South Georgia is just north of the continent Antarctica. It is the largest of an archipelago that is part of the Antarctic convergence, which means it is heavily influenced by the Arctic currents, where warm and cold waters meet. It’s an area full of life, with an abundance of animals, and penguins in particular.
South Georgia rose to fame thanks to several nature documentaries that were filmed here. Of course most famous the awarded series The Living Planet with Sir David Attenborough, who came to visit the king penguins and albatrosses. But the BBC series Frozen Planet was also shot on South Georgia, following the elephant seals for an extended time to capture how these animals defend their territories.
The remote island was first spotted in 1675 by Anthony de la Roché, a trade traveller from London. This is why it’s named Roche Island on some historical maps.
Captain James Cook was the first to land here in 1775, and had hoped it was an undiscovered continent. But when he later discovered it was ‘only’ an island, he was very disappointed. That’s why the very southern tip is named Cape Disappointment. Cook claimed the island group for Great Britain, naming it the Isle of Georgia after King George III. Britain started governing the island in 1843.
South Georgia, together with the Falkland Islands, have been British Overseas Territories for centuries. It’s governed from the Falkland Islands despite the distance between the Capital Stanley and King Edward Point in South Georgia, which is about 1.455 km. South Georgia can only be reached by sea and Argentina has been claiming the archipelago for centuries. The islands played an important role in the Falklands War in 1982.
Snuggle with an elephant seal
You’ll know the YouTube videos of baby seal elephants who come to snuggle with tourists, with their big eyes. They’re very affectionate, and if you lie down within 4 meters of a young one (a ‘weaner’) there’s a high chance it will come over to investigate and sniff you out. An unforgettable experience. Do make sure you check for aggressive fur seals first! And you’ll have to clean your clothes very thoroughly when you’re back on the boat.
Get up-close to a king penguin
All expeditions and cruise ships stop off at the king penguin colony. These photogenic animals don’t mind a bit of attention and aren’t scared of humans. There are hundreds of thousands of them on South Georgia, and sometimes you’re surrounded by them, you won’t even know where to look.
Walk up from the beach to the colony to observe the funny, fuzzy young penguins. Listen to them call for their parents, and see how they get fed regurgitated fish. King Penguins are different to other penguins, they have young two to three times a year, which is unusual. This means that you can see their young in springtime (November and December), unlike those of other penguins.
Follow in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton
Ernest Shackleton’s ghost still haunts South Georgia. This explorer landed on this island when he was shipwrecked near Antarctica. On the 16th of May he walked the entire island without preparation and after 400 days of travel. Many tourists walk part of his trail when they visit the island. You can walk from Fortuna Bay to the old whaling station Stromness.
You can also walk the entire trail (from Peggotty Bluff to Stromness) but you will have to spend the night along the way. Whether you can walk at all is always a question, as the weather is very changeable. You should always be prepared for bad weather.
Watch masses of penguins come out of the sea
It’s quite a spectacle. The penguins of South Georgia regularly go for a swim, and when one goes, they never go alone. Far from it.
If you stand and watch from the shore, you can see them almost pushing each other in, and off they all go. Some go fishing, others just have a quick bath and go back out, picking a wave to ride back to shore and jumping out once they’ve hit land. It’s a splashy affair! Where there are many rocks you can see how they crash onto them. Macaroni penguins are quite skilled in riding waves. Once they’re back on land, they often have to waddle up a hill home.
Discover the giant albatross
The giant albatross is the biggest albatross in the world. And they breed here, among other places, on Prion Island in South Georgia. You can watch the young ones test their wings, they’ll stretch them out and give them a flap to get a feel for how to use them. Their parents sometimes fly by to feed them. They are definitely imposing birds, even the young ones.
Hang out with four types of penguins
There are four types of penguins on South Georgia. Besides the macaroni penguin, you’ll find chinstrap penguins, king penguins and gentoo penguins. The seasons will influence their behaviour. In spring you’ll see them courting and mating, and if you pay close attention you’ll see them brooding on their eggs. In summer (February and March) you can see the chicks. Many penguins approach tourists when they pass them on their way to the sea or back to the colony. And if you take a seat you’ll have plenty to see.
Visit whaling town Grytviken
Once upon a time Grytviken was not a very animal-friendly place. Hundreds of whales were slaughtered here and the proof of this remains, for example, ships, the whaling station, tanks for oil and the barracks for the workers. Now things are quiet and nature is reclaiming the area. There is a museum with lots of information about the whalers and the animals that live here and in the water.
Visit Ernest Shackleton’s grave
Just outside the little town of Grytviken you will find Shackleton’s grave. Have a look at the back of his tombstone as well, you’ll find a poem by his favourite poet Robert Browning. Walk a bit in the graveyard and you’ll find graves of whalers from its recent bloody history of these islands as well. When you pay close attention to the tombstones, you’ll see they didn’t live long: the life of a whaler was lucrative, but also very rough and dangerous.
Look for the South Georgia pied piper
Even if you’re not much of a bird watcher, do try and find one of these birds. They’re not very remarkable, but it’s the most southern songbird in the world. Unfortunately they’re struggling with the many rats on the mainland. One of the best places to find them is the rat-free Prion Island, and particularly along the kelp forest along the coast. And truth be told, their songs sound delightful in this otherwise rough landscape and climate.
Observe mating penguins
If you visit South Georgia in November or December, you’ll be able to see how penguins mate, from chinstrap penguins to macaroni penguins. The males approach the females and they make similar movements. The male then jumps on the female’s back and flaps his wings, and he touches her beak with his. It’s a beautiful yearly ritual.
Witness male elephant seals fight
Male elephant seals are huge and hulking, and incredibly strong. In November they come out of the water to conquer a harem. They have to fight over the females with other males, and if you watch it happen, you can see it can be a bloody affair.
Males with a harem are called ‘beach masters’ and they have to keep other males, ‘satellite bulls’, at bay, often using violence. Satellite bulls try to approach the females over and over again, both on land and at sea. In the meantime the beach masters have to mate with his dozens of females as well. You can watch this entire spectacle from the sidelines, but do be careful, they will protect their harem from all threats, even from you.
Enjoy a zodiac cruise
A zodiac is a rubber boat used to ferry passengers from the cruise ship to the islands. But you can also enjoy a ride on one of these along the beaches, rocks and glaciers of South Georgia. Sometimes this is the only way to see an island, if the waves are two high or the beach is covered in ice. Many tourists are disappointed when they can’t go on land, but it’s an absolute highlight to see the landscape like this.
Best time to travel:
Spring is the best time to visit South Georgia, when the days are long. Remember, the southern hemisphere has opposite seasons to that in the north.
The best time to go is from November to March, when the weather is nice (and calm). But it’s also possible you’ll get very wet and stormy days, which will prevent you from being able to leave the ship. So it’s best to make sure you have several days to visit.
How do I get there?
South Georgia is very remote, about 2.000 kilometers from Ushuaia in South America and 1.450 kilometer from Stanley on the Falkland Islands.
You can only get there by boat, there is no airport. It’s a four-day sail (minimum) from Ushuaia by cruise ship or expedition ship, and there’s usually a stop in on the Falkland Islands.