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South Georgia

Cumberland East Bay and Nordenskiøld Glacier.
Cobblers Cove to Rookery Point hike.

After a full day of exploration of the former whaling station at Grytviken, the neighbouring Maiviken area and a night at anchor, Europa was moving deeper into other areas of Cumberland Bay. Her goal for the morning, the glacier front of the Nordenskiold Glacier.

As we departed the Grytviken anchorage, we cross paths with another ship in the outer Cumberland Bay, and we had to remind ourselves that this was in fact the first such visual encounter since leaving Argentinean waters! That ship was not just any other ship either, as we soon discovered. This was “Polarstern”, the German research icebreaker, and she was conducting some research in South Georgian waters on her way back north from the Weddell Sea. The vessel has been the main tool of Germany’s polar marine research institute, the Alfred-Wegener-Institut, or AWI.

But besides the role as a research ship, capable of operating all manners of biological, geological and oceanographical instrumentation up to deep-sea robotic vehicles (ROV’s), she is also regularly carrying supplies for the German Antarctic scientific base in the Weddell Sea, the Neumayer Station. For that, you need a vessel that has enough hold and deck capacity of carrying a mix of shipping containers, with cranes capable of lifting those up to 40 meters above deck level, that can also break through the heavy sea ice of the inner Weddell Sea and can operate in severe sub-zero conditions over extended periods. The ship also gained even more recognition in recent years after completing a one-year drift in the Arctic, during the MOSAiC expedition, which retraced the famous FRAM drift across the North Pole.

Almost 20 years ago, in 2004-5, this ship also spent an extended period in the Weddell Sea, as part of the ISPOL expedition, and one of our guides was in fact onboard the ship as a research diver and sea ice ecology student, and then, the “Polarstern” also called at King Edward Cove on her way back to Cape Town, South Africa. He recalled that there was a bit of a tense moment, he recalled, when the captain of the “Polarstern” kept calling “Grytviken – Grytviken” on the VHF on his approach to the anchorage, but the Government Officer in charge of receiving the vessel for official clearance refused to answer that call.

Finally, the VHF call was returned to the ship “Polarstern, Polarstern, this is KING EDWARD POINT, welcome to South Georgia!” to the great relief and amusement of all present on the bridge – the British do know how to make a point!
But for now, they were finished with their research in Cumberland East Bay, so as they departed, we could proceed into that bay and have a look at the glacier front. Soon we found ourselves navigating through milky-grey waters with small glacier ice bits floating around, and if you listened closely, you could hear a peculiar sound from the ice, a constant low-pitched crackling noise. This is the popping of air bubbles being released from the glacial ice as it was slowly melting. At some point our captain appeared on the foredeck and coolly informed us that according to the available chart, we were in fact sailing “on top of the glacier”, as the glacier front had retreated significantly since the times the glacier had last been surveyed. While observing the many features of the glacier front, we were even treated to several calving events, where massive bits of the glacier front fell in the sea.

The glacier front slowly fades behind the Europa as she starts her way for a new adventure in the afternoon, a combination of landings, zodiac rides and hikes between Godthul, Cobblers Cove and Rookery Point, home for a Macaroni penguin rookery.
Just like every time Europa leaves the relative shelter of one bay, faces the Northerly winds and seas. Along the coast between Cumberland Bay and Godthul, the swell breaks strong. But turning into the bay, conditions are good to drop anchor and prepare for a new exciting experience ashore.

Visit to Macaroni penguin rookeries, despite being the most numerous of all penguin species at South Georgia, always represent a challenging enterprise. Instead of the wide open plains preferred by the Kings, they occupy the rugged and exposed shores of the island.

First a zodiac ride brought us ashore north of Godthul main area, on a busy Fur seal beach; a hundred meters walking amongst them ended at the shores of Cobblers Cove. To cross this little embayment, yet another zodiac was waiting for us to finally set foot at the beginning of our hike.

Gaining some height to reach a conspicuous saddle, the view over the landlocked inlet amongst cliffs and tussock hills is impressive. Some Reindeer skulls and bones lay in the ground as witness of past times when they roamed freely in the region. Introduced by Norwegian whalers as game and a change on their diet, nowadays have been eradicated as their growing population had a negative impact on the fragile natural environment.

Giant petrels nest on the green slopes leading to Rookery Point, making our way down at a good distance from them soon the first of the Macaronies could be seen. Most of the colony remains hidden under the vegetation, but clear patches of ground amongst the dense tussock grass let us have a glimpse of their doings. Further down to the exposed shoreline we found the swell battered rocky area where they access the rookery from the rough seas. There, also some Fur seals snooze and Sheathbills amble around in search of nourishment.

A challenging afternoon. An adventurous landfall. A treat of a landing.

Rupert and Jordi

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Expedition Guide

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