Part 2 of our Poseidon Expeditions cruise to the Antarctic region was a visit to South Georgia Island. Today, Sher of Sher She Goes is sharing this little known gem that rivals Antarctica for wildlife and pristine natural beauty.
There isn’t much between South America and Antarctica besides the intimidating vastness of the southern Atlantic Ocean.
However, next time you’re near a map, trace your finger east from Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and then back west to the Antarctic Peninsula. You may not be able to tell, but you just traced an entirely underground mountain range that connects these two landmarks.
Well, almost entirely underground.
The only parts of this mountain range rising above sea level are known as South Georgia Island and the South Sandwich Islands, a remote archipelago lying over 800 miles from its nearest neighbor, the Falkland Islands.
South Georgia’s History
South Georgia’s earliest recorded history suggests exactly how harsh this remote island can be. More specifically, a full 81 years elapsed before the island’s first recorded sighting by the British merchant Antoine de la Roché in 1675 and its second by the Spanish vessel Léon in 1756.
Nineteen years later, in 1775, famed British explorer Captain James Cook would record South Georgia Island’s first landing in Possession Bay. Thinking he had finally found the long-rumored “southern continent” (referring to Antarctica), Captain Cook was soon disappointed when he rounded South Georgia’s southern cape and was once again facing west, meaning he had simply found a modest island.
To honor (dishonor?) this dubious journey, Captain Cook named this bend Cape Disappointment – a name that lasts to this day!
Captain Cook evidently got over his disappointment and immediately claimed South Georgia as a sovereign subject of England and King George III (for whom the island is named). This political designation would remain remarkably stable and continues to this day.
Beautiful Places in South Georgia
Currently, South Georgia Island is a popular breeding ground for different marine mammal and seabird species due to the nutrient-rich waters that surround the island.
Here are 5 stunning sights you can’t miss on your visit to South Georgia Island!
1. Saint Andrew’s Bay
The vast majority of South Georgia Island is filled with soaring snow-capped mountains more reminiscent of the Himalayas or European Alps than an isolated South Atlantic island.
With that said, South Georgia is spoiled with nooks and crannies that offer comfortable opportunities to see the immense and diverse wildlife that South Georgia calls home.
And, when it comes to wildlife watching, no landmark is better than Saint Andrew’s Bay. Located on the southeastern coast of South Georgia Island, Saint Andrew’s is a 2-mile bay formed by the receding Ross Glacier.
Although hundreds of elephant and fur seals dominate the beaches of Saint Andrew’s Bay, the real treat lies on the Bay’s southern end, where 300,000 – 400,000 king penguins breed throughout the year!
During the early 20th century, whaling was an incredibly profitable – and incredibly controversial – commercial industry. After 19th-century whalers decimated populations in the Northern Hemisphere, new whaling companies looked further south to continue meeting global demand.
Whaling centers quickly formed along the ideally-located coasts of South Georgia Island, and none was more profitable than Grytviken (or “Cauldron Cove” in Norwegian, named for the cauldrons that would reduce whale blubber to oil), which earned an inflation-adjusted estimate of over $100 million dollars annually.
Whaling was the beginning, middle, and end of Grytviken’s story. So, when a wave of political, cultural, and economic factors crashed whaling’s viability in the mid-20th century, Grytviken became obsolete and was abruptly abandoned in 1966.
Today, several shipwrecks and the rust-covered whale processing plant make Grytviken something of a mysterious yet captivating industrial ghost town – with several penguins and seals added for good measure!
3. Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Grave
An Irish-born British explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton dreamt of making the first trans-Antarctic crossing by land. He recruited 27 men to his crew, acquired his vessel Endurance, and set sail from South Georgia Island in December 1914.
After nearing Antarctica, the Endurance quickly became trapped and, eventually, destroyed by massive ice floes. Realizing his dreams of a trans-Antarctic crossing were crushed along with the Endurance, Shackleton conjured a new dream – ensuring his entire crew survived this harrowing ordeal.
His crew and their 3 small lifeboats eventually reached Elephant Island, an uninhabited outpost of the South Shetland Islands. Here, Shackleton made the risky decision to eschew sailing for the closer Falkland Islands and, instead, trust the prevailing currents and wind patterns as he set course back for South Georgia Island, some 800 miles away.
Shackleton and his crew were eventually rescued – without loss of life – in South Georgia after a remarkable 20 months adrift at sea!
Unfazed by his traumatic rescue, Shackleton continued exploring until his death in 1922. At his wife’s request, Shackleton was buried in South Georgia. Fortunately for visitors, his grave is a public monument and lies mere steps from the abandoned Grytviken whale plant!
4. Prion Island
Seals, penguins, and whales predictably dominate most discussions regarding the Antarctic’s rich biodiversity. However, the immense amount of bird life surrounding South Georgia Island is a birder’s (and photographer’s!) paradise.
Lying off the north coast of South Georgia, Prion Island is among South Georgia’s Specially Protected Areas, requiring visitors to obtain special permits before landing. Most people reach South Georgia via expedition cruise, who take care of this process for their guests.
Note: Only expedition ships designated as category 1 by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators are allowed to apply for permits to Prion Island. Luckily, our cruise operator Poseidon Expeditions is such a vessel!
Once on the island, visitors will absolutely see several seals and the occasional penguin. However, what is more stunning is the sheer number of bird species burrowing below and flying overhead, including albatrosses, terns, pipits, petrels, and skuas!
If you like everything you’ve read so far about South Georgia Island, Stromness – blending wildlife, a whaling ghost town, and Sir Ernest Shackleton – is the place for you!
First, there is plenty of wildlife roaming around Stromness. While king penguin sightings might be relatively small (by the way, “small” for South Georgia Island still means dozens!), the Stromness beach is loaded with fur and elephant seals.
Second, like Grytviken, Stromness is an abandoned whaling settlement. The ghost town of Stromness is so abandoned, in fact, that all visitors must maintain at least 200 meters’ distance from the settlement (for protection against flying pieces of the crumbling buildings!). While walking among this fossilized town would’ve been a neat experience, seeing the abandoned buildings, hangars, and propellers from a distance created an eerie yet visually satisfying tableau.
Finally, Stromness played a crucial role in Sir Ernest Shackelton’s rescue. When Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 23-foot lifeboat finally reached South Georgia after departing Elephant Island, he had reached South Georgia’s uninhabited southern coast. To finally reach safety, Shackleton and his men had to conduct South Georgia’s first ever crossing by land – completely unsure whether the route they were taking would lead them to safety.
After 36 hours, Shackleton and his men reached a small waterfall where they could hear the early-morning sounds of a whale processing plant coming to life. This waterfall was just outside the town of Stromness, and remains accessible today via a short hike from the beach!
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