In stark contrast to yesterday’s wet morning conditions, today’s weather was fantastic. Sunny, blue skies, calm winds, and no camera failures. We saw Kings, Gentoos, and fur seals and hiked the last few miles Shackleton strode on his self-rescue nearly 100 years ago. And dinner ended with a very tasty upside-down pear gingerbread cake. This day exceeded expectations.
I’m sticking with my minimal breakfast; it’s fast, and I don’t need to worry about getting to breakfast late. They’ve scheduled an hour between breakfast opening and the first zodiac launch typically but I need only 20 minutes to dress and 5 minutes to drink milk and orange juice. We follow this plan and are on the gangway by 8a. Several zodiacs have already driven ashore, and there’s no queue for this one. We’re in Fortuna Bay, which is sheltered from the sea swell, and the winds are calm, so it’s easy motoring between the ship and shore. I’ve brought all my usual gear again, as it’s all dried out and functional, and the weather’s going to be clear and sunny.
Today Melinda and I made two excursions to shore. The first is to see a small King Penguin colony (7,000 breeding pairs) about a half-mile from the shore. The landing site is peppered with fur seals (males with harems and cows with pups), but they’re all much less aggressive than the fur seals (“furries”) yesterday. Nonetheless, both Melinda and I pick up a “seal stick”, in large part because they’re also just good hiking poles. We pick our way among the seals, trying not to arouse the interest of any individuals, and we do a pretty good job at it. Our path takes us along the “penguin highway”, the route that the Kings take between their colony and the sea. We stop along the route to photograph some loafing penguins and some that are walking along the highway. The conditions couldn’t be better: it’s sunny, the sun is coming from over our shoulders, there’re glaciers and high snow-covered peaks in the background, and there’s lots of wildlife. We stop at several groups of penguins along the way and even staying back the requested 5m, I can get some great close-up shots (turns out, my lens is a 75-300mm zoom, not a 75-200mm as I’ve been saying previously). We take probably 45 minutes to reach the colony.
We’d been walking towards a stand of tripods aimed at the colony; when we arrive Jim, one of the bird experts on the staff, tells us there’s a possible egg exchange between two penguins. A pair of Kings will exchange the eggs a couple of times during the several weeks the egg is incubating, trading off the incubation duties with a chance to eat at sea. During an exchange the egg is passed from one penguin to the other to be warmed between the tops of the feet and the brood patch on the belly. It’s just like what you see in March of the Penguins except Kings live in a warmer climate than the Emperors in that movie; being exposed for 10 seconds isn’t going to kill an egg. The pair here have all the signs of being ready to exchange the egg but haven’t begun the deed yet. Melinda and I sit down for a while to photograph the colony and to generally just watch what’s going on around us.
While we’re at the colony a few juvenile birds, not yet fully molted, come up to the photographers and cry for food. We have none to offer, but the penguin is not afraid and won’t give up asking. It comes within a few inches of several of us and pecks for food on one person’s boot. I have some great close-up shots of penguin this way, and it’s kind of neat that they will come up to see what we’re doing.
About 10:40 Melinda and I leave the colony. The egg exchange hasn’t yet happened (we learn later that it never did happen while our party is at the landing site), but we’re interested in other things. Jim points us to a hillside where there’s been a sighting of a light-mantled sooty albatross. We can see the bright colors of adventuring gear on the light green hillside so it’s easy to see where he’s talking about. We wend our way back toward the landing site, visiting this hill on the way. The plains we’re walking on are terminal moraine for an active glacier but the scree is all pretty small, not huge boulders, so it’s easy walking. The walk up the hill is a bit of a challenge because of the incline and because the “seal line” is higher than we expect. My days of hiking in the Cascades or Sierras hasn’t set my expectations that a fur seal may be lounging just above the next mound overhead. I’m also pretty impressed that the seals can, and bother to, haul themselves this far away from shore and this far up off the plain. The reward for us, at the top of the climb (which is, vertically, 100’ above the seal line), is two things. First, we do see a nesting light-mantled sooty albatross, along with its fuzzy chick, at some distance. Second, I climb up a little further and photograph a nice waterfall, complete with rainbow. The view from this point of Fortuna Bay is also pretty impressive.
We want to be back to the ship by noon, so we head back to the landing site, about as directly as possible but without irritating too many seals. The seals are waking up more, it seems, so I’m just as glad to be heading out. Aboard ship we eat lunch (which ends with a chocolate sundae!), but the lunch group is small – most people choose to eat a packed lunch ashore. We sit with Doug and some other guests during lunch, and Doug tells us stories about other adventures and he and Melinda talk a bit about physiology of creatures.
At 2p we’re back to the gangway again, again to Fortuna Bay but on the opposite side. This afternoon’s plan is to hike the last about 3 miles of Shackleton’s self-rescue, following this path to the whaling station in Stromness. The hike is starts at a beach that’s kind of packed with fur seals (seems most beaches are) but we don’t stay here long. The route takes us up to a ridge that’s at 1000’ above sea level, and it does so in just over a mile. Yes, it’s a tough slog, but it’s a pretty awesome hike. The group is twice as large as the staffers expected from last year; we number 75, including maybe 10 of the ship’s crew. Counting us all is a challenge, even – we’re counted at the beach, but the staffers can’t get an accurate count (try counting a collection of cats…) so they give up. About 10 minutes, and 250’ vertical feet, into the hike the ship radios that they cannot leave until they have an accurate count of who’s here, so we stop long enough to be counted very carefully. 75. At the one-third point we reach “Crean Lake”, named for one of the three men in Shackleton’s final walk to rescue, and the guides posit this is the biggest group to ever visit Crean Lake at one time. We take a group photo, share some chocolate(!), and press onward and upward.
The ground we’re walking over is philite (filite?), a rock similar to shale, that’s metamorphic sedimentary rock. Each piece is small, maybe the size of a deck of cards, some smaller and some larger, and the sound is like walking over broken dinner plates. The route we’re on is this stuff in all directions – if the sky were red it’d be easy to pretend we’re on Mars. The stone is full of iron and has that rust color and a metallic sheen. Roy and Jackie, a couple whom we’ve befriended, agreed with me that this stuff would look great as flooring or wall cover. Apparently it’s a common stone; no need to get mineral rights for Fortuna Bay.
The last leg of the hike is down at the same steep angle that we’ve hiked up. The stone is loose beneath our feet and the trail, if you can call it that, is terribly steep and wet in places, so the descent is carefully controlled and has some sliding. It’s kind of remarkable that we can do this hike – I’ve never been on a trip that’d let people do something like this, because if one were to lose one’s balance and misstep one would fall an awful long way. I do appreciate that aspect of this trip – there’s an assumption of personal responsibility, and with it the reward for doing more adventurous and interesting activities. In this case, we simply don’t lose our balance and don’t misstep greatly, and everyone makes it down just fine.
We visit Shackleton Falls as we enter Shackleton Valley (he’s kind of a star here, one can tell), take some photos, and trek up a hill to visit a tiny Gentoo colony at the top. The Gentoos living here are adults and chicks but the chicks have their adult colors, but not yet their full plumage. The chicks still demand food, but the adults in the colony have little to give; it’s the trickle of new arrivals from the sea that have food, not the adults who’ve been around for a while. We watch as one chick insists for food so much that the adult runs away, only for the chick to run in pursuit. In a colony where most birds stand in place or amble slowly this running chase is entirely out of place. We also watch as one lone penguin walks down a hill, drops into a small pond, bathes, then returns to the group. Freshwater Gentoos!
During the hike, and a few times earlier in the trip, Ellen (whose house we visited in December for the book signing party for The Storied Ice) has asked that I put on a sweater or jacket – I dress lightly and she feels empathetic cold. 8) I started this hike with my shirt, fleece, jacket, and hat, but quickly removed all but the shirt because I was too warm. I layered back on a knit hat and gloves but kept it that way until we meet the Gentoos, where I put back on the jacket.
As we head down from the Gentoo plateau we plan to follow a few hikers along a trail about 200m ahead. I see a skua fly overhead of them, and make an open-wing display nearby. That behavior is what one sees when a bird is defending its nest, and the correct behavior is to retrace your steps to avoid upsetting the bird. These hikers didn’t catch on, but Melinda and I followed a different path some distance away. Our reward for smart behavior was to watch, after those hikers were out of the way, that the skua land and two fuzzy skua chicks ran out from the tall grasses to meet their parent. The adult bird coughed up some lunch for the chicks and we enjoy the view from some distance (Melinda carries the binoculars on these excursions so we can see pretty well). We also note that the wash near that point is littered with egg shells – likely the tailings of the skua feeding its brood.
Stromness whaling station has been abandoned for decades and because of asbestos is off limits at a 200m range. We look at it from afar and can see some of the rusty iron bits that are nearby, including some ships’ propellers. The place is packed with seals, it’s starting to snow, and we’ve been out for a few hours now, so we don’t dawdle. We head to the landing site and a very short zodiac ride back to the ship.
South Georgia Island isn’t all that big, so our daily repositionings take less than an hour. We’re now anchored in a harbor only a short distance from Hercules Bay, which is our intended morning stop. If all goes as planned we’ll visit a Macaroni penguin colony tomorrow, although only from the zodiacs, but we’ll land and see at least a few of them up close. After lunch we’ll land at Grytviken, the population center of South Georgia (which isn’t saying much). We’ll visit Shackleton’s and Frank Wild’s grave here (and drink them a toast), visit the tiny museum, maybe get a tour of the abandoned whaling station, and visit the post office. Should conditions be fair by evening dinner will be a barbeque aboard ship, including the staff at Grytviken. The morning begins with a wake-up call at 6:30, which is just 8 hours from now.
Oh, also, photographic milestones. I’ve taken 4,000 exposures on the trip so far, just now finishing the first of three 32GB SD cards I brought. Melinda’s filled the 2GB card for the second time, and that camera has now seen, since I bought it two(?) years ago, 20,000 exposures.