why south georgia?
If you haven't already been to the Antarctic Peninsula or Falkland Islands, it is entirely possible you've never heard of South Georgia Island. If however you've been south you are likely already under the spell of this remarkable island...
South Georgia is the jewel of the South Atlantic Ocean. These remote and wild islands, together with the Falkland Islands, are home to an abundance of wildlife. The Falklands have a rich and storied history, while South Georgia has rightly been called "the most staggering wildlife show on earth." After this in-depth exploration we are certain you will agree! Each of us at Galapagos Travel holds many special memories dear from our own voyages here.
The magic of South Georgia is due to its location - far enough north to escape the sea ice (providing year-round ocean access to the breeding sea birds and fur seals) and yet south of the Antarctic Convergence. This is where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans mix with cold waters from the south, merging into the nutrient-rich Southern Ocean, teeming with Antarctic krill - the lifeblood of the immense food chain. Here on pristine South Georgia the views are framed by towering glacier-covered mountains (snow is possible year-round) and enlivened by huge colonies of penguins, albatross and seals.
See four species of penguins, including huge colonies of King Penguins and the crested Macaroni Penguins (with 5 million breeding pairs). There are also 4 species of albatrosses, including the Wandering Albatross, with its 13 ft wingspan.
In addition to the seabirds, half of the world's population of Southern Elephant Seals breed on South Georgia. Like the Elephant Seal, the Antarctic Fur Seal is restricted largely to the sub-Antarctic islands, with ninety-five percent of its world population breeding here.
Much of this wildlife is as approachable as the wildlife of Galapagos too!
Traditional visits to South Georgia last only three or four days and are part of a longer itinerary that includes time spent in Antarctica as well. But, after many years of careful preparation and planning by local experts, we can now offer visitors the unique opportunity of 8 or 9 days of exploration - more than double the time traditionally spent - on South Georgia.
These extraordinary in-depth voyages are typically offered early in the season, when the arrival of spring releases South Georgia from the grip of a long winter. Spring marks the beginning of the wildlife migration and commencement of the breeding cycle for many species. Scenes of male elephant seals battling for control of beaches, and harems, and the intimate and beautiful courtship rituals of the different albatross, and the antics of the young King Penguin chicks who have just overwintered, will have you believing you are "on the set" of your very own wildlife documentary. For lovers of remote, small-ship expedition cruising, this voyage ticks every box you could possibly imagine!
Each season there are slight variations in the itineraries and expedition logistics. Following is our favorite voyage for the coming season: 15 days abroad the vessel in the Southern Ocean experiencing one of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles!
October or November 2019
Day 1: Punta Arenas, Chile
Our journey commences this morning in Punta Arenas (Chile). Here we board our scheduled flight to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. After a short 90-minute journey we are met on arrival and transferred to the pier. Stanley is home to just over 2,000 residents and is reminiscent of a rural town in coastal Britain. It is charming with brightly colored houses, pretty flower-filled gardens, a quaint cathedral and several local pubs. There is time to explore the town before embarkation. Excitement is in the air as we cast off, bound for Antarctica and the adventure of a lifetime.
Days 2 - 3: at sea - Towards South Georgia
We chart a course bound for South Georgia. This stretch of the South Atlantic is rich in its bio-diversity and showcases an abundance of astonishing wildlife. We will be joined by hundreds of seabirds including the wandering albatross. Giant petrels and smaller Cape petrels are also constant companions as we make our way south. Throughout the day our onboard experts educate us with a series of presentations about the environment, wildlife and history and the locations we hope to visit in the coming days.
Days 4 - 5: King Haakon Bay & the Northwest coast of South Georgia
Majestic snow-covered mountains greet us on arrival in South Georgia. We hope to navigate the ship into the historic location of King Haakon Bay. It was here that, 100 years ago, Shackleton and his men made landfall in their small lifeboat, the James Caird, after completing the perilous ocean crossing from Elephant Island. This dramatic location is visited by just a handful of ships each season. From here, we make our way around to the more protected waters of the north-eastern coast.
We can now indulge in an in-depth exploration, navigating into the bays and harbours the entire length of the island. Elsehul Bay allows for great Zodiac cruising and will be a possible location we will launch the kayakers for a paddle. One of the most anticipated sites in South Georgia is Salisbury Plain. The black sand beaches and tussock covered dunes are home to a staggering abundance of king penguin adults and their young. The rookery is estimated to have a population of up to 100,000 adult and juvenile penguins. This is just one of several such king penguin rookeries on South Georgia. At the height of breeding season, the rookeries are believed to have more wildlife per square foot than any other place on the planet.
The majestic ‘Kings’ are not the only wildlife on display as we explore the rugged coastline. Fur seals can be seen poking their heads above the water, the elephant seals enjoy lazing about the beach, while the skuas and giant petrels fill the skies above. Meanwhile, the albatross – our constant companion on this journey – is never far away.
Days 6 - 7: Fortuna Bay, Stromness, Grytviken and the central north coast of South Georgia
Fortuna Bay is a majestic three-mile long fjord. It was named after the ship 'Fortuna' – one of the original vessels of the Norwegian–Argentine whaling expedition which established the first permanent whaling station at Grytviken - further along the coast. History comes into sharp focus as we continue west to Stromness and onto Grytviken. From 1912 until the 1930s, Stromness (and nearby Leith and Husvik), operated as whaling stations and the rusted and ghostly remnants of these old stations seem out of place in such a pristine environment. This area is key to the Shackleton story and it was here in 1916, that Shackleton and his companions, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, arrived after their epic mountain crossing from King Haakon Bay on the south coast. This is after having completed their 800- mile journey by small boat from Elephant Island in Antarctica.
If the weather co-operates, we hope to hike in Shackleton's footsteps, the last few miles across the saddle separating Fortuna Bay from neighbouring Stromness. Eventually we enter the broad expanse of Cumberland Bay, anchoring off Grytviken – the largest of the old whaling stations on South Georgia. A highlight of our landing here is a visit to the grave site of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his loyal right hand man, Frank Wild.
Days 8 - 9: St. Andrews Bay, Gold Harbour and the eastern coast of South Georgia
Our next few days take us to St Andrews Bay and Gold Harbour – places that are teeming with wildlife including fur seals, elephant seals and massive colonies of the colourful king penguins. As with all of our landings we will exercise every opportunity to explore on foot with our experienced guides. Gold Harbour is so called because the sun's rays make the cliffs yellow with their light in the morning and evening. It’s an exhilarating location. Drygalski Fjord at the far eastern extremity of the island has been called one of the most spectacular sites in South Georgia and we think you will agree.
Day 10: Godthul and Prion Island
Our exploration of South Georgia is not over as we navigate our way back along the northern coastline. There are a few special locations we have in mind – including the old whaling depot at Godthul. There is a terrific hike here up to a beautiful lake. Nearing the end of our visit to South Georgia, we hope to enjoy a shore landing at Prion Island – which many consider the jewel in the crown. This location has been designated as a ‘Special Protected Area’ by the South Georgia Government due to the breeding wandering albatross colonies at this location.
Boasting the largest wingspan of any living bird, typically ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 m (8ft to 11ft), albatross spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Distances travelled each year are hard to measure, but one bird was recorded travelling 6000 km in just twelve days. We are exceptionally lucky to be able to attempt a landing here as the site is closed to visiting ships between late November and early January, due to the concentration of fur seals on the beaches. The boardwalks provide access to several observation platforms where we view nesting wandering albatross in close proximity. As we depart South Georgia, we pause to reflect on our time in this spectacular location and chart our return course towards the Falkland Islands.
Days 11 - 13: Southern Ocean
Our final days are spent catching up on journal entries, or perhaps downloading and reviewing photos in the multi-media lab with our photography expert. For some, it’s a chance to catch some well-earned rest after a busy ten days of exploration. The wonderful lounge and bar on our ship provides fantastic panoramas and is a great place to sit with a book and a hot drink. The educational presentations continue and we enjoy an entertaining and memorable voyage recap by our Expedition Leader. A particular highlight of our return journey will be frequent sightings of the majestic albatross, petrels and other seabirds as they soar above the ship on the winds of the Southern Ocean. Take the time to enjoy a quiet moment on the outer deck and reflect on a truly remarkable journey to the farthest reaches of the planet.
Day 14: Falkland Islands
We wake to the sight of landfall in the Falklands. Approaching Sea Lion Island, we first note the very barren and windswept landscape, exposed to the prevailing weather that originates in the Drake Passage. We launch the Zodiacs and go ashore to view the incredible diversity of wildlife found here. Three species of penguin including gentoo, magellanic and rockhopper, as well as southern elephant seals and South American sea lions are known to inhabit the area. King cormorants and striated caracaras are just some of the bird species we expect to see. As we cruise along the coast of the Falklands, bound for Stanley, we enjoy a special dinner attended by the ship’s Captain.
Day 15: Stanley, Falkland Islands and Punta Arenas, Chile
In the early morning, we navigate through the narrows and into the harbour of Port Stanley. A transfer will take us to the airport for our return flight to Punta Arenas in southern Chile (this flight is included in the price of your voyage). It will be possible to connect to flights to Santiago or other destinations in Chile. Otherwise, enjoy a night in Punta Arenas, or venture further afield to explore the highlights of Patagonia
Anticipated South Georgia wildlife highlights might include:
(these are the species you might anticipate close encounters with... far more species - 40 or more in total - are quite likely to be seen during the voyage).
South Georgia Pintail
South Georgia Pipit
Southern Elephant Seal
Southern/Antarctic Fur Seal
In addition with a day in the Falkland Islands you might add close-up experiences with:
Two 14-night departures are planned for the coming season: October 26 - November 9, 2019, aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov - our favorite Polar expedition ship, and November 7 - 21, 2019, aboard the RCGS Resolute - the most deluxe of the Polar vessels we work with. .
October rates start at $12,495 per person in a twin cabin with semi-private bath. These rates include the Punta Arenas/Falkland Islands group flights.
November rates start at $14,995 per person in a twin cabin with private bath. Charter flights from Santiago to the Falkland Islands, via Punta Arenas (although not stopping there), at an additional $995 per person.
Please call or e-mail if you would like detailed itinerary information, cabin availability, or to join South Georgia In-depth!
All photos by Mark Grantham, shot on South Georgia In-Depth: October 2015.