Bowermaster’s Antarctica — St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

I miswrote.

The other day I suggested that South Georgia was like some kind of Magic Kingdom envisioned by Disney. Today I’m revising that; it’s more like something old Walt might have created after a visit while ingesting heavily of magic mushrooms.

Late this afternoon I found myself crossing a wide, six-inch deep pond on St. Andrews ringed by a portion of the 300,000 King penguin colony that bases here, both adults and their several-month old chicks. Most of the chicks were molting, meaning their thick brown down was itching and beginning to fall off, leaving behind an exterior shell that made them look like some kind of “Cousin It” penguins … half-tuxedoed, half covered by wildly sprouting brown tufts of fur.

Everywhere I looked it is surreal. Tall mountains, peaks dipped in snow. Hanging glaciers (though definitely receding) separating the green valleys. Six-foot tall tussock grass running straight to the sea. A wide river of glacier melt running towards the sand beach, lined on each side by penguins, with sizable fur seals surfing and feeding in its fast-running center.
I’ve seen big wildlife gatherings in other parts of the world. Migrating caribou in Labrador. Herds of giraffe running along tongues of hardened lava in west Kenya. The most giant of penguin colonies in Antarctica. But nothing prepared me for both the size and oddity of this mass. The chicks, who unlike other penguin species, are born over a four or five month range and stay with their parent for up to thirteen months, follow mom or dad for all that time … everywhere.

The King lays a single egg and builds no nest, holding it on its feet under a fold of skin. Unlike the smaller penguin breeds, Kings occupy their rookeries all year and travel several hundred kilometers to find their food, mostly lantern fishes which they find at three hundred to one thousand feet below the surface.

Adult and chick march nearly lockstep, braying constantly, bumping into each other like some kind of Three Stooges act. Two weeks after they are born they are nearly the same size as their parents, two and a half feet tall. Imagine if humans birthed the same way, with a son or daughter the same height as his father when he is two weeks old.

As the sun lowers behind the ridge tops the pond brightens and the brown down of the chicks turns golden. It’s not quite as bright as the brilliant yellow-gold plumage of the adult’s neck and throat, but getting there.

There seems to be lots of wandering among the Kings. Unusual among penguins, they are not a vary fidel bunch. I sit for an hour and watch trios squabble, usually two females fighting over a male. They walk in threes, two of them fwapping their short wings at each other, like big city dilettantes on a crowded street. While most penguins, and albatross are faithful to a mate for life, among King’s the divorce rate is near 80 percent. Blame it on timing. When they arrive back at the island after months of feeding, their partner may still be months away. Given limited food reserves they cannot afford to wait faithfully for a late returning mate … so …

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.