South Georgia: The Jewel of the South Atlantic

These trips fill up fast. Please contact us immediately if you are interested in this tour so we can secure space

This incredibly remote and wild island is home to an abundance of wildlife and breathtaking landscapes, and has rightly been called ‘the most staggering wildlife show on earth’. After an in-depth exploration, we are certain you will agree. Most visits to South Georgia last only three or four days and are part of a much longer itinerary that includes time spent in Antarctica. This tour offers an amazing opportunity of eight full days of exploration – double the time spent on most cruises.

An additional highlight of this departure will be the shipboard photography symposium open to all guests. This program runs alongside our regular series of presentations on history, ornithology, geology and the natural world. The members of the photographic team each have a special area of expertise including wildlife photography, landscape and composition, along with technical elements including gear and equipment and computer based processing, file management and storage. We make regular use of our ship-board multi-media studio for breakout sessions and to review and critique our images throughout the voyage. Our photographic goals on this departure will be formed and led by the light available both onshore and on the water. With a varied and diverse itinerary and flexible plans, we aim to make the most out of the beautiful light, even if outside conventional shore landing times. For the photography buffs, this trip is not to be missed!

Our voyage is timed to coincide with the height of the polar summer. Days are long and the wildlife will be relaxed after the earlier breeding frenzy in spring. Penguin chicks are playful, their parents coming and going from the sea with bellies full of krill to feed their young. The fur seal pups are especially curious and the seabirds are always soaring in the skies above – a constant feature of any voyage to South Georgia. Areas covered in snow during our earlier visits will have melted, allowing for hiking opportunities ashore. The rusting historic sites sit silently and the colors of the old buildings contrast brilliantly against the green tussock grass, the dark mountains and white snowy peaks for which South Georgia is renowned. Join us for one of the most extraordinary small ship expeditions anywhere on earth.

Please note – Specific sites visited will depend on ice and weather conditions, and the planned itinerary will be updated at the time of final preparations, as well as throughout the voyage in order to take advantage of favorable conditions. As with all polar expeditions, safety is the top priority, and weather, ice, or other conditions could prevent visiting any of these locations after the tour begins.

Day 0: Punta Arenas (Chile). While this day is not officially part of the cruise, we very highly recommend arriving in Punta Arenas (at least) one day early as insurance against possible travel delays or lost luggage. We would be happy to book you a night in a hotel in the city.

Day 1: Punta Arenas to Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. Our journey commences this morning in the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas. We meet at a central location and transfer to the airport for our scheduled service to Stanley in the Falkland Islands (this flight is included in the price of your voyage). After a short 90-minute flight we arrive in Stanley and are met on arrival and transferred to the pier. Stanley is currently home to just over 2,000 residents and is reminiscent of a rural town in coastal England or Scotland. It is charming with brightly colored houses, pretty flower-filled gardens, a quaint cathedral and several local pubs. The waterfront memorial, built to commemorate the lives of the servicemen lost during the Falklands War in the early 1980’s, is a sobering reminder of recent history. There is time to explore the town, before we make our way to the ship for embarkation. After settling in to our cabins and exploring the ship, we meet our expedition team and fellow passengers. Excitement is in the air as we enjoy a welcome cocktail, dinner and cast off, bound for South Georgia – and the adventure of a lifetime.

Days 2-3: At sea. We chart a southeasterly course bound for South Georgia. Although two days at sea sounds daunting, these can actually be some of the more fascinating days of the tour, as the regular seabirds in the area peak our interest, and we also have a shot at some interesting whales and dolphins. The mix of fauna on this crossing changes distinctly as we cross the Antarctic Convergence, the invisible line that demarks the change from the warmer northern waters of the subantarctic to the cooler waters of the Antarctic. Scanning for pelagic birds in the warmer waters should produce constantly attendant Black-browed Albatrosses along with the true giants of the sea, Wandering Albatross and Royal Albatross. Gray-backed Storm-Petrels and Slender-billed Prions will be replaced by Black-bellied Storm-Petrels and Antarctic Prions as we cross the convergence. The first day is especially good for scarce shearwaters and petrels such as Greater Shearwater, Gray Petrel, and Atlantic Petrel. Birds are not the only focus, and we stand a good chance of seeing Peale’s and Hourglass Dolphins, Fin Whale, Sei Whale, or even a pod of Orcas. Talks and presentations are given by onboard polar experts who will be educating us on the wonders of the South Atlantic Ocean and Sub-Antarctic eco-systems. History is also a theme of this voyage and the epic story of Shackleton is part of our journey. We will also learn about conservation in South Georgia – a theme you will appreciate more once arriving at the island.

Southern Royal Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross (Nick Athanas)

Days 4-10: South Georgia in depth. These next eight days will be unlike anything you have ever imagined. Majestic snow-covered mountains greet us on arrival in South Georgia. We begin by cruising the protected waters of the northeastern coast looking for suitable landing spots such as Elsehul Bay and Salisbury Plain. The highlight of both of these areas is the staggering abundance of King Penguin adults and their young that live in these locations by the hundreds of thousands, covering every inch of the shore.

King Penguins in extraordinary numbers are the highlight of the tour for many
King Penguins in extraordinary numbers are the highlight of the tour for many (Nick Athanas)

At the height of breeding season this area is believed to have more wildlife per square foot than any other place on the planet. You have to experience to believe it. The majestic ‘Kings’ are not the only wildlife on display. Antarctic Fur Seals can be seen poking their heads above the water, the Southern Elephant Seals will enjoy lazing about the beach, while the Brown Skuas and Northern Giant Petrels swoop and weave in the skies above. Meanwhile, albatrosses, including Wandering, Light-mantled, and Gray-headed, are never far away. Assuming that weather allows a landing, we should be able to see South Georgia Pipit, the world’s southernmost breeding passerine, along with an endemic subspecies of Yellow-billed Pintail.

We continue our journey deeper into the heart of South Georgia where our next expected stop is Prion Island, in the beautiful Bay of Isles. This island has been designated as a “Specially Protected Area” by the South Georgia Government, due to the breeding Wandering Albatross colonies at this location. Boasting the largest wingspan of any living bird, typically ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 m (8ft to 11ft), they spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed. Distances traveled each year are hard to measure, but one bird was recorded traveling 6000 km in just twelve days. It is rare to experience them up close and personal and on land. We are exceptionally lucky to be able to attempt a landing here. The site is closed to visiting ships between November and mid-January.

We will try to land on Prion Island to see Wandering Albatrosses nesting up close
We will try to land on Prion Island to see Wandering Albatrosses nesting up close (Nick Athanas)

Our adventure takes us next to Fortuna Bay, a majestic three-mile long and one-mile wide fjord. It was named after the ship Fortuna, one of the original vessels of the Norwegian–Argentine whaling expedition which established the first permanent whaling station at Grytviken, further down the coast. Here at Fortuna Bay we can expect to see more King Penguins and elephant seals.

History comes into sharp focus as we continue west to Stromness and Grytviken. From 1912 until the 1930’s, Stromness (and nearby Leith and Husvik), operated as whaling stations and the rusted and ghostly remnants of the old stations seem out of place in such a pristine environment. This area is key to the Shackleton story as it was here, in 1916, that Shackleton and his companions, Worsley and Crean arrived after their epic crossing from King Haakon Bay on the south coast. This is after having completed their 800-mile journey by small boat from Elephant Island. If the weather co-operates, there will be an optional hike over the last few miles across the saddle, which separates Fortuna Bay from neighboring Stromness, walking in the footsteps of Shackleton and his men.

The abandoned station at Stromness is now home to seals and penguins
The abandoned station at Stromness is now home to seals and penguins (Nick Athanas)

As we journey further to the southeast we enter the broad expanse of Cumberland Bay. At the head of the bay lies Grytviken – the largest of the old whaling stations on South Georgia. After a traditional toast over the graves of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his loyal right hand man, Frank Wild, we’ll explore the area. This is a great spot to photograph Antarctic Terns and South Georgia Shags along with more fur and elephant seals. A gift shop and museum are also well worth visiting.

Our next few days take us to St. Andrew’s Bay and Gold Harbour – places that are teeming with wildlife. The King Penguin colonies here, while smaller than at Salisbury Plain, are arguably more scenic with a dramatic hanging glacier in the background. Snowy Sheathbills and Gentoo Penguins are also found in good numbers here among the Kings. As with all landings, we will exercise every opportunity possible to explore on foot, as much or as little as you like. Gold Harbour is so called because the sun’s rays make the cliffs yellow with their light in the morning and evening. It’s an exhilarating location.

Gold Harbour is just amazing
Gold Harbour is just amazing (Nick Athanas)

Drygalski Fjord has been called one of the most spectacular sites in South Georgia and we think you will agree. If it is calm enough you can hear the glacier calving large chunks of ice into the steely blue waters. Whales can be superb in this area, with Humpback, Fin, Southern Right, and Blue Whales all seen here on recent trips. This is the best spot on the trip for the immaculate Snow Petrel, often seeing flying around the icebergs along with staggering numbers of Antarctic Petrels. We also hope to see a few Blue Petrels and South Georgia Diving Petrels as we begin our return trip to the Falkland Islands.

Snow Petrels are a highlight near the ice fields of Drygalski Fjord
Snow Petrels are a highlight near the ice fields of Drygalski Fjord (Nick Athanas)

Days 11-13: At sea. Our final sea days are spent looking for any pelagic species we missed on the way over or trying to get better photos of some. There is also time to catch up on journal entries or downloading and reviewing photos. For some, it’s a chance to catch some well-earned rest after a busy week of exploration. The comfy lounge and bar on our ship provides fantastic panoramas and is a great place to sit with a book and a hot tea or coffee. The educational presentations continue and we enjoy an entertaining and memorable voyage recap by our Expedition Leader.

We stand a good chance to see Hourglass Dolphin during our days at sea
We stand a good chance to see Hourglass Dolphin during our days at sea (Nick Athanas)

Day 14: Sea Lion Island. We wake to the sight of landfall in the Falklands. Approaching Sea Lion Island, we first note the very barren and windswept landscape, exposed to the prevailing weather that originates in the Drake Passage. We launch the zodiacs and go ashore to view the incredible diversity of wildlife found at this location. Three species of penguin are the highlight here, including Gentoo Penguin, Magellanic Penguin, and Rockhopper Penguin. We’ll likely see more Southern Elephant Seals and maybe some South American Sea-lions. Imperial Cormorants and Striated Caracaras are just some of the bird species we expect to see. Weather permitting, we may have time to visit neighboring Bleaker Island – another settlement on the exposed southeastern coast of the Falklands – equally rich in wildlife. As we cruise along the coast of the Falklands, bound for Stanley, we enjoy a special dinner attended by the ship’s Captain.

We hope to see Striated Caracara at Sea Lion island in the Falklands
We hope to see Striated Caracara at Sea Lion island in the Falklands (Nick Athanas)

Day 15: Port Stanley to Punta Arenas, Chile. In the early morning, we navigate through the narrows and into the harbor of Port Stanley. A transfer will take us to the airport for our return flight to Punta Arenas in southern Chile (this flight is included in the price of your voyage). It will be possible to connect to flights through to Santiago or other destinations in Chile. Otherwise enjoy a night in this delightful city, or venture further afield to explore the highlights of Patagonia.

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Very chilly (near zero degrees Celsius) to mild, depending on prevailing weather conditions. Rain, snow, and sleet possible at any time. PLEASE NOTE THAT RAIN JACKETS, RUBBER BOOTS, AND WATERPROOF TROUSERS ARE PROVIDED ONBOARD FOR FREE.

DIFFICULTY: The cruise is not physically challenging. Most activities involve rides on zodiacs and easy walking, with occasional more difficult hikes up to lookouts that are optional and often not particularly good for bird or wildlife viewing. The only major restriction is that you must be able to safely get in and out of the Zodiac, so anyone with a serious physical issue that could affect this should contact our office for advice. The ocean crossings can be rough, and seasickness for those prone to it is a real possibility – taking along seasick pills or patches is absolutely essential.

ACCOMMODATION: Excellent on board facilities, though room specifications depend on the level of cabin booked.