Article | Antarctica

South Georgia: Holy Grail en Route to Antarctica

Lonesome South Georgia is a Marine Protected Area and home to scores of penguins, seals, and albatrosses. Rich in rousing history and beautiful scenery, the mountains, fjords, and glaciers will leave you lost for words. Learn more in Dennis Minty’s article about this fascinating stop on our Antarctic expeditions.
King penguins south georgia mountains

© Dennis Minty

First Impressions

I felt a flicker of doubt cross my mind, thinking back to my book learning about elephant seals, as I looked up and saw this beachmaster, the size of my car, galumphing towards me. It moved at surprising speed considering its stumpy appendages.

“They are more oblivious towards people than aggressive,” the books had said.

It looked like one of those giant slug creatures from Star Wars, with wild red eyes and froth spewing from its toothy jaws. I scrabbled out of the way and it careened past, sending a tremor through the earth beneath my feet.

Southern elephant seal beachmaster south georgia

© Dennis Minty

Whew! The books were right—it seemed not to notice me at all as it sent up a spray of seawater and plunged into a breaking wave.

We had just landed the Zodiacs on the island of South Georgia, which has, according to David Attenborough, “the greatest concentration of marine mammals and seabirds on the planet.” That was easy to believe as we looked around at the scene before us. Fur seals, elephant seals, and king penguins by the thousands scuttled about the huge golden sand beach like a moving mosaic.

Large king penguin colony salisbury plain south georgia

© Dennis Minty

“Why here?” I wondered, on this ragged island in the middle of the Southern Ocean, about 2,000 kilometres from Cape Horn and 1,500 from Antarctica. The answer, I learned, is that upwellings and converging ocean currents feed the region's multitudes—from tiny krill to great whales and everything in between.

A British Territory in the Southern Ocean

Initially claimed for the British by Captain James Cook in 1775, it was annexed in 1908 and officially became a British Overseas Territory in 1985, known as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Argentina also claims it as their own. At the beginning of the Falkland War in in 1982, the Argentines taunted the British by raising their flag here. It was but a first step that came to result in their surrender just ten weeks later.

South georgia island mountains glacier

© Dennis Minty

Shaped like a ragged crescent, South Georgia is two-thirds the size of Canada’s Prince Edward Island with an area of 3,775 square kilometres—more than half of which is permanently covered in ice. With a polar tundra climate, there’s not a tree to be found. A mountainous spine runs down its length, with Mount Paget claiming the title of highest peak at 2,934 metres.

The mountains provide a windbreak from the howling westerly winds, so almost all the local wildlife lives on and around the more sheltered beaches and coves of the northeast coast. This, too, is where people once came to set up whaling factories, slaughter seals, and find shelter for their fishing vessels.

Shag rocks south georgia antarctica

© Dennis Minty

By ship, South Georgia is two days sail from the Falkland Islands, or three from Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina. Approaching from the west, the first landmark is Shag Rocks, sea-drenched pinnacles cloaked in guano from the South Georgia shags, prions, and wandering albatross. These outliers are the first pieces of land struck by the sea after thousands of miles of wave-building. Pounded by surf, they make an awesome sight.

Wandering Albatross

Prion Island, near the northern tip of South Georgia, is an important nesting site of the wandering albatross, the bird with the world’s longest wingspan. Responsible travellers are welcome to land there, but there are strict guidelines in place to protect the birds. Eggs laid in December and January become fledglings about a year later. In November, the chicks begin to get the feel of the wind under their long wings—awkward on land, but resplendent in the air.

Wandering albatross chick wings

© Dennis Minty

When they do finally lift off and begin independent life, they must learn to feed and stay clear of predators like sharks. As many as 40% don’t make it through the first forty-eight hours after leaving the nest. But if they do manage to get through this critical phase and become strong fliers, they can circle the globe on their glider-like wings.

The wandering albatross is only one of four species that commonly nest on and around South Georgia, the others being the black-browed, grey-headed, and light-mantled albatrosses.

Wandering albatross in flight

© Dennis Minty

On Prion Island, you can also find the South Georgia pintail, one of two endemic and endangered birds of South Georgia. (The other is the South Georgia pipit.) Both species were once hit hard by invasive brown rats, but by 2018, through a determined multi-year campaign, the rats were finally eradicated and there is now reasonable hope of recovery.

Pintail duck south georgia antarctica

© Dennis Minty

King Penguins

Many of the beaches on South Georgia are dominated by magnificent king penguins, second only to the emperor as the world’s largest penguin. Visiting a king penguin colony feels like being caught in the middle of an altar boy convention. The pairs of parents jostle about in throngs tending to their clown-like chicks, who look as different from the dignified adults as you could imagine. The chicks’ thick down keeps them warm in cold air, but it would be useless in the water, which is where the adults’ plumage excels.

Colony of adult chick kind penguins

© Dennis Minty

About 400,000 pairs of king penguins use South Georgia as their breeding place. One of the most impressive colonies is at Salisbury Plain, where the expansive coastal flat—a gentle beach backed by extensive tussock grass meadows—provides ideal nesting and chick rearing conditions.

Life in the water dominates their lives, as they routinely dive to a depth of one hundred metres in pursuit of lanternfish, squid, and krill. Remarkably, they have been recorded at depths of up to 300 metres! While immersed in the watery domain, they must be on guard for leopard seals, sharks, and orcas, all of whom find them to be appetizing snacks. On land, giant petrels, skuas, and sheathbills target the eggs and chicks.

Although strict rules state that visitors must stay five metres away from any animals, many of the penguins are so tame that they may approach you. In fact, the tameness of Antarctic wildlife is a marked contrast to Arctic animals, which are much more wary of humans after centuries of hunting.

Photographers and king penguins

© Dennis Minty

We never approach Antarctic wildlife any closer than five metres away, but curious penguins may approach you.

Macaroni Penguins

Alas, there is no relationship between a pasta and cheese casserole and macaroni penguins. Their name comes from the term for a mid-eighteenth-century dandy who liked to smarten himself up by sticking feathers in his hat—as in, “Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony. He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.”

Macaroni penguins pair south georgia

© Dennis Minty

With over 1,000,000 pairs, they are even more abundant on South Georgia than king penguins. As though dressed for a masquerade ball with red eyes and yellow and black plumes, they wobble and hop up and down the tussock grass slopes in clear, damp paths that have been tromped for generations. Both parents incubate the eggs, exchanging roles every week or so. A little mutual preening at the shift change keeps the pair bond strong.

Macaroni penguins preening

© Dennis Minty

Elephant Seals

At twice the size of a walrus and six times that of a polar bear, the southern elephant seal bears the title of largest marine mammal that is not a whale. The biggest bulls are around 4,000 kilograms and nearly six metres long from their bulbous proboscis to the tip of their hind flippers. Compared to the bulls, the females are diminutive at about one third the size of the males, but still a hefty 600 or 700 kilos.

South georgia elephant seal bull and harem

© Dennis Minty

I recall standing a safe distance away as two bulls scrapped with each other. They were amazingly bendy as they rose up and lunged at each other, baring their impressive canines in the process. Half their body length towered above me! Their deeply scarred and bloody throats indicated that this was more than merely a one-time event.

Jousting bull elephant seals

© Dennis Minty

All the jousting among the bulls is about attracting and maintaining a harem of females with whom to breed. A dominant beachmaster will have several dozen females in its harem. Less dominant males will linger on the fringes of a group waiting for the big fellow to be distracted and then seize the moment to initiate his own genetic line. The beachmaster might remain onshore without food for up to three months, so intent is he is on breeding with and defending his harem.

Bull and cow elephant seals

© Dennis Minty

The elephant seal’s huge black eyes are adapted for the low light of their hunting ground: the ocean deep. Satellite tracking has helped us learn that they spend little time at the sea surface and instead dive repeatedly for periods of about twenty minutes, to depths up to 1,000 metres, where they hunt for squid and fish. The deepest recorded dive for one of these behemoths is 2,388 metres! These depths and durations even exceed most cetaceans. Females tend to be more shallow divers than the males.

Weaner juvenile elephant seal

© Dennis Minty

The pups gather among themselves and stay clear of the thundering males, which occasionally crush them in their rushes. After they are weaned, the pups are known as weaners (not wieners!) and look like Walt Disney creations with their large eyes and smiley faces. They seem to love body contact with each other and sometimes even with the odd visitor who sits down seal-like on the beach nearby. I once left my tripod erected for just a few minutes and a curious weaner came over, rubbed against it, and destroyed it in the process.

Fur Seals

Ninety-five per cent of the world population of Antarctic fur seals breed, rest, and molt on South Georgia, probably between 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 of them. But through the 1800s and early 1900s, they were brought to the brink of extinction by a commercial hunt, driven by the demand for their prized pelts that were used to make fashionable clothing. The population appears to be declining again now, perhaps due to climate change and diminishing food supply.

Fur seals south georgia antarctica

© Dennis Minty

Like the elephant seal, there is a remarkable difference between the sexes with the males being about four times the size of the females. The bulls create harems of twenty or so females which they defend aggressively.

History of South Georgia

At sites such as Stromness, Gritviken, and Leith Harbour, you can see the rusting ruins of the infamous Antarctic whaling industry. The scale of it will haunt your thoughts for weeks. At Grytviken, for example, as many as twenty-five great whales per day were hauled up and flensed.

Stromness South Georgia whaling station

© Dennis Minty

Stromness, South Georgia

In total, over the life of the industry, about 175,000 whales were taken to feed the global demand for whale products, the most important of which was lamp oil. The industry began at Grytviken in 1904 and ended (mostly) in 1994 when the International Whaling Commission established the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary within which whaling was banned.

Gritviken South Georgia

© Dennis Minty

Gritviken, South Georgia

Sir Ernest Shackleton is perhaps the most important historic figure associated with South Georgia Island. Although he failed to accomplish his 1914 mission to cross the continent of Antarctica on foot, he succeeded in saving all twenty-eight members of his stalwart crew from near death after two years in one of the world’s coldest and most remote places.

I have looked upon the little cove on Elephant Island where he left most of his men. How they found shelter and food there to sustain them is beyond my imagination.

Elephant Island Antarctica icebergs

© Dennis Minty

Elephant Island

Leaving them behind to wait for rescue, Shackleton set sail in a twenty-two-foot lifeboat with five other men and sailed nearly 1,300 kilometres across one of the most violent seas on earth to South Georgia. After landing on the uninhabited southwest side of the island, he climbed over forbidding mountains that no one had ever traversed before. He took two men with him and used the most primitive of equipment, including boots with carpenter’s screws twisted into the soles to grip the icy terrain.

The harrowing journey took them thirty-six hours to reach the whaling station at Stromness, where he organized a mission back to Elephant Island to save his men, four months after he had left them. Sir Ernest is buried at Grytviken and it is inspiring to visit his gravesite and raise a glass to his stamina and compassion.

Drygalski Fjord

On our own journey, we faced a katabatic wind as we entered Drygalski Fjord near the southern tip of South Georgia. (That’s the name for the mighty, cold wind that sometimes blows down off the slope of a glacier.)

The wind-lop on the ocean surface was not an impediment to the ship, but on the upper deck the gale was fierce. Nonetheless, that’s where everyone clustered as we sailed into the gusts within the dramatic, steep-sided fjord. From my days of using a fountain pen, I remember a deep blue ink that was the same colour as the water.

Drygalski Fjord South Georgia mountains

© Dennis Minty

Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia

The ship reached what seemed a stone’s throw from the glacier’s face, because the water was plenty deep. Hundreds of Antarctic terns flitted near the surface feeding on the small creatures brought up by the local upwelling.

Other lesser glaciers clung to the sides of the fjord with small waterfalls spilling from them and being whipped away by the gale. Towards the seaward terminus of the glaciers, the slow downhill creep speeds up slightly, causing the ice to stretch and break into impressive pinnacles known as seracs.

Glacial seracs ice glacier Antarctica

© Dennis Minty

Leaving South Georgia

As we left South Georgia to move on to continental Antarctica and even more adventures, I realized how remarkable it was to find such a concentration of life on this cold, remote island, all thanks to the bounty of the surrounding waters.

That’s exactly why South Georgia is now at the centre of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area, which was established in 2012 to conserve the region’s incredible biodiversity. With an area five times the size of the United Kingdom, the area is a wildlife “hotspot” in a very cold place!

For me, a trip through the Southern Ocean to Antarctica would not be complete without a healthy dose of South Georgia along the way.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.