St. Andrews Bay and Royal Bay
The night was clear and the stars were visible, peaceful night on anchor at Ocean Harbour. A quiet anchorage is always welcome to provide some ease between the howling winds and typically dragging anchors when here in South Georgia. At 04:00H we heaved anchor and set off to St Andrews Bay where our morning landing would be. By 06:30h when people were starting to appear out on deck, became overcast over the coastline creating an earie atmosphere with the clouds at the horizon glowing with the rising sun.
It was a cold morning, in part due to the contrast from yesterday’s blue sky, warm day. We wrapped up in our layers ready to go ashore. This a landing which is always a highlight and draws many of the crew ashore too. It is here we have South Georgia’s largest penguin colony which brings film makers, scientists and tourists from around the world. Many who find themselves here on this Cape to Cape voyage have viewed footage of this site from the comfort of their own home. However, today we are able to experience the splendour of this place alone with only our fellow crew mates.
After the guides had scouted the beach, checking that the king penguin colony was accessible from the landing site at the moment, it was time to start boarding zodiacs. There is a river from the glacier that divides the landing beach from the colony, which rises and reduced depending on the volumes of melt water feeding it. This also provides a great lounging area for the young elephant seals. As we came in on the zodiacs, many King penguins were there to greet us at the beach. At the very northern end of it some male elephant seals hauled out. Seeing their size is impressive and makes us ponder how agile they can be in the water. Although they appear very immobile and lazy on the land, they are very nimble in the water where they can dive to depths of 2000m to feed on squid and deep-sea fish.
We spent some time observing the king penguins up close. The more we look at them the more we notice variation between the penguins, the beak colouration from oranges and pinks and some dark grey; the black and white patches of the flipper underside; the gap in the feathers if they are incubating and egg and the toes-in-the heeling resting position. They were curious to look at us just as much as we were to look at them. We watched as they walk around in small groups, observing the occasional flipper slap from one penguin to another.
Once everyone was ashore, we made our way over to the river. This involved navigating between young fur seals baring their teeth and lolling elephant seals gazing at us with their wide eyes. Many giant petrels also rested on the beach and in the near-shore water, awaiting the next mortality. These large birds, being so heavy and ungainly, are entertaining to observe as they spread their wings to provide balance when stepping around on their human sized feet. Thankfully the water level at the river was low, even with all the sunny weather we have been having that causes melting of the glaciers, so we made the crossing with ease.
We made our way to the high moraines at the centre of the St Andrew’s 3km long beach. As we approached the hills, weaving between the penguins, we could hear a distant squabble of penguins calling. As soon as we popped our heads up over the ridge the sounds of thousands of them swamped us. Constant calling to find one another, to warden off any lurking skuas or giant petrels and to pester parents for more food. We watched the activity as Sheathbills strolled around in search of droppings. Giant petrels patrolled the area. Skuas choosing high points to overlook the area for any opportunity to steal and egg or young chick.
Many of the adults were incubating an egg, holding it on their feet with the skin flap keeping it warm. The parents take it in turn to incubate while the other one goes fishing. Throughout the medley of black and white King penguins, ribbons and clusters of brown were visible from our high point looking down over the colony. These are the crèches when the young ones form groups while the parents go to the water. They are typically considered large and strong enough for this after 6 weeks of constant care by a parent, allowing them to develop fat rapidly. Once they are in the crèches, both of the parents can go fishing at the same time and therefore both can feed the chick making it gain weight twice as fast. The behaviour of the young chicks is endlessly entertaining as they begin to adopt adult behaviour in their oversized down outfits.
It wasn’t long before the skies began to clear and patches of blue were visible, revealing the high snowy peaks around us. Other features that came into view were the glaciers, making a perfect backdrop. Cook Glacier, at the south of the beach, extended to the coastline about 45 years ago, however today it is more than a kilometre back with a glacial melt lake at its snout that separates it from the coastline. When retreated back from the coastline it allowed the deer that were there at this time, to spread into the southern parts of South Georgia. Scattered antlers we spotted on the flat expanse above the beach as evidence of them once grazed here. These introduced species are no longer present on South Georgia due to an eradication scheme, however the lack of tussac grass or dense vegetation at St Andrews Bay is in part down to the overgrazing by deer in addition to the recent glacial retreat exposing more of the bay area.
We were lucky with the calm conditions making it possible to get ashore and observe the bountiful wildlife here at St Andrews Bay. Like Salisbury Plain, this large open area that is a favourite of the king penguins, is vulnerable to the swell rolling in from the east making landings difficult. But today, the majority of us even had dry boots.
We made our way back to the landing site for pick up. The King penguins show no fear of us and continued to investigate as we donned lifejackets and shuffled to the waterline. Back on board we are a well-oiled machine at working together to complete boot washing, zodiacs back on the sloop deck and deck wash before we sat down to a lovely lunch.
During the meal we made our way to another large inlet called Royal Bay, after all the King penguins which occupy the area. We arrived in the glassy calm waters with the sun intermittently casting down light between the clouds onto the green lower slopes and snow scattered high mountains. The sun was in the west by now, lowering slowly towards the mountains as we made our way ashore.
Here at Brisbane Point it is quite an adventure to get ashore. The shallows created by a moraine bar that would be impossible to cross if it were not for the benign conditions we were experiencing as a high-pressure system sits just to the northeast of South Georgia bringing windless, sunny days. Brisbane Point is named after Matthew Brisbane, who was second in command on James Weddell’s 1823 expedition. This bay was visited by Weddell on his southern voyages which has also left its trace on the rest of the bay: Jane Point and Beaufoy Cove are named after the ships that Weddell took into the Weddell Sea on his third voyage in 1823, when they reached a new furthest south, 74º15’S, beating Cooks standing record. The glacier at the head of Beaufoy Cove is named Weddell Glacier.
In addition to the landing site being notoriously difficult to reach due to this shallow area, often raging katabatic winds sweeping along, the exposure to the easterly swell and the density of penguins limiting the coastline where you can get ashore, stack the odds against you for landing. However, our zodiac drivers were able to get us to a section of beach that wasn’t crowded with wildlife where we could start our exploration. We wandered along the cobbed beach, enjoying the lowering sun casting a glow of orange across the landscape. There was a band of clouds at about 500m dividing the lower, green tussac covered slopes from the upper regions of shear rock faces and glaciated peaks. The lagoons, which were scattered across the promontory where we landed, were like mirrors exhibiting an upturned version of the scenery beyond. As the sun dipped behind the clouds casting shadows over us, Europa still shone bright out in the bay, holding the sun light a short while longer.
Half of the group explored up the slope behind the landing site whilst others investigated on the beach. The walk started with trudging between the tussac grass through molted penguin feathers mixed with penguin and seal poo. Among the grass rerst some large male elephant seals. The sounds of belching and roaring occasionally exploding from between the tussac’s was startling at times when your visibility was limited. It wasn’t long before we were out of the tall vegetation and making some ground uphill towards the high view point. We followed in a line up the steep sided grassy moraine with formed a ridgeline perpendicular to the coast. Our Velcro and fabric boot liners turned brown with the seed balls from the burnet plant, prompting lots of comments on the time we will need for biosecurity when returning to the ship.
From the base of the hill many of us did not expect anything like the views we eventually got from the crest of this mound. In every direction there were spectacular views. We could see the beaches densely packed with king penguins when we looked either side of the steep sided ridge. Straight out to sea Europa swung on anchor, just catching the last of the evening sun. To the north, the light streamed round the side of the mountain, highlighting a raised flat grassy area which was illuminated with the light. Back into Beaufoy Cove the thin band of clouds stretched out from above Weddell Glacier and divided the lower from the upper slopes. Everyone was happy. We took our time to absorb some of our last sights of South Georgia and listen to the birds and seals. Little needed to be said as we soaked up our surroundings.
Jamie led the way back to the landing sight, avoiding the seal poo swamps and elephant seal pile ups. On the zodiac ride back to the ship, crossing the shallow moraine bank once again, the skies turned all shades of pink and purple over the snowy peaks. Morale was high as we worked together to do a major clean of our boots then hoist blacky, then grey onto the sloop deck. Before dinner, the moon peaked out from behind the clouds casting the only light over our blacked-out ship. The sound of the penguins spilled out from the colony towards Europa. The occasional passing group of penguins breaking the water was the only other sound.
At 8 o’clocky Eric shared with us the forecast that there was a large high-pressure system lurking over us that spread all the way from Cape Horn to Tristan da Cunha, creating a large area of what could be considered as good weather: very little wind and clear skies. It seems like our luck for the fast sailing days that we have had so far, has come to an end. But let’s not say anything too soon, we are very familiar with how things work in these southern regions by now!
Photo by Jordi Plana Morales