Heralded as the ‘Galapagos of the Southern Ocean’, the stunning island of South Georgia is packed with both history and wildlife. For anyone who has ever watched a David Attenborough series on heaving king penguin colonies or battling elephant seals, it is likely to have been filmed on this remote island.
My first trip to Antarctica was purely focused on the Antarctic Peninsula, and whilst it was mind-blowing in so many ways, I left knowing that I wanted to see more. I was desperate to see the vast king penguin colonies of South Georgia. Every story the expedition crew told me about beaches packed with bustling penguin rookeries in the shadow of jagged mountains made me ache to see it for myself!
In hindsight, it would have been much more efficient in terms of time and money for me to have covered both the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia in one trip, so that’s definitely something you should consider early on in your planning process.
Whilst I can’t speak highly enough of South Georgia, visiting this unique island may not be the right decision for everyone travelling to Antarctica. Read on to discover more about what to expect from South Georgia and some of the pros and cons of including it in an itinerary.
The wildlife of South Georgia
Wildlife in South Georgia is on a colossal scale. Hundreds of thousands of king penguins and elephant seals can be easily seen from the rugged beaches that hug the shoreline on the island. It genuinely does take your breath away – and if it doesn’t, the smell will!
The spectacle is hard to put into words and doesn’t do the experience justice. Colonies of king penguins stretch off into the distance as far as the eye can see. The penguins here have a rolling breeding cycle so you are likely to encounter huge fluffy brown chicks. You’ll often see them standing in streams and looking like they’re queuing for the bus when they’re actually cooling their feet down. You’ll also see an elegant parade as they march en masse from the water back to the colony.
Whilst South Georgia does not provide the quintessential Antarctic pure white snow backdrop, the contrast of the green hills and tussock grass against the bright orange and yellow plumage of the king penguins makes for some stunning photographic opportunities.
South Georgia is also one of the best locations on the planet to see elephant seals. These giant creatures appear like towering piles of blubber and can be extremely cantankerous. If you visit very early in the season, you might just catch the end of the males facing off against each other for control over the harems. This is a magnificent sight as the large ‘beachmaster’ seals come at each other like two trucks colliding head-on.
Bird lovers won’t be disappointed either. Places like Prion Island – which has limited access and requires prior permits (organised by the ship) – are incredible for watching wandering albatross chicks learning to use their giant wings by flapping and building up their muscles.
Whilst South Georgia is a spectacular place to visit, it does come with its challenges. From November to mid-January, male fur seals zealously defend their breeding territories and can be aggressive to both other male seals and humans alike. So as always with Polar expeditions, be prepared to experience last-minute changes and tweaks to landing sites to work safely around the wildlife on the beach.
The history of South Georgia
On top of the impressive wildlife, South Georgia also has a rich history, from its dark whaling past to the Falklands War. However, it is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that is synonymous with the island.
After Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was eventually crushed by the Antarctic ice after becoming stuck in the ice-choked Weddell Sea in January 1915, he made the brave decision to make the perilous 800-mile journey to South Georgia in a fragile wooden lifeboat named the James Caird, in the hope of mounting a return rescue mission. The exhausted crew of five made it and having trekked across the mountain range, were able to flag down assistance at Stromness whaling station. After a number of failed attempts, the stranded crew at Elephant Island were finally rescued and sailed back to Chilean civilisation.
On my voyage, we had fairly rough weather as we sailed from South Georgia down towards the Peninsula. Many of us on board had a lie-down and I distinctly remember the horizon vanishing and reappearing in the windows as the ship was relentlessly buffeted by the waves. During these conditions, it was humbling to think of Shackleton in a lifeboat, in soaking wet clothes with no hot food, minimal navigation tools, and lacking any certainty that they would get through it alive. If you have ever read Endurance and been fascinated by the sheer force of will that helped these men to survive, it is absolutely incredible to see these locations in person and bring the stories to life.
As with Antarctica, the weather and conditions in and around South Georgia are highly variable. Our ship had a group of climbers on board, who were hoping to recreate Shackleton’s iconic mountain crossing. Unfortunately, the weather was against them and the climb had to be abandoned. We still managed to visit eerie Grytviken, where Shackleton’s grave lies and toasted the explorer with a shot of whiskey before visiting the tiny museum nearby. Grytviken in itself is sobering thanks to the crumbling remains of the whaling industry. It was haunting to see the giant tanks and rusty whaling ships that littered the bay. The sheer scale of the massacre of these gentle giants contrasted painfully with the experiences we would later have with curious and trusting whales approaching our zodiacs and the ship, down in Antarctica.
Extra time at sea
A typical expedition cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula will generally last around 9-12 days, whilst itineraries that include South Georgia will typically be 18-24 days in length. This fact alone may help you to decide if South Georgia is for you! For travellers with full-time jobs, taking a three-week trip may be a stretch too far, but from my perspective, the more time you can spend in this part of the world, the better.
For people who suffer from seasickness, the extra days at sea are not going to help. The seas between the Falklands and South Georgia, as well as between South Georgia and Antarctica can be just as choppy as the Drake Passage on a bad day. For motion sickness sufferers, extra seasickness medication will be vital to cover your journey but trust me when I say it will be worth it. The extra sea days cover rich wildlife stomping grounds and I spent many happy hours out on deck watching albatross glide and searching for whales through my binoculars.
The cost factor
There’s no denying it, Antarctic itineraries that visit South Georgia can get expensive, especially in the high season. However, if you are flexible on timing, you can save a considerable amount by going on an early-season trip. Voyages that depart in late October or early November can be considerably cheaper (by thousands of US dollars per person) than the same trip in January.
Going early in the season does mean that you will be compromising on the number of whales you’re likely to see, as fewer will be in Antarctic waters in November. You will also find the Antarctic-based penguins are still nesting and incubating, rather than having chicks. However, the landscape early in the season is pristine and you’ll have the pleasure of hiking through virgin snow and getting that picture-perfect Antarctic experience.
Should you do it?
It’s absolutely a personal decision with many influencing factors, but it’s always going to be a big YES from me! South Georgia is a truly unique environment and one of the most memorable places I have ever witnessed. The sheer scale of the wildlife is spectacular and the island’s majestic scenery and remote location give you that extra sense that you’re on an extraordinary adventure.
Yes, the itinerary is longer and the cost higher, but if you’re set on investing money to visit Antarctica and you have the flexibility to be away from home for an extended period, I highly recommend including South Georgia in your itinerary. You’ll never forget your time there.