St. Andrew’s Bay, “Weaner” Heaven

Are you lost? Check out this map . map_of_south-georgia-1We started in the Northeast of Georgia at Right whale Bay, followed by Salisbury Plain, Leith and Stomness whaling stations, and onward to Grytviken. Sailing down the coast, this stop is Saint Andrews Bay with the next submission from Gold Harbour. The final visits will be Drygalski Fjord and Cape Disappointment.

Our Quark Expedition itinerary states: “Thirty years ago, Cook Glacier terminated at the high water mark on the beach in a spectacular 30 meter (98 feet) high, 500 meter (546.8 yard) long ice cliff.” With recession and melting, we now see distinct glacier toes of Grace and Lucas glaciers between soaring ice-scraped rock. Saint Andrews Bay has the largest colony of King Penguins in the world (up to 500,000) and vast numbers of Elephant Seals. On this cloudy day, rougher waves made photography a challenge.


Imagine walking through a wide glacial plain, approached by the wildlife. The roar of sparring elephant seals echoes like distant thunder. There are so many animals and birds that I turn in circles, eyes and mouth open in wonder. img_0992


Only the “weaners” (weaned young and some adolescents) remain on the beach this late December day.

Bull Seals are 13-16 feet long and weigh 4,500-8,000 pounds. These “beachmasters” left for a solitary ocean life as soon as mating was finished. Not good dads. The cows, a svelte 1,500 pounds and 10 ft long, only feed the pups for 28 days, during which time the youngsters gain over 300 pounds. Then they slink away, leaving too. Tough love at its finest.

Ten percent of (mostly male) weaners figure out how to steal milk, and become double-mother sucklers. They sneak in,  quietly push younger pups away until they are discovered.  The interlopers are promptly bitten, chased away and forced to live in juvenile pods where they nestle together for heat.


Thermokinesis to keep warm

The weaners won’t leave the beach until after they molt— and hey—it gets chilly when skin  sheds, so thermokinesis is essential. This process can take two months and result in substantial weight loss, but it’s also when these hunky babes learn to swim.

Both males and females enjoy head-banging and pushing each other around. Mock fighting does involve biting and injuries do happen.


I got sucked into the mesmerizing vortex of watching these (second largest) colorful penguins.


They don’t build nests. Both parents take turns holding the egg on their feet, hidden under fur and nestled against bare skin. Average Kings weigh 33 pounds, average height is three feet. They raise two chicks every three years. Leopard Seals are the biggest predators ( more on them later) and Skuas eat unattended eggs or chicks.


Skua, waiting for dining opportunities



“wooly” or “oakum”( named after caulking in old sailing ships) penguins appear larger than mature Kings. Once upon a time, researchers thought they were a separate breed, but they are juvenile Kings that haven’t molted yet. These guys relentlessly beg to be fed, but the parents have evasive maneuvers worthy of  Super Bowl contenders.

Once the juveniles get their plumage, they are waterproof and can fish for themselves. Molting makes them look like steam-punk rock stars, but behavior indicates a miserable process.

At St. Andrew’s, many weaners and King penguins aren’t afraid to approach. If you put down gear, they will climb on it. If you stand in one place too long, they will climb on top of your boots. They seem curious, checking us out. One of my friends thought a weaner tried to kiss her. I said, “Nope. It’s a test to see if you’ll lay down and breastfeed.”

Other critters on the beach: Fur seals above. Below: Petrals and Vladimir with a group of us reflected in his ski goggles (couldn’t resist). An amazing place to be, folks! Quite an honor.







img_0909Carl Larsen began this processing station in 1904 after discovering a whale-filled, sheltered  bay. The name in Norwegian means “the pot cove” from animal melting try-pots that sealers left behind.img_5307

The first year, Larsen’s company never had to leave the bay to harvest whales because there were so many. They took 183. (Keep note of this number.) In 1906, the Governor of the Falklands attempted to regulate the industry with laws requiring: no harvesting of females with calves, no rare Right whales, only two “catcher” boats per station, and mandatory use of every part of the kill. img_0918

The arrival of factory ships at sea destroyed any hopes for sustainable harvesting. What happens at sea, stays at sea. Fifty years later, Grytviken harvested 53,761 whales and many of those mammals were taken by unlicensed sources. (Quite an increase from #183!) Whale oil sold as high as 90 British pounds sterling for each metric ton. This was during WWII, when blubber was used in the production of nitroglycerin.

At one time, 500 men worked here rendering whales and seals into oil, meat, or fertilizer.   Senior officials and Larsen raised their families here. It would have been a rough place for children. Although Larsen had a church built, a Lutheran pastor made the comment, “Religious life among whalers leaves much to be desired.”

Potatoes were stored in the church for a time and movies shown there until the cinema was built. On our tour, we were told that alcohol was forbidden, but the commissary had a booming sale in perfume. At first, officials thought the men offset the stench of the killing field. Later, it was discovered the men drank the perfume to get buzzed.

Whaling continued here through 1964 ( by the Japanese), but the outpost became a victim of its own success. Without measures to protect what they harvested, the number of whales dropped. WW11 also saw advances in new products and technology, essentially making whaling obsolete. The Fur and Elephant weaners are quite at home here now.

Today, Grytviken is maintained by the South Georgia Heritage Trust with a terrific museum and the last post office before the seventh continent. You can buy liquor here now–a nice bottle of South Georgia  scotch in the gift shop.

When we returned to the ship, the 20-or-so summer residents of Grytviken joined us on deck for a fantastic BBQ