Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What We're Used To

We're used to seeing king penguins on the beach. Sometimes Elias will make a detour to get close to some for a picture, and once at Husvik a king made a long beeline for us across the beach when we landed in the dinghy and we all stood still to see how close it would come. (Answer: arm's length.) But for the most part we're so used to seeing them that they don't elicit special comment or notice.

Seeing king penguins in the water, from the deck of our boat - that still gets me.

We are so used to fur seals on the beach. Antarctic fur seals have gone through an exponential population growth following their near extirpation from South Georgia. The shoreline of every bay is full of them, from the pups splashing in the waves to the napping crowds of fur seals that extend back in the coastal plains and up the hillsides. Back in the 1980s, there were fur seals in any number only at Bird Island, at the northern tip of South Georgia. Now they are a perfect riot of life everywhere we go. At night they swim next to our anchored boat in crowds so thick that we can hear the water swirling past their flippers while we read in bed. In the middle of the night we are awoken by the noise of fur seals trying to board Galactic - a big thumping thrashing splashing racket every time. We hear their growls and moans on the shore the first thing every morning and the last thing at night, as long as their isn't a gale of wind blowing. Luckily the breeding season is well over, so the males are no longer aggressively defending their harems from all intruders, be they otariids or bipeds. We don't think we'd do very well here in the breeding season, when there is a real threat from those males.

We're very used to fine glaciated peaks poking out of the clouds. This would be quite a place for climbing. My own climbing days far gone, I'm happy enough for that soul-cleansing feeling that comes with the purity of an engrossing alpine landscape. I wonder when we'll next be in a high-latitude landscape - most likely it will be when we return to Alaska.


Our tour of the island has come to an end, and we're back at the dock in Grytviken to water up for our passage to South Africa. The place has an empty, end of the season feel to it, though a motor yacht did pull up to the dock last night, the crew too busy with their communications via headset to thank someone who might have come out to take their lines, and a cruise ship carrying Chinese passengers is at anchor this morning.

Grytviken was the longest-occupied whaling station on the island (I believe), and it is the finest harbor in the island. King Edmund Point, in the same bay, has been the seat of British government since early in the last century. There is an excellent museum here where we were invited to tea with the staff on our first day here, at the start of the tour. That had a great informal friendly South Georgia feel to it - "we're about to have tea in the staff room, would you like to join us?"

That "hail, well met" attitude is something that has largely disappeared from South Georgia. The yachts visiting the place still have it very much among each other, of course. The camaraderie among people who come to places like this in their own boats would be hard to kill off. But where the people who were coming here in their own boats decades ago - the Tilmans and the Poncets - found a secret world, utterly remote and apart, a place where meeting a fellow traveler was always an event, the 21st Century visitor finds something different. The South Georgia experience has been commoditized and commercialized and regulated. Where those only-a-lifetime-ago visitors found the opportunity to explore, to plumb the mysteries of the world and therefore of themselves, we find a "government" with no population, a duchy of bureaucrats promulgating rules and directives. You may walk from waypoint nine to waypoint ten by whatever route you chose, but waypoint 11 and 12 pass near a closed area and must be followed exactly. That sort of thing. It's much the same throughout the Antarctic as well, and all done in the service of the unassailable - biosecurity and conservation, etc., etc. The only thing that is lost is some opportunity of expression for human grit and ingenuity and wildness, and instead of the heady brew of adventure, today's visitor is offered the much less intoxicating drink of minor rule-breaking.

Makes me glad for my younger days in Alaska, when I just buggered off to the hills by myself to see what might be out there, and what might happen if I added myself to the mix.


We're on final countdown to leave. Unless the forecast takes a very strong turn for the worse, we expect to be away tomorrow. Alisa was talking the other day about what sort of galley delights she might be able to produce for the passage, and Eric, poor duffer, spoke up to object. "Don't make cake, mom!" he said. "I don't want to throw up cake." You see, he doesn't want his brother to be enjoying treats that he won't be able to keep down himself.

Hopefully it won't be too rough a passage, and he'll get his sea legs soon. We are beginning to be excited for a southern African interlude, something that will be so very different from here.

Meanwhile, we have one more day to enjoy Grytviken. The whaling station here has been cleaned up so that it's a safe place for the boys to wander around, and there's plenty of wildlife hanging around.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!


  1. Hi Mike & family! We're loving every minute and every post. Bon voyage on the next leg of your wonderful journey. Safe travels - Alan Haynie

  2. So glad you made it to S Georgia. Elias and Eric are growing up in such an amazing environment. Bon voyage for the S Atlantic leg. And by the way we're heading off in the Maid ourselves shortly for a year or two. Fair winds from Jon & Barbara

  3. May the wind consistently be behind the beam, and the swell be kind to Eric, and you all stay safe, healthy, amused and composed - well, that's enough. South Africa could be closer, couldn't it, but put those miles behind you with pleasure, Team Galactic. much love from the team formerly known as Enki.

  4. Hi A and M ,

    you may recall our catch up on the pier at Gritviken. I popped by to say hi ...from one of those tourist boats..the ocean diamond..as I working as the doc on the ship. safe travels and i know i will enjoy reading more of your blog posts