Cruise Report: South Georgia

Lindblad Expeditions, along with partner National Geographic, has just posted a video report from their new National Geographic Explorer. View the video…

Gold Harbour & St. Andrew Bay, South Georgia

Today was the perfect day! Early in the morning, our Expedition Leader woke us up, as the first light hit the hanging glaciers at Gold Harbour. This place is regarded by many as one of South Georgia’s most beautiful sites and today it did really live up to this reputation, with blue sky, sunshine and no wind.

The view we had as we boarded Zodiacs to go ashore was breathtaking. As the Zodiac approached the beach, most of us almost got hit by a feeling of wildlife “overflow.” At the landing site, a large wallow with immature male elephant seals greeted us, along with large numbers of fur seals running around the beach, and of course, countless king penguins – a heyday for anyone interested in wildlife and photography. What more can you ask for?

A king penguin stands out with its pride, grace, and colors. We slowly moved up along the beach toward the colony. Here we saw molting, incubating, newly hatched chicks and, further down towards the waterline, very cozy oakum boys. In fact, these brown penguin chicks were originally described as another species but it turned out to be young extremely fat and barrel-looking king penguin chicks dressed with very darkish brown feathers, almost giving the impression of being furry. This is, of course, to protect them against the cold harsh winter they have to spend on the beaches waiting for the few occasions the adults arrive back to feed them.

Gold Harbour was first surveyed by the German Filchner expedition in 1911, which later went far south to winter far in the Weddell Sea. In fact, the very first scientific overwintering below the Antarctic Convergence was made here at South Georgia and close to the sites we visited today. During the very first IPY (International Polar Year) in 1882-83 a German base was established in Antarctic waters, at Moltke Harbour at Royal Bay.

We had the whole morning until lunch to explore, adore and discover the wildlife at Gold Harbour. It is easy to become trapped and just sit down to become surrounded by penguins and fur seals. Photo opportunities were almost endless for everyone, and our youngest guest onboard, 11 year-old Emily Sanborn, really took advantage of her time ashore.

The more energetic made a climb up the hill and through the dense tussac grass to look for one of the most magnificent birds in the whole Southern Ocean, the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. As the bird is a biannual breeder, all the nests were empty, but we did sight some birds soaring over the cliffs. Those who stayed at the beach were rewarded with sightings of South Georgia Pintails and the always very elusive South Georgia Pipit.

We came back onboard for lunch and the National Geographic Explorer sailed further up the coastline to entered St. Andrew’s Bay, location of the largest king penguin colony here at South Georgia. Everyone maybe thought the morning outing was a lot of penguins and for sure Gold Harbour houses several tens of thousands.

St. Andrew’s Bay is the stronghold for king penguins and as we approached the beach we saw a “sea” of penguins. The last count to date was 188,000 pairs, and today we maybe saw something near 1/4 of a million king penguins to greet us.

The whole afternoon was set aside to explore the area and some did also hike towards the glacier to watch the introduced reindeers. They were brought down from Norway as the whalers got tired of eating whale beef.

King penguins only breed in the Southern Ocean on islands near the Antarctic Convergence. Here at South Georgia the numbers were down because king penguins were used to fuel the fire to heat the tripots to extract the oil from Elephant seals in the 19th century. At other Southern Ocean islands, like Macquarie below Tasmania, a whole operation was set up to harvest and extract penguin oil and the main source was king and royal penguins. This was stopped by the mid-1920s. Now, all over the Southern Ocean, the king penguin population is increasing.

The colony at St. Andrew was described by the German expedition in 1882-83 and the first census was made in 1925 and counted 1100 birds. In 1985, a new survey was made and numbers had increased to 32,000 chicks through the winter. In 2002, numbers were given to about 150,000 pairs. Overall king penguins, elephant seals, and fur seals over the last decades have shown a remarkable increase.

If you ever get to South Georgia and have one day to spend, be sure to make your visit to Gold Harbour and St. Andrew’s Bay. Of course, as always here at South Georgia, everything is dependant on the weather and swell, and as the last Zodiac made it back from St. Andrew’s Bay, clouds were all over, a gusting cold wind from the glacier.

We were lucky to get the perfect day!


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