Cooper Bay and Drygalski Fjord

img_1581-2This is a juvenile blue-eyed Cormorant, still in brown plumage. A giant Petral takes off before me. img_1505




Cooper  Bay is a mountainous land carved by glaciers on the Southern end of South Georgia.
Here you’ll find the largest nesting site of Chinstrap penguins on South Georgia.  Can you guess why some of them have pinkish-brown staining? They eat mostly Krill and some Shrimp. These guys laid in guano and need to take a bath.

Cruising along the coast, bumping around kelp festooned boulders and jutting pieces of rock, we found a large group of Macaroni Penguins. Big, soft snowflakes began to fall, making the scene otherworldly. These birds weigh about twelve pounds and stand about 28″ tall. They get their unusual name from 18th century slang for a person who is flamboyant in their dress, rather than having cheesy-noodle crowns.

Just before leaving this large sub-Antarctic island (we aren’t at the continent yet), the captain sailed the ship through narrow (seven miles long) Drygalski Fjord. Glacier scoured mountains soar out of the ocean, blocking the sky. We floated through brash ice, and heard the shot-gun blast of calving ice falling into the water around us.

At the terminal end is  Risting Glacier, named for a Norwegian whaling historian. These pictures were taken from the ship, so try to comprehend the magnitude of the tidal face looming many stories tall and burying almost five miles of terrain.


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.






8 Penguins Boil Down to 2 Gallons of Oil

6,000 Elephant Seals yielded 2,000 tons of quality oil per year.

Not just whales were harvested for oil used in margarine, transmission fluid, or for lamp fuel. This puts the disturbing abuse of natural resources for energy into perspective. Most of the hunted penguins were the animated Gentoo, with their cherry red beaks right out of a Max Factor makeup commercial.


But a single whale produced 120 gallons of oil and therein was the bigger prize. All whales were taken, but the sperm whale produced an extraordinary high grade wax from the brain cavity that was worth three to five times more than any other oil.

Can we justify what our ancestors did? “They didn’t know the impact on the environment,” or “They didn’t have energy options.” Stop a moment and consider what  we may be accused of in the future, with excuses made to keep dirty or dangerous fuels?

Stromness and Leith were South Georgia whaling stations, now silent testimony of the bloody past . Imagine the stench in this place as whales were hauled by chains from the water and  dragged up the flat plain for processing. The area would have been slick with blood and smelled of excrement and rotting carcases. The lonely graveyards are testament of dangerous working conditions.

Fur seals were almost eradicated by 1910, but their numbers have rebounded. I think it’s poetic justice that the men are gone,but these hunted mammals populate the rusting ghost towns. (notice the blonde pup? Only 1 in 1,000 are born this color)

In 1916, Shackleton struggled to reach Stromness after enduring a hurricane in a rowboat and landing on the wrong side of this mountainous island that had never been circumvented before.  Hiking up, they reached an immense glacier and took a leap of faith by sliding down the icy precipice-the quickest way to their destination. Without survival gear, ropes,  or crampons, this was a huge risk. Falling into a crevasse would have meant death. But nothing was safe about Shackleton’s expedition from the first moment the Endurance got trapped in the ice.

What fortitude did it take to survive against such horrible odds?

Look back at Scott’s 1900-1904 expedition when Shackleton hired on as a third lieutenant. These two men were different breeds. Shackleton was every man’s friend and a merchant marine. Scott was elite Royal Navy and led a privileged life.  This expedition was a life of hard knocks for them both. Neither skied and both were inexperienced handling dog sledges.  Still, they went further south than ever before. When Shackleton collapsed with scurry and all the dogs died, it’s believed the rift between the two men exploded. Did Scott blame Shackleton, never letting him forget that he was a liability? Did Shackleton not respect Scott’s methods of authority?

Feeling himself the underdog,  Shackleton would have understood what it took to be a good commander.  This helps explain his unbending will to protect his men at all costs. He’d already walked in their shoes.

We also followed the last miles of The Bosses self-rescue, ducking screetching Antarctic Tern’s and visiting the station where the emergency rescue for his men began. It took Shackleton four tries and four months before conquering the ice and finding his team alive on Elephant Island. He’s not remembered for failing in life or his exploration bids. He’s honored for conquering insurmountable odds to become a hero and save lives.

Leith is close to Stromness and Japan used the facility through the 1960’s, long after baleen from whales wasn’t used for ladies umbrellas, corset stays, or riding whips.

In 2015, Japan agreed to stop hunting in Antarctica, after it was ruled illegal by the international court. But they found a loophole and harvested 333 minke whales for a “scientific program” that ended up on the dinner plate. Considering the overall amount of seafood harvested by Japan, this small quantity indicates lower consumer demand. Norway, Iceland, and Russia also have commercial whaling operations.

To play devil’s advocate, in our culture baby cows are killed as veal. Unless you are vegetarian, you eat mammals. Some cultures see whales as fish and a food source, while others see the emotional character from “Free Willy.”

The watchdog of populations and health of whales is the responsibility of the International Whaling Commission, which is a voluntary organization laying down bans.

Japan has stated they will resume harvesting whales in Antarctica. Personally, I don’t think ANY country should take ANY resources from this wilderness. This is our last pristine place, balanced in a delicate ecosystem. There are other places for controlled harvest (Example: around Norway and Iceland where historically whaling is part of the culture.)

What can you do, if you oppose harvesting of whales? Research your perfume, cosmetics, soaps and glue to be sure whale parts aren’t used. Let those companies know that you don’t support them and why. Support the International Whaling Commission and organizations that research these mammals and when you travel, do not eat whale meat. If companies don’t make money killing whales, the harvesting will stop.

Pictures below: Sei Whale, Humpback Whale and Minke. I cannot describe my excitement at being next to these giant creatures in a small zodiac boat.




South Georgia landings at Right Whale Bay and Salisbury Plain

We were supposed to land in the morning at Elsehul, on the NW of South Georgia Island but conditions weren’t favorable. This is part of traveling in this part of the world. One must be flexible. Patient.

Instead, Shane took a look at Right Whale Bay for our morning cruise. We couldn’t hike, because the beach was full of testy male fur seals making landing impossible but the cruise was fantastic.

After lunch, we headed to Salisbury Plain. Historically, this was a favorite hunting ground for sealers (both fur and elephant) in the 19th century. Easy access and landing sites with huge numbers of animals made harvesting quick. Today, Salisbury has the second largest King Penguin colony with up to 250,000 individuals during the molting period. We were able to cruise and hike.  It was an amazing experience, being in the minority and having the privilege of stepping into this animal kingdom.