Tim and Pauline Carr: South Georgia with Tim and Pauline Carr

Tim and Pauline Carr

Tim and Pauline Carr: South Georgia with Tim and Pauline Carr

Tim and Pauline Carr

Antarctica is great, but South Georgia is simply the best. Living on the island year round we never grew bored of watching the annual comings and goings of the animals unique to the area. First to arrive in mid-September are the elephant seals – all fat and in fine condition for their long sojourn on the beaches.

October through November is the peak of activity. There are skinny new pups with long black fur and weaned pups with beautiful moon-eyes, moulting into sleek, plush ‘suede’ adult coats on rounded, butter-ball bodies. Harem bulls are fighting and mating – a four-ton elephant seal is hugely impressive, but two of them with heightened testosterone levels, fighting in earnest, is awesome.

By mid-October, a glorious, haunting cry heralds the next arrival – the light-mantled sooty albatross. The blackbrowed and grey-headed albatrosses have also arrived, but they are much quieter and do not declare their nest sites to the whole world. The great wandering albatrosses have been returning from week-long foraging flights to feed their chicks throughout the winter and by 30 November these are beginning to fledge. There is a lot of wing exercising going on – from a distance it looks like many mini-windmills against the sky. When they finally take off they will remain at sea and not return to any land for at least six years, during which time they will circumnavigate the globe several times.

Penguins are busy returning in October and November too. First to come are the gentle gentoos, busy with nest making and mating. The ruby-eyed macaronis are tossing their golden tassels to attract the females into their special spots amid the tussac grass; and the feisty chinstraps are performing elaborate displays, pointing their beaks skywards and weaving their heads while uttering ecstatic calls. King penguins are at several different stages because of their complicated breeding cycles. There are lots of last year’s chicks feeding and moulting their woolly coats into the silver and gold of the adult plumage. But before they reach this elegance, they are comical in their transitional attire with Mohican hairstyles and downy tufts.

Fur seals are a mixed blessing. By mid-November most of the breeding bulls have taken up their territories on the beaches and the females are beginning to return. Although most of the animals give birth in the first week of December, there will be some pups in November and they are very cute. It’s wonderful to see a species return from the brink of extinction after the havoc wrought upon them by sealers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But perhaps their comeback has been too successful, as their impact is now heavy on the flora and some of the species that breed and overlap in their territories. It’s thought that the current count of more than four million animals is far in excess of the original population, perhaps because of the increased availability of their main food, krill. This is especially the case with a decimated whale population.

A 200kg, territorial fur seal bull is extremely fierce and needs to be given healthy respect. Their teeth are selfsharpening and their mouths full of bacteria. That said, we were never bitten during our 14 years on the island, but we learnt not to push the boundaries. On the other hand the Weddell seals are pure delight. In November there may still be some pups around that were born in September, with mothers and pups exhibiting close and touching bonds. There may also still be some leopard seals – they tend to be winter visitors and most, but not all, head south in spring. Despite such a long history of exploitation, whales are beginning to return, but the numbers are still not great and it is a special treat to see them. Right whales are the most frequently sighted, with humpbacks also making a comeback, along with pods of orcas. We once saw more than 100 fin whales and sightings of blue whales have increased, along with the occasional calf.

Although the creatures we just described are the most visible players on the South Georgia scene, there are also many other seabirds breeding on the island, including a rough estimate of 22 million pairs of prions, petrels ranging from the two species of giant petrels to the smallest storm petrels, and the whirring diving petrels that erupt out of the waves or disappear disconcertingly into them. Ethereal snow petrels breed in the mountains. Antarctic terns and kelp gulls patrol the coastal areas, as do the bold and predatory brown skuas. Blue-eyed shags are in their prime plumage in spring, with neon-blue eyes and bright orange growths below them. Pale-faced (snowy) sheathbills inspect your boots between busy turns around colonies as the ultimate garbage collectors. And, finally, there are the endemic land birds – the endearing South Georgia pintail ducks and the diminutive and frail South Georgia pipit, whose lark-like song is so uplifting after the long winter.

You will catch an occasional glimpse of a group of reindeer brought to the island by Norwegian whalers. Rats and mice have also been introduced and a few varieties of non-native plants. There is so much to see without even looking beneath the surface of the ocean, but the South Georgia Museum has excellent displays on the fish and creatures that live beneath the waves. South Georgia’s history began with a first sighting in 1675, Captain Cook’s first landing in 1775, and then the first waves of exploitation as sealers reached these shores. Fur seals, then elephant seals, whales, even fish species all got brought to commercial extinction. Occasional try-pots remain from the sealing, but huge derelict and rusting whaling stations are the legacy of six decades of modern whaling, from 1904.

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic story of the loss of his ship Endurance, and the eventual rescue of all of his men, is closely woven into the fabric of South Georgia. In 1922 he died in King Edward Cove and is buried in the cemetery at Grytviken. It is moving to visit his grave and reflect on the heroic age of Antarctic explorers epitomised by the man. The South Georgia Museum, at the old whaling station of Grytviken, has displays on discovery, exploration, whaling, natural history and other historical events, including the 1982 invasion by Argentina and subsequent liberation 22 days later during the Falklands conflict. A replica of Shackleton’s boat, the James Caird, is on display.
The museum shop is well stocked with souvenirs, including some made in South Georgia.

There is also a Post Office with a wide selection of stamps. It’s hard now to imagine, even for us, the museum as it was in 1992 when we first arrived to work here – the initial two rooms consisting just of whaling paraphernalia and gory photos; leaky roof, rotten floors, no facilities and few visitors. The little church was beginning to collapse and now is fully restored and an evocative icon. It was even characterised in the movie Happy Feet!

Across King Edward Cove from Grytviken is King Edward Point, the island’s administrative centre. Here the British Antarctic Survey does science on behalf of the South Georgia government, and supports the government officers who administer the island for a commissioner (based in the Falklands) and also inspect fishing boats before issuing licences. A fishery patrol vessel also ensures that government regulations on sustainable fishing are adhered to by the limited number of licensed vessels. About 12 people live here in winter, increasing to about 20 in the summer. Electricity to run the base, and Grytviken, is now provided by hydro-electric turbines below a dam first created by whalers in 1912.

Sailing out of King Edward Cove after a day’s visit, and leaving the lights of the base and its small group of people behind, it is an exciting prospect to head for the wilder areas yet again, to find another spectacular anchorage and make plans for the next adventurous day. From one end of the island to the other there is such a banquet of treats – each landing has a unique appeal with a stunning series of backdrops to the omnipresent wildlife. Some are incredibly mountainous, others vast plains; there are waterfalls and streams, rocky islets, precipitous cliffs, snow gullies, verdant tussac grass, calving glaciers and gentle mossy places.

South Georgia has become a holy grail; to visit it is to make a pilgrimage to a unique Antarctic oasis. What a reward to witness its pristine beaches and teeming wildlife… and then to sail away leaving no impact and the island unaltered and still as nature intended.