This post is the latest in the series Kike Calvo’s visual diary as a National Geographic Expert on the South Georgia and Falklands Expedition aboard the National Geographic Explorer.
South Georgia always has a surprise for the explorers of the extreme south. And sometimes beyond the rugged grandeur of its breathtaking glaciers, surprises in the island come from sudden changes in the cold, wind-dominated weather. Minutes after our first scout landing in Right Whale Bay, strong fohn winds showed us the power of this place. “Fohn winds, caused by westerly airstream blocked by the mountains, were gusting at 40 to 50 knots. Harsh blasts of these winds sweep down from the mountains and pose a serious threat to land and sea operations” said Jason Kelley, geologist aboard the National Geographic Explorer. “We had to return to the ship after a few minutes on land as the winds were becoming so strong that they could start knocking down penguins or causing our zodiacs to flip.”
For those passionate about last century’s courageous polar expeditions, South Georgia is the fateful stage where Sir Ernest Shackleton lived the last part of his heroic adventure. After Amundsen and Scott had reached the South Pole, Shackleton planned the first crossing of Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole onboard his ship Endurance in 1914. Endurance was beset in the ice, almost in sight of her destination, and eventually sank leaving the crew marooned and with no hope of rescue in Elephant Island. In a historical display of human tenacity and bravery, Shackleton used the prevailing current and wind to reach South Georgia, which he then crossed on foot to arrive at the whaling station in Stromness in May 1916.
“This year marks the centenary of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Shackleton. While the objective of that expedition was never realized, what ended up happening has become one of the greatest stories of survival ever told,” said Eduardo Shaw, naturalist aboard the National Geographic Explorer. “Shackleton’s style of leadership is very much needed today as we face ever bigger challenges on our planet. As we deal with issues such as climate change, conflicts, inequality, and threats to biodiversity, we need to tap into inspired examples of leadership and a great determination to be able to weather these storms.”
While a group decides to follow Shackleton’s Route and hike from Stromness Bay, I am automatically drawn by the playful pup fur seals surfing the waves at the shore. My first impression is that I am looking at a scene similar to what humans living on earth centuries ago may have witnessed. A planet blooming with life. Wildlife everywhere. No matter where you look at, life glowing.
The adventure continues. Our zodiak cruise takes us to explore the different corners of Hercules Bay. The swell makes the long seaweed move like snakes or like Medusa’s hair on the surface. A group of macaroni penguins advance like a group of soldiers. Not sure where they are heading, we feel they will eventually jump into the water. An indeed they do. It’s not a regular entry, though, but one on top of the seaweed that covered the surface like rope-like organisms. King penguins, at Gold Harbour, thrive in a colony of about 25,000 couples and let us take a look at their complex reproduction cycle, with sightings of downy chicks and eggs in the distance.
And even though Captain James Cook described South Georgia in 1777 as a land where “Not a tree or a shrub was to be seen, not even big enough to make a tooth-pick,” I absolutely subscribe to Niall Ranking´s observations from 1946, “Seen from afar on an early spring day, South Georgia is a breathtaking sight, and one not easily forgotten.”