South Georgia is often described as the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean. It’s a title that speaks of the outsized attractions of this thin speck of an island, because when it comes to wildlife, South Georgia truly is the real deal. If you’ve ever considered the Galapagos Islands, the mountain gorillas of East Africa or a tiger safari in India to be on your wildlife bucket list, then you really need to make room for South Georgia.
Nowhere on earth has more seabirds or marine mammals. That South Georgia in the 21st century is such a jewel of the natural world is made all the more amazing by the fact that just a century ago it was a place of great violence against nature. The only species that seemed to thrive were the petrels scavenging off the bloody spoils of the whaling industry, or the rats that had stolen off ships to wreak havoc among the ground-nesting sea birds.
South Georgia today is that most precious of things: an ecosystem in recovery. It’s a testament the natural world’s ability to recover from near total destruction. Exploitation has been replaced with stewardship. We take a closer look at South Georgia’s wildlife that make this such an essential destination for many Antarctic tours.
What do five million fur seals look like?
When it comes to planning a trip to South Georgia, the island’s iconic king penguin colonies are most people’s headline attraction, but the first animals you’ll encounter when landing on South Georgia are its most visible signs of recovery.
The earliest descriptions of South Georgia described its shores swarming with Antarctic fur seals, or ‘sea bears’ as Captain James Cook dubbed them when he claimed the island for Britain in 1775. Within 50 years of that visit however, the fur seal was almost extinct on the island. It was hunted to oblivion, with an estimated 1.2 million seals killed for their pelts. But a handful survived, and today it’s thought there are a staggering five million fur seals on the island.
Fur seals are simply everywhere. If you visit in November, you can even smell them from your ship: the musky locker room odour of male seals claiming territory on the beach for the breeding season. By the time the females start arriving in December, many places can only be visited by zodiac cruises: there are simply too many seals on the beach to safely land.
By January and through the austral spring, the numbers only increase with the arrival of the pups. For many polar guides, this is their favourite time to be in South Georgia, when the coast turns into ‘fur seal soup’, with an almost uncountable number of adorable big eyed baby seals swarming around the zodiacs or carrying out mock-charges on land with a puppyish bravado.
By contrast, the pups of the southern elephant seal are like giant round self-propelling sausages. They’re born around September or October, so there are lots to be seen in the early season. Visiting at this time also gives the chance to see the last of the beachmasters – the massive four tonne bulls – jousting with rivals to defend their spots. It’s an epic, earth-shuddering sight. Watch out because they can move surprisingly fast given their four-tonne bulk: they’re often known as ‘sneakers’ for the way they can creep up on you.
Later in the season, you’ll see plenty of elephant seals wallowing on the beach as they go through their annual moult. That they endlessly belch and fart and look increasingly moth-eaten as the moult proceeds gives the lie to what amazing creatures they are: once in the water they are utterly transformed, and regularly dive beyond 1000m to feed.
King penguins galore
When you’re landing on a beach in South Georgia and making your way past the multitude of seals, you may not be alone. It’s common for your zodiac to be accompanied rafts of king penguins and be examined by them as you make your way up the shoreline. It’s almost impossible not to anthropomorphise them and smile as they waddle away having discovered that you’re a very disappointing sort of penguin.
Everyone comes to South Georgia for these penguins, and the expedition leader will do everything they can to try to land you at one or more of the biggest colonies: Salisbury Plain, Gold Harbour, Fortuna Bay and St Andrews Bay. The dozens of king penguins that landed with you quickly grow to hundreds, thousands and then even hundreds of thousands until your mind boggles trying to take it all in.
St Andrews Bay is the largest king penguin colony on the planet. A visit here is like attending the wildest music festival imaginable. From the beach you climb up the path of a meltwater creek where all is silent, until you reach a low rise and are suddenly deafened by the sound (try cupping your ears for the full stereo effect). There are perhaps 150,000 pairs of king penguins here, and almost as many chicks in their woolly brown plumage – all gathered against a backdrop of mountains and glaciers. The sensory overload it extraordinary – it’s like being in the centre of a natural history documentary.
For all the spectacle put on by the kings, they’re not the only penguin on South Georgia – or even the most populous. That honour goes to the macaroni penguin with its extravagant floppy yellow eyebrow feathers. Macaronis are concentrated in the north of the island, where they nest in high cliffside colonies with a dedication that’s admirable for a bird that can’t fly. Further south at places like Cooper Bay you can find some of South Georgia’s only nesting chinstrap penguins, while gentoo penguins with their striking white headbands can be found almost the entire length of the coast.
Home of the albatross
All your way to South Georgia your ship will have been accompanied by albatrosses. Standing on deck looking for the first wandering albatross seem to be an experience that every polar cruiser goes through. The way they so effortlessly cut through the air is a constant joy, and pretty soon you’re keen to start ticking off the species. The black-browed albatross, with its smoky nightclub eyeshadow is usually the most commonly seen. As you near South Georgia it’s joined by the grey headed albatross with its soft dove plumage, and the chocolatey-grey light mantled albatross, easily picked out by the bright white ring around its eye. But having seen them on the wing, one of the great pleasures of South Georgia is to follow them to land and see their nesting colonies.
The most famous location in South Georgia for albatross spotting is Prion Island. A wooden walkway takes you through the tussock grass where you can spot wandering albatrosses on their mud pot nests. Access is restricted (between 20 November–7 January the island is closed because of the breeding fur seals) but in the new year you might see younger birds participating in dance behaviour in anticipation of finding a mate. Newly hatched chicks can be spotted in March, right at the end of the visitor’s season.
Elsewhere, zodiac cruises offer plenty of opportunities to watch cliffside albatross colonies. Elsehul is particularly good for black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses. It’s a true delight to watch a sky thickened with birds, then follow the awkward transition when these graceful creatures come into land with a slightly ungainly shudder.
Songbirds and… ducks?
Albatrosses and penguins are just the most popular of South Georgia’s birds. The range of seabirds is just staggering. An estimated 22 million pairs Antarctic prions call the island home, and perhaps six million pairs of diving petrels of various species. There’s never any shortage of places to point your camera or binoculars.
For all this two of South Georgia’s loveliest birds are so easily overlooked but carry the most optimistic message about how a ravaged environment can recover when humanity gives it the choice. They are the modest South Georgia pintail duck, and the sparrow-sized South Georgia pipit, the most southerly songbird in the world.
In 2018 the island was declared rat-free after a five-year and £10 million eradication programme. The accidentally-introduced rats had thrived on a diet of eggs and chicks of the many ground nesting birds – not least the pintail and the pipit. They had been driven to the outlying islands but have now started to return and thrive once again.
It initially feels a little incongruous to spot a flock of ducks paddling next to some penguins or hear the trill of a songbird above the cacophony of a colony. But these are the truest signs of nature healing itself, and a fine reminder that from the biggest spectacle to the smallest bird, South Georgia’s wildlife will never cease to amaze you.
Ready for a wildlife adventure of your own? Swoop Antarctica are the South Georgia experts: Get in touch today and let us help you plan your polar journey.