Dispatches from the bottom of the earth: Penguins, elephant seals star on cruise expedition to South Georgia – cleveland.com

Macaroni penguins pose on the rocks, with Le Lyrial at anchor in Cooper Bay in the background, off South Georgia Island between Antarctica and South America. (David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelmavens.com)
KING GEORGE ISLAND, Antarctica — At the bottom of the earth, as the summer temperature reached a balmy mid-30s, I encountered a penguin on a mission. Each of us was walking alone on a remote beach where our paths soon would intersect – the traveler overstuffed into a red polar jacket, the black and white penguin, Adelie in species, looking sleek and dapper.
Water’s edge was to my left. The penguin, ahead of me and to my right, was shuffling steadily toward the sea. Until, simultaneously, we stopped our progress.
Did the penguin judge intentions? No question who would give way. Before our wet landing on Zodiac inflatable boats from our cruise ship, expedition guides had explained that our role was to give the wildlife space, so as not to cause them to alter their natural behavior. Besides, penguin patience is far greater than that of humans.
Following protocol, the human retreated about two paces. Which apparently was sufficient. The penguin resumed its deliberate waddle to the water, hopped into the sea, and swam away in a series of penguinesque breaststrokes graceful beyond imagination, a style that guides call “porpoising.”
“See you later,” I said, smiling at the crazy thought of recognizing this penguin again.
From a distance, they look pretty much the same. And their numbers, in and around Antarctica, were astonishing. Though the long journey to my seventh continent – a total of 20 days round trip from home in Ohio – was aimed primarily at observing penguins, I had no expectation that my eyes would feast on at least half a million of them. Nor that I would feel an intimate connection, even for a moment, between a pampered vacation traveler and a single creature in the wild on a life-sustaining mission to feed.
That exhilarating experience was a highlight of a trip that unfolded swimmingly in January, operated by venerable luxury expedition leader Abercrombie & Kent.
My fellow travelers and I came amazingly close to species of seals, penguins, and seabirds on South Georgia Island and in icy waters and landings on the White Continent. An expedition team of 18 – experts in history, nature, geology, marine biology, ornithology and photography – lectured and guided us, demonstrating daily and hourly flexibility to change exploration Plan A to Plan B whenever weather intervened.
Our small ship, Le Lyrial, chartered by A&K from the fleet of the cruise line Ponant, was comfortable and capable, especially in its French kitchen. Le Lyrial’s passenger capacity is 234, but when A&K charters the ship, as the company did four times this Antarctic summer, passengers are limited to 199. Our cruise was at 104 passengers.
The crew and tour operator’s staff followed protocols that provided calm from COVID-19 concerns, even as one passenger tested positive and was quarantined together with her husband early in the cruise, and after an increasing number of crew tested positive later in the voyage (when 40 crew members including close contacts were quarantined). We all masked inside throughout the trip. My wife and I and our fellow travelers were tested, tested and tested again, from the moment we arrived in Buenos Aires where we spent the first two nights at a hotel, to the end of our cruise. All negative.
For seven days we were at sea in the vast Southern Ocean, our ship joined by giant petrels in the wind behind us and southern royal albatrosses soaring in the distance. We cruised for three days to cover the 1,200 miles from our embarkation point of Ushuaia, Argentina, to South Georgia Island; two days of about 1,000 miles to the Antarctic Peninsula; and nearly two days the 600 miles back to Ushuaia across the Drake Passage, infamous for its rocky seas but which treated us kindly.
These sea days were for expedition preparation, lectures and relaxation, for which we were grateful later in the voyage as a break from exploring the remote shores – trudging over thousands of rounded rocks on beaches, hillside scree and uneven grounds to reach breeding spots. Even in the Antarctic summer, sometimes the weather adds an element of discomfort, especially the winds.
Marine biologist Rich Pagen prepared us for what we would see: penguins protecting their unborn and molting away their brown winter fur; enormous elephant seals with their harems on the beaches; seabirds swooping to steal eggs that would have produced penguins; and leopard seals that change their diet from sea krill to penguins in the autumn.
Quartet of king penguins trumpet their mating joys, as others continue molting their brown winter fur away.
St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia, where the Heaney and Cook glaciers tumble toward the sea, is home to one of the largest – and noisiest – king penguin breeding colonies in the world.
Seven days we explored among wildlife in the food chain. Typically, we made two outings each day for about two hours each, using the ship’s Zodiacs to get ashore or catch close-up views along the shoreline. We never spotted another traveler.
Access to beaches in the Antarctic region often is restricted to 100 people at a time. A&K organized us into four groups to board Zodiacs, 6 to 8 passengers each for wet landings (meaning your boots will enter the water, as docks do not exist). Passengers soon became proficient at the sit-twist-and-sliding technique for entering and exiting the inflatable boats.
You might think from travel brochures that South Georgia Island is just an extra stop on the way to the continent of Antarctica. Instead, it provided the biggest wow moments of the trip, from the abundance of wildlife to close encounters with creatures that usually paid us no attention – except for some ornery fur seals with bared teeth.
Remote, inhospitable South Georgia is more than 100 miles long, 20 miles wide, yet not a single human lives as a resident and only a couple dozen researchers hang out. The island is covered in ice and snow for most of the year. Terrain is steep and rocky, vegetation in summer is limited to grasses and mosses – perfect for hundreds of thousands of penguins and seals feeding and breeding. Lately, the island is again drawing millions of seabirds now that rats, once introduced by visiting whalers and other ships, have been eradicated.
Don’t bring anything ashore, we were warned, as we daily scrubbed our boots and cleaned what we could find on our clothing, including our pockets. We would double-scrub before we went ashore in Antarctica – all essential parts of the concerted efforts that the human world now makes to protect and preserve the wonders of this region.
At South Georgia’s Fortuna Bay, king penguins as tall as 38 inches welcomed us, parading toward the beach in a line as if they were cued on stage. Seal pups played by the water. At a penguin colony, a king quartet performed, trumpeting. Elephant seals lay piled together in the seagrass, sneezing and snorting to alert us to their presence.
At Grytviken, the first whaling station in Antarctic waters, we visited the cemetery that holds the body of famed explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. He remains a hero here and in England.
While sailing toward the South Pole, his ship Endurance was crushed and it sunk, stranding 28 men on the ice during the Antarctic winter of 1915. They used lifeboats to reach uninhabited Elephant Island while Shackleton and five others made an 800-mile open-boat journey to reach and mount a rescue of the men, bringing them home without a loss of life. (Check out the movie, “The Endurance.”) We later sailed within view of bleak and rugged Elephant Island, which we were told is a rare treat.
After rain, snow and strong winds, Le Lyrial’s captain found calm at Moltke Harbor, where a Gentoo penguin rookery sat just over a hill, and guides sighted a snowy sheathbill and numerous South Georgia pipits. Seals were lounging about.
While waiting offshore in a Zodiac, guide Russ Manning reported his first bite from a fur seal in 32 years of expeditions.
“It jumped into my boat, bit me in the boot and then jumped back out,” said Manning. “Just another day at the office.” His assumption was that the seal may have exhibited the odd behavior because it was fleeing a hungry orca.
At St. Andrews Bay, one of world’s largest gatherings of penguins stood on the beaches, up the hills and along the rivers that flowed from two glaciers. A guide estimated their number at about 300,000, including 100,000 breeding couples, each with one pup.
On Zodiacs, we cruised the cacophonous colony, the sounds explained by our guide: chicks letting out high-pitched whistles as begging calls to their parents, adults trumpeting in courtship displays with potential mates, and skuas dramatically circling the colony in search of an opportunity to grab an egg or a chick. What a sight – and smell!
At Gold Harbor, we dodged a huge pile of young elephant seals, snorting loudly and sparring with one another. A king penguin colony huddled down the beach. Northern giant petrels stalked their prey. At Cooper Bay, macaroni penguins porpoised in the waters and hung around the rocks that were fringed with kelp that resembled fettuccine, the strands sliding and dipping with the ocean swells like pasta on a wet plate.
Sailing toward the Antarctic Sound, we sighted whales – finback, humpback and orcas – and crossed the Antarctic Circle at a latitude of about 66 degrees.
At Penguin Island we spotted our first colony of chinstrap penguins – their faces have a narrow black band from under their beak to their head – and most of us climbed at least several hundred feet toward the rim of Deacon Peak (560 feet at its highest point) to see the crater of an extinct volcano.
At Turret Point on King George Island, southern elephant seals waded ashore for their annual molt, and I met the Adelie penguin who made my day.
We anchored off Brown Bluff, for our first step on the mainland of Antarctica. The bluff, a rock formation capped by volcanic ash and cinders, is the backdrop for a large colony of Adélie and gentoo penguins. Chicks were gathered in crèches to hide from predators, as they awaited the return of their parents who were feeding at sea.
On our last day before returning to Argentina, we paused to watch spectacular glacial calvings with booms that echoed across the water at Mikkelsen Harbor. In Cierva Cove, we cruised Zodiacs among massive tabular icebergs, spotting slumbering Weddell seals and what appeared to our guide to be a leopard seal, a dangerous creature for its hunger of penguins. The seal paid no attention to us, but I didn’t notice any penguins swimming nearby.
Adelie penguins on the ice of the Antarctic sound.David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelmavens.com
Snorting and sneezing elephant seals at Gold Harbor, South Georgia Island.
Readying for a trip below the Antarctic Circle
Travel to Antarctica is neither easy nor inexpensive, $10,000-$20,000 per person or more, depending on the length and luxury level. Like most other touring expeditions into the wild, Antarctica will include physical activity and require some mobility; daily preparation of equipment for excursions; early morning wake-ups; and a level of paying attention to procedures.
For entertainment onboard, count on lectures and documentaries about nature and its creatures. As Abercrombie & Kent’s Antarctic expedition leader Marco Favero said with a chuckle, “This is not a vacation. It is an expedition. You need to follow directions.” No one complained, which was not a surprise as most passengers were expedition veterans. Many had booked their trips as much as two years ahead.
Preparation: In addition to all the paperwork about medical insurance, flying into Argentina and whatever pandemic protocols are in force, packing is more important for cold weather clothing, worn in layers, than anything dressy at dinner. A&K makes packing easier by providing, at the ship, a polar jacket, backpack, boots and waterproof pants; you take home the backpack and jacket, the latter of which I recommend you get laundered on the ship so you don’t bring home the Antarctic odor of guano.
Getting there: Long flights from North America, at least 9 or 10 hours to Buenos Aires from such airports as Dallas and Atlanta, followed the next day by a three-hour flight (in our case a charter) to the port at Ushuaia, Argentina, to board a cruise ship for days of sailing to the White Continent. The bottom of the earth is a long way to go.
Daily exploring: For temperatures in the 30s in January (the best travel month), we dressed in three layers, typically long underwear, a warm shirt and pants, and the polar jacket, plus a fleece sweatshirt or windbreaker in the backpack for the late afternoons or on boat rides. Each reboarding of the ship, returning from a Zodiac wet landing ashore, we cleaned and scrubbed our boots on deck to clear them of dirt as well as the ever-present guano from wildlife. Each evening, passengers would gather for a briefing about the next day. Each morning, we would start the process again.
For me, all the efforts to visit Antarctica were appropriate – from the long journey to the serious process of preparing ourselves to arrive clean and respectfully at a place belonging to the wildlife. As travelers, we waltzed in after they had endured arduous, dangerous migrations to breed, feed, molt and play where their basic stages of life survival were performed in a dramatic, awesome theater of nature.
Molyneaux, a former Plain Dealer Travel editor, is a freelance writer in Cleveland and editor of TheTravelmavens.com.
Grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton at Grytviken, South Georgia Island, a hero still for saving his entire crew when their ship sunk in Antarctica in 1915.David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelmavens.com
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