In my previous post I shared my experience of what it was like to visit South Georgia Island and some of the incredible things there are to see and do there. But that post didn’t contain much practical information, so here’s a follow up in which I’ve included answers to the most common questions people tend to ask about visiting South Georgia. If you can’t find your question here, please post it in the comments and I’ll add it in!
1/ I’ve never heard of the place! Where is South Georgia?
South Georgia is an island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Its nearest neighbour is the Falkland Islands, about 850 miles to the west. It’s about 1120 miles from the tip of South America, and 1000 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula.
2/ How big is South Georgia?
The island is about 100 miles long and between 1 and 23 miles wide, depending on where you measure. It covers an area of 1,362 square miles, making it roughly the same size as Rhode Island, or Yosemite National Park, or Cornwall.
3/ Who owns South Georgia Island?
South Georgia is the largest island in a group called South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which belongs to the United Kingdom. It’s a British Overseas territory, which means it has its own local government but Britain is still responsible for its foreign affairs and defence, and they still have the Queen as their Head of State.
4/ Who lives on South Georgia Island?
South Georgia has a population of around 20-40 people, but none of them are permanent residents. The population is made up of a small scientific research team at the King Edward Point research base, as well as a small team who staff the museum, post office and shop at Grytviken Whaling Station. The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is based in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.
5/ Can I travel to South Georgia?
Yes! It’s an absolutely wonderful place to visit, if you can spare the time and the money to get there. But due to its remote location it’s one of the least visited territories on the planet, with only around 10,000 visitors a year, though numbers are increasing.
Large cruise ships are not allowed, and at most landing sites the maximum number of people allowed ashore at a time is just 100, making it a remarkably quiet and unspoiled place to visit.
The majority of visitors come from the USA, Germany, the UK, Australia and China – these 5 countries make up 75% of all visitors. Of course if you’re from any other country you’re more than welcome to go too!
6/ How do you get to South Georgia?
There’s no airport or landing strip on South Georgia, so if you want to visit, you have to take a boat. The vast majority of people visit, as I did, on an expedition cruise that also takes in the Falklands and Antarctica. A few also come in their own private yachts.
7/ How long does it take to get to South Georgia Island?
Most cruises depart from Ushuaia at the bottom tip of Argentina, take a day to get to the Falkland Islands, and then a further 2 days at sea to reach South Georgia. There are also some cruises departing from Montevideo in Uruguay.
8/ Do I need a visa to visit South Georgia Island?
No. Each vessel just needs its own arrival permit which covers all the people on board, so this will be organized for you by your tour operator (unless you’re planning on coming in that aforementioned private yacht).
9/ Where can I stay on South Georgia?
You can’t. There is no accommodation on the island itself; all visitors sleep on the boats they arrived on.
10/ Why is it called South Georgia?
The island was sighted a few times in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until 1775 that Captain James Cook made the first landing, survey and map of South Georgia. On the 17th January he claimed it for Britain and named it the ‘Isle of Georgia’ in honour of King George III. January 17th is now known as ‘Possession Day’ and is a public holiday in South Georgia.
11/ What is the link between South Georgia and the Falkland Islands?
Apart from their relative proximity to one another, and the fact that both are British Overseas Territories, South Georgia and the Falklands share the dubious honour of both being claimed by Argentina.
You may well have heard of the 1982 Falklands War, during which Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, which they call ‘Las Malvinas’. What is less well known is that Argentina also lays claim to South Georgia, which they know as ‘San Pedro’. During the Falklands War Argentinian forces also invaded and occupied Grytviken on the east coast of South Georgia. The British sent troops to liberate the island, which became the site of the southernmost battle ever fought. Three men were killed and nine wounded in the conflict.
12/ What is there to see and do when you visit South Georgia Island?
By far the number one reason people come to South Georgia is for the wildlife. The island has been dubbed ‘The Galapagos of the South’ for the sheer astonishing scale of its animal and bird life. There are over two million elephant and fur seals, an estimated seven million penguins including kings, gentoos, chinstraps and macaroni penguins, whales including humpbacks, fin, minke, blue and orcas, and countless seabirds including the world’s largest albatross, the wandering albatross. Every day brings another spectacular moment, another WOW experience like nowhere else on Earth.
In the first half of the 20th century the main industries on South Georgia were sealing and whaling. Seven factories were set up along the coast to process the animals and extract oil to be used in cosmetics, foodstuffs and the production of nitroglycerine. Today whaling is banned and the stations have been shut down; most of them have been left to rust and are unsafe for visitors but you can still see remains at Godthul and visit the main station at Grytviken, which is an eerily beautiful and fascinating place.
South Georgia was where legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton eventually landed after his ship was crushed in ice in Antarctica; he left most of his men stranded on Elephant Island and with just 6 men in a wooden boat he sailed the 1000 miles across stormy seas to reach South Georgia. They then had to cross the island’s mountainous interior with no food or equipment before eventually making it to Stromness Whaling Station, 488 days after first becoming stranded. Ok, you can’t actually see Shackleton himself, but his grave is in the cemetery at Grytviken next to that of his second-in-command, Frank Wild, and you can learn more about their epic tale of survival in the museum.
13/ What is a typical day like on a visit to South Georgia Island?
There is no typical day; every day is wonderfully unpredictable and different. When you’re dealing with the vagaries of the weather and the wildlife, that’s just how you have to roll!
That said, most cruise companies will aim to have you doing a landing in the morning, and one in the afternoon, weather permitting. That means your day will usually start with a wakeup call and breakfast, after which you’ll make your first shore landing to see seals, penguins, or whatever other wonderful animals are there. Landings typically last about 2-3 hours, during which you’ll have free time to wander about, observe the wildlife, and take as many photos as you like. In most places only 100 people are allowed ashore at a time, so if there are more passengers than that on your ship your departures will be staggered, and you may do a zodiac cruise along the coast first with a shore landing afterwards, or vice versa.
Then it’s back to the ship for lunch, and while you’re eating, your captain will reposition the ship along the coast for your afternoon landing. In the evening you may have a briefing or a lecture, and overnight the boat will set sail again, ready for a new beach or harbour the next day.
Of course all if this is weather-permitting, so you’ll need to be flexible and adaptable for whatever nature may throw at you!
14/ When is the best time to travel to South Georgia?
You can only visit South Georgia in the southern summer, so late October to March – in winter the weather makes the place almost completely inaccessible. Within that period when you choose to go rather depends on what you want to see.
Spring (October and November)
You will see more elephant seals as they come to the beaches to breed; seabirds return to the island in colossal numbers to begin their courtship and build nests, and penguins are laying their eggs. The first whales start to arrive.
Summer (December to mid-February)
This is high season and the most popular time to visit. Fur seal breeding peaks and the beaches are packed. You’ll see newborn fur seal pups and newly-hatched albatross chicks, and last year’s king penguin chicks will be nearly fully-grown and ready to moult. The weather is calmer giving you a better chance to make more of your shore landings, and the days are longer. Whales continue to arrive.
Autumn (late February to March)
Autumn is less crowded but that means you’ll have more flexibility about landings and more freedom to explore. Penguin chicks and seal pups will be a little bigger, but there’s still plenty to see, including lots of whales around.
15/ Why is my South Georgia itinerary not fixed?
You’ve probably been told repeatedly that itineraries are estimates and nothing is guaranteed. You may even have been advised to prepare for the possibility that you might not get to see everything on the list. That’s because to get ashore safely in the tiny little inflatable zodiacs your crew needs good weather and light winds, and if conditions are bad landing may not be possible. I’ve heard tales of some cruises where the winds were so strong and the swell so high that they hardly managed to make any shore landings at all. I’m not saying this will happen to you, but you need to be prepared for the fact that not everything will go according to plan.
Your expedition leader and captain will be doing their absolute best to get you ashore as much as possible – and sometimes if one landing site isn’t available they will take you to another that’s just as good. It’s your job to be flexible and reactive and open to changes as they occur. You’ll still have an amazing time no matter what.
16/ What is the weather like in South Georgia?
South Georgia has a ‘maritime subpolar’ climate, which in plain English means it’s pretty cold and wet. It gets 55 inches of rain a year and can be very windy all year round.
You’ll be visiting in Spring or Summer, which are drier months but you’re still likely to encounter some rain. Temperatures are milder – the average in February, the warmest month, is about 9 degrees C but on warm days temperatures can get as high as 20 degrees C.
17/ What should I pack for South Georgia?
Layers! You may get a warm day, but it’s just as likely to be cold, wet and windy. Absolute essentials are: a warm and waterproof parka or down jacket, waterproof trousers, baselayer leggings and top to put underneath, gloves and hat, plus casual clothing to wear on board ship in the evenings. Your expedition company may provide you with boots; if not you’ll need sturdy hiking boots.
There will be a full and complete packing list coming to this site soon.
18/ Someone mentioned Biosecurity. What’s all that about?
Thanks to its remote location, South Georgia is a wildlife haven. And the government is keen to keep it that way by preventing any non-native species from coming ashore.
In the early part of the 20th century, whaling ships landing at South Georgia brought all sorts of pests with them, from invasive plants like dandelions to rats and mice, and even reindeer, which they brought for meat. These species took over the island and began to threaten the local wildlife: the rodents ate birds’ eggs and chicks; the reindeer trampled habitats.
Today South Georgia is finally reindeer and rodent-free, but the government is determined to prevent a similar thing happening again. That’s why before you are allowed to set foot on the island you have to listen to a sternly-worded briefing, and learn how to correctly wash your boots, backpacks and outer gear. Not a single seed, grass, grain or speck of mud is allowed to make its way ashore; all gear must be cleaned and inspected between landings, and it is everyone’s collective responsibility to protect the island for future generations. That’s Biosecurity.
19/ Is it dangerous to visit South Georgia Island?
Not especially, no. However, a trip to one of the remotest parts of the world is not without risks, so here are a few things to be mindful of:
- There are no hospitals on South Georgia. Your expedition ship will have its own doctor, but the nearest hospital is 1000 miles away in the Falklands. If you have any serious underlying medical conditions you should consult your doctor and expedition company before booking.
- Most of the wildlife is perfectly harmless but fur seals can run fast and have a seriously nasty bite. When you’re ashore you’ll need to travel in pairs or groups and keep a close eye on them; NEVER sit or lie down and follow your guides’ advice at all times.
- Landings can be a little tricky. You’ll have to get from your main ship onto a small inflatable zodiac boat, and from the small boat to the shore. While this isn’t dangerous in itself, sometimes the swell or the wind can make it a bit challenging. Again, follow all instructions from your crew and if you have any concerns, talk to your tour operator.
20/ Will I get seasick on my visit to South Georgia?
If you’re susceptible to seasickness then yes, it’s possible. You’ll have at least 3 days at sea to get there, and unless you get extremely lucky with the weather there’s likely to be a bit of rocking and rolling (and not in an Elvis way) at some point. Your crew will be on hand to dish out medication and look after you, but bring your own if you’re at all worried.
21/ Which companies travel to South Georgia?
There are lots of tour operators offering visits to South Georgia and Antarctica, but most of them are just reselling trips with the same few specialist polar operators. This list is not exhaustive, but here are some of the main ones:
- Quark Expeditions
- Oceanwide Expeditions
- G Adventures
- Aurora Expeditions
- National Geographic Expeditions
- Noble Caledonia
22/ What’s the best way to take great wildlife photos on South Georgia?
Funny you should ask – I have a post covering that very topic! Head over to 70+ Stunning South Georgia Photography Tips to find out more.
My visit to South Georgia Island was part of a longer trip that also included the Falkland Islands and Antarctica. There is loads more still to come so please do sign up to updates by email to get notifications about new posts, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. And if there’s anything you’d like to know, please comment below so I can include it in the next post!
I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.