Video of the Day: Antarctic baby seals

Antarctica has been the subject of several Photo and Video of the Day posts in the last few months, but it’s hard to resist adorable penguins and jaw-dropping icebergs. So sharing a video of baby fur seals frolicking in the sub-Antarctic was a no-brainer. National Geographic nomad and past Gadling contributor Andrew Evans is currently crossing oceans on a Cape (Horn) to Cape (Good Hope) trip and caught up with these cuties on the island of South Georgia, home to 95% of the world’s population of fur seals. Andrew explains in the video how the female seals will spend much of their lives breeding and the little ones will have to quickly demonstrate how “fierce” they are to survive. You can even catch a glimpse of a rare “blondie” fur seal as your jealousy of Andrew’s fabulous travels mounts.

Tell us about your fiercest travel videos and leave us a link in the comments, or add your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool.

Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Grytviken, South Georgia

In the whaling museum here the most fascinating thing to me – after the touch-me-feel-me penguin skin – are the trophies and sports uniforms worn by the different South Georgia whaling station teams which competed against each other in rugby, track and field, ski jumping and more during the heyday of whale killing here.

Grytviken was South Georgia’s first whaling station/factory, set up by Norwegian explorer C.A. Larsen in 1904. Initially only blubber was taken and the carcass discarded resulting in beaches of bones along the coastline which I can still see lying in the shallows off what remains of its main dock. By 1912, seven whaling stations had been established and South Georgia became known as the southern capital of whaling.

That heyday was during the early 1900s, when a variety of whales (blue, fin, sei, humpback and southern right whales) were abundant in South Georgia’s waters during the austral summers, feeding on the massive quantities of krill found on the edge of the island’s continental shelf.

By the late 1920s such shore-based whaling factories on the island declined due the scarcity of whales around the island, followed by a boom in whaling on the high seas. The stations on South Georgia then became home base for repair, maintenance and storage. It was the uncontrolled whaling on the high seas followed – up to two hundred miles off shore – and led to significant reductions in populations of exploited whale species.
Whales were harpooned with an explosive grenade, inflated with air and marked with a flag, radar reflectors, and latterly radios. A catcher would then tow them to a factory ship or shore station. The whale was hauled to the flensing plan. The blubber was removed and boiled under pressure to extract the oil. Meat and bone were separated and boiled. The results were dried and ground down for stock food and fertilizer. Baleen whale oil was the basis of edible, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical products. It was also an important source of glycerol to manufacture explosives.

Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region a low estimate suggests one and a half million animals were taken between 1904 and 1978. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was processed here at Grytviken in 1912, more than one hundred feet long, weighing in at nearly two hundred tons. This intensive hunting reduced the Southern Ocean stock, once the largest in the world, to less than ten percent of their original numbers and some species to less than one percent.

It wasn’t until 1974 that the International Whaling Convention agreed to protect the few remaining species in the Southern Ocean, and whaling here was mostly stopped in 1978. Paul Watson and his Sea Shepard – now Animal Planet heroes apparently, though that has happened this season while I’ve been in Antarctica – are still attempting to dissuade the Japanese from their annual hunt. Today. On occasion, you can spy whales close to shore at South Georgia, as they make a slow recovery, in particular southern right whales and humpbacks.


On top of the sense of history left at this beach by its whaling history, Grytviken is famous in Southern Ocean lore too for being the burial site of Ernest Henry Shackleton.

In 1921 – six years after successfully rescuing his men off Elephant Island, thanks to the help of the Chilean naval vessel “Yelcho” – he sailed south for what was to be his third Antarctic expedition. Its vague intention was to survey the coastline and carry out somewhat ill-defined science. You get the sense he was just itching to get back down south.

This time out his sailing ship, “The Quest” barely made it to Grytviken and in the early hours of January 5, 1922, he suffered a fatal heart attack here. His body was on its way back to England when the ship carrying him home stopped off in Uruguay and learned that his widow wished her husband be buried on South Georgia. His grave is still the focus of the Whaler’s Cemetery at the end of the beach.

It is tradition to toast “the Boss” – no, not the bard of New Jersey! – with a shot of rum poured onto his grave, which I happily did. Unlike the rest of those buried in the small, white picket-lined cemetery, Shackelton is interned with his head pointing south, towards Antarctica.

Bowermaster’s Antarctica — In the Footsteps of Shackleton

Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

Ernest Shackleton had an intimate relationship with South Georgia. He stopped here for a month in 1914 before sailing the “Endurance” to its crushing fate in Antarctica; a year and a half later with five others he sailed the gerry-rigged lifeboat “James Caird” 800 miles across the Scotia Sea to King Haarkon Bay, arriving on May 9, 1916; and in 1922 he returned, died and is buried here.

On a warm and sun-filled morning we land at Fortuna Bay, to repeat the last chunk of Shackleton’s legendary and unprecedented climb across South Georgia. A steep and muddy tussock hill leads to fields of broken slate, which climb gradually to 3,000 feet. The higher we get, the more stunning the landscape grows: tall, spiky, far off peaks covered in snow, clear mountain ponds, tufts of soft moss scattered among the shattered scree, waterfalls tumbling off nearby walls.

It was the whalers of South Georgia who first warned Shackleton that his route to the northern edge of the Antarctic continent was likely to be barred by unusually heavy concentrations of ice that had arrived the year he sailed for the Weddell Sea in December. He went anyway; we don’t know what he was thinking when he left South Georgia then nor what exactly when he thought when returned via the “James Caird.” In retrospect would he think it had been a mistake to take the “Endurance” down that season?
Exhausted by the 16 days it took from Elephant Island in the tiny boat, they narrowly negotiated a landing and crawled ashore on the southwestern side of the island, at Cape Rosa. But ultimate safety lay on the north side of the island, at the whaling station called Stromness. Leaving three of his crew under the upturned “James Caird,” Shackleton along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley set off with minimal equipment (stove, binoculars, compass, an ice ax and ninety feet of rope).

Shackleton wrote of the beginning of the climb: “The snow-surface was disappointing. Two days before we had been able to move rapidly on hard packed snow; now we sank over our ankles at each step. High peaks, impassable cliffs, steep snow-slopes and sharply descending glaciers were prominent features in all directions, with stretches of snow-plain overlaying the ice-sheet of the interior …. The moon, which proved a good friend during this journey, threw a long shadow at one point and told us that the surface was broken in our path. Warned in time, we avoided a huge hole capable of swallowing a small army.”

At one point they had detoured badly and had to drop down to Fortuna Bay, which is where we picked up their trail.

Standing at the crest of the hill, the point at which Shackleton would have seen the sea on the eastern side of the island and possibly evidence of the whaling station at Stromness, it is hard to imagine what must have gone through his mind, after a year and a half being lost. One big difference is their journey in May was through deep snow; we see barely a snow patch on this mid-summer day. What told them they were in the right place after thirty-six hours of climbing, across twenty-two miles of previously unexplored and inhospitable terrain, was the very civilized whistle of the whaling factory’s wake-up call.

“Men lived in houses lit by electric light on the east coast. News of the outside world waited us there, and, above all, the east coast meant for us the means of rescuing the twenty-two men we had left on Elephant Island.”

Clambering downhill, past the tall waterfall Shackleton allegedly rappelled down, we cross a wide, wet plain of saw grass and glacial melt. Rusted remnants of the whaling station still stand, though today it’s tumbling down and off-limits due to being filled with asbestos and flying sheet metal. Thousands of fur seals wait on the beach to greet us; they have taken over the place, aggressively chasing us down the beach as soon as we step onto the sand.

Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Cooper Bay, South Georgia Island

I saw South Georgia Island for the first time from about ten miles out, on a gusty, windy, blue-sky morning. Though we’d just sailed eight hundred miles east and north from the tip of Antarctica, giant tabular icebergs greeted us, nearly blocking the entryway to Cooper Bay. These big icebergs had broken off the Larsen Ice Shelf since 2002 and slowly made their way here, where they now sit grounded, sentinels placed as welcome mats or warning.

I love seeing a place for the first time, convinced – like falling in love at first sight – that it is that very first glimpse that makes its biggest impression. My expectations were vast. While I’d heard about South Georgia for years – that its steep mountain peaks were covered by year-round snow, that more than one hundred and fifty glaciers filled its valleys, that tussock-covered fields spread up the hills from the sea, that it’s wildlife was out of this world – I had no mental images.

Now I have them. Big ones.
There are only a couple hundred volcanic islands in the South and Mid-Atlantic. Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and South Georgia are the best known.

South Georgia definitely has the most exotic reputation, in part thanks to Shackleton, in part due to its whaling history, but largely for its otherworldly menagerie.

Strong morning winds kept us trolling off the rocky coast for several hours searching for the appropriate approach. When we rounded the southeastern corner into Cooper Bay the gusts diminished as if with the snap of a finger. While the tall mountains and hanging glaciers were astonishing, the best part for me – after more than five weeks among the whiteness of Antarctica – was the green grass running down the hills to the sea. But it was when I raised binoculars to my eyes that I got the biggest jolt.

The beaches were, well, how do I put this. I’ve never seen such a mass of giant living, breathing sausage and blubber amassed in one place outside of a crowded East Coast beach on the 4th of July. Thousands of fur seals, hundreds of Weddell seals and hundreds more of the giant, two-ton female elephant seals, spread over the rock and sand beach … everywhere. And this is nothing. As I stare, mind-boggled, my friend Pete Pulesten tells me he first came here twenty-five years ago, and a couple months earlier in the breeding season, when thousands of horny, multi-ton male elephant seals line the beach like bratwurst. “That is when this place is truly wild,” says Pete.

South Georgia was first seen in 1675 by a Brit named Antoine de la Roche, who’d been blown far off course while rounding Cape Horn; the next time it was sighted was nearly one hundred years later, by the Spanish ship “Leon” who named it Ile de St. Pierre after the saint’s day (July 1) on which it was seen. It wasn’t until British explorer Captain James Cook, on his second voyage around the world in 1775, that South Georgia was mapped. Unfortunately for Cook, he thought he’d discovered the southern continent, Antarctica. When he rounded the southern tip of South Georgia, in the opposite direction than how we’d arrived this morning, and discovered he was looking due west, he named the point Cape Disappointment. He claimed the island for his homeland, sent home a report on the island’s “rich seas” and continued on his way.

Rich seas? That’s an understatement even today. In just a couple of hours, here’s what I saw: Penguins (Kings, chinstraps, Gentoo and Macaroni). Wandering and black-browed albatross. Southern and northern Giant petrels, as well as snow, white-chinned, the common diving and Wilson’s storm petrels. The South Georgia (Imperial) Shag. Hundreds of sheathbills and kelp gulls. Special terns and a pipit found nowhere else on earth. The south polar skua. Thousands and thousands of seals (fur and southern elephant). And, bizarrely, roaming in the background, sizable herds of reindeer (it’s a long story, but they were introduced by whalers more than one hundred years ago and they’ve not yet been exterminated).

That’s all in just a couple hours. The sky was filled with flying critters, the shallows swimming with seals and the beaches chockablock with giant meat. (Lunching? Giant petrels literally disappear inside a dead fur seal, ripping its guts out with its sharp beak, such that the cadaver seemed to be flopping up and down on the beach on its own accord.)

My first impression? Walt Disney must have visited this place during his most productive years and created all of his magic kingdom’s based on South Georgia’s reality. Rugged mountains, covered by glacier and lush green tussock, rimmed by tens of thousands of flying, swimming, snorting, feeding, wrestling, playing critters. Everywhere.

Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Crossing the Scotia Sea

When we left Elephant Island midday yesterday we formally left Antarctica behind. I’ve been to Antarctica many times since 1989 and every time I leave it in my trail, whether by C-130 cargo plane, small sailing boat or expedition ship it is with no small regret. It is a spectacular corner of the world that gets in your blood like no other I’ve experienced. Remote and foreboding it can also be intimate and fragile. The only good thing about leaving is that I am already looking forward to my next return.

We have endured a remarkable stretch of good weather these past six weeks, and the luck continues. Strong winds were expected during the night, which never arrived. As a result, the Scotia Sea – lying just east of the Drake Passage, sharing a similar reputation for wind and storm – is rolling but not rough.

We are now following directly in the traces of Shackleton’s sail for freedom in the twenty-three-and-a-half foot long “James Caird” and I stand on the aft deck for a long time this morning trying to imagine being out here in such a small craft. The eight hundred miles took the six men in the wooden lifeboat cum sailboat sixteen days; we’ll do it in about two. They had no idea what they’d find when they arrived, though they knew there was an active whaling station at Stromness and that the prevailing winds would (hopefully) be at their back. We know pretty much where we are headed and what we’ll find.

They had sailed due north from Elephant Island in hopes of quickly finding warmer temperatures, which did not work so well, though the winds out of the southwest did push them at a sixty to seventy mile a day pace. But the cold continued. “The sprays froze upon the boat and gave bows, sides, and decking a heavy coat of mail,” Shackleton wrote about what he described as “the boat journey.” “This accumulation of ice reduced the buoyancy of the boat, and to that extent was an added peril … we could not allow the load of ice to grow beyond a certain point and in turns we crawled about the decking forward, chipping and picking at it with the available tools … the weight of the ice that had formed in her and upon her was having its effect and she was becoming more like a log than a boat.”

Fifteen days after leaving Elephant Island, they sighted South Georgia. Reduced to straining the last of their fresh water through gauze to clear it of hair from their caribou sleeping bags, they spent one last night just offshore, unable to land due to giant seas. When they finally did land, in a cove that ultimately did not give them access to the rest of the island, they crawled into a cave and slept … though Shackleton stayed awake as long as he could that first night to watch over the “James Caird,” still their lifeline, as it bobbed in the surf just off the rocks.

Just as Elephant Island lives large in history due Shackleton link, South Georgia – for all its magical allure of big animals and grand landscape – is part and parcel of “the Boss’s” myth. I’m sure while we are here these next five or six days we’ll catch sight of his ghost on several occasions.