Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We woke up (relatively) early this morning, to allow for the time it would take to do our morning excursion. We were scheduled to walk the last part of Shackleton's famous hike, from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Bay.

Very briefly, his ship got caught in the ice in the Weddell Sea, it broke up into pieces, he and his men had to spend a winter on the ice, they tried to get to open sea and finally did, but obviously in a much smaller ship. He left a good portion of his crew on Elephant Island at the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, and he was one of six who took the James Caird (basically a lifeboat) across the Drake Passage towards South Georgia.. Incredibly, they made it, but the boat was in shambles when they got there, and they had to land on the opposite side of the island (where no people were). From there, they did a 36 hour hike across the center of the island, up and over glaciers, taking a path that wasn't even attempted until 40 years later, and has been done only a handful of times ever. He and two other men (the other 3 stayed on the site where they landed) made it across the island to Fortuna Bay, thinking it was Stromness Bay. When they realized this, they had to walk back up, then go over another ridge and then walk down the slope to Stromness. He did this in May (wintertime), while we were doing this in December.


When we got up, we were in Fortuna Bay, which was very picturesque - glaciers all around, green water (like we saw at Grey Lake in Torres Del Paine), calm seas, and some sun - pretty much all one could ask for. After breakfast, we took zodiacs to the landing site. Waiting for us were a ton of fur seals and elephant seals. We like the elephant seals, and they tolerate us. Fur seals are mean SOBs, and like to attack. They have some serious anger management issues. There were more pups, like we had seen at Salisbury Plain. What we didn't know was that these pups were only 1-2 weeks old - they weren't born when our guides were last here.

The first part of the hike was one of the more challenging parts. It was straight up a hillside (something like a 45 degree angle) on hands and knees, going over tussock grass. It didn't take too long, actually - it was much easier if you accepted you'd be on hands and knees, rather than actually trying to stay upright. From there, it was awhile on the scree (broken slate pieces), but at not nearly as steep of an angle. The views behind us kept getting better, as we got more perspective on Fortuna Bay. The view in front of us was basically just scree, although there were some snow-fed lakes here and there (one of them is named after Tom Crean, one of the people who was with Shackleton). On one of the hillsides to our left there were Reindeer. They were introduced on South Georgia in the early 1900s, with the thought being they'd be useful for fur, meat, whatever. It didn't work out as intended, and now they roam around here. Fortunately, they're held in check by glaciers all around, which keeps them secluded to just a couple of areas.

The walk down was actually harder for us than the walk up. The scree kept giving way, and when that wasn't a problem, there was this soggy, slippery, grass that was just as bad. Also, rather than walk down the hillside we were on (which sloped down from our right to left), we kept walking straight on the side of the hill, meaning that each step was on an angle, making a twisted or sprained ankle very likely, especially since we were wearing our rubber boots.

When we got our first view of Stromness Bay, it looked just as nice as Fortuna Bay. There was a decent-sized island in the middle of the bay, there were animals all over the place, it was sunny and warm out - good times. Indeed, Anja told us the temperature was in the mid-60s, the warmest she'd ever experienced in South Georgia. We were actually hoping it would cool off a bit, because we were getting warm in the clothes we were wearing.

Near the end of the walk, we passed through a Gentoo rookery. While it wasn't like the Rockhopper/Albatross rookery in terms of numbers, it was still very nice, and our view was not impeded by any tussock grass. The Gentoos were much more like the Rockhoppers, and the opposite of the Magellanic penguins, in terms of how approachable they were. They didn't seem to mind us at all, and some walked towards us. The chicks were in different stages - some looked very young, while others were a little taller. The parents were either guarding their chicks or helping build a nest. Around this same time, we saw another group or two of Reindeer, even closer this time. Neither of us had ever seen Reindeer, and it was an intersting date to see them for the first time - December 24. Maybe they were getting ready to go help Santa deliver presents.

Down at the beach at Stromness, there was a fur seal minefield. They were everywhere and in avoiding one, you inevitably got closer to another one. We were just deliberate with our path, minimized making eye contact, and made loud noises and "looked big" if we had to. In addition to the fur seals on the beach, there was also some more King Penguins, some of which were moulting. We thought they were approachable, but found out that they didn't walk away because they didn't have the energy for it. Moulting takes several weeks, and sucks up almost the entirety of their energy, and they can't feed at that time either (because they aren't waterproof). So we were instructed to stay at least 10 meters (if not more) away from the moulting penguins. Other animals we saw on the beach were South Polar Skuas, Gentoo Penguins and Elephant Seals. We stayed at the beach for a pretty decent chunk of time before boarding a zodiac back to the ship. When we got back it was already lunchtime.

After lunch, we went on the deck, as the ship was just coming into Grytviken, the largest settlement (and pretty much the only settlement) on South Georgia. Like the bays earlier in the day, this one was phenomenal as well. It had the same greenish hued water, glaciers all around, and snow-capped peaks above the glaciers.

Our afternoon excursion was set to be exploring Grytviken and the surroundings. Anja had to some paperwork with the South Georgian authorities (basically letting them know we wouldn't do anything wrong), and we all lined up very early in the zodiac line. One of the zodiac drivers, Pasha, really likes his job. When no one else is on board, he'll do laps around the ship, do figure 8s and tight circles, and generally just have a good time. We got on his boat, since we were first in line and he seems to always be the first one taking people over.

At Grytviken, it was more of the same. There were fur seals (although not nearly as many), elephant seals, King Penguins and Gentoo Penguins. There was also quite a bit of muddy soil - we had to make sure not to stay in one spot very long, for fear of actually lifting our boots back up. We went to the small cemetery, which had a large tombstone for Shackleton, who died of a heart attack on a 1922 excursion. His wife wanted him buried in South Georgia because that was his claim to fame. Notably, there were no tombstones or plaques for the 175,000 or so whales that were slaughtered in South Georgia in the 1900s (including the blue whale - that died on its own, in fairness - that 110 feet long, the longest ever recorded). Around the cemetery some of the baby and junior fur seals came for us. It's pretty comical, since they are so tiny and have no heft to their voices - its a bit like having a 5 pound puppy bark at you.


From the cemetery, we took the one "road" (a wide dirt path) towards the Grytviken museum. Some penguins made the walk with us. We passed by some of the old whaling station buildings, including a sludge holder that was dated 1790. The museum was quite nice - it had a lot about Shackleton and his voyage, a lot of information on the whaling era, plus information on the surrounding animals, including a lot of items they encouraged us to touch (e.g. fur seal pelt, penguin pelt). There was also a stuffed Wandering Albatross that was massive. They evened opened for the two of us the new wing they are working on, that has a replica of the James Caird, the small boat that made it from Elephant Island to South Georgia across some of the nastiest seas in the entire world. The gift shop had some good stuff (albeit overpriced, but then again, they have a monopoly), but it was very crowded because almost all of us were in there at once. Outside the museum, the two children on our boat were being children. There were penguins and seals all around, but all they wanted to do was throw rocks into a muddy pool, seeing who could make the biggest splash.

We walked a little farther down the road, to a spot where a number of juvenile fur seals were playing King of the Mountain. Two of them were on a rock, and others kept swimming around and trying to push them off of the rock. We decided to stay here rather than walk further down the road to the British Antarctic Survey buildings at King Edward Point. (After we got back, we discovered that they are doing some interesting research on iron fertilizing as a means of carbon sequestration. In a nutshell, the iron creates algae blooms, the algae get "full" of C02, and then sink deep into the ocean, taking the C02 with them). Aside from these buildings, we had seen basically all Grytviken had to offer, so we got on the first zodiac back. Back on the ship, we checked out some our pictures with Lex and Lexi. Lex is one of the guides, who knows the area well and can converse with basically all of the passengers since he knows Dutch, French, English, Spanish, and German. Lexi is a 73 year old solo traveler from Tasmania, who has a voice that one can only describe as a stereotypical old-person voice. She should do some voice actor work.

For Christmas Eve Dinner, we had a more expansive menu, then went up to the bar for dessert, and a Santa came in to give away gifts. Anja had arranged for us to have a Christmas Eve service at the Church in Grytviken, and most of the boat went. We were tired, so we just went to sleep early. It probably was for the best, since the zodiacs have no lights, meaning that everyone who went to the service had to make their way from the church to the jetty in the dark, avoiding fur seals along the way, and had to get into the zodiac without being able to see much at all. Nothing bad happened, though.