Anyone in the know about Antarctica Cruises will tell you that you “must” include this small sub-Antarctic island, known as South Georgia, in your Antarctica Cruise itinerary. But, if you’ve undertaken an even cursory glance through pricing for these sorts of Antarctica trips you would have found that they can be considerably more expensive that your shorter, 11 day, meat and three veg cruises.
Why South Georgia?
South Georgia certainly isn’t meat and three veg. It’s a full Sunday Roast with gravy and all the trimmings. At the risk of sounding terribly cliché you get what you pay for – and if you’re happy with your medium rare steak, with a side serve of carrots and pesky peas which just never seem to work with a fork, then that’s fine. If however you’re more a Christmas extravaganza sort of person – why have just the ham when you can also have a carving of turkey, grandma’s best salad and maybe a few prawns too. I’ll keep the gravy float too thanks. If this more your style then you need to keep reading about South Georgia.
It is a big ask I realise. Often South Georgia trips can be close to double the cost of a standard Antarctica Cruise. To a layman I can understand how this disparity seems reasonably crazy. You get to see Penguins and Icebergs on a standard Antarctica cruise right? So why would I spend double when I’m ticking off my main bucket list items already? That’s a valid question and one that I hope to address with the following ten reasons to include South Georgian in your Antarctica Cruise.
Firstly, it’s probably worth me addressing a few basics (it’s worth looking at a map of South Georgia and the surrounding region of Antarctica, the Scotia Sea and Southern South America as you read this). South Georgia is a small sub Antarctic island, located South-East of Ushuaia, at the Southern end of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina Patagonia. Being a small dot in the ocean it is a natural location for marine and bird life to concentrate, between long feeding journeys out into the wide expansive feeding grounds that are the Southern Ocean. The reason it’s so expensive to get to South Georgia is that it is so isolated and cruises to the island are considerably longer in distance than just a standard Antarctica Cruise. With cruise ships generally, fuel is by far the highest expense of the overall journey so it comes down to a simple equation of more distance = more $$.
Another important factor about South Georgia is its geography. It lies more or less on a North West to South East axis, part of underwater mountain chain that essentially connects South America to Antarctica – you’ll see the rim of this chain surrounding the Scotia Sea. It morphed line blowing out like a skewed speech bubble between Patagonia and Antarctica. This underwater rim raises it’s head above sea level every now and then giving you islands like South Georgia, the South Sandwich islands and the South Shetlands. As it turns out this underwater rim is also important to the wildlife of South Georgia, but more on that later.
Although a relatively long, slender island, its interior is surprisingly mountainous and this is also important. The prevailing Antarctic weather system works in a clockwise direction – meaning that the South-West side of the island gets battered by these formidable and often unrelenting winds. And that’s where the mountains come into play. These imposing giants serve as a natural wind break for the North Eastern side of the island and that’s the sheltered area that holds most of South Georgia’s most interested destinations. If you can try to find a satellite image of South Georgia – you’ll be amazed at the contrast between the icy and stark looking western side and the greener, genteel looking western side.
Ten reasons to include South Georgia in your Antarctica Cruise
As eluded to above the underwater mountain range separating the Scotia Sea from the expanses of the Southern Ocean are an important factor for wildlife on South Georgia. The rim works like an enormous nutrient collector, transferring via the sea’s currents all that amazing marine life from the depths of the ocean up towards the surface. Most of the animals towards the top of the marine food chain know this and they come to South Georgia to exploit its wealth of marine life.
Whales are a perfect example of this and although they spend most of the mid Antarctic summer south of South Georgia they tend to congregate in large pods and pass through the South Georgia area as part of their northerly and southerly migrations and either end of the Antarctic summer. It’s not unusual to see pods of hundreds of whales in the waters off South Georgia – something you can rarely see in many other locations on the planet.
2. Wandering Albatross
One of the world’s most spectacular birds, both in flight and on the ground and up close. As you possibly already know the Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird on the planet. It gracefully and effortlessly glides for thousands of kilometres throughout the Southern Ocean but most of them nest on South Georgia – or more accurately on a number of small islands just off South Georgia.
Unfortunately human activity long ago brought the rats and other introduced species to South Georgia, like many other subantarctic islands. These introduced species obviously cause widespread decimation of the local eco systems and bird eggs were easy prey for the rats. As a result only a few islands remain as the nesting sites for the Wandering Albatross, including Bird Island and Prion Island. The British Government is slowly trying to eradicate South Georgia of its rat population although this process may not be completed for many years to come.
As a result islands like Bird Island and Prion Island are obviously considered to be very ecologically fragile destinations. So much so that tourists are not allowed to visit this islands during the main nesting months (December to February) and as such if you do want to visit these islands it must be done early or late in the Antarctic season (combine this with the whale migration above at the same time and you’re probably figuring out why many of the South Georgia cruises are towards of the start and the end of the Antarctic season)
The Seal family is split into two broad families (with the exception of the Walrus, which has its one special category). These are true seals (generally swim with their rear flippers) and eared Seals (generally swim with their fore flippers). Whilst Antarctica is generally much better for True Seals (Leopard Seals, Crab Eater Seals, Weddell Seals and Ross Seas are all endemic to Antarctica), South Georgia does have the biggest true Seal of them all – the Elephant Seal (although it can also be seen in Antarctica).
That said what South Georgia does have and Antarctica doesn’t is fur seals – and lots of them. These guys are a lot more active and mobile than true seals and arguably their pups are considerably cuter. In recent years fur seal populations have exploded on South Georgia and if you chose a cruise late in the season you’re likely to see beaches crowded with adorable looking young seal pups. The pups are extremely inquisitive and you can spend hours sitting on the beach interacting with them. Again, whilst you can see seals in Antarctica and generally a wider range of seals, you won’t get the vast numbers that you get in South Georgia.
4. King Penguins
It’s peculiar that the two largest Penguin species are almost impossible to see on a regular Antarctica cruise from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula – the Emperor and the King Penguin. The two penguins with the yellow crest and long black beak – so similar that the average layman generally wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. The Emperor is the largest and hardest Penguin to find – generally having their rookeries far south in Antarctica, and generally inland, away from the coastline.
King penguins on the other hand are very much a subantarctic penguin. They are rarely found on Antarctica proper and almost exclusively live in subantarctic islands. South Georgia has some of the world’s largest King penguin colonies and in some locations like Saint Andrew’s bay the populations run into the hundreds of thousands. The scale of these colonies is simply breathtaking – personally I can’t think of anywhere else on earth where there is such large, concentrated populations of close to human sized animals, with the exception of human cities.
So this is a key opportunity here as the Kings are such special penguins due mostly to their size. The penguin species you’ll see on a general Antarctica trip are certainly cute but the size of a King penguin is much more imposing.
5. Ernest Shackleton Endurance Traverse
If you’re considering a trip to South Georgia then hopefully you know a little about this man. If not then do yourself a favour and go out and by Shackleton’s book “South” which is the record of his Endurance expedition to Antarctica. I won’t go into the details of the story here but suffice to say it’s possibly one of the world’s most amazing survival stories. It climax of the story also happens to take place on South Georgia where Shackleton and small group of his men sail from Elephant Island (just off the Antarctica continent) in a small row boat and are then smashed against the western coast of South Georgia in a story (remember what I said about the western coast earlier?). From there they had to traverse South Georgia’s considerable mountains to reach the Stromness Whaling station on the eastern side of the island.
Suffice to say they made it and the story has been infamous ever since. Even today the majority of the traverse is a challenge for mountaineers with modern climbing equipment. How it was completed by men using nails as crampons is a marvel.
So the traverse generally isn’t something that the average tourist to Antarctica is ever going to complete. The last section is sometimes completed as part of a cruise itinerary, weather permitting and it’s not only a unique experience to experience some of Shackleton’s famous walk but considering less than 10,000 people have ever done the walk, you’d be in rare company indeed if you do manage to do it.
6. Grytviken and Stromness Whaling Stations
I’ve already mentioned Stromness and its importance in the Shackleton Endurance story above. Although the Stromness whaling station still exists it is currently off limits to tourists because of asbestos dangers.
The equally, if not more so impressive Grytviken whaling station is located nearby and mercifully this station has been cleared of asbestos and can be visited by tourists. It’s also the administration location for the island. The whaling station still contains many of the machinery and equipment from its old whaling station days and is a fascinating relic of South Georgia’s whaling history. Often people are horrified at the thought of a visiting a murderous whaling station but it’s often the human history that is most fascinating. For example the local church (which is where Shackleton’s funeral took place) and the local graveyard (where Shackleton and his right hand man, Frank Wild are both buried).
7. Macaroni Penguins
Make famous by the Mexican accented penguins on the movie Happy Feet, these feisty little fellows are actually the most populous of all the penguin species. Many Antarctica visitors would probably find this fact quite surprising as generally Macaroni Penguins cannot be seen on a regular 10-11 Antarctica Cruise. Most of their rookeries are on small subantarctic islands, in very remote locations.
So it’s a special experience to be able to see these penguins on South Georgia. Their bright yellow crests on their foreheads certainly makes them one of the more handsome penguin species. They also live a little differently to most of the Antarctic Penguin species – preferring to have their rookeries in the undergrowth, often a significant walk from the ocean. It’s often quite an adventure to take the trek from the beach up into their rookeries.
8. Drygalski Fiord
Named by the second German Antarctic expedition this spectacular glacier littered channel rivals the fiords of Scandinavia. The narrow channel into the fiord is just wide enough to be navigated by an expedition ship and is one of the few places in the subantarctic where such a narrow and spectacular fiord is accessible to an expedition cruise ship.
Unfortunately the fiord doesn’t have any easily accessible landing sites so stepping ashore isn’t generally practicable. If it’s a nice day it’s make a magical location for a beer or wine out on the deck.
9. Jaw Dropping Landscapes
The Antarctic Peninsula has some amazing mountains in its own right, but South Georgia is different. The mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula are ice encrusted and generally inacceptable to cruise passengers.
The difference in South Georgia is that eastern side of the island generally isn’t ice encrusted. There are some significant glaciers for certain but due to climate change many of them have retracted well and truly away from the coast line – leaving large glacier hewn valleys which tourists can explore. These are relatively simple walks from the beaches and landing sites on the east coast of South Georgia and most expedition leaders will allow travellers to walk a little way up these valleys.
These walks are truly stunning. Not only do you have the landscapes of the surrounding mountains and the streams of cloudy glacial water winding through them, there is also a huge amount of penguins, seals and other wildlife throughout them. It’s hard to get ten meters without encountering some form of wildlife.
10. King Haakon Sound
One of the few attractions on the west coast of South Georgia – this is the location that Ernest Shackleton and his men can ashore in their little rowboat, the James Caird. Being on the west coast it’s extremely exposed to the weather and as it is a very narrow channel it’s not the sort of location most captains will be willing to navigate their ships. That said, in the right weather conditions and with the right ship it can sometimes be visited. I certainly wouldn’t get your expectations up that a visit to the sound is likely, but if you didn’t manage to get in here you would be in rare company indeed.