Day 15 Up early to a mostly sunny day, for our last time on South Georgia. When I awoke, we were anchored in West Bay, a wing of the large Cumberland Bay. Shortly a group of trekers debarked at Maiviken for a three km hike over some ridges and thence down to Grytviken, the capital of South Georgia.
As soon as debarkation was complete, we weighed anchor and proceded around a peninsula, the northernmost projection was Sappho Point.
As we headed into Cumberland Bay, a snow-covered mountain range was directly ahead, with a lenticular cloud hanging over a ridge line. It was a “take-your-breath-away” beautiful. This lenticular looks almost like a flying saucer. Lenticular clouds (Altocumulus lenticularis) are stationary lens-shaped clouds that form at high altitudes, normally in perpendicular alignment to the wind direction.
In this mountain range Mt. Paget, the highest peak on South Georgia at 2934 meters or 9623 feet elevation, may have been in view. It is very revealing to realize the the actual mountain height of the highest peak in Colorado (Mt. Elbert), that is, from the base to the top is 9093 feet, and Mt. Paget’s base is nearly sea level. This is one high mountain!
As we motored along in upper Cumberland Bay, a Snowy Sheathbill flew overhead a number of times, circling the ship with the apparent objective of landing aboad. It did not, however. Sheathbills are the only “land” bird on Antarctica and cannot swim because they do not have webbed feet. They appear to be a pure, angelic bird, but have rather disgusting culinary habits, eating just about anything, including dung and carrion!
As we approached the settlement of Gritviken, the buildings are dwarfed by the mountain above. It is hard to fathom what waking up every morning in such a location must be like. Does one become blase about the beauty?
Once anchored, we had to wait for all our passports to be processed and stamped. In the meantime, Sarah Lurcock of the South Georgia Heritage Trust gave a presentation on the rat eradication program and its initial success. It is heartwarming to hear that in the first area “treated” the rats were completely eradicated and so seabird nesting will now be much more successful. Two or three more areas need to be treated with final completion in 2015, at which time it is expected that bird numbers on the island will return to historic levels. Sarah, by the way, has lived on South Georgia for many years, so must like the place!
Once cleared, Zodiacs were loaded and beached adjacent to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave site. Victoria gave a moving memorial speech on Shackleton and the staff poured whiskey into glasses for the traditional toast to “the Boss.” While I had read that one threw the remains of one’s drink directly on the gravestone, our group simply poured the whiskey on the grave itself.
Once this little ceremony was complete, we all trekked into town, passing the last penguins of the trip (a small group of Kings) and a few aggressive Fur Seals. Soon enough I came to a beached harpoon ship, the Petrel, a smaller ship than the “mother ship,” that was dispatched to kill the whale. One cannot help but reflect on how painfully cruel this practice was and how many whales were processed on South Georgia during whaling’s hayday: 175,000.
After passing lots of deteriorating structures that look for all the world like rusty debris from a Rust Belt industry, one came to the nicely restored museum. Guarded of course by an Elephant Seal to make sure nothing untoward occurs here!
Inside the museum were many fascinating exhibits of every aspect of South Georgia life during the last century. One was greeting, upon entering, by a mounted Wandering Albatross with its huge wingspan very obvious.
Inside the museum was a well-stocked gift shop. The shop received a great deal of attention from folks who had been unable to purchase much of anything for over two weeks! It is estimated that in excess of $10 thousand was dropped in this shop during our short visit, profits of which all go to the South Georgia Heritage Trust, a most commendable NGO.
After the museum, most of us wandered back to the chapel, a plain white building that has stood at the base of the mountains for 99 years. Shackleton may very well have given thanks here.
Inside the chapel was very well maintained, plain, quiet, dignified, and attractive. It is still reportedly used, on occasion for weddings and other ceremonies. There are two bells in the steeple that can be rung from the balcony and many people took advantage of the opportunity to do so. Including me.
The Post Office got a great deal of business also, with many people buying post cards at the gift store, stamping them there with special rubber stamps, and then mailing them to friends and relatives. The stamps featured South Georgia Island wildlife and are very attractive. I do not know how often mail goes out or how, but it apparently is taken to the Falklands periodically and then back to the UK. Transit time for one I sent to my fiancee was three weeks. Not bad considering!
It had been snowing off and on for several hours. This then turned to rain and it was time to wrap things up. Zodiacs were brought in near two beached whaling ships and began ferrying people back to Plancius.
It was with a heavy heart that I took one of the last boats out and kissed goodbye to our 6.5 days in and around South Georgia. It was 1215. This had been quite an adventure with exciting wildlife displaying and performing for us and witnessing the remains of a horrible sealing and whaling industry. It is all well and good that that is over and the island is slowly being returned to a pristine natural environment.
At exactly 1343 we were underway for Ushuaia, experieincing 12.5 knots of wind, but knowing as soon as we cleared the blocking land, the wind would freshen. And indeed it did. By 1530 the wind was at 35 knots from almost due north, the direction we were headed to clear the island before heading west for Argentina.
Rolling and pitching occurred quickly and the ship was bounced around for the entire night. The mood in the dining room that night was both reflective and somber. The adventure was over except for the ride to Tierra del Fuego.
Day 16 Awoke at 0515 to a bright sunlit day, with wind diminished to 25 knots from 253. Our course was 265, so it was almost directly on the bow. Later it clouded over completely and swells were 10-12 feet high. Plancius was getting bounced around a good deal and we took a lot of water over the bow.
There were a few sea birds around, but nothing new and not very many species. There were a few Wandering Albatrosses flying by that occasionally got close enough to the ship for a photo.
That night was Poetry Night and various passengers and staff read poems in the lounge after dinner. Some were from well-known authors like Robert Service, that featured polar themes, bravery, courage, survival, etc. Others were written by passengers to express themes such as sea sickness. Our Australian representatives Steve and Ricci Bishop were big contributors. She wrote of sea sickness and snowflakes; Steve wrote about my quest for an SGI Pipit to photograph! John Martin dressed up to read his poem.
Day 17 Up early again, with the temp still a brisk 35 degrees and the wind at 19 knots from 312.
Despite the word that Halloween would not be celebtrated this year due to the large number of Europeans in the guest group, Natascha and Johnny went to great efforts to decorate for this holiday…a holiday that is not recognized in Europe. As we entered the dining room for dinner, we were greeted by a mummy lying on the first table.
(It was later revealed that the mummy was Resty Perez, one of our stewards) Nearby, was the traditional carved pumpkin, lit from the inside, of course.
And we were served by wildly creative waitresses.
Some folks even were prepared for the night with a modicum of costumes:
After dinner it was rumored that some folks reassembled in the lounge in the vicinity of the bar and continued celebrating, some into the early morning hours.
Day 18 Awoke early yet again to temperatures still in the mid-thirties, but the seas absolutely calm. There was virtually no wind, making flying very difficult for the long winged sea birds. Many were floating around on the ocean. Storm petrels got their name from being seen during heavy weather. Where they go in calm weather is anyone’s guess. Prions and Blue Petrels are also seen mostly when seas are big and winds strong. One of the sights that is usually not seen in windy weather are the sea birds flapping wings like this Black-brow. Usually, of course, they just soar for hours on end.
It was rather amazing that in the morning there were many sea birds around the ship, but by the afternoon they had disappeared almost entirely. The birds in the morning were the usual Black-brows, Cape Petrels, Giant Petrels and an occasional Wandering A. The delightful little Cape Petrels were with us almost every hour for the entire 10.5 days at sea.
Day 19 Our last full day at sea. The hightlight of this day was seeing Orcas quite close to the ship. A pod appeared at 0835 and remained for something like twenty minutes. We were told by naturalist Jamie that these were Type 4 Orcas. I did not realize that there was more than one type.Nearby were Black-browed Albatrosses. I suspect that they were hoping for the residue of a major attack and had learned that table scraps are always possible when the Orcas are around. I was able to photo one albatross with an Orca in the same frame.
In mid afternoon, we passed Staten Island or Isla de Los Estadas on our starboard side. This Argentine island is populated by only four marines who are stationed at a tiny naval base on the north side. Otherwise it remains free of humans and the only people allowed ashore are with tours from Ushuaia. Penguins nest here and deer and goats have been introduced. It is mostly a mountainous, forest covered island.
After dinner there were many speeches and accolades in the lounge. Afterwards I went out on deck and experienced a very nice sunset for our last evening at sea.
Day 20 Up early again, watching the scene as we steamed up the Beagle Channel, heading for Ushuaia. Looking back at the entrance, with the sun peaking part way through clouds.
Looking to starboard were the snow covered mountains of Tierra del Fuego.
Finally, as we got closer, we could see Ushuaia, nestled at the base of a range of more snow-covered mountains. Ushuaia is a prosperous town of 58,000, although it seems much smaller. It bills itself as the southernmost city in the world…and it is! It is also advertised as the capital of the Malvinas, which English speakers call the Falkland Islands. The Falklands War of 1982 is still very fresh and raw for most Argentinians. Most expedition and tourist ships headed for the Antarctic depart from Ushuaia.
Plancius approached the only big pier in the harbor, was turned around, and finally was moored starboard side to. Lines were doubled, the gangway dropped and passengers prepared their departure.
Our luggage was removed from the ship as we picked up our passports at the desk and one by one, debarked. On the pier there were handshakes, hugs and not a few tears. During our seventeen days aboard, many new friendships had been made, and experiences shared. Many of us hope to see each other again somewhere in the future.