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.