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Sailing Expeditions in South Georgia - Prolific Wildlife and Glacial Mountains

A wildlife oasis in the Southern Ocean, South Georgia is a major breeding ground for millions of penguins, sea birds, several species of albatross, dueling elephant seals and thousands of fur seals. on some beaches there is hardly room to walk between the wildlife. The snow topped mountains rise steeply from sea level and lenticular clouds form in the strong winds. Whaling stations are now eerie homes to seals and blue eyed shags. There are many anchorages on the lee side of this sub Antarctic island and Europa generally spends over a week here, often with several landings a day as there is so much to see.

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Why we love this sailing ground

In the Wake of Shackleton & the James Caird

In 1916 Ernest Shackleton's expedition ship ' Endurance' was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea and sank. The survivors made a rough journey across ice and open water to Elephant Island, landing on a narrow strip beneath steep cliffs. From here Shackleton and a handful of men set off in ships boat James Caird accross some of the stormiest waters in the world to South Georgia. The 800 mile voyage took them 16 days, but he landed on the wrong side of South Georgia and had to climb accross the mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling port of Stromness to find help for the rest of his crew, surviving on seal meat on Elephant Island. Even with help from the whalers it took him several attempts and 105 days to eventually reach Elephant Island again and rescue his complete crew. 

Rescue boat James Caird being launched from Elephant Island, Antarctica
Rescue boat James Caird being launched from Elephant Island, Antarctica

 

Furious Fifties, Icebergs and Albatrosses

Land disappears, the second part of the ocean crossing begins and we are back in the watch system sailing day and night. We have time to reflect on everything we have done in Antarctica. some will have caught polar fever and will be planning their next return. The passage to South Georgia starts is in the  furious 50's latitude and a kind of iceberg alley. The strong westerlies here blow all the way around the world un-interupted by land, so you should enjoy some of the most dramatic downwind sailing on the planet. Perfect conditions for a tough little square rigger like Europa, but pretty heavy work on the wheel. If all goes well the ship should cover the 800 miles in 5-6 days. Every day is different. Learn to identify the difference between Light Mantled Sooty Albatross and Black Browed Albatrosses and watch them indulge in a bit of dynamic soaring. There are often lectures or film shows on board and other entertainments, despite the ships roll. The mountain chain along the spine of South Georgia is an easy landmark to spot, and the number of seals in the water increases as we draw nearer.

Bark Europa - Photo by Sandy Gale
Bark Europa - Photo by Sandy Gale

Time to Explore South Georgia and its Prolific Wildlife

Europa stays Longer amongst the Wildlife than most expedition ships. The standard landing fee is for 3 days but Europa always goes for a week here. The sounds, sights and bold wildlife of South Georgia will get under your skin.

First landing might be Elsehul or Roseta Bay and then we have about a week to explore. Everywhere but Grytviken is uninhabited, but many of the natural harbours show past evidence of the islands importance as a whaling centre. Now the wrecks of sailing ships, whale blubber vats and ruins of buildings are rusting and weathering fast in the harsh conditions, home only to elephant seals, fur seals and blue eyed shags. and totally dwarfed by the grandeur of the natural mountain scenery and glaciers.

Salisbury Plain and St Andrews Bay for King Penguins

In the Bay of Isles and Salisbury Plain live tens of thousands of King Penguins. To wander so close to vast rookeries is staggering. Another world famous anchorage is St Andrews Bay which has an enormous King Penguin rookery of 39 000 pairs and storm petrels breed here in their thousands.

st andrews bay penguin rookery
st andrews bay penguin rookery

Sit amongst the Wandering Albatrosses

Possible in the same day is a landing on Prion Island where wandering albatrosses dance out their courtship moves amoungst the tussock grass and young albatross launch themselves into the air. Once they leave Prion Island they will spend 2 years away from land circling around the Antarctic, before returning to breed themselves in South Georgia.

Wandering Albatross on her nest on prion Island
Wandering Albatross on her nest on prion Island

Wilderness Walking in the Mountains

In the same day you might sail onto Fortuna Bay and its glaciers. From here most of us trekked across the lower hills and mountain streams to Stromness, following the last (easiest) part of Shackleton's route on foot to find help from the whalers settlement there. Shackleton's open boat James Caird was wrecked landing on the wrong side of South Georgia's great mountain chain, but Shackleton and two others traversed the mountains to reach Stromness to raise a rescue party.  Europa sailed the 10 miles around to Stromness to meet us, and it was great to see her under sail below, from the mountains.

Shackleton's Walk across South Georgia
Following the last few miles of Shackleton's Walk across South Georgia

Whaling Stations and Shipwrecks

The rusting blubber vats, mooring posts on the shore where sailing ships tried to keep safe from the katabatic winds and ship wrecks where some were driven ashore are all grim reminders of how the British, American and Norwegian whalers and sealers plundered the Southern Ocean. 

Anchoring off Prince Olavs harbour for a boat trip at 7am was quite surreal. Fur seals lurk around iron crosses in a whalers and sailors graveyard, the buildings are deserted and in the bay is the wreck of sailing ship 'Brutus' from 1883 which appears to be now crewed by fur seals.

There is a huge abandoned whaling station amongst beautiful mountains at Stromness. this is where Shackleton and his men were heading for rescue and it was the zig zag rock formations that they recognised from the mountains, confirming they were descending into the tight fjord. Baby fur seals shade from the sun under huge ships propellers.

Griytviken is the first place since Ushuaia where Europa can lay alongside a quay. In 2007 we visited the whaling museum, Shackleton's grave, and sent postcards and invited the British Antarctic Survey scientists, and the other inhabitants of South Georgia to a BBQ on deck.

The main attraction in Ocean Harbour is the wreck of a sailing ship with three masts that looks remarkably similar to Europa. The Banyard was built in 1864 in Liverpool and was the first sailing ship built in steel.

Chapel amongst the carnage. Grytviken Whaling Station Museum
Chapel amongst the carnage. Grytviken Whaling Station Museum. Photo Debbie Purser

Cobblers Cove - A Very Special Place

Sailing eastwards from Grytviken you might take the narrow inside route to Godthul. If conditions are right and there is not too much swell Bark Europas captain's have been taking their 56m sailing ship through a narrow gap into Cobblers Cove - a circular deep pool with cliffs on three sides, and only just enough room to spin the ship on the spot with engines and bowthruster. Not a place to anchor for long, but there is a brilliant walk up out of the cove and onto a remote shore with Macaroni Penguins. Debbie and Adam saw Sooty albatrosses nesting here too in 2012. A slightly better nearby anchorage for the night is Godthul where a quick trip ashore revealed a beach covered in whale bones.

Sooty Albatross near Cobblers Cove, South Georgia
Sooty Albatross near Cobblers Cove, South Georgia

 

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