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South Georgia - Rosita Harbour and Salisbury Plain

The Europa hold her ground overnight at Rosita Harbour, still facing 40kn of wind gusts. With the weather slightly getting more stable and easing down in the morning, from the stern of the ship, we can see the rock pinnacles in the Bay of Isles, silhouetted by an orange and red glow as the sun rose to the northwest. The sea was relatively calm and the small waves glistened in the sunlight as the wind poured down off South Georgia’s high peaks. By the morning, the wind was sitting at about 24 knots whilst we enjoyed a warm breakfast looking out at the sunrise. As it drew closer to the time of landing, gusts pushed the numbers up to the low 30’s. We looked to the beach at Rosita Bay, where we intended on spending the next few hours, carefully watching the shoreline through the binoculars for breakers on the beach. We could hear the young fur seal pups howling and growling at one another all around. Here at Rosita Bay, there are often less fur seals at this late stage in the season, whilst is a favoured place for them at the very start of the breeding period. Nevertheless, no doubt that there were enough pups to entertain us as they enjoy playing with the zodiacs and squabbling with the occasional king and gentoo penguins.  

Soon the rubber boats are launched in a wind that blows from land, so there’s not enough sea space to build up any fierce waves, giving a calmer appearance than the anemometer was reading.  

From the ship it was feeling hopeful for a pleasant landing as the sun shone down on the steep cliffs which lined the bay either side of us. Within these sea cliffs, and forming the stacks on the promontories and islands, we could see the horizontal layering of the Cumberland Bay Formation. This is the geological formation which we find at most of South Georgia, where deposits of re-worked volcanic rocks accumulated in shallow seas adjacent to volcanoes. There is a repeating cycle of light and dark deposits visible in the cliffs where changes in sediment type occurred due to subsea landslide events. Later these have been thrust up high to form the mountains of South Georgia, and southern Patagonia.  

The ride into the beach was not direct due to the kelp forests that form a canopy on the surface of the sea, stretching up for the light. Upon arrival at the beach the playful nature of the seals was clear as they porpoised around the zodiac, squealed and chasing after one another. Whilst waiting for the other zodiacs to arrive, the pups were even seen chasing a lonely Gentoo penguin. Not a meal for them, just a game.  

We set off on our walk up the ice-free slopes behind the landing beach. The landscape was rich with Tussock grass, Greater burnet and mosses in the lower levels.  

Even up the hills Fur seals enjoy using the tussock grass mounds as pedestals to rest on and sleep, which gives rise to the flat-topped shape, with long grass draped from the sides. These are also used by many of the nesting birds in the area. We saw numerous giant petrels, kelp gulls and endemic pipits. The pipits are growing in numbers since the eradication of the invasive rats to South Georgia, originally brought by the sealers and whalers. These little brown birds, like most of the smaller birds who nest here, use burrows at the base of the tussock grass for nests. It is amazing to think that South Georgia, still located in the Antarctic Convergence Area, over 1200nm from Falkland Islands, about 800nm fro Cape Horn is home for such a sort of bird. 

Hiking up over the shattered rock we reach a vantage point over the bay and the Europa anchored in the bay. It is always a pleasure to see her from the outside and be reminded of the vessel we have sailed here on.  

The ground we walked over was an old glaciated landscape with a smoothed hillside carved by the immense power of layers of ice scouring the surface over thousands of years. Since the last glacial maximum, about 18,000 years ago, the glaciers have retreated revealing this landscape. We can see the fine material, formed from the grinding mill of the glacier, and larger pieces carried down as the ice bulldozes rocks from the higher ground. In more recent times water has squeezed into any gap in the rock and frozen causing expansion, thus pushing the rock open, splitting it along tiny fracture lines. This process, called frost shattering, is taking place across all cold and polar regions, and contributes to the large scree slopes we see at the base of the towering cliffs. Inland from us lies the higher glaciated mountains of South Georgia which still stand tall and white, layered of ice and snow.  

The weather remained kind to us as we hiked across the loose rocky ground, blasted by the occasional gust, but enjoying the sun which contrasted the wet conditions from yesterday. We made it to a waterfall at the head of the gorge with a stream leading up to it which was vibrant with green mosses. The presence of water in this moon-like landscape allows life to flourish on harsh and barren terrain.  

Meandering our way down the slope to the river bed leading to the shoreline again, this time at the other side of the bay from our drop off site. Before reaching the beach, we encountered another leucistic Fur seal pup. These novelties certainly attract the camera lenses of the group as we pass by enjoying the scenery and wildlife surrounding us. Back at the landing site we could hear the tuneful pipits and watch them flutter among the beached kelp. There were some discussions around the brown and bleached-white rounded material seen washed up. Some elongate. Others in balls. Was it rocks, some asked? Others responded with some animal suggestions. These were in fact parts of the kelp which had washed up on the shore from the large forests on South Georgia’s coastline. We would soon get very familiar with the kelp during the lifting of Europa’s anchors.   

With everyone back on board and the zodiacs hoisted onto the sloop deck it was time to heave the anchors and head to Salisbury Plain. It was not clear when the anchors were at the waterline due to the piles of kelp attached to them.  

For quite a while, ropes, saws, crowbars in the hands of deckhands and guides hanging on ropes at the bow, could clear them, and the ship could resume her way.

After a delicious lunch with lovely rosemary focaccia, we had arrived at Salisbury Plain. Quite an exposed, straight coastline in Bay of Isles. This area is the largest flat area in South Georgia and for this reason it was mapped in detail in 1984 for potential use as a runway. A number of studies have also been carried out from here during the 1940’s and 50’s into understanding the life cycle of King penguins, which differs from that of the rest of birds, thus puzzling humans for many years. This large open expanse of glacial outwash plains is a favourite for them and as a result boasts South Georgia’s second largest king penguin colony. It is often in the favourites of landing sites due to its wildlife and the landscape scenery. It is for this reason that we tried  as much as we could to get everyone ashore. 

Scouting party dressed on their dry-suits, head ashore and check out the beach for any chance of a landing. Many were sure that it would be an easy job as it appeared calm from the ship. However, there was some experience on board that told us that this site would defiantly not be an easy landing. And indeed, there was too much surge at the landing site to get ashore at the moment. Back on board it was worth to wait for the conditions to calm, still a chance to go ashore before dinner. It was such a beautiful afternoon with the low autumn light cast over the vibrant greens of the glacial outwash plains that it seemed unfathomable that we would not be able to get ashore.  

Well, 15:00h, let’s give it a second try… The experience was memorable as we offloaded into the rollers on the shore, timing our exit from the zodiac with precision to avoid an unwanted swimming lesson. The guides held the zodiacs with the bow facing into the breaking swell. After a rapid offload of people, the drivers coordinated with the guides to start the engine and pick a moment to accelerate into the waves and away from the beach. The operation worked well with a few even successfully keeping their feet dry.  

It became peaceful once again as we strolled along the king penguin filled beach. We were strangers, intruders to their world and they were intrigued by us. The rounded cobbled beach rose up into a muddy squelchy zone where the penguins plodded along returning from their fishing trips and back to find their partners and chicks among the tenth’s of thousands of other king penguins. The next zone up was an expanse rich with green mosses and grasses, highlighted by the now low sun coming from the west. It was a glorious sight.  

Framing the scene, Grace and Lucas glaciers, the carvers of this landscape, and beyond and the jagged peaks reaching into the clouds in the background.  

The smell became more and more pungent as we walk east along the beach. We could have sensed without our eyes that we were nearing the second largest King penguin colony in the island, and one of the largest inn the world. The densely packed penguins are a beautiful sight with their vibrant oranges and yellows bursting out of the black and white mosaic in front of us. The young chicks still in their brown fluffy feathers were seen at all stages of the life cycle: as small chicks, larger ones in crèches and even some eggs being incubated on the feet of the parents, under the tummy flap. 

Flying above their heads and diving into the rookery, the predators and scavengers, Skuas and Giant petrels.  

After a wonderful time filling our cameras and observing the surroundings, it was time for the dreaded zodiac journey back to the safety of Europa. We donned our lifejackets at the landing site. We moved to either side of where the zodiacs were due to come in to the beach, ready to make a dash for it. First it was the galley team who had to return. A priority for all of us to get them back safely! May I also add at this point what a well-received dinner it was of pulled pork wraps with lime and pineapple salsa, spiced basil dressing and roast potatoes with a pudding of cream cheese-topped chocolate cake! Top marks for the galley team. But first it was time to focus on the job in hand and listen to the guides instructions, even if it was to wade into thigh deep water.  

Most of the teams did well, making it to the zodiacs in good time between the worst waves. It was an experience that rose adrenalin levels and left us with a stronger sense of togetherness as we helped haul one another into the zodiacs. 

It is typical to find these surging waves on the wide-open beaches of South Georgia steep as they are and facing onto the Southern Ocean. They are also that kind of areas the favourite for the king penguins. With everyone back on board it was time for a very enthusiastic heave up of the zodiacs for the last time today and a deck wash. 

It was a day to remember for all on board, in particular to Daniel, who’s birthday it was today!

Written by:
Beth Hitchcock | Expedition Guide

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