Thursday, December 25, 2008

We had a white Christmas today - the first either of us can recall having in our lifetimes. We were in Right Whale Bay, near the north shore of South Georgia. As with the other areas we had been, the scenery was very nice. At breakfast, one of the waitresses asked Justin whether Crystal wanted tea or coffee - he said he didn't know, and the waitress said "tea," and then poured it. The waitresses don't know much English at all, so if we ever go "off script" in our discussions with them, communication comes to a complete halt.

Right Whale Bay must have been covered by a glacier at some point, because there is a giant valley just behind the beach that slopes up hardly at all, and is flat as can be from side to side. This landing had by far the most fur seals yet. To get through from where we landed to where the majority of the penguins were, it was a 5-10 minute walk. We stayed single file, and traipsed through streams where possible since the fur seals generally were not found in the streams. At the end of the walk there was a huge King Penguin rookery - several tens of thousands, including an enormous amount of chicks. The chicks were very curious, and occasionally would walk up to us. One came up to Justin and bit the plastic hood on his camera. Unfortunately, the chick was so close it wouldn't come into focus. In addition to being curious, the chicks were also hungry. The parents wanted no part of it, however, and this is understandable since the chicks were as big as (if not bigger) than the parents. When they came close to us, we noticed their toenails - they are very long and sharp looking. We aren't sure if this is more for traction or more for tearing at fish - or something altogether different.


One of the things we noticed, unfortunately, was a number of deceased seals and penguins. While we knew that the mortaility rate was high, especially for seal pups, we were a bit surprised that the scavengers didn't do more to clean things up. We remembered few if any carcasses from either the Galapagos or Africa - here it was very many. Perhaps the skuas and the giant petrels (two of the main scavengers) just aren't as effective as vultures or hyenas.

We were at the landing site for a long time. The weather was good - the sun peaked in and out - it wasn't too hot or too cold, and there was no precipitation. It was a very good excursion. We came back for lunch, and the boat headed for Elsehul Bay, where we were supposed to be on the 23rd. So in effect it traded spots with Salisbury Plain. We had an hour or two of free time, and Crystal took a nap while Justin caught up on the diary before all of the excursions blended into one another.

Our excursion was a zodiac cruise around the bay - there was no landing anywhere. We were in a zodiac with Lex, who is very good at identifying all of the bird life from a long way away. We went by some Macaroni penguin and Grey-headed albatross rookeries - they were well up on the hillside. For the albatrosses, it is easy to see why - they want to take off from a cliff so that they can just glide away. For the penguins, there doesn't seem to be any good reason. We boated down the shoreline around the way, stopping here and there to examine different wildlife. We saw more king penguins and fur seals, plus a blue-eyed shag.

We also saw a group of petrels feeding on a seal carcass. From afar, it just looked like a bunch of birds huddled in the water. But since petrels are scavengers, we figured they were feeding. Sure enough they were, and they were fighting with one another for the best spot. They put their wings out, to sort of "box out" the other petrels. Much smaller Cape Petrels kept coming by to pick up crumbs out of the water.

Other wildlife we saw including some Antarctic terns, a lone macaroni penguin (the first one we had seen, other than in the water near the boat), a red-headed petrel (it had obviously just finished eating), and a petrel that came up just behind our boat. Lex told us (as Christoph had before) that Northern Giant Petrels have a reddish or pinkish tip on their beaks, while Southern Giant Petrels have a green tip.

In the bay, all of the sounds seemed to magnify. The noises of the birds and seals (especially the seals), and the smell of everything, was quite vivid. They will both probably stick with us for some time. At one point Lex suggested that we should just turn off the motor and listen to everything for 5 minutes. We did turn off the motor, but Lex couldn't stop talking (nor could the rest of us), so we never did get the good 5 minutes. The excursion was nice, but it would have been better as it was originally planned, the first excursion. As an introduction to South Georgia, it would have been very good, but after we had already been on many of the beaches and seen so much wildlife, it was a little bit of a step back.

The guides told us before the excursion that we should bundle up, because it would be cold and we wouldn't be exerting any energy just sitting in the zodiac. The sun was out, but it was still extremely cold, so it was good we did bundle up. For Crystal, unfortunately, her ensemble was not enough to keep her from being cold. She was wearing long underwear, rain and wind proof pants, liner sock, wool socks, boots, long underwear top, fleece jacket, inner layer of big jacket, outer layer of big jacket, neck gaiter, headband, hat, hood, fleece gloves, and glomits.

Back on board the Multanovskiy, we made our own dinner (with stuff we got in Stanley), because the menu didn't look appetizing at all. So for an hour or so, we were alone in the bar. Because we were in the bar, we got to see the sunset before anyone else, and got the best pictures if we do say so ourselves.


We played Scrabble until another table decided to put on one of their CDs, which pretty much drove us out. Crystal went to sleep early. Justin went back into the bar and checked out pictures, chatted with couple from the UK about travel spots, particularly Africa. All in all, another good day (and a good Christmas Day) in South Georgia.