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South Georgia is home to millions of penguins and St. Andrew’s Bay hosts South Georgia’s largest king penguin colony – the second largest in the world – seen here with the MV Plancius offshore. (Susan Humphris, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Members of the South Georgia Island expedition party aboard the MV Plancius. (Photo courtesy of Guy Gurney)

Harems of female seals and their pups occupied the South Georgia beaches. (Susan Humphris, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Thousands of penguin chicks (known as oakum boys) seemed unaware of their human visitors. (Susan Humphris, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Half the world's population of southern elephant seals haul up on South Georgia's beaches to breed and give birth. (Susan Humphris, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

An Unforgettable Expedition to South Georgia Island

Friends of the Institution recently joined Newt Merrill, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Susan K. Avery, WHOI’s President and Director, and Susan Humphris, Senior Scientist in the Geology & Geophysics Department, on a 16-day expedition to the island of South Georgia. Sponsored by the New York Yacht Club, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Royal Yacht Squadron based on the Isle of Wight, UK, this expedition took a group of about 75 to one of the world's most stunningly beautiful and isolated islands in the southern ocean. This is their travelogue, courtesy of Susan Humphris.

“The ship, MV Plancius, left from Montevideo, Uruguay, for a 6-day, 1430 nautical mile passage to South Georgia. Built in 1976 as an oceanographic research vessel for the Royal Dutch Navy, the vessel was bought in 2004 by Oceanwide Expeditions and completely refitted into a 114-passenger expedition vessel in 2007. We were accompanied on the cruise by an expedition staff of seven guides that included experienced polar naturalists, a geologist, and a historian who focused on Antarctic exploration. Lectures during the passage prepared the guests for the history and wildlife that they would soon experience, while the two Susans provided more general presentations about oceanography, deep-sea exploration, and the ocean’s impact on Earth’s natural systems.

“With 6 days and excellent weather to explore South Georgia, we were able to take zodiac trips and go ashore at 15 different locations. At every site, most of us experienced sensory overload – the rugged snow-capped mountains; stunning and unusual cloud formations; vivid blue glacier ice; the yelping, belching and snorting of elephant seals and their pups; the trumpeting calls of king penguins and the piping cries of their wooly chicks; and the smell of fur seals, hundreds of elephant seals, and large rookeries of penguins.

“Half the world’s population of southern elephant seals hauls up on the beaches of South Georgia to give birth and breed. Many large bull seals – beachmasters – with harems of tens of females and their pups occupy the beaches, often with hundreds of seals on one beach. Activity in the harems was high. Mother and pups were constantly barking to each other and skuas were trying to steal milk or scavenging the afterbirth of recently born pups. Satellite bulls (beachmaster ‘wannabes’) patrolled the shore looking for a chance to mate with any female on the edge of the harem, only to be charged by three tons of blubber when the beachmaster noticed the advance.

“South Georgia is also home to millions of penguins and St. Andrew’s Bay hosts South Georgia’s largest king penguin colony – the second largest in the world. An estimated 150,000 pairs breed here; add in the chicks and non-breeders (those molting), and there are over 400,000 birds either along the shores or feeding in nearby waters. Many an hour was spent watching these handsome birds and their comical chicks, called oakum boys because they resemble the young boys who re-caulked ships with tar and hemp rope (oakum) in the process getting covered in it. While there is a 15 feet limit of approach to animals, the oakum boys seemed unaware of it and showed only curiosity to humans.

“One of the most spectacular (and unusual) sightings during the trip was a pod of five killer whales, including a young calf, consuming the remains of what looked like a large male elephant seal, while thousands of seabirds, attracted by the activity of the whales, fed on the scraps as they floated to the surface. 

“For the ornithologists among the group, there were many special additions to their life lists. Four types of albatross repeatedly were seen – black-browed, grey-headed, light-mantled sooty and the great wandering albatross. On Prion Island, 8-month old wandering albatross chicks that had wintered over were testing their wings getting ready to take flight. But perhaps the most beautiful were the light mantled sooty albatross, some sitting on nests while others winged overhead in paired ballet dances. South Georgia has landbirds too: the South Georgia pintail ducks and the South Georgia pipit – the most southerly songbird in the world. 

“One of the highlight hikes that many completed was the Shackleton walk – the historic final 3.5 miles of Shackleton’s long rescue mission on foot across South Georgia in 1916. The hike begins in Fortuna Bay, goes up across a mountain ridge (for which snow shoes were a must this year), and down to the whaling station in Stromness Harbour. This was followed by a visit to Grytviken – the only site on South Georgia to have been developed for tourism – where we visited the grave of Ernest Shackleton, toasting him and all brave Antarctic explorers with a drink and pouring a libation on his grave. 

“After a 4-day passage to Ushuaia, Argentina, the expedition ended. Everyone departed with their memories and photos of an unforgettable experience.”