Tag Archives: Antarctic Fur Seal

Wilkins’ Mechanic

Yesterday we were exploring the remnants of the Hector whaling station in Whalers Bay of Deception Island. The derelict remains of building once devoted to the wholesale slaughter of whales marks an important part of Antarctica’s history, but amidst the rusting hulks of steamers and the rotting remains of the whaling industry, Whales Bay also offers an insight into the spirit of adventure and exploration that marked the early operations in this region. The site boasts the remains of a British research station abandoned in the volcanic eruptions that saw massive mudslides hitting the area in the late 1960s, but it also is home to a rather non-descript hanger like building that perched on the northern end of the beach. And indeed it is a hanger, and in fact the hanger once housed the plane that embarked upon the first powered flight over Antarctica - captained by an Aussie by the name of Sir Hubert Wilkins.

Today as we leave Deception in our wake we were privileged to hear the reminiscences of the daughter of the mechanic who helped Wilkins piece together this amazing endeavour. A young man born in 1896 in Washington, Ona’s father started working on Model T fords and ended up participating in no less than 5 expeditions with Wilkins visiting both poles and being central to the operation to get the first flights up and running. Apparently they saw it all as a rather dry operation with his diary reflecting comments such as “Plane assembly in makeshift hanger, 55 degrees below” with little commentary on the guts of exploration … a feature which makes many of the men of early aviation history. Wilkins and his team did not search for fame or glory. This was a precise operation to reach a defined goal to aid our understanding of the world and to promote a cooperative approach to the exploration of the planet.  As we look back it is fantastic to gather an insight into the lives and opinions of these pioneers who pushed the boundaries of our knowledge into the ice south.

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Spent the day in South Georgia between Fortuna Bay, Stromness and Grytviken. Walked the last part of Shakleton’s momentous hike over the island, lost myself amidst hordes of fur seals on the beaches and spent hours watching baby elephant seals lounge on the beach and play amongst themselves. Was actually a long day with the weather showing it’s teeth with gale force winds and droving snow, but at the end of it all I am left with a huge grin and keep replaying moments of sheer joy as the throngs of wildlife native to this spectacular island played out their life within arm’s reach as I sat mesmerized on the beach. A few close encounters with angry fur seals showed me natures teeth (nothing like the charge of 200kg of angry seal to remind you that nature should be treated with respect), but all up I am left with a feeling of awe and a sorrow that the day has drawn to a close …then again, we have two more days in this paradise

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South Georgia

Today we awoke at anchor off the northwest coast of South Georgia with the waves beating off the jagged black rocks and white snow caped mountains stretching for the heavens. The wind was whipping foam off the waves but we dropped the zodiacs anyway and ran for cover into the sheltered bay named Elsehul. Once in the bay we were greeted by King Penguins, macaroni penguins and Gentoo penguins …. And of course the clamour of thousands of male fur seals vying for space on the beaches and the honour of taking a harem of female seals for the seasons mating.

Following a fun cruise in the zodiacs in the surge of southern ocean swell driving into the bay we upped anchor and sailed to Salisbury Plains where we spent the remainder of the evening with the second largest colony of king penguins on the island. Apart from the overwhelming aroma of digested fish, the second landing offered a kaleidoscope of colour as the kings paraded in their sunset orange plumage over the green grass, and many surges of adrenalin as we dodged the angry fur seals thronging on the beach.

Now we are again at anchor off Fortuna bay where we will embark upon the last leg of Shackleton’s walk tomorrow. So early to bed tonight to prepare for another big day!

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South Georgia

It’s been a fantastic visit to South Georgia. In a part of the world renowned for savage weather we have had day after day of calm waters and uninterrupted opportunities to visit probably the most spectacular place on the planet. As I write the heavens are lit up in a brilliant sunset of pink and orange hanging above jagged mountains and glaciers and the sound of fur seals calling and mewing can be heard resounding over the still waters. Yesterday the highlight of the day was standing up to my waist in a still pool while a tussling playful group of over thirty seal pups played and twisted in the clear water. And after I’d been there a while they decided to include me in their game with one particularly brave fellow showing off to his mates by swimming between my legs again and again. At this age they are just like puppies… unfortunately in a couple of years they will be staking out a patch on the beach and tearing apart anyone silly enough to enter their zone. For now however its all fun and games.

And today … the highlight was St Andrews bay which is the largest king penguin colony on the island. Standing on a moraine ridge you have tens of thousands of birds filling the valley so that the landscape is literally formed my a seething mass of colourful birds. As a setting they make it one of the most remarkable sights in the world. As individuals, the penguins show a grace and curiosity that is humbling. Laying on the beach while a dozen penguins gather around and gently probe this strange alien apparition with their bills instils you with a new sense of oneness with this fantastic place.

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South Georgia looms from the mist

This morning we were surrounded by the same thick fog that has clung to us for days except this morning the silence of the fog was pierced by a cacophony of seal cries echoing off the sheer cliffs that peeked through the white mist. We have arrived at South Georgia Island! This is an absolutely incredible place… like nothing on earth. We started the day with a zodiac ride in Elsehul harbour were we cruised past a swarming mass of fur seals all stridently crying out and barking. Above us albatross wheeled through the mist and grey headed, black-brow and light mantled sooties perched amongst the tussocks above us on their delicate nests. Macaroni penguins charged down the hills into the surging waters and king penguins stood proudly in the their neat colonies on the smooth shingle beaches. Meanwhile giant petrels feasted on the carcasses of fallen elephant seals only feet from their comrades still lounging on the thick rafts of kelp washed ashore. The entire busy beach is also bathed in the peculiar chummy odor of fur seal which brands this as South Georgia.

This introduction was followed by a visit to Salisbury Plains, home to the second largest king penguin colony in the world. Picture tens of thousands of stately penguins splashed with gorgeous colours of sunset orange spilling out from the beach into the green tussock. At the base of the colony juvenile kings in their scruffy coats of brown down wait patiently for a feed while occasionally engaging in a detailed investigation of a passing tourist. Stopping to gently mouth a proffered finger. Unfortunately to get to the colony you have to run the gauntlet of grumpy fur seals who have missed out on the seasons breeding and are looking to take it out on the soft looking bipeds wandering around in a daze. Only a couple of close calls for me but 200 kg of angry seal is something to treat with respect!

It’s good to be back after two years!

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Heading for Shag Rocks

Another misty day on the Southern Ocean but we are making good time towards South Georgia. Later this evening we should pass by Shag Rocks which are a spectacular sight – sheer pinnacles of rock raising from the Southern Ocean in the middle of nowhere with birds wheeling around the air and seals and whales milling in the water taking advantage of the high productivity around this mountainous feature in the deep ocean. I just hope the fog will lift so we can see it all!

Otherwise we are all preparing for the surf beaches of South Georgia where whe waves pound and the beaches are a riot of penguins and seals. First priorities are to ensure that our waders do not leak (all our waders leak) so that we can stand in the surf and catch the boats as they buck around in the waves, then we have to make sure the new staff are prepared for the seal. Right now fur seals are still defending territories on the shore and will be aggressively attacking these strange aliens that turn up on their territory. They are mostly harmless and will charge as if they have murder on their mind until at the last moment they turn away … well as long as you stand your ground. If you run away they think they have won and will keep charging until they have had a taste of your rear end. A fur seal can give a pretty nasty bite!

Very muck looking forward to getting to the island and drinking in one of the most abundant wildlife experiences on the planet!

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