Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Fabled Land

South Georgia is a hundred-mile long scrap of mountain chain dropped into the South Atlantic Ocean at 54° South latitude. We've been thinking about the place for years.

It's hard to stop thinking about a place that gets such unqualified raves from everyone we've met who's sailed there. At least half the people we know who have been to South Georgia have told us that it is their favorite place in the entire world. Mind, these are folks who have seen more of the world than most. And, in addition to being fantastic, South Georgia is potentially so difficult to access, both getting there and away. That's a powerful combination for the serial dream chaser who seems to be calling the shots on board Galactic.

So two days ago we got to rock up and see what all the fuss is about.

We had a fairly ideal passage to get here. (Saying that can't jinx us for the much bigger passage that lies ahead, surely?) Light downwind sailing, moderate swell, no ice.

And the dream conditions continued on our arrival day. We had hove to forty miles off South Georgia at midnight the night before we arrived, and when I roused myself again at four and looked out the companionway, the mountains of the island were perfectly positioned in front of a purple sunrise.

The day grew sunny, and calm enough that the boys spent hours on the bow, watching wildlife, as we closed the gap to shore. (And some kind of wildlife it was. Elias claimed a right whale. And if nothing else there were certainly plenty of albatross and penguins around the joint.)

We sailed in past Antarctic ice bergs grounded in the shallows around the outlying islands west of South Georgia. They looked massive and monolithic at first, and then as we sailed past them they were revealed as massive and delicate - towering fins and spires of ice, huge walls leaning against the air and ballasted by their submarine mass. Once we rounded storied Bird Island (anchorage discouraged, landing prohibited) and entered Elsehul, our chosen anchorage, the shallow water became turquoise and the day hot, or at least too hot for double expedition-weight long johns and full rain gear.

Luxury indeed.

After we had dropped the pick and congratulated ourselves for making it all the way from Stanley, we rallied to launch Smooches, the inflatable dinghy.

The beaches ringing the bay were more or less heaving with wildlife, and we wanted a closer view.

And a closer view we got. These being Antarctic creatures, they have little in the way of fear of people, even the species, such as Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals, that were formerly hunted so mercilessly.

South Georgia is the Lucky Country of the Antarctic. It lies south of the polar front, and thus offers pinnipeds and seabirds with the incredibly rich foraging of cold Antarctic waters with their formerly chief competitors, the great whales, largely taken out of the equation. And, the shoreline of South Georgia is largely ice free, and so offers those pinnipeds and seabirds plenty of terrestrial habitat suitable for breeding. (I realize that I am using the Lucky Country reference in its degenerate form.)

Because of the concurrence of these two conditions, the beaches of Elsehul are fairly teeming with wildlife. In particular, the water's edge is currently alive with Antarctic fur seal pups, cute little bug-eyed things that are a major improvement over their homicidal fathers, whom we would have found crowding the same beaches a few months ago. The beaches are also covered with molting elephant seals and king penguins and gentoo penguins and a cast of less numerous supporting characters.

We dropped Smooches' anchor two meters from the beach and watched the show unwind all around us.

It was pure heaven for our family of wildlife enthusiasts. The boys were particularly good at spotting new species. Eric saw the South Georgia pintails, and Elias the snowy sheathbill, the light-mantled sooty albatross, the lone molting chinstrap penguin, an especially notable sighting, and any number of other highlights.

It was a brilliant start to the place.

Then yesterday we sat out various gale force winds as a low pressure system passed over the anchorage. As the weather improves we'll make our way to Grytviken to clear into the territory.

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