The wind whipped, wildlife packed, glacier-ridden island of South Georgia rises sharply from the ocean hundreds of miles from land. Despite this isolation, millions of penguins, elephant seals and birds congregate there to breed, turning the frosty island into a noisy, orgy of life. The sub-Antarctic island is rarely visited by sea kayak.
We wipe the snow off the kayaks and get them ready for their first outing at this Sub-Antarctic island. While South Georgia is much further north than Antarctica at 54 degree latitude, the ocean is just as cold due to the near freezing circumpolar current that flows here from the frozen continent. Cold water supports more life than warm water and so South Georgia is full of it, and claims the largest density of wildlife of anywhere in the world.
It’s taken us 5 days to sail here from the Falkland Islands, the nearest landmass to South Georgia. There are smiles all around from our team of 7 paddlers as we clamber into the kayaks from the back of the yacht and take our first paddle strokes towards the dramatic snowy peaks and black sandy beaches.
Donna excitedly points to the nearby shore, I just see rocks until I realize that the biggest rock of all is a giant elephant seal; slumped on the snow, motionless, his deformed snout pressed into the ground below 2 closed eyes. We spot a handful of fur seals next, a few meters away from the elephant seal, the first of 5 million who will arrive in South Georgia to breed over the next 6 weeks.
A pintail sits quietly on the rocks, king penguins porpoise past us to the beach. We land and walk along the beach watching the king penguins sitting around, waddling along in the snow, and cautiously walking past a harem of elephant seals.
Over the next 2 weeks, we sail and paddle around South Georgia Island, becoming familiar with the amazing wildlife, the wild rugged landscape, paddling past icebergs and glaciers. The wind is an almost constant companion, whistling through the yacht rigging, sending the wind generators spinning wildly and leaning the boat over in the strongest gusts. I read a description that the notoriously fierce winds around Cape Horn continue unabated for over 1000 miles until they first slam into land in South Georgia. The tall mountains and frigid glaciers create their own weather patterns which vary dramatically from one valley to the next.
One day we enjoy a calm, sunny day of paddling 10 miles from St Andrews Bay around to Royal Bay. The wind was less than 5 knots the entire day but in Royal Bay, 50 knot gusts came swirling down from the glacier, creating 4 foot waves and throwing sea spray up into the air. We have to be always careful and often have to modify our paddling plans because the water is whipped up by the wind.
Despite that, we manage to paddle most days, go on beautiful hikes, even walking in Shakleton’s footsteps. We explore the old whaling stations that litter the shore and visit the museum. We see almost no-one else, just a few scientists and workers at the capital of Grytviken, 1 cruise ship and 1 other yacht. It’s a wild, isolated place and we are visiting early because soon 5 million aggressive fur seals will make landing on the beaches very difficult.
The wildlife is the highlight of the trip. My favorites are the elephant seals. The beachmaster, the Alpha-male elephant seals lie guarding harems of up to 100 females. Rival males are never far away, sprawled innocently 5 or 10 meters from the harem, trying to act like they just happen to be taking a nap. If they inch a bit too close, the beachmaster rises from his apparent slumber, powering his several tons of bulk across the beach like a giant torpedo, crushing any females or pups that don’t get out of the way in time.
Sometimes that’s enough and one male slinks away quickly, his muscle and blubber rippling over the sand in quiet defeat. Other times, they both rear up on their hind quarters, squaring up to each other with open mouths. One male will hit at the other one, slamming their bulk into their opponent’s neck or sinking his sharp teeth in. The fights don’t last long. The loser seems to know quickly that it’s best to save his strength. We see many large males sprawled out on the periphery of the harem with bloody necks or deep cuts, resigned in their defeat.
We mostly sleep on the yacht but a few times we camp on shore, going to sleep with the sound of elephant seals snorting, birds squawking and penguins calling. We sail back to the Falkland Islands with our minds full of memories of this wild and untamed land.
Justine runs guided kayaking trips to the Antarctic peninsula most years. Link for more details.
For 2 weeks sail and kayak around South Georgia Island, becoming familiar with the amazing wildlife, the wild rugged landscape, paddling past icebergs and glaciers.