South Georgia is a small sub-Antarctic Island in the South Atlantic, isolated, wind-blown and desolate.
It is also the most unique place on the planet. Here are the reasons why according to climatologist and ornithologist, Dr Claudia Holgate of Silversea Expeditions, who recently ran a Polar Expedition event at Footloose Travel.
1. St Andrew’s Bay – The world’s largest King Penguin colony
Landing on St Andrew’s Bay is an assault on the senses with the beach smattered with five tonne elephant seals combating each other for dominance. The smaller fur seals are dotted along the route with their tiny pups growling at you with an attitude far larger than their size.
The star of the show, however, is the king penguin colony with 100,000 pairs of king penguins calling with their loud braying call answered by the high pitched squeal of the chicks. Each adult knows the call of the chick and can find their youngster in amongst the hustle and bustle of the colony.
One of the unique features of South Georgia is the lack of fear displayed by the animals and if you sit quietly, there is a good chance of having a king penguin walk up to you and peck your boots.
2. Prion Island – Wandering albatross nesting colony
This tiny island forms part of South Georgia and provides the wandering albatross with a safe place to nest. This amazing creature has the widest wingspan of any bird reaching up to 3.5m and soars above the island as you explore.
As you wind through the tussock grasses to see these huge birds sitting on their nests you will see fur seals popping their heads out at regular intervals. As adult birds arrive back after a feeding trip, the couple perform an elaborate bonding display with their wings out and their heads in the air.
There are regularly nesting birds within a few metres of the boardwalk and they are not disturbed by your presence.
3. Shackleton Hike – The most iconic hike in the world
This scenic hike follows the last 5km of Ernest Shackleton’s historic traverse of South Georgia. Starting in Fortuna Bay, you will navigate a path through the many fur seals lining the beach. After a short walk, you will reach a king penguin colony with over 7,000 pairs of penguins.
The hike winds its way up to 300m above sea level before reaching a ridge above Stromness Valley, followed by a steep descent into the river valley. At this point you can stop to reflect on how Shackleton felt when he reached this point and heard the whaling station bell sounding to indicate the start of the working day.
4. Grytvicken – A historical wonderland
The age old whaling town of Grytvicken is nestled in a protected bay surrounded by steep hills. The old whaling boats marooned on the beach bear harpoon equipment, a chilling reminder of its gruesome past. This small town contains the remains of an extensive whaling industry and it is possible to see how the entire process operated from beginning to end.
The highlight for many, however, is a visit to Ernest Shackleton’s grave. The famous explorer sailed over 600 miles in a wooden life raft and walked over the most treacherous terrain that South Georgia can offer to get help to rescue his men stranded on Elephant Island. The ashes of his right hand man, Frank Wild, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.
5. Gold Harbour – Breathtaking beauty
Many expedition guides working in this region consider Gold Harbour to be the most beautiful landing on South Georgia and the island to be the most beautiful place on Earth. If you land early in the morning you will catch the light of the rising sun as it brings out the golden colour of the cliff on the western side of the harbour.
The landscape is breathtaking with glaciers snaking their way down the mountains, and light mantled sooty albatrosses soaring overhead as they come into their nests on the grassy slopes. You will be met on the beach by a haul of the largest elephant seals you can imagine with a face that only a mother can love.
The ubiquitous fur seals will be playing in the melt water streams as king and gentoo penguins make their way to and from the water. A short walk takes you to another large king penguin colony, where one can sit down and enjoy watching the antics of the penguins and the predators of the colonies, the brown skuas and giant petrels.