Travel: Penguins and elephant seals star on an expedition to Antarctica and South Georgia Island – Napa Valley Register


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A quartet of king penguins trumpet their mating joys, as others continue molting their brown winter fur away at South Georgia’s Fortuna Bay.
Welcoming committee of king penguins at Fortuna Bay on the north coast of South Georgia Island. Travelers arrived by Zodiac
 Adelie penguins on the ice of the Antarctic sound.
St. Andrews Bay, where the Heaney and Cook glaciers tumble toward the sea, is one of the largest – and noisiest – king penguin breeding colonies in the world, led by high-pitched whistles from chicks, courtship calls trumpeted by adults, and skuas circling to grab an egg or chick.
Macaroni penguins on the rocks near Le Lyrial at anchor at Cooper Bay.
The grave at Grytviken, South Georgia Island of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a hero who saved his entire crew when their ship sunk in Antarctica in 1915.
Snorting and sneezing elephant seals at Gold Harbor, South Georgia Island.
Energetic passengers, visible at the rim, hiked to the top of Deacon Peak on Penguin island, Antarctica, at the caldera of an extinct volcano.
An Adelie penguin on a mission to feed in Antarctica.  
This fellow, reported to be a leopard seal that is dangerous to most inhabitants of the sea, was lounging on the ice at Cierva Cove, Antarctica.
David G. Molyneaux takes his first steps onto mainland Antarctica.
Turret Point, 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.
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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 (2022), operated by venerable luxury expedition leader Abercrombie & Kent (A&K).
My fellow travelers and I explored amazingly close 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 the 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.
For seven days we explored 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, six to eight 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 my 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. The 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 waiting on Elephant Island, bringing them home without a loss of life. Check out the movie, “The Endurance.” As part of our cruise, we later sailed within view of bleak and rugged Elephant Island, which we were told is a rare treat.
After the 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 the 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, cruising as far south as 64 degrees 09.480 minutes, reported the captain.
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 Turrett 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 penguins. The seal paid no attention to us, but I didn’t notice any penguins swimming nearby.
Start exploring magnificent places with our weekly travel newsletter.

Retired Napa educator Lenore Hirsch recalls a trip she took to Russia and Ukraine in 1984.
A quartet of king penguins trumpet their mating joys, as others continue molting their brown winter fur away at South Georgia’s Fortuna Bay.
Welcoming committee of king penguins at Fortuna Bay on the north coast of South Georgia Island. Travelers arrived by Zodiac
 Adelie penguins on the ice of the Antarctic sound.
St. Andrews Bay, where the Heaney and Cook glaciers tumble toward the sea, is one of the largest – and noisiest – king penguin breeding colonies in the world, led by high-pitched whistles from chicks, courtship calls trumpeted by adults, and skuas circling to grab an egg or chick.
Macaroni penguins on the rocks near Le Lyrial at anchor at Cooper Bay.
The grave at Grytviken, South Georgia Island of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a hero who saved his entire crew when their ship sunk in Antarctica in 1915.
Snorting and sneezing elephant seals at Gold Harbor, South Georgia Island.
Energetic passengers, visible at the rim, hiked to the top of Deacon Peak on Penguin island, Antarctica, at the caldera of an extinct volcano.
An Adelie penguin on a mission to feed in Antarctica.  
This fellow, reported to be a leopard seal that is dangerous to most inhabitants of the sea, was lounging on the ice at Cierva Cove, Antarctica.
David G. Molyneaux takes his first steps onto mainland Antarctica.
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