There are few places on earth as scenically stunning, as remote, or as rugged as South Georgia.
Located approximately 1200 miles east of the southern tip of South America in the South Atlantic Ocean, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands and the South Sandwich Islands lie N.E of Antarctica.
South Georgia may have the greatest biodiversity in the Southern Ocean. The ocean is rich and supports an incredible population of marine mammals and avian species. So much so, that it is often referred to as “the Galápagos of the Southern Ocean”.
First sighted by English merchant Anthony de la Roché in 1675, it was 100 years later when Captain James Cook “claimed” the island for England and named it in honor of King George III in 1775. The island has remained a British Overseas Territory since, and now forms part of the British Antarctic Survey.
A Checkered History
Records of James Cook’s visit mention massive populations of elephant and fur seals. As a result, by 1786 the island became the site of large scale seal trade where the entire population of seals was slaughtered to virtual extinction by 1830. Following the collapse of the seal industry, whaling took over, with a major station established in 1904. Whaling flourished until the mid 1960s, when the last whaling station was abandoned in 1965.
In 1916, South Georgia featured prominently in the survival of British polar explorer, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Two years prior, Shackleton conceived and attempted an expedition to cross the Antarctic continent by land. The 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctica Expedition set sail aboard the Endurance, departing the South Georgia whaling station at Grytviken on December 5th, bound for the Weddell Sea. In an attempt to land at Vahsel Bay, the Endurance became trapped in pack ice on January 17th, 1915. Shackleton and his crew remained on board, trapped throughout the Antarctic winter and despite months of trying to free themselves, the ship was crushed The team were forced to abandon ship on October 27th, make camp on the ice and salvage the ship’s provisions and lifeboats. As provisions ran out and with the pack ice gradually drifting northeastward and breaking up, Shackleton and his crew had no choice but to take to the 3 lifeboats. After seven freezing and harrowing days, they made it to Elephant Island.
With no hope of being discovered, Shackleton and ship’s carpenters adapted one of the lifeboats to attempt the treacherous 800 mile journey back to South Georgia. The 22’ “James Caird” with Shackleton and 5 others, endured hurricane-force winds and what Shackleton described as the largest waves he’d seen in 26 years at sea, yet against all odds, and 17 days at sea, they reached South Georgia on May 10th - one of the most epic transits in maritime history. Even then, the struggle was not yet over. After a few days rest, Shackleton and 2 others managed, in bitter cold, snow and ice, to cross a 3000’ mountain range to reach the nearest whaling station at Stromness. It took another 4.5 months to rescue the 21 companions left on Elephant Island. During this 23 month saga, no lives were lost.
In 1921, Ernest Shackleton returned to the Antarctic, where he died of a heart attack while his ship was moored in South Georgia. At his wife’s request, his body was laid to rest at Grytviken.
While visitors today can visit Shackleton’s grave just outside the abandoned whaling station at Grytviken, the main attraction is the abundant wildlife. Like the Galápagos, the surrounding nutrient dense cold waters provide sustenance for a huge concentration of life to be found on South Georgia.
Despite the wholesale slaughter of seals during the early 19th century, populations have recovered, and now more than 2 million southern fur seals, some 95% of the world’s population, arrive each summer. Half the world’s population of southern elephant seals comes to South Georgia every year.
King penguins gather in the millions to form one of the largest rookeries on the planet. Colonies of Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni penguins nest here and if you are lucky, you may see Adelie, Royal, Magellanic and Southern Rockhopper penguins. That is lot of “suits.”
250,000 Albatross, including the largest species, the Wandering albatross nest on South Georgia. Besides albatross, the island is home to an estimated 10 million other seabirds including several species of gull, skua, shag, tern, petrel, prion and shearwater.