The Great South American Journey: South Georgia

After Falkland Islands, we headed to South Georgia. South Georgia is a group of islands, which in my view, plays hosts to some of the most amazing wildlife in the region. It, unfortunately, also plays host to a piece of dark history and also to a story of human resilience.

When we first approached the shores of South Georgia, we saw hundreds of fur seals. These seals are most aggressive, fighting for territory, defending their harems against potential rivals, during mating seasons. So we had to be very careful. A couple of time, we couldnt land. We were told that once we get bitten by a fur seal the entire trip will be cancelled as we would need to rush to a hospital. Regardless of the danger, it was a spectacular sight seeing these seals in their element. We also saw a few elephant seals. Boy! these are massive animals. The babies look very cute but the adults (especially males) grow into massive animals. The male tends to have a trunk which is why they are called elephant seals. And then there are penguins. We saw a massive penguin colony with the young shedding their fur. The brown penguins are young adults shedding their fur. It is a painful process and the penguins stay still to regulate their body heat. The penguin colony was made up of King Penguins, the largest penguins here. The Emperor Penguins are the largest but they are south in Antarctica.

As part of our South Georgia experience, we visited Grtvyken, where today we have the British Antarctic team. Grtvyken used to host one of the largest whaling stations a couple of centuries ago. It remains part of the dark and sad history of the region. In those days, hundreds and thousands of whales were caught, slaughtered and processed. We were told that the entire bay was covered in blood those days and most whales became nearly extinct. Thankfully the numbers have recovered but we have new problems today: fishing of krill (I believe that there are laws preventing large volumes but then demand is stripping supply) which are also the source food of whales. Depleted krill population= danger of whales extinction. Man never learns. We are sometimes very selfish in our outlook.

Among this darkness, there is one story of endurance and human resilience. In the many days after the ship wreck in the ice, Ernest Shackelton worked to get his crew rescued. He and two of his ship mates, made the almost impossible journey of hiking the mountains on the island to reach Grtvyken in order to be rescued. This was a task never done before as the ships came to the bay. Nothing was at the mountains. This journey took 2 to 3 days without no idea whether it would work. It was a case of human instinct and resilience. The crew finally got rescued and the story of the entire shipwreck journey to the final rescue remains one of the most amazing feats of human resilience. After being stuck for almost 500 days, all members (22 sailors) were rescued and everyone survived having faith in the ability of their captain, Ernest Shackelton, to recue them.

Ernest Shackelton is buried in Grtvyken and we visited his grave and toasted to his achievements. There on his grave stone has the words of his favourite poet Robert Browning:

“I hold, that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.”

Those words have left a profound effect on me.

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