South seas surprise

Giovanna Fasanelli | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 2
A nesting sooty albatross overlooks Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
The world's southernmost continent is a unique destination, but getting there by boat opens up a fascinating array of natural riches.

The powerful allure of Antarctica, the Great White Continent, is understandable, especially for those with an adventurous heart: it is wild, inaccessible, pristine, and dangerously beautiful. Yet man's attraction to the 'deep south' is nothing new.

Captain James Cook was the first to sail into these unknown waters, in 1773, driven by suspicions of a true Terra Australis, but was stopped by unpassable pack ice before sighting land. Unknown to Cook, they were actually a mere 130km away from land.

It was only in 1820 that confirmed sightings were recorded. Since that time, successive waves of explorers and scientists have visited this icy kingdom, mapping its contours and gathering data about its geology and ecology. This invaluable information has given us an understanding, albeit it incomplete, of what lies hidden there and just how this giant land mass influences our planet.

Another significant draw-card was the fruits of the seas bordering it: whales, seals and penguins. The enormous commercial gains that were to be made during the whaling and sealing era of the 1800s and early 1900s forced mankind to overcome the rigors of surviving in this inhospitable region. The oil within the blubber of these animals and the thick pelts of the fur seals contributed significantly to the advancement of a flourishing human society around the world.

But it wasn't just about the riches. For some, Antarctica represented their greatest challenge - to conquer it. This was the time of 'firsts': the first to the geographic and magnetic South Poles; the first to over-winter on mainland Antarctica; the first to penetrate the Weddell Sea; the first to cross South Georgia... the list goes on.

Modern explorers

Today, expeditions to the south are of a different nature. During summer, Ushuaia, the port town perched on the southernmost tip of Argentina, is swollen with tourists either coming from, or going to, Antarctica. These trips vary greatly in what they deliver: some ships do not make any landings; others directly immerse passengers in the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors.

In my opinion, the latter is the way to do it. To visit this wilderness and not get up close and personal with the penguins and the seals, to not hike up to where the albatross nests on the mountainside and look down upon the landscape, to not look up at a towering blue iceberg and feel your mortality, is to miss too much of what is on offer here. And this exotic experience must include the astounding gems of the Southern Ocean: the sub-Antarctic islands of the Falklands and South Georgia.

The Falklands have a convoluted and controversial history. They represent the foster child with separated parents, both fighting for custody.

Despite Britain having had occupation since 1833, Argentina believed this presence was illegal and that it had inherited the islands from Spain after achieving independence in 1816. In an attempt to reclaim the Islas Malvinas, Argentina invaded the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in April, 1982. It spawned the 10-week Falklands War, ending in the humiliating, forced surrender of the Argentines.

It is no wonder the Argentines want these islands, for the seas surrounding them are a wealth of seafood. With powerful, nutrient-laden currents sweeping across from the west, the waters are alive with plankton, krill, squid and fish. The fisheries of the Falklands, along with sheep farming, account for 95 per cent of their GDP - it is likely you've eaten calamari from the same waters the rockhopper penguins are currently feeding in!

Although many of the 778 islands have been destroyed by sheep and the introduction of pests such as foxes, rats and rabbits, some have been set aside for the preservation and regeneration of the delicate and wondrous local ecology. These are significant seabird breeding sites, especially for the black-browed albatross, with a further 62 species having been recorded nesting here.

Southern elephant seals, South American sea lions, and fur seals use the beaches and rocky shores for breeding. Up on the cliffs and grassy headlands, rockhopper, gentoo, king, macaroni and Magellanic penguins gather to raise their young.

The time of year you visit this region will determine the stage of the breeding cycle the wildlife is experiencing. In November, many of the penguins are sitting on eggs. Come January, these have hatched and the colony is buzzing with chirping chicks and squabbling, feeding parents. There are a whopping eight of the world's 17 penguin species to see and all display their own personality characteristics.

The rockhoppers are the smallest members of the crested penguin family, the Eudyptes, whose numbers comprise almost 45 per cent of all the penguins combined. Approximately 200,000 breeding pairs live in 55 colonies around these islands, making the Falklands the stronghold for the species. Sporting outrageous yellow plumes that sprout from behind the bill, they are fantastic, characterful creatures to observe - and certainly the most obnoxious and feisty of their kind. Opportunities for comedy moments are countless.

Unfortunately, as a result of catastrophic human impact (including starvation due to commercial fishing of a primary food source, squid), this species' population is in a state of decline. Numbers have dropped 34 per cent in 37 years, which doesn't bode well for their future. The small collection of bedraggled chicks drying off after a cold, drizzly morning are amongst the last carriers of hope for this incredible species.

Wildlife haven

The jewel in the crown of the Atlantic sub-Antarctic islands is the enigmatic, rugged island of South Georgia, once the most admired and well-visited.

The concentration of wildlife to be found on its fringes is likened to experiencing Africa's great migration of the Serengeti plains. Over half of the island is covered by glaciers and its numerous mountain peaks tower into the clouds, some as high as 3000m.

Once the site of a major whaling and sealing industry, much of South Georgia is now strictly protected. A rat and reindeer eradication program is underway, at a cost of millions of dollars, such is the ecological importance of this island. South Georgia is home to 30 species of breeding seabird, of which the albatross and penguins make up the greatest proportion by number.

One of the stand-out highlights of a visit here is the vast colonies of king penguins spread throughout the bays and inlets. Two very popular sites to see them are Salisbury Plain and Gold Harbour. Here, a wander ashore places visitors within pecking distance of the two largest colonies.

Waiting to greet them, without a flicker of fear in their peering eyes, are literally tens of thousands of trumpeting, flapping, curious kings and their fluffy chicks, known as 'oakum boys' on account of their down, which resembles the brown, tarred fibres once used to waterproof wooden boats.

There is often a healthy spread of blubbering, bellowing, sparring elephant seals and snapping Antarctic fur seals to accompany visitors along the way to the colonies. The collective sound of all these animals is a prominent feature of time ashore in this part of the world. The hanging glacier at Gold Harbour, as dawn light hits the face, is also a sight to behold.

A visit to Grytviken is a critical stop in the confirmation of just how productive the sealing and whaling industry once was.
As news spread of large numbers of fur and elephant seals to be found on South Georgia in the late 1800s, sealers from Britain and the United States flooded in and took almost everything within 100 years. As this industry died down, the whalers arrived and Grytviken station was one of six established on the island, marking the start of permanent human occupation on South Georgia.

Between 1904 and 1966 the total whale catch, comprising the five principal species of blue, humpback, sei, fin and sperm, was recorded at 175,250. Grytviken stands as an open museum dedicated to this chapter of the island's history.

Usually included in the landing here is a toast of whisky at the gravesite of 'The Boss', Sir Ernest Shackleton. Following the loss of his expedition ship Endurance to crushing pack ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915, Shackleton set out to rescue his men after he'd been forced to abandon them for four and a half months on the desolate and inhospitable Elephant Island, off mainland Antarctica. His epic tale is surely one of the greatest, most well-loved human-endurance stories of all time.

Visceral experiences

Unbelievably, with all this distraction, our expedition is only now setting sail for Antarctica itself. The icy wonderland beckons... and delivers. If ice is your fetish, Antarctica is your nirvana as it is almost entirely covered by the stuff - 99.77 per cent, to be exact. Endless expanses of untouched, snow-covered peaks track along the horizon and, at their base and around the ship, float the icy crumbles in all shapes, sizes and stunning hues of white and blue.

A Zodiac cruise amongst the ice is one of the most memorable experiences of the voyage, for the surrounding beauty defies description - it must be experienced viscerally. Witnessing a sunset, which at this time of year occurs close to midnight, is a memory to last forever.

The food chain in the Southern Ocean is notably simple: upwelled nutrients spawn great explosions of phytoplankton, which in turn feed the zooplankton of which Antarctic krill, a small prawn-like crustacean, is a part. It is the krill that support so much of life in these waters and almost everything feeds upon them, from the fish and penguins to the seals and whales. It is estimated to be the most abundant species on earth. This great bounty is evidenced by the vast numbers of all creatures to be found here - on our journey we saw humpback, fin and blue whales, leopard, Weddell and crabeater seals, and even pods of orca.

Down here, there are three new species of penguin to discover, two of which only breed on or near Antarctic proper: chinstrap penguins, which have minor colonies on South Georgia, Adélie penguins and, with a bit of luck, a lone emperor penguin.

Emperor penguins only breed at remote sites that require access aboard icebreakers and helicopters. But, occasionally, a far-foraging emperor can be spotted resting on an ice floe, which gets 'birders' hot under their collars, indeed!

The colonies of chinstrap, Adélie and gentoo penguins are enormous and, after spending most days in and around their nesting sites, their smell starts to stick to everything. The further south you travel, the earlier the development of the chicks will be, with some late breeders sitting on eggs. The chicks that still need the physical protection of their parents are at most risk from attack by skuas, a highly proficient predatory gull. In a single morning you might witness the brutal death of up to five helpless chicks by a pair of ruthless skuas - a sight which some sensitive viewers choose to walk away from.

The tales of natural beauty, perfection, savagery, hope, and of spectacular scenes and encounters could continue on and on. A solid expedition covering all this ground will take three weeks. But don't let sea-sickness be an excuse - there are pills for that. There are no pills, however, that will give you what you can experience down here: a doorway to heaven on earth.