Salisbury Plain: key information

  • One of South Georgia's largest king penguin colonies, set against a dramatic mountain backdrop
  • Home to the biggest elephant seal population on the island, plus large numbers of fur seals
  • A wildlife experience of overwhelming drama and intensity
  • Latitude 54°03'S, Longitude 37°19'W

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About Salisbury Plain

King penguins and elephant seals pack the beach at Salisbury Plain

The beach at Salisbury Plain

Salisbury Plain is the biggest open flat space on South Georgia, a huge stretch of glacial outwash backed by glaciers pouring down from rampart-like mountains and fronted by a nearly three miles (5km) of beach. It was first visited in the first bloody phase of polar sealing in the early 19th century, and elephant seals were caught here right up until the whaling stations were abandoned in the 1960s: the beach here is home to the island's largest breeding population of elephant seals. In the 1980s, its large flat area saw it put under serious consideration for an aeroplane landing strip.

The grassy plain braided with streams is a product of the retreating Grace and Lucas Glaciers, which has been shrinking with increasing rapidity throughout the 20th century. As more plain has been revealed, the numbers of king penguins has grown exponentially. In 1912 just 350 pairs were recorded but today there are more than 45,000 pairs, possibly resulting in as many as 150,000 birds at the height of moulting season including chicks, stretching in a wild cacophony from the plain into the low hills in front of the glacier. The colony here is one of the most studied in South Georgia. 

Wildlife at Salisbury Plain

A king penguin walks past a male fur seal at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

King penguin and male fur seal at Salisbury Plain

You do not have to go far to see wildlife on Salisbury Plain: the wildlife comes to you. From the moment your zodiac arrives, you will invariably be greeted by curious king penguins about to take to sea or returning from a swim of hundreds of kilometres to feed on squid and bring a meal back to their chick. It's a simple job to follow them from a safe distance as they walk to the colony: something you'll hear and smell long before you see it. It is a truly extraordinary sight. The main other bird species here is the brown skua, who predate on the chicks. South Georgia pipits are found in increasing numbers. 

On the beach, you can find large numbers of both elephant and fur seals. At the start of the cruise season, a few beachmaster elephant seals still remain along with juvenile males practising jousting. Large numbers of weaners (elephant seal pups) dot the beach at this time, along with male fur seals claiming their breeding spot. At the height of breeding season, the sheer density of seals may prevent landings here. By January, fur seal pups are everywhere, plus moth-eaten elephant seals performing their annual moult.

Visitor Guidelines for Salisbury Plain

All visits to Salisbury Plain must be made in accordance with the site visitor management plan produced for the site by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. 

Salisbury Plain is regarded as one of the trickiest landing sites in South Georgia due to its steeply shelving beach; where the combination of surf and winds off the glaciers sometimes make zodiac landings difficult. Visitors land at the western end of the beach – depending on where you are able to land it can be a walk of just over a mile (just under 2km) to the main colony. It is forbidden to approach within 10m of the main colony.

If walking on the hill around the colony, take special care not to disturb nesting skuas; safe walking routes may be flagged by guides.

NOTE: Ship itineraries and visits to specific landing sites in South Georgia can never be guaranteed. Plans can change as fast as the polar weather: decisions on which locations to visit are always made on the day by the ship's captain and expedition leader.

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