Part 2: Stunning South Georgia Island and the Highest of High Seas
This is the second part of a two-part series.
First, a quick recap.
Colleen and I have been excitedly retelling the rich and varied tales of our Antarctica cruise (Part 1) with Abercrombie & Kent. This was our big trip that started right before the new year and stretched into late January, the longest we've been away on any one travel journey.
It was such a jam-packed itinerary that I thought it made sense to break it up into two posts. We first told you about the start of our trip in Buenos Aires, as well as our smooth cruising down to Antarctica where we had three spectacular days mixing and mingling with our new friends onboard and the penguins, whales and seals that call the stunning White Continent their home.
Now, we continue with our sailing to South Georgia, a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
We were thrilled with our time in Antarctica, three days in the most remote place on earth to see penguins (gentoos, chinstraps and Adelies), seals, (Weddells, crabeaters, leopards and elephants) and whales (humpbacks, orcas and fins).
The ice formations, snowcapped mountain peaks and glaciers provide an incredibly scenic backdrop when you sail in this region, as well.
Our A&K expedition guides, however, seemed even more excited to get to South Georgia. They started telling all of us that they even preferred the upcoming destination over Antarctica. "Wait until we get there; you won't believe it," said Augie Ullmann, a naturalist and Zodiac driver who had already taken us out on a couple excursions.
Colleen and I also took advantage of the chance to get massages.
We arrived to South Georgia Island on a Saturday afternoon. The seas that had been so calm during our transit from Ushuaia to Antarctica started to churn a bit while cruising to South Georgia, with waves reaching up to 26 feet and many passengers retreating to their cabins for most of the day to stay comfortable.
But we got ideal conditions to land ashore at Fortuna Bay on the north coast of the island.
This was the first stop of several jaw-dropping excursions that we took part in during our three days in South Georgia.
We delighted in finding new species here. An incredible 95 percent of the world's 5 million fur seals make their home on South Georgia, and we saw massive colonies of sub-adults and pups all over the rocky beach as soon as we arrived.
It was an overwhelming experience to encounter all these seals while also having our first interactions with the majestic king penguins.
Our expedition leader Suzana Machado D'Oliveira describes the pristine cocktail of wildlife, color and sounds as "primeval." Indeed, you get a sense that you are seeing nature in its purest form here, with birds flying overhead and penguins feeding their young, nesting, molting and sparring -- while seal pups cry out and make their first waddles across the beaches or sneak around amid the thick clumps of tussock grasses.
The following morning, we awoke and found the ship anchored in the bay at Grytviken, a harbor that was the site of the first Antarctic whaling station. A small town sits along the shores, and we can get everyone ashore here at the same time (cruise lines are restricted to a maximum of 100 people at a time while making landings at other sites throughout the Antarctic region).
We saw more seals and penguins at Grytviken, but one of the main attractions for this destination was the chance to get a little more active. We had a hike up to the top of the hill overlooking the town. This started with a visit to the town's cemetery at the edge of the village. This is where famed adventurer Ernest Shackleton is buried alongside other explorers and whalers who died on South Georgia.
The town features a pretty church, a post office/gift shop and an immersive museum. You also can see the remnants of old rusted whaling vessels heaved up on the shoreline.
Le Lyrial made its way into this blue-water fjord so we could get a look at the the massive Risting Glacier and a range of active seabirds, including the frisky snow petrels that were darting about just above our small boats as we puttered around the bobbing ice formations in the icy blue waters. Just as we were heading back to the ship, the glacier started calving. Thunderous cracking sounds preceding the heavy chunks of ice that plunged into the waters.
The ice quickly started melting, while making hissing and popping sounds. It was fascinating to witness this phenomena.
It's impossible to describe the sheer numbers of king penguins at Salisbury Plain. The colony stretches from the rocky beach all the way up the valley and across the grass fields, as far as the eyes can see. This is one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world, and we all reveled in the marvelous scene as the birds carried on their activities, largely oblivious to their red-jacketed visitors.
The plain sits between the vast Lucas and Grace Glaciers, completing a picturesque setting.
The lands are further crowded as fur seals roam by the thousands, with juveniles practicing their jousting and pups playing in ponds and puddles. We also saw South Georgia pintail ducks resting in the grass and seabirds lazily tracing arcs overhead.
After our morning on Salisbury Plain, Le Lyrial sailed to a cove that was bursting with energy. We sat anchored in Elsehul and set off on Zodiac tours during which we felt transported into a kind of Jurassic world.
Augie took our group out, and we ventured around the perimeter of the cove over the course of our two-hour tour. We were surrounded by wildlife. Seals swam in groups riding the waves that were pulsing at the rocky coastline. Seals also frequently circled our rubber boat.
We crept as close as we could to a rocky outcropping that was occupied by a colony of macaroni penguins. Grey-headed albatrosses soared above, taking off and returning to a huge nesting rock in the middle of the cove.
Augie stealthily dragged a wooden box closer to his feet, popped off the lid and revealed bottles of Champagne smuggled aboard the Zodiac. He passed around glasses, poured out the bubbly, and the 11 of us completed a toast, cheering the amazing experience we have had but a bit sad that this celebration also marked the fast-approaching end of our voyage.
We tried to sit back and just drink it all in -- while we still could.
We still had a few more days, though, in this adventure with Abercrombie & Kent. Our itinerary called for us to stop for a day at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, but we were told fairly quickly during our day of sailing away from South Georgia that this was not going to happen because of a storm that was brewing in the region.
If you recall from Part 1 of this story, I described how we had been blessed with the "Drake Lake," a calm passage down to Antarctica. Well, things would be quite different on the way back north.
We had a hint of what the seas in the Southern Ocean can during our trip between Antarctica and South Georgia Island. This stretch would take those 26-foot waves and make them look like ripples.
In fact, we went through a storm that churned up violent seas that would reach 50 feet high and average more than 40 feet for the better part of 24 hours. By the end of the two days of sailing through the violent agitation, Capt. Patrick Marchesseau said that the conditions were the most treacherous that he had sailed through. This statement was coming from a man who had famously survived being taken hostage for a week alongside 30 crewmembers by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2008.
Colleen and I didn't get seasick, fortunately. A number of our fellow cruisers did, however, and almost all passengers remained in their cabins during the height of the wave action.
The ship handled the rough seas well. Waters crashed over the bow and drenched all outside areas. Our balcony on Deck 4 came to resemble a small river with all swift water rolling through.
By the end, I felt a little bit of a headache and some dizziness. But we mainly were bored from sitting in our bed for hours, trying not to get thrown to the floor. We watched movies all day (the Godfather coming in at more than three hours was a good choice to kill a chunk of that time) and tried to sleep during the night as best we could.
Eventually, the winds and seas calmed and were arrived back in Ushuaia. We were all excited to get off the ship after more than three straight days onboard. Most everyone got off for a walk around the port town or to eat at a restaurant, and we found a nice dining spot, Bodegon Fueguino, where we went with our new friend Rick Sammon, who was onboard as a photo lecturer, for pizza and beers.
The next day, Abercrombie & Kent provided a bus tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park and other points of interest around Ushuaia to cap the memorable journey.
The three weeks was filled with a diverse range of activities, and it was hard to believe we had been traveling for so long. Yet it felt like it passed so quickly.
The trip certainly offered a little bit of everything you would want or expect for an expedition to Antarctica, and traveling with A&K is a great way to do it in style.
Thanks for reading,