Wednesday, 24 December Scotia Sea en route to South Georgia During the night, we moved our watches an hour ahead, on account of having moved so far east. This clearly confused many guests, as I was often asked the correct time this morning. Smooth seas and a pleasant 3 degrees outside. Dr Patricia (Patri) Silva began the lecture program with “Birds in Tuxedoes – Why do they look so different?” She began with the very accurate premise that of all the over 8,800 species of birds in the world, the penguins are like no others. Patri then highlighted some of the species we may encounter on this trip, including the Adélie Penguins, which march many miles over the sea ice in October to reach their breeding colonies. She also spoke of the Macaroni Penguins, which lay two different-sized eggs, only one of which usually makes it to fledge as an independent youngster. And there are the King Penguins, their huge, colorful colonies making a visit to South Georgia so memorable. After a break, in which there was time to spend on deck looking at the seabirds, we were required to attend a mandatory meeting on the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) guidelines for going ashore in South Georgia and Antarctica, as presented by our Expedition Leader Marco Favero. These guidelines were largely based on common sense: no littering or trampling of vegetation; no approaching within 15 feet of penguins and seals, though they may approach us; and no carrying of any alien animals, plants or diseased organisms when we land. He then shared how we will use Zodiac inflatable boats for our landings and explorations. These boats are extremely reliable and the naturalists who drive them have many years of experience working in Antarctica. Marco’s briefing gave us simple instructions on how to embark and disembark from our Zodiacs in complete safety, demonstrating how to dress correctly for landings, including the use of lifejackets. The Expedition Team kindly delivered these to our cabins. After lunch, ‘Le Boreal’ drew near to Shag Rocks. These rock pinnacles are stained white from the guano of 2,000 nesting South Georgia shags and are geologically more closely related to the South Orkney Islands than South Georgia. Patri refers to the guano as meringue. As we slowly circled the rocks, numerous birds flew around us — not only shags but also wandering and black-browed albatrosses, giant and white-chinned petrels and other species. The birds were flying so close to the ship that they were sometimes too close to photograph! Alas, no whales spotted – sea filled with white caps, and stiff westerly breeze blowing. In mid-afternoon, preparation for the landings continued with the boot scrubbing and vacuum cleaning of parkas, and readying our backpacks and camera bags to comply with the Government of South Georgia’s regulations for preventing the importation of alien plants and animals. Seeds, for instance, might have been picked up on Velcro fastenings. The Island has already been colonized by a number of foreign plants and insects, some of which have become a serious problem to the native ecosystem, so “biosecurity” is taken very seriously. South Georgia is a small island packed with interest. The first landing on the island was by Captain James Cook in 1775. His visit precipitated the arrival of American and British sealers who destroyed the populations of fur seals and elephant seals. From 1904 to 1965, shore-based whaling stations were located on the island and 175 250 whales were brought ashore and processed, mainly for their oil. The whalers were predominately Norwegians who exploited the large whales that gather to feed on the abundant krill. It is estimated that between 2 and 3 million whales were harvested from Antarctic waters between 1904 and 1968. The official number is 1,5 million, but with huge numbers of unrecorded factory ships, the numbers are definitely much higher. Being interested in minutiae, if 2 million whales were taken (conservative estimate) and were of average length 15 meters, laid end to end they would stretch for 30 000km! Considering the Equatorial circumference of the Earth is around 40 000km, isn’t it a sobering, nauseating thought? Tomorrow night at Recaps, I am discussing the dimensions/weights of a Blue Whale taken in 1926, to give the audience some idea of these marine giants. Since the 1970s, South Georgia waters have been fished for krill, Antarctic Cod, Mackerel Ice Fish and Patagonian Toothfish. After early overfishing, the Government of South Georgia successfully regained control to prevent overfishing. It is now possible to buy Toothfish (often marketed as Chilean Sea Bass), which are recorded as coming from South Georgia’s sustainable fishery, which also employs measures to prevent albatrosses from being caught on long-line hooks. Marco being very involved with the development of the hook pods. Around 4pm the Captain announced there were Humpback Whales around the ship. Decks immediately filled with passengers, enjoying these ocean giants all about the ship, clearly feeding on abundant krill, with hundreds of birds enjoying the food too. Suddenly Larry announced that there were Fin Whales amongst them, and we were blessed with incredible sightings of these gorgeous creatures alongside the ship. Close enough indeed for us to see the lighter, lower lip on one side of the jaw. Fins are exceeded only in length by the Blue Whale, and certainly not regularly seen at close quarters. I was due to present “Amundsen – the Norwegian who took the prize” at 5pm, and felt the attendance would be poor on account of the whales. Needless to say, the attendance was excellent, and as a storyteller I shared this incredible story with very few images. Many in the audience, despite visiting Antarctica, had never heard of Amundsen, and were intrigued at his daring dash to the South Pole, eclipsing Scott by 34 days. Many questions followed, including whether we would be visiting the Ross Sea? I responded that he would be delighted if the Captain could spare the fuel to make the 2500km detour, as I have never been there either! For an audience accustomed to PowerPoint oriented talks, it was a breath of fresh air, and all were graciously complimentary. I am hoping for good turnouts for Scott, and Shackleton later during the cruise. At 7pm, the Expedition Team led the ship’s carol singing in the lounge. It was a fun time, with many hymns being sung, and well attended. Suzanna assured the guests that their driving is much better than their singing! Those of you who know me will know that I am often asked not to sing at weddings on account of buggering up the wedding video. Well, I stood at the back and sounded just like a bull bellowing down a well. Gives one a whole new perspective on The Voice, X Factor, et al! The Christmas Eve Dinner was simply sublime. How the kitchen turns out 220 meals of this order beggars belief. Every course had a vegetarian option, and the ice cream dessert was to die for. Most guest left tables late, having enjoyed a superb evening and meal. I sat with a family from Florida, 3 teenage kids, all 5 good-looking folk. Dad is a cardiologist, and they have travelled all over the world. We had a fantastic evening, discussing guests, crew, travel, and plenty about raising teenagers. The son, 17, suddenly got up, white as a sheet, and excused himself. Clearly more than enough white wine, and his folks were grateful for the safe confines of the ship, rather than the nightclubs of Miami. Both daughters are gorgeous, and attract a huge amount of attention from the ship’s male crew members. As an exercise in human behavioural observation, it was without equal. Kids tell me Mum hates crowds, created much laughter. I noticed Dad sleeps through lectures. More laughs since he feels he does it discreetly. In the Amundsen talk I got them all to sit in the front row, and he never slept a wink – a red letter day in my diary. Calm seas en route to South Georgia. Christmas Day South Georgia Salisbury Plain and Elsehul After a fantastic Christmas Eve, everyone was filled with anticipation regarding our arrival at South Georgia. Nothing could have prepared us for the Southern Ocean’s Garden of Eden! Le Boreal cruised southwards in the dawn, eventually anchoring in the Bay of Isles, off Salisbury Plain. From the ship we could clearly hear the tens of thousands of King Penguins, and thousands of Fur Seals on the beaches. The area so well known for its rain and fog, today dawned bright and blue. The shore party experienced some difficulty in finding a safe place to land, on account of the seals, steep beach and a tricky shore break/wave. Watching the faces and expressions of guests upon arrival on the beach must surely be a joy to Expedition Teams. With exclamations and loud “Wows”, guests arrived in groups of 8, and could not believe their eyes. Before them stood one of Nature’s great marvels. Tens of thousands of gorgeous King Penguins, thousands of Fur Seal, surrounded by lofty mountains, glaciers and the clear blue sea. Nobody wanted to move, but the 500 meter walk to the rookery itself proved even more worthwhile. As far as the eye could see were penguins, in various stages of plumage and age; the brown, fluffy Oakham Boys to the breeding adults in all their finery. The attendant Skuas and Giant Petrels always on the scavenge, or seeking out the weak. Two cases were closely watched as Fur Seals killed penguins in the open sea. Nobody could have imagined a finer Christmas morning, and for those who have long dreamed of visiting South Georgia, she exceeded every expectation. Getting guests off the beach was difficult, making lunch and afternoon activities late. At lunchtime, Captain announced something approaching the ship had cropped up on the radar – exactly what remained to be determined. It turned out to be Santa Claus, in a Zodiac on this occasion, coming to deliver gift to the kids on Le Boreal. Amidst delight and many photos, gifts were handed out next to the pool on Deck 6. Marco moved Recaps/Precaps forward to 2.15pm, anticipating a Zodiac tour in Elsehul later in the afternoon. Henry Pollack explained a little of the geology of South Georgia – part of the Andes that “got left behind”. Patri answered questions about King Penguins and brought the house down as usual, with her inimitable sense of humour and timing. Some of the Penguin trumpeting she attributed to red-jacketed guests who were not abiding by the time schedule to return to the Zodiacs, and that the only way of identifying the male was catching them “in the act”- he was the one on top. Marco laid out plans for tomorrow. Later in the afternoon, Zodiac tours were taken in Elsehul-Else’s Harbour on the extreme north-eastern tip of South Georgia. Breeding colonies of Macaroni Penguins, Albatrosses and Petrels attracted much attention, along with hundreds of Fur and Elephant Seals. It was unfortunately very choppy, and some of the tours were compromised by the motor on Suzanna’s Zodiac developing fuel supply problems. Guests were shuttled across to another Zodiac, whilst her Zodiac was being towed. The surrounding scenery was beautiful, and the late afternoon light exquisite, but bumpy conditions and much spray made photography challenging and unproductive. Watching the sea birds negotiating the strong winds and updrafts on the steep slopes was impressive, as was the gradient and distance Seals and Penguins travel from the water’s edge to breed. Elephant Seals lay on the beaches, tightly packed, looking like so many giant sausages. The second tour had a difficult time getting back onto the mariner on account of the swell, and the drivers are to be commended on their skill. As Suzanna said-“we drive better than we sing”. Clear water and long branches of Kelp rounded off a fine afternoon. The evening certainly involved many guests sharing bonds of hitherto unimagined experiences on this extraordinary place – South Georgia. As Suzanna said at the start of this expedition “when God wants a holiday, she goes to South Georgia”. Only a fool would disagree.