a beast of South Georgia’s past. Tucked away in Cumberland Bay, Grytviken was the center of the lucrative whaling industry in South Georgia. Thousands of whales were processed here. Relics of this morbid time still stand as a harsh reminder of man’s wanton lack of regard for nature’s gifts. Huge oil drums, processing equipment, and the last harpooning ship stand as they were left when whaling ceased in the 1960s. 

In need of something more upbeat, we reminded ourselves of the glorious days of Antarctic exploration with a visit to the whalers’ cemetery, where we spent some time with “the boss”, Sir Ernest Shackleton. In the local tradition and in grand style we toasted him and poured liquor on his grave—the most preserved explorer on the planet. Shackleton’s right hand man and second in command of the Endurance exploration, Frank Wild, was buried there in November, 2011, reunited once again. Grytviken has a museum, gift shop, and post office, so many of the passengers took advantage of the opportunity to purchase postcards and send them home. One of our group, a trained opera singer, entertained in the old whalers’ church, which was built in 1913. The day ended with an outdoor barbecue—South Georgia style—with salad, shrimp, ribs and sausage, shared on deck in 35° F temperature. Rather cool, but befitting our Antarctic adventure.  

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South Georgia Shags intertwine their necks in a courtship display. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Ann’s view: Another calm and sunny morning greeted us today as we motored into Hercules Bay. The water of this bay, like many of the others, is an amazing pale turquoise blue, looking more tropical than Antarctic. However, this color is actually caused by the glacial “flour” or fine silt washed into the bays by the grinding of the many glaciers which can be found on South Georgia. Macaroni Penguins were the order of the day, and before we could even get into the Zodiacs, we were watching groups of them porpoising around the bay. 

Macaroni Penguins look and act a lot like Rockhopper Penguins, but they are larger and the yellow tufts on the sides of their head are joined together with a yellow strip over their beaks. The nest sites are located high in the tussocks. A few people made the trek to the one accessible colony, but most of us were content just watching the birds ambling up and down their penguin highways, which reached from the colonies to the sea. Fur and Elephant seals were plentiful at this site, as were molting King Penguins and a lone Chinstrap Penguin. The morning’s adventure was capped by a bit of Zodiac cruising which provided great photo opportunities and revealed thousands of ctenophores and small jellyfish among the kelp forests lining the shores. 

After lunch back on the ship, we travelled past several glaciers and their “offspring”—fields of small icebergs—before reaching Grytviken. This particular stop is mandatory so that we may clear customs and provides another historical experience. A speaker from the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) came aboard and provided a brief presentation on their work. The landing began at the graveyard where explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried. Sir Ernest has been joined by his first mate, Frank Wild. Wild’s ashes were interred in South Africa and were only recent discovered and moved to South Georgia according to his final wishes. The visit to Shackleton’s grave is accompanied by a toast to “the boss”, where half a shot of rum is consumed and the other half shared with Shackleton. I didn’t notice if anyone thought to share a bit with Wild. 

A tour of the former whale station was provided by the SGHT. The trust operates a museum and gift shop at Grytviken, and many souvenirs were purchased by the Ortelius passengers. The funds raised by SGHT are going towards a monumental program to try to rid the island of invasive, imported Brown Norway Rats. The rats came to the island from ships visiting the whaling station or by coming ashore after shipwrecks (which appear to be plentiful around South Georgia). They have been wreaking havoc on the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds such as the South Georgia Pipit and Common Diving Petrel. Using the glaciers as natural barriers, the island has been divided up for the e”rat”ication efforts. Grytviken appears to be rat-free now, and next year, plans include most of the north shoreline of South Georgia. It is believed that if the rat program is successful, it’s probably only a matter of time until the pipits return to their historical breeding areas.  

The day ended with a barbecue out on the Ortelius deck. Stoic travelers faced the light drizzle and cooler temperatures this evening to enjoy an outdoor meal with their fellow passengers. Note to self: Corn on the cob and whole prawns cannot be safely eaten with winter gloves on.

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