From dazzling snow-capped peaks to placid emerald bays and the luminous blue wedges of tabular icebergs, South Georgia is an astonishing wonderland teeming with the largest concentration of wildlife on the planet.
Give all five senses a workout as you explore the islands, bays and coves by Zodiac inflatable boat and on foot. Step onto shores covered with sleek fur seals and their adorable pups. Hike the icy landscape, literally following in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton. Observe elephant bull seals the size of small automobiles snoozing. If you sit quietly among them, a young “weaner” just might come close for a cuddle.
And then there are the penguins—iconic mascots of the Southern Ocean. Hike to the top of a hill and be thrilled by the sights—and sounds—of a veritable city of king penguins. Hundreds of thousands of these amazing three-foot-tall creatures gather to breed and raise their young on this sweeping shore known as Salisbury Plain, and other sites like Gold Harbour. Because of South Georgia’s unique staggered penguin breeding cycle, you’ll have incredible opportunities to observe and photograph penguin chicks in various stages of development—at very close range.
Meet the gentoo, macaroni and chinstrap penguins of South Georgia, their thriving colonies tucked into beautiful inlets and pristine coves. Among the numerous species of seabirds here—literally countless millions—it’s the wandering albatross that claims the wow factor. Just imagine the takeoffs and landings possible (and impossible) with a wingspan that can reach 11 feet! In juxtaposition, marvel at the graceful acrobatics of humpback and southern right whales feeding in the nutrient-rich waters that sustain all wildlife here.
Fittingly, human history here has its own awe-inspiring tales to tell. Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance shipwreck-by-ice and the epic rescue of his crew is surely the world’s ultimate heroic tale. Many South Georgia cruises offer the chance to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps and pay homage to this legendary Antarctic explorer at his gravesite at Grytviken.
For those in search of the last wilderness frontiers on Earth, South Georgia Island travel offers the ultimate up-close nature encounter, an experience that is sure to envelop your senses and touch your spirit. In short, it’s the sparkling jewel in the crown of adventure travel.
Note: For travelers seeking a full Antarctic cruise experience, South Georgia can be combined with Falkland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula cruises.
Shaped like a whalebone and isolated from everywhere else in the known world, South Georgia Island first appeared on the map about 340 years ago. This remote island measures about 100 miles long and two to 30 miles wide. While no history book definitively names its discoverer, most agree that it was Antoine de la Roche, a merchant from London who first documented the landmass in 1675. And only because his ship, sailing from Lima back to England, was blown significantly off course as he rounded Cape Horn.
In 1775 Captain James Cook, that undaunted explorer of the southern hemisphere, was the first voyager to actually step onto the island. An officer of the Royal Navy, he named it the Isle of Georgia in honor of his king. Cook returned to his homeland with incredible accounts of wildlife, especially fur seals.
Between 1786 and 1825, all South Georgia travel revolved around commercial voyages, literally moving the fur sealing industry to this remote speck on the map. Valued for their pelts, 1.2 million fur seals were slaughtered, bringing the species to the brink of extinction. The whaling industry also took its turn on South Georgia, led by Norwegian sea captain Carl Anton Larsen. In 1904, the first whaling station was established at Grytviken Bay, followed by settlements at Leith, Stromness and Husvik. More than 200,000 whales were processed here until the mid-1960s. Visitors today can see the remnants of this industry in the abandoned whaling stations that remain on the island.
In a more celebrated arena of human history, South Georgia Island boasts one of the world’s true heroic explorers—Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose epic 1914 Antarctica-bound voyage abruptly ended when his ship, the Endurance, splintered in the ice off Elephant Island. A seemingly unbelievable series of events followed when Shackleton left most of his crew behind to go in search of help. He sailed 800 miles in a small open boat before crossing the uncharted glaciers and mountains of South Georgia to Stromness Whaling Station. From the island he was able to deploy help to his stranded men, incredibly rescuing every crewmember 17 months after the shipwreck. Today, visitors following in a much more comfortable wake on their South Georgia cruise can pay homage to the iconic adventurer at his burial site in Grytviken.
It wasn’t until 1877 that South Georgia was studied for its natural characteristics—when Austrian naturalist Heinrich Klutschak first published copious observations of the island’s wildlife, climate and topography. A delegation of German scientists created the first detailed maps in 1882, informing the world of this sub-Antarctic wonderland crowned by two soaring mountain ranges, Allardyce and Salvesen.
During the austral summer (November through March), 75 percent of the landscape is covered by vast glaciers, ice cap and snowfields. The rest of the land is trimmed in moss and lichen-covered rocks. The wave-tossed shores are edged with pebbly beaches. This landscape is home to one of the densest population of wildlife on Earth—every nook and cranny seemingly inhabited by an avian or marine creature. There are even about 2,000 reindeer that roam the island, introduced by the whalers in 1911.
Today, the waters again teem with humpback, right and sperm whales, along with graceful orcas and bottlenose dolphins. More than two million fur seals—about 95 percent of the planet’s population—and half the world’s population of elephant seals arrive here every summer to breed, along with thousands of leopard seals.
The island is home to about 30 million birds, including petrels and prions that vie for nesting space. A quarter million albatrosses find their way here annually, including the light-mantled albatross and half the world’s population of wandering albatross. The penguin contingent includes four million macaroni penguins, nearly half a million pairs of king penguins, 200,000 gentoos, about 12,000 chinstraps, and smaller populations of macaroni and Adelie. In recent (2011) marine explorations, researchers discovered that the waters surrounding South Georgia teem with life previously unknown to humans—species so numerous and varied that the biodiversity now rivals that of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.
South Georgia cruise travel draws visitors with a passion for the far-flung, the remote and, above all, the wild. Tour operators are mindful that everyone lucky enough to visit is a steward of this wild place, and organizations such as IAATO and the British Antarctic Survey ensure that pristine conditions will remain for the generations to come.