St Andrews Bay: Key information
- Over 150,000 pairs of king penguins plus chicks make this South Georgia's largest king penguin colony
- One of the busiest elephant seal breeding beaches on the island
- An overwhelming wildlife experience, surrounded by mountains and glaciers
- Latitude 54°26'S, Longitude 36°11'W
Explore St Andrews Bay with Swoop
About St Andrews Bay
St Andrews Bay lies open to the sea around 30km south of Grytviken. Its setting is tremendous, with a wide plain backed by four snowy peaks over 200m: Mounts Root, Kling, Nordenskjold and Brooker. Glaciers edge their way onto the grassy and tussocky plain that's home to several hundred thousand king penguins.
The penguins here are among the best studied – and most filmed in South Georgia. When you land, look for the simple wooden hut in the lee of the cliff at the northern edge of the beach. Once home to scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, it now provides temporary housing to film crews including those from the BBC and National Geographic.
The effects of climate change are sadly all to visible in St Andrews Bay. The lagoon in the centre of the colony was created by the Cook Glacier which has retreated over 200m in recent decades, while the Heaney Glacier facing the zodiac landing zone has retreated over 1km. The resulting expansion of the beach and plain is what has allowed the penguin colony to grow: in the 1920s there were perhaps only 1100 birds here.
The king penguins of St Andrews Bay
Everyone wants to land at St Andrews Bay for just one thing: king penguins. Around 150,000 pairs breed here, making this the biggest single congregation of the species on the island – and probably on the entire planet. There is a constant traffic of adult birds coming and going from the sea to feed their young, but when you add in the chicks that are present throughout the year, whenever you visit you are likely to be confronted with upwards of a quarter of a million penguins.
The sheer scope of the colony can be overwhelming. On approaching from the landing site, you climb up a small hill that initially shields its sounds. When you get to the top, the sound of the penguins hits you full force. Cup your ears for the full stereo effect: it's like being at a rock concert.
It's almost impossible not to go camera crazy here, but take your time to drink in the view: both the scale of the colony from the distance, and observing the behaviour of individual birds. In no time you'll pick out the whistles of the chicks asking for a meal, the wheezy trumpeting of the adults with a belly full of squid, and pick out the sullen demeanour of those on an enforced fast while they carry out their annual moult into new plumage.
Wildlife at St Andrews Bay
While king penguins undoubtedly steal the show at St Andrews Bay, there is plenty of other action for the wildlife enthusiast. The beach is one of the most popular in South Georgia for elephant seals. Around 6000 females haul up to give birth at the end of spring, so there are plenty of pups to be seen in the early season. St Andrews Bay also attracts fur seals in large numbers, making the beach busy at any time of year.
Other confirmed breeding birds are brown skuas and snowy sheathbills, both of whom scavenge among the colony and near in the tussock. Visiting giant petrels do likewise on the beach. Antarctic terns also nest here: both they and the skuas will noisily protest if you accidentally walk too near their camouflaged nests.
Visitor guidelines for St Andrews Bay
All visits to St Andrews Bay must be made in accordance with the site visitor management plan produced by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Expedition teams always do their best to land at St Andrews Bay, but the site's geography can make this a tricky proposition in poor weather due to the exposed nature of the bay. Zodiacs land at the north end of the bay, and a small river of glacial outwash must be crossed to reach the colony: if the river is high, landings may not be possible.
It is forbidden to approach within 10m of the edge of the colony. Take care not to disturb moulting penguins on their enforced four-week fast, and be aware of nesting skuas and terns on the plain.
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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