Wandering Cort #9 - S.Georgia: Salisbury Plains & Prion Island
Finally after 2 & ½ sea days, we reached South Georgia. The Zodiacs can not land in high winds or big surf, so we hoped for calm weather. We got the calm weather and thick fog that turned to snow, sleet, and rain with temps about 38F. My foul weather gear kept all but my hands warm and dry. I wore fingerless mittens over thin gloves. This combination keeps my hands & fingers warm in the cold, yet leaves me with good dexterity to operate my camera. This combination does not work in the rain. My mittens & gloves were soaked, my hands cold, and my fingers barely able to clutch my camera.
Salisbury Plain is a large gently sloping beach full of King Penguins, Elephant Seals, and Fur Seals. The Elephant Seals are enormous, but it is the fur seals we have to watch out for. They are aggressive and will charge from 30 feet or more without provocation. Each male Fur Seal defends its territory in hopes of attracting a female. The females are all out to sea feeding and most of them are pregnant. They will deliver their pups 3 to 4 days after coming ashore. Soon after they pup, they go into heat and that is what these male fur seals are waiting for. After weeks without eating, while staying on land, the males are aggressive and ready to mate. We did not get to see the cute Fur Seal pups, which is good because the male Fur Seals are even more dangerous when the females are around.
The Elephant Seal bulls already have their females gathered around them. The dominant bulls are called beach masters. They weigh up to 11,000 pounds, while the females weight less than 1/5th of that at 2,000 pounds. The beach masters had over 20 females in their harems. It amazing that those poor females survive mating.
The Elephant Seals mostly ignored us. The females are resting and nursing their young, called weaners. The beach masters are busy defending their harems from other males on the periphery, hoping to get some female action. If another male intrudes, the beach masters lunge for their competitor without regard for what is in their path, including females, weaners, and tourists.
The beach masters aggressively defend their harems from other male interlopers, which is a major task with 20 females spread out across the beach. This harem is surrounded by a half dozen males parrying from multiple directions to gain access. Occasionally one of these peripheral males successfully mates with one of the females on the edge. This helps to diversify the gene pool.
I saw thousands of King Penguins scattered in groups from the beach, up the sloping plain to the foothills beyond. Periodically a King Penguin would point its beak in the air and let out an eerie piercing call. The Elephant Seals emitted a deep throaty grunt and Fur Seals barked their warnings. Salisbury Plain is noisy.
The King Penguin chicks are nearly the size of their parents. They are puffballs of brown down. They are all gathered together in crèches, so the adults can baby sit for each other while both parents go to sea to feed. These fluffy young penguins were mistaken for a separate brown species of penguin by early explorers.
The photo opportunities were endless, but the weather was foul. I kept my camera under my jacket except when shooting, but it still got very wet. I finally gave up shooting and put it away, so I could enjoy the amazing wildlife without worrying about my camera.
My Muck boots kept my feet warm and dry. I used a heat pack for my right foot for extra protection. Traction was excellent despite my nemesis, wet rocks. I carefully crossed shallow streams, walked down muddy slopes, and across frozen tundra without slipping.
My bladder filled up on schedule at 11:00. I had a pee bottle with me but could not find a private place to use it. There were yellow coats in every direction. Also my tights lacked a zipper. I would have to pull my tights down to prevent peeing on myself. It sure is easier to pee on a raft trip. I was tempted to walk over to the surf and pee in the ocean. Since it was miserable out and my hands were soaked and I had gotten great close up looks at all of the species on the beach, I decided to head back to the ship to pee and get out of my wet gear.
Our room looks like a laundry room with gear hanging to dry from every protrusion and my clothesline. I am glad I brought two pairs of heavy gloves, because my first pair will not be dry until tomorrow and we have a second shore excursion today.
The wind quickened to 30 knots, so it will be a rough Zodiac ride. The sky is lightening and I see some blue sky, so it may be dry on shore.
I hauled all of my gear and a tripod to Salisbury Plain. I only used the camera and never took anything else out of the pack or set up the tripod. For Prion Island, I plan to take just the camera with my new 18X200 lens. This will make it a lot easier getting on and off the Zodiac. It will also be nice not lugging all of that extra gear around.
Turns out 30 knots is a very strong wind. I watched the first group depart by Zodiac from Prion Island. They bounced around in the Zodiac like they were running Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon. Every bounce soaked them with blowing sea spray. Getting on and off the Zodiac was treacherous.
The main attraction for Prion Island is to seeing nesting Wandering Albatross. It would be fun to see them up close on the land, but I decided, it was not worth the drenching in salt water. I have had great looks at the Wandering Albatross flying around the ship. Also the scenery around the ship is spectacular. Jagged snow covered peaks, bright green islands, and glaciers flowing down to the sea. I wandered around all of the decks taking photos for this spectacular bay. I hate wind and I am a wimp.
I found out from the few brave souls who ventured onto Prion Island that it was miserable. They did see the nesting Wandering Albatross and something more important, the South Georgia Pipit. This little sparrow like bird is found only on the smallest islands in the South Georgia archipelago. Rats who escaped early exploration and whaling ships have taken over South Georgia. They do not bother large birds like Albatross and Penguins, but they have wiped out small birds like the South Georgia Pipit. Prion Island is the only stop on our itinerary, where they are found. I will have to come back.