17 Feb 2016

South Georgia - Part II

Light-mantled Albatross - Phoebatria palpebrata

Grytviken is the largest settlement on British-Administered South Georgia. It was founded as a whaling station at the turn of the 20th century, with the first buildings put up by Norwegian workers in the final months of 1904.

Between 1904 and 1966 South Georgia Whaling Stations “processed” over 175,000 whales.  At the beginning it was a highly profitable, if physically unpleasant business. And not much fun for the whales, either !

Whaling operations only ceased when the seas had been hunted almost empty.  After the whalers left, the island was populated by scientific researchers, and a handful of British Officials.

Wrecks of whaling ships, foreshore of Grytviken

On the foreshore, Grytviken

Another "old boat and attendant seal photo"

I was surprised - even disappointed - at how tidy the remaining relics are.  Crumbling buildings have been shedding asbestos, and as a health hazard, priority has been given to stabilising these.  Much money and effort has also been spent renovating the church.

The church, Grytviken

Once the visitor has dodged various Sea Lions and Fur Seals lounging about the place, ( Really ! They act like they own the place - Wait ! They Do.) there is an efficient Post Office and a decent museum.  http://sgmuseum.gs/index.php/South_Georgia_Museum

The museum is sited in the former station managers’ house and has a recreation of what the whalers quarters were like, various whaling implements, everyday odds and ends and artefacts from sixty years of human occupation of the site.  

There is even a copy of a rather peevish note from a British Magistrate to the leader of the invading Argentine Forces in 1982, telling him what a bounder he was ( I am paraphrasing ).

Whale blubber boilers, Grytviken

Don't trip over the Fur Seal

Grytviken was the starting and finishing point for Ernest Shackleton’s most famous expedition, his unsuccessful 1914-17 attempt to cross Antarctica.  The heroism and leadership involved in getting all his team members back alive is still inspiring even today.   I confess that before our trip, the 2002 Kenneth Branagh biopic “Shackleton” was about all I knew of him. There’s quite a lot of stuff on You Tube, for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZuydFcnGzs.  “The Boss" died on South Georgia in 1922 (while preparing for another polar expedition) and is buried at Grytviken.

The Antarctic circumpolar current is the largest in the world ( Hands up if you didn’t already know that ! ) It circles the globe at about 55 degrees south, and where it meets the waters of the other oceans this area of nutrient-rich seas is called the Antarctic Convergence.  It is a good area for cetaceans and sea birds.  We crossed the convergence between the Falklands and South Georgia.  While at South Georgia, one of the passengers fell and broke her hip, so the Plancius had to go back to the Falklands where the nearest hospital was, rather than heading southwest toward the Antarctic Peninsula.

Grey-headed Albatross

I didn’t envy the Expedition Leader’s job in telling the assembled punters that we were having to make a sizable diversion from our planned route.  But tell us he did, and back to the Falklands we went. We birders saw the Antarctic Convergence birds again, sooner than we thought we were going to.

This is an immature Wandering Albatross type.  Better sea-birders than I had posited this as a Tristan (Island of Tristan da Cunha) Albatross, after all, - we were in the right ocean to see one - but I find these things bewilderingly alike, even with the bird books open and an image on the computer screen.

Wandering Albatross - Diomedea sp.

Wandering Albatross - Diomedea sp.
We also saw the odd Blue Petrel, outnumbered hundreds-to-one by Antarctic Prions, but distinguishable by their dark cap and white spot on the tail.

Blue Petrel - Halobaena caerulea

Blue Petrel - Halobaena caerulea
Blue Petrel - Halobaena caerulea

Easier to ID, the Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses we saw were instant crowd-pleasers, bold, distinctive, and with the rakishness of Frigatebirds.

Light-mantled Albatross - Phoebatria palpebrata

Light-mantled Albatross - Phoebatria palpebrata
The scientific name means "Eye-lidded Prophetess"* - very enigmatic-sounding for one of our top species of the whole trip.

* Helm dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, by James Jobling


  1. Brilliant stuff yet again John. Of all the exotic places you've been I'd say South Georgia is the one I'd like to visit the most.

  2. I'd love to see any albatross, and some remarkable boating landscapes. Nice adventure, John.

  3. Great photographs and an interesting and informative narrative.

  4. Wow! Brilliant stuff, John. I just love the images. And the compliments are meant for you previous 2 posts as well. All the sites are truly heaven of Earth.