South Georgia On My Mind

My fellow spirited travelers,

I was getting antsy after three days on a ship at open sea. Though the program included seminars and lectures, yoga, meals and mandatory expedition briefings, my legs called for some movement on terra firma. South Georgia was the motivation for my choosing this particular expedition. I had decided on a shorter excursion, on a smaller ship, with a different company. My adventure agent, a sweetheart called Olivia at Expedition Trips in Seattle, had provided several amazing options that all sounded good to me. None of them were Quark (the operator of my current expedition). As the witching hour grew near, she called on the day of my decision to tell me about one more option to Antarctica, one trip that included South Georgia Island. “It’s my dream destination” She described. She went on to add that folks who come back having visited both can’t shut up about South Georgia Island.

The sentiment was confirmed by the first guide I met on the boat, Marla. She, with subsequent character witnesses, made it clear that this stop is how the guides chart their season calendars. The two Ornithologists on the ship were afflicted with perma-smiles. So it was in this context that expectations were constructed. Also building on the experience was the uncertainness which which we were to calibrate our experience. Certain activities were 50/50 in the chance of actually happening. Everything this far south is dependent on the elements. Weather can turn on a button. We got our first hint of this on day one at six in the morning. We popped out for a Zodiac cruise around Elsehul Bay to check out some Macaroni Penguins and Elephant Seals. Intended to be an hour cruising around the bay, our groups got called back to the Ocean Endeavor early because the wind had shifted and swells got rough. We wouldn’t ruminate much on the fifteen minutes lost, because our next venture out of the ship was to Salisbury Plain, a King Penguin colony.

The density of penguin bodies on the beach is comparable to an enormous music festival. Think penguin Bonnaroo, I half expected to see a stage set up with a penguin rock band playing under the glacier. Penguins, though, were made for the water. They’re one of the only sea birds to use their wings as fins. On land, they are incredibly awkward, their legs only long enough to shuffle around like a squad of winged, waddling jelly beans. Also, they have no natural land predators, so the beach is a safe zone, and humans are of the utmost curiosity. That was the first of three King Penguin colonies we’d visit on South Georgia Island. The population of the largest is over 150,000, a sea of penguins. Pun intended.

In rotation, we also visited three abandoned whaling stations. Whales were nearly killed off during the height of industrial Antarctic Whaling. In the first half of the 20th century nearly 1.5 million were killed, so many that the inglorious end of the practice in the Southern Ocean came not from responsibility/sustainability, but from no more whales. But they are making a comeback. And conservation has been a theme of our trip. Humans have significantly altered life in this part of the world. Rats, introduced by whalers and supply ships, devastated the ecosystem of South Georgia Island. Fortunately, the island’s glaciers did their part to compartmentalize them. In 2011, the South Georgia/Falkland Island’s government commenced an immense de-mousing of the island, which has been a huge success so far (the notoriously picky South Georgia Pipit, the world’s southernmost songbird, wont lay eggs if rats or mice are present. It just started breeding again on the Cumberland Sound). One of the particular features of Quark is their inclusion of science in their expeditions. We have several scientists (five marine biologists!) on board, available at any time to answer questions. Our vessel also gave passage to two penguin researchers from Ushuaia to South Georgia, so they can continue their doctorates.

Another major theme is polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. Among other endeavors, Shackleton made four Antarctic expeditions as crew member or leader and is buried in South Georgia Island. We toasted with him with whiskey at his grave on what would’ve been his 143rd birthday. Accompanying the guests is lecturer and historian Jonathan Shackleton and several of his family members and friends, distant relatives of the explorer. I have been grateful to experience part of this family’s connection to their predecessor and to witness the pride they carry in their association with a man who charted new territory. At other moments the deification has been singular, if not awkward. Shackleton, although a tough-as-they-come respected leader, was not far behind Robert F Scott in his capacity for poor planning. Only through the books that I’ve brought along and those hidden in the ship’s library have I learned the details of Amundsen’s mission to the pole, of Cook’s expeditions, of Peary and Nansen and Ross. The English school of exploration seems to have prioritized improvisation and lack of consideration for the elements. Innovation, especially those of foreign sources, seem to have repulsed the British Navy system. This idea is double-breasted because the great escapes of these explorers, stories that make legends, could have perhaps been easily prevented with just a few more measures of preparation.(Example: Shackleton abandoned his ship, the Endurance, after pack ice had crushed it. They made it to an island called Elephant Island and then Shackleton with four subordinates paddled 800 miles to rescue in South Georgia. However, pack ice was a known quantity at the time, he selected a ship wholly unsuited to deal with the pressure of the ice).

Of course this is all conjecture. At Ushuaia, we were moored along a ship called the Fram. This expedition is run by Norwegian company Hertigruten. The Fram is a significant moniker because the ship of Ronald Amundsen was also called by the same name. He borrowed it from Freidtof Nansen, possibily the most preeminent Norwegian explorer. It’s tempting to wonder what lessons the guests on that ship are receiving. It merits mentioning that Jonathon Shackleton acknowledges these elements, and between Amundsen and Shackleton there seems to have been a healthy respect. Still, along with dogs, the guy brought ponies to the Antarctic to haul sledges. Ponies. On ice. Think about it.

That said, there’s a compelling characteristic to be admired in Shackleton that is rare for an explorer of his era and caliber. When his Nimrod expedition reached ‘furthest south’ in 1909, they sat just 97 nautical miles from the pole. He could’ve been the first human being to set foot on the South Pole. He made the bold decision to turn away, plikely saving his own life and that of his team. “My wife would prefer a live donkey to a dead lion.” As my new friend on the trip concisely put it “I don’t admire people for surviving. The capacity of people to survive is legendary. There is no choice. I admire people who make a choice, when they have one.” This concept is celebrated in the consensus that Shackleton’s decision is still considered as one of the bravest in exploration history.

South Georgia’s unique flora and fauna is currently an involuntary microcosm for the rest of the planet. Because it is so isolated and segmented, scientists can easily track changes in the ecosystem. As the Earth warms, the base levels of life become extremely vulnerable. Penguins, whales and seals all eat krill. If the krill die out because of threatened plankton levels and human fishing (krill oil is a substitute for fish oil), all of those species are affected. It then becomes unsettling to think about what a large scale die-off would mean. We’re all complicit in the consequences.

Which is why I’m on this ship to begin with. To see this environment in the current state. The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, a self-formed body of Tour Companies that formed to promote best-practices, is an incredible body. They have set guidelines for biosecurity, sustainable tourism practices and regulate how often places can be visited and by how many people. Last year Antarctica had 30,000 visitors. They expect that number to increase to 100,000 annually in the next five years or so. Right now we are in the Drake Passage on the way to Elephant Island. Yesterday, a pod of Fin Whales swam next to the ship. Today, it started snowing. We’re all still digesting our South Georgia memories as we get mentally prepared for our blitz on the 7th continent. It would be a challenge to ascribe a favorite moment to our three days on the island. However, there were several little vignettes that will live in my mind for quite some time. Here I have to give credit to my friend Kristina, who taught me a failsafe method to mentally recording. 1. Close your eyes; 2. Inhale to the height of your breath, hold; 3. Open your eyes, breathe out. That’s how you take a mind photo.The first mind photo captured was on the stern deck as we left a lit up Ushuaia. The second came as I stood on Salisbury Plain, surrounded by seals and King Penguins.

The latest was just now, on the same back deck, surrounded by uncomfortably large waves and snow. With nearly three hours at St Andrews King Penguin colony, I gave myself ten minutes to meditate. Prodded by our expedition leader Cheli, I’ve been trying to be diligent about actualizing moments. It’s tempting to spend all of one’s time taking pictures and videos, but forgetting the time actually spent. It’s as if your memory becomes those digital images. The meditation will be memorialized by the sounds. There is a magical feeling when one can hear webbed footsteps meander by while 150,000 penguins are actively attempting to overtalk each other. When I opened my eyes, three Kings were directly in front of me, blankly staring at the curious humanoid slightly dressed like them (our jackets are yellow).

At Stromness whaling station, two intrepid events inspired their immortalization in print. The first was of an anthropological interest. I happened to wander down the beach a bit further than our guides would have preferred. When I became aware of my error, I turned to walk back toward the group. In my field of view was a grouping of twenty yellow/black clad guests taking photos of twenty yellow/black penguins staring back at them. Whom was watching who? Christian, a like-minded German fellow served as witness to the event, and together, we made up a reality in which King Penguin guides brought other Penguins to this beach to view rare, stupid humans like us. So goes the penguin guide: “There are yellow humans and red humans*. The red humans we see return from time to time. The yellow humans come once and then we never see them again. The have big machines attached to their faces and they click a button and it eats their soul. The only reasonable explanation is the the red humans lure the yellow ones here, and then take them back to that giant floating whale and murder them for fuel. And then the whole process begins again.”

*Our guides at times wear red on the outings.

In keeping with the anthropomorphism (If you don’t know me, I have a real problem assigning human behaviors and features to animals and even inanimate objects), I was privy to a special interaction that will stay with me for long past this and other trips. Through this beach ran a small stream in which a plethora of seal pups were having adolescent fun. In the estuary, a tight knit gang of six seal pups were messing with the penguins hanging out on the sand. The relationship was not one of danger, because the pups would probably get an eye pecked out, but of total shenanigans. They were like grandkids fucking with a crabby grandpa. They’d group up, then try and surround and distract a grouchy penguin, while the others suck up behind it. The penguins annoyance at the whole affair seemed to egg on the pups. Unsuccessful in another attempt, they’d retreat into the huddle and counterattack in bliss. My personal experience in similar activities tells me that the real purpose of this trick was to instigate the penguins and draw their ire, because I believe the real joy for these fur balls was in dodging with flips and jumps the piercing thrusts of beaks.

With these recorded gems I leave South Georgia Island as a lucky and grateful not-murdered yellow human. On to Antarctica!

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