With cruises departing South America and heading directly to Antarctica, the trip time is shortened but you miss the tiny island of South Georgia. With the even shorter version — flying to King George Island off the Antarctica Peninsula and beginning your expedition from there — you also miss South Georgia. But including South Georgia in your itinerary offers wildlife viewing and on-land experiences that make your expedition to the 7th continent a trip filled with adventure, discovery, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Before we look at the nine reasons why South Georgia should be part of your expedition to Antarctica, let me give you a little bit of information about what to consider when you research your cruise.
In keeping with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the continent is shared by countries around the world. Its primary purpose is to provide a place of collaborative scientific research. And 29 of the 54 countries that signed the treaty have research bases in Antarctica.
Tourism to Antarctica is regulated in order to lessen the impact travelers have on the continent. The expedition you choose should be part of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). IAATO limits the number of people on any given landing to 100. They also regulate the landings and lengths of the visits so the land and wildlife are not adversely impacted. You’re ferried from ship to shore on a Zodiac boat. If the ship you choose for your expedition has fewer than 100 guests, you’ll be able to participate in every shore landing offered.
Here are the reasons why the tiny island of South Georgia should be part of your Antarctic adventure.
1. You’ll Have Boots On The Ground
Except for typically one trek on the Antarctic Peninsula, the majority of excursions to destinations in Antarctica involve sightseeing from Zodiac boats. With South Georgia, you’ll be exploring on foot, with easy hikes and up-close experiences with wildlife (curious penguins walk up to you).
Short hikes take you to nesting areas or viewing platforms from where you’ll see stunning panoramas of the beaches and the Scotia Sea — a part of the Southern Ocean.
2. You’ll See Albatrosses Take Off
Several types of albatrosses inhabit South Georgia and the small islands that surround it. While viewing wandering albatross from the ship’s deck, the birds look big but not enormous. You’ll get an up-close view of them on Prion Island, just off of South Georgia’s north shore. The wandering albatross’s wingspan is the largest of any living bird on the planet, reaching 11 feet. To get airborne, they have to get a running start. Once they are airborne, they can glide for several hours without flapping their wings. Individual albatrosses have been tracked and found to cover 12,000 miles over the course of the year. They breed on South Georgia and other subantarctic islands beginning each November.
Black-browed albatrosses, with about 7.5-foot wingspans, are found on South Georgia. A huge colony of 400,000 breeding pairs nest on the Falkland Islands but a very respectable colony of 70,000 breeding pairs lives on South Georgia so you’ll see them on your visit. Dove gray downy chicks hatch in their mud nests in late December and early January.
These are just two species of albatrosses on South Georgia. You’re likely to spot more albatross species between South America and Antarctica. You’ll also see petrels, skua, cormorants, kelp gulls, Antarctic terns, and Antarctic prions.
Pro Tip: Albatrosses are considered threatened and near-threatened depending on the species, due to fishing and pollution. To find out more about conservation efforts, visit the Agreement on Albatross and Petrel Conservation’s website.
3. You Might Spot Macaroni Penguins
In 18th century England, “Macaroni” referred to high society, sophisticated young men who toured Europe and adopted a taste for Italian pasta and fine European clothing, including wigs and feathered caps. The verse, “Yankee Doodle came to town riding on a pony. He stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” was a way the British Army put down the less well-dressed colonials during the Revolutionary War.
Upon seeing penguins on the Falkland Islands with a flamboyant splash of yellow and orange feathers on their heads, English sailors named them Macaronis. Their habitat extends from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula.
The world’s largest population lives on South Georgia but colonies are remote. Your best chance of seeing them is when they enter the water in search of krill — the shrimp-like crustaceans that make the Macaroni’s feathers orange.
4. You’ll Experience The Chaos Of A King Penguin Colony
South Georgia is home to some of the largest King penguin colonies in the world, too. A short walk from your Zodiac landing on Salisbury Plain or St. Andrews Bay gets you to King penguin colonies with 100,000 plus breeding pairs that are trumpeting, courting, waddling, and, in the case of the juveniles — whistling — to their parents. The noise is deafening, and the smell of guano is quite strong, nevertheless, the experience is unmatched.
IAATO requires visitors to stay at least five meters (16 feet) away from any wildlife. Curious juveniles, called oakum boys, have brown downy feathers and can be seen throughout the season, as King penguins breed every 14 months. You will also see molting adult penguins that are land-bound and hungry until they replace their feathers and return to the sea to feed.
Along with King penguins, South Georgia is also home to Magellanic, Gentoo, and Chinstrap penguins.
Pro Tip: Sit or stand quietly when you are near a colony. Curious penguins are likely to approach and break the five-meter rule.
5. You’ll Marvel At Massive Elephant Seals
Gold Harbour, named for the color of the beach’s golden mountain backdrop at sunrise and sunset, is home to King penguins, fur seals, and massive elephant seals. Adult elephant seal males weigh up to 8,800 pounds and dwarf the females that weigh from 900 to 2,000 pounds. Juvenile male elephant seals practice sparring on the beach, otherwise, the entire lot of elephant seals seem content to sunbathe while they’re on land.
6. You Can Retrace Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Trek
No expedition to Antarctica would be complete without learning about polar explorers that attempted and succeeded at reaching the South Pole. Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt failed but he was heralded as a hero. After his ship, the Endurance was crushed by ice in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his men made their way to Elephant Island. Shackleton went with a small group of his men to find a ship to get his men home.
Shackleton sailed on a small boat to South Georgia and hiked over snowy, icy, rugged terrain to reach Stromness whaling station in 1916. He returned to rescue all of his men on Elephant Island about 4 months later.
Depending on weather conditions, you can retrace the final part of Shackleton’s trek to Stromness. Stromness became a ship repair yard after whaling ended. Humans left in 1961. Now it’s fur seal city.
7. You Can Send A Postcard
South Georgia Heritage Trust is based in Grytviken and serves to restore and protect South Georgia. They’ve eradicated rodents that were introduced when Grytviken was a Norwegian whaling station. The rodents were preying upon bird eggs and putting seabirds that nest on South Georgia at risk for extinction.
Buildings, including a white wooden Norwegian Lutheran church, whale processing equipment, and whale oil vats are scattered about Grytviken. Docent-led tours and the museum tell of the whaling station’s history. You can buy a souvenir in the museum shop and mail a postcard from Grytviken’s post office.
8. You Can Toast Sir Ernest Shackleton
While at Grytviken, you can visit Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave. He died on South Georgia in 1922 from a heart condition. Traditionally, visitors toast Shackleton with a glass of scotch whiskey, reserving just a bit to pour on his grave. It was his favorite drink.
A short, whitewashed picket fence encircles the cemetery filled with graves of the whaling station workers and sailors. Many succumbed to industrial accidents and many died from typhus. South Georgia’s magistrate William Barlas, was the last person buried here. He was swept into the sea by an avalanche in 1941.
9. You’ll Enjoy Days At Sea
With the extended journey to South Georgia, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy at-sea days. Whether you attend one of the many lectures given onboard, read a good book, watch for whales, dolphins, or seabirds, or play a card game with fellow passengers, a sea day is a chance to relax and enjoy a little downtime before your adventures begin in Antarctica.
Pro Tip: If you’re departing from South America, expeditions to South Georgia and Antarctica include several stops in the Falkland Islands. The best months to make this trip are November through February. To maximize your time on land during excursions, book your cruise on a ship carrying fewer than 100 guests.
Antarctica is a popular destination for travelers, and cruising is one of the favorite ways to visit the region: