I travelled to South Georgia as part of an expedition cruise that also took in The Falkland Islands and Antarctica. In this post, I’ve tried to capture what it’s like to visit the island of South Georgia and get so incredibly close to the wildlife there. If you’re looking for practical information, there’s an FAQs post on the way so please check back soon or post your questions in the comments below!
The baby fur seal really wants to meet me. Like, a lot. I’m possibly the most intriguing thing she’s ever seen in her three short weeks of life, and she’s determined to find out more. Every time I take a step back she presses forward, gazing up at me with soulful brown eyes and bleating like a lost lamb.
Of course although I’m slowly backing away, it’s only because I’ve been told not to get too close. In truth, I really want to meet her too. To put out my hand and pet her velvety head. To tickle her under her fluffy chin and hear her mew with pleasure. To bundle her into my arms, pop her in my backpack, smuggle her home, name her Celia (sorry) and keep her in my bathtub until she grows into an angry teenager and attacks me and I have to give her away to a zoo. It’d be SO worth it.
But I’m not allowed – and how would I get her through security anyway? I’m pretty sure most airlines consider a live fur seal pup to be a prohibited item.
South Georgia: The Galapagos of the South
Ask a random person on the street if they’ve heard of South Georgia, and they’ll probably think you’re referring to the bottom half of the US State, or the Eastern European country. This remote British territory is unknown even to most Brits – lost as it is in the depths of the South Atlantic, thousands of miles from Queen and Country, on the way to absolutely nowhere.
But this isolation is what makes South Georgia so special. Because here, far from the greed and destruction of humankind, is a wildlife haven, where crowds of rowdy king penguins gather like fans at an Arsenal game and bulging seals lounge fatly on the beaches like indulgent middle-aged holidaymakers. None of them is remotely bothered by the few humans who stop by to take a look. They simply look back.
How to get to South Georgia Island
To get here, I and 350 fellow passengers and crew sail for two days across a thousand miles of sea from the Falkland Islands, aboard the expedition cruise ship Ocean Endeavour. We cross the Polar Front, an invisible line where the warmer waters of the South Atlantic merge with the colder waters of the Southern Ocean, waters that are teeming with plankton, and the krill that eat the plankton, and the larger creatures that eat the krill. We stand for hours on deck, hoods pulled up against the rawness of the wind, watching the horizon for the telltale blow of whales.
There are seabirds here too – albatrosses, gulls, petrels and cormorants – in greater numbers than anywhere else in the world. By day we watch them wheeling in our wake; by night the blackout blinds have to be drawn to prevent them crashing into us, while we sit in the warm bar listening to lectures and making friends. We learn new terminology – nautical miles, and knots, and the difference between pitching, rolling, and yawing. One evening the ship does all three, and dinner goes uneaten.
When we arrive at the island of South Georgia we’ll have just four days to pack in as much as we possibly can, to absorb as many details as possible, to fill our souls with experiences and our memory cards with photos, before leaving and, probably, never coming back. Four days, that’s all. The brevity feels like a particularly cruel and unusual form of torture.
Landing on South Georgia
Visiting South Georgia is not like stepping off a cruise ship in Italy or landing at some sunshiny beach resort in Australia. You can’t just stroll off the gangway with your backpack casually slung over one shoulder and wander into the nearest bar (with only about 30 people living here, the options are decidedly limited anyway). So valued is the island’s remote purity that the government goes to great lengths to protect it – not just from the usual detritus that tourism leaves behind, but from anything and everything that might conspire to contaminate this perfect Eden.
They’ve learned from past mistakes. In the 18th century ships that landed here carelessly infected the island with rats, mice and dandelions. Norwegian whalers brought reindeer to hunt for sport and meat. The reindeer took over, churning up habitats and eating native species. The rodents ate the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds, driving them almost to extinction.
It was only after an ambitious international effort lasting a decade and costing £10 million that the invaders were wiped out, and in 2018 South Georgia was declared reindeer- and rodent-free. The dandelions, however, are here to stay.
So before we arrive we are given a sternly-worded lecture. No speck of mud, no blade of grass, not a single seed, burr or pip must be smuggled onto those hallowed shores. All outer gear, all seams, cuffs, webbing and Velcro must be checked, scrubbed, and checked again. I wonder if they aren’t being overly cautious, until I unroll a pair of socks that I last wore climbing a volcano in the Congo and discover four sticky grass seeds that have somehow survived the washing machine. I hastily pick them out, wrap them in a tissue and put them in the bin. You definitely don’t want to be the person responsible for introducing an invasive species here.
South Georgia Cruise Day 1 – Bay of Isles and Salisbury Plain
And so, on the sixth day of our Antarctica expedition, the dramatic mountainscape of South Georgia shimmers into view. It’s a spectacular morning, sunlight turning the ocean a sparkling navy blue and transforming our first landing site, Salisbury Plain, into an iridescent wash of green. Even from half a mile offshore we’re already getting a sense of the delights to come: a speckled pattern coating the nearest hillside turns out to be thousands of penguins, while the barks and bleats of hundreds of seals carry easily across to us from the adjacent beach.
Our captain drops anchor and a small team of guides zips ashore in a rigid-hulled inflatable zodiac to prepare for our first landing. We line up in groups, identical in our standard issue yellow parkas, lifejackets on, backpacks loaded with camera gear, boots freshly disinfected and inspected, and then, ten at a time, we’re ferried ashore to set our first foot on this mythical wilderness and finally find out what all the fuss is about.
Seals and penguins in South Georgia
What’s the largest number of animals you’ve ever seen in one place before? Maybe a herd of cows or a flock of sheep? Perhaps you’ve seen starlings coming in to roost or, if you’re lucky enough to have been on safari, several hundred zebra or wildebeest? When you think about that, you’ll understand why no briefing, no videos, no warnings, can really prepare you for what it’s like to arrive on South Georgia for the first time.
“Welcome to South Georgia!” enthuses Solan Jensen, our expedition leader, as we disembark into the shallows. “Please follow the route flags that have been marked out for you. Head up the beach to the plain, and the main colony is beyond that. You have two hours. Don’t forget to keep in pairs and watch out for the fur seals!”
As we step ashore, we’re like aliens landing on another planet – one where almost every square metre of land is occupied by a living creature. Scattered across the beach, over the plain, and up the hillside beyond is the most staggering abundance of life: from the helpless 3-week-old fur seal pups lumbering clumsily over to check us out, to the bloated elephant seals, basking in the sunshine with beatific smiles on their moon faces, to the king penguins clustered in groups, sleeping, preening, or waddling their way slowly towards the colony beyond. All stages of life are here: courting couples bowing to each other; diligent mothers-to-be nursing eggs; floofy brown chicks whistling anxiously for a missing parent; teenagers mid-moult, their baby fur coming off in patches leaving them with ludicrous hairstyles.
And the noise is incredible: barks, bellows, yelps, grunts, whistles, squawks, hoots and chirps of every kind fill the air. It’s a scene of fantastical proportions and it throws me into an overwhelmed panic. Have we peaked already? How can I possibly see everything in two hours? Where should I go first? Where should I point the camera next? What if I miss something amazing? I only have two hours and it’s unlikely I’ll ever be coming back! How do I cope?! I gasp like a suffocating fish; it’s all too much.
Beware the fur seals
As we slowly make our way across the plain the reason for Solan’s warning quickly becomes apparent. The fur seals may look cute, but they’re unafraid of humans and it seems they don’t take too kindly to visitors, charging towards us like a terrier attacking a postman. We’ve been shown photos of fur seal bites – a crushed hand, a gashed thigh, a torn bicep that caused the entire ship to be turned round and sent back to the nearest hospital in the Falklands – so we’re more than a little nervous.
You can’t outrun the fur seals – but it turns out that if you stand your ground and shout at them they’ll soon back down. We quickly learn how to manage them like you would a disobedient puppy – when one rushes towards us we clap our hands and shout at it, ‘No! Bad seal! Go away!’ and it begrudgingly obeys. One fellow passenger forgets the instructions and legs it, only surviving because another spots the attack and steps in front of the seal, blocking its charge with a firm ‘Get back!” The chastened animal pulls up short and sidles away.
South Georgia Cruise Day 2 – Fortuna Bay and Grytviken
As we make our way down the coast of South Georgia every landing site and every boat cruise reveals new and unexpected delights. At Fortuna Bay we’re treated to the thrill of a crèche of fur seal pups, dozens of them corralled together in ponds at the back of the beach, playing, fighting, splashing and swimming in an explosion of cuteness that makes my heart hurt. They’ve been left behind while their parents go fishing, relying on the safety of numbers to protect them from predatory skuas looking for a meal. Collective power may save the pups from being eaten, but their impossible sweetness does put them in very serious danger of being kidnapped by passing tourist.
But South Georgia is not only about wildlife. There’s centuries of history here too, most visible in the form of the rusty old whaling stations that dot the shore. The majority are too dilapidated and collapsed to visit, but one, Grytviken, has been made safe; now they run tours, and there’s a shop, a museum, a post office and a church. The legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried in the nearby cemetery.
Grytviken was founded in 1904 by a Norwegian explorer named Carl Anton Larsen, who came here on an expedition, saw how many whales there were, and decided to start a business. He went home, raised investment, came back, and built the station in just six weeks. Over the course of the next sixty years it became the main whaling hub in the Southern Ocean, responsible for the deaths of an estimated fifty thousand whales.
We take the tour and learn how the whales were killed and stripped for their blubber. We learn how penguins and seals were used to fuel the burners. We see the rusted ships that caught them, the machines that cut the animals up and the cookers that boiled them down. It’s a fascinating but chilling place: eerie, yet with its rusty structures glowing in the afternoon sunshine, strangely beautiful.
Today life has returned to this place of death. Penguins congregate on the shore, and fur seals stake their territory amongst the winches and ovens. One feisty yearling rushes at us, charging with a lumbering gait that’s surprisingly quick for such an un-aerodynamic animal, and our firm reprimands do little to dampen his zeal. Later I see a tiny pup gnawing on a valve, whether out of curiosity, hunger or vengeance for the deaths of his ancestors I don’t know.
There’s something poetically gratifying about how even in a world so full of death and destruction, there are places like this, where mankind’s disregard for the planet is being erased, and nature is fighting back.
South Georgia Cruise Day 3 – Godthul and St Andrew’s Bay
When the wind picks up the wildlife watching becomes a little more challenging. We try to do a zodiac cruise in Godthul – a mile-long bay whose name means ‘good harbour’ in Norwegian – but today its goodness isn’t particularly evident. As we motor away from the shelter of the ship gusts of wind punch us and throw spray over the side of our little inflatable vessel. A few hundred metres away we can see spirals of spray dancing on the surface, mini tornados sucked up from the sea like dust devils, but made from water. I start to feel anxious.
Jen, our driver, decides to head over to the other side of the bay where it’s more protected, but that means first driving straight across the open water.
“What do you think, guys?” she asks. “Shall we just go for it, get it over with as quickly as possible?”
We hunker down and she fires the engine as hard as she can, gunning us towards safety. We bounce hard over the lumpy sea, every landing sending a jolt through the floor and a sheet of water over the bow. I’m at the very front so I get the worst of it; a bucket of icy liquid smashes into my face every five seconds. It’s hard to breathe, hard to hold on, and I end up slipping down and cringing on the floor, trying to use my body to shield my camera bag from the worst of the wet. The shelter of the cliffs, when it finally comes, is a blessed relief, and soon I’ve forgotten the trauma and am happily snapping away at the seals that swim out from the beach to inspect us.
Read more: 70+ Stunning South Georgia Photography Tips
St Andrews Bay
The carnival of wildlife continues at St Andrews Bay, which is home to one of the world’s largest king penguin colonies. Here we’re treated to the sight of almost half a million penguins all in one place, an immersive theatre of noises, smells and movement that’s almost impossible to comprehend. I take hundreds of photos, terrified of missing something, terrified of getting back to the ship and realising that I failed to take that one killer shot, terrified that someone else will spot something I missed (spoiler: they nearly always did).
South Georgia Cruise Day 4 – Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay
Overnight our journey continues down to Gold Harbour – considered by many to be one of the most beautiful locations on South Georgia. We’re jolted out of sleep by a tannoy announcement informing us that there’s a beautiful rainbow over the glacier; our cabin doesn’t have any windows so I’m forced to throw clothes on and rush up onto the deck before it disappears.
There are more penguins at Gold Harbour – not just thousands of Kings but Gentoos too, busily marching up and down, splashing through puddles on ungainly feet. The windy weather continues but it doesn’t spoil the fun: who cares about a little rain when there’s so much to see! Besides, getting cold on the zodiac only makes the hot chocolate they give us on our return to the ship taste all the sweeter.
At Cooper Bay the bad weather prevents us from landing to see another type of penguin, the colourful Macaronis, but we still manage a short zodiac cruise. We head out into the drizzle and swell and ease our way close to the rocks where they breed, where we learn that Macaronis are named after a group of 18th century dandies who dressed in outlandish fashions, and that the penguins’ bright yellow crests are coloured with a pigment found nowhere else in nature. I decide it’s too risky to take my camera, and of course I regret it.
Leaving South Georgia
I want to see everything, do everything, capture everything, but after four days of back-to-back thrills it’s time to leave. Ahead of us are two days at sea as we travel on to Antarctica, and while I’m excited about that, the thought that this is the end, that in all likelihood I’ll never come back here again, fills me with sadness, not to mention a huge dose of FOMO.
But I force myself to remember how exceptionally lucky I am to have been able to visit at all, and to see so much. Some ships travel all that way and only manage to make a few landings, and some hit such bad weather they’re unable to disembark at all. We toast our success in the bar and sigh over each other’s photos and videos, already imagining how we will share them with the folks at home once we get back on WiFi. After all, if I can’t take home an actual baby fur seal, at least I will always have the images to remember her by.
If you want to know more about what it’s like on a cruise to South Georgia and Antarctica, have a read of South Georgia & Antarctica: The Trip Of A Lifetime
To find out where we went and what we got up to, head over to The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Our Itinerary
If you’d like to know more about the Falklands, take a look at Visiting the Falkland Islands on an Expedition Cruise
Or if you’re after photography advice and inspiration, try 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips
My visit to South Georgia 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 paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.