Pearls Around the White Continent Part V: A Natural Wonder
In the final months of their four-year circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean, Northern Light’s crew explores South Georgia, its astonishing wildlife, and the shrieking winds twisted and turned by island topography.
CW concludes the extraordinary five-part adventure series by documentary filmmakers Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke in which they recount their four-year, 22,500-nautical-mile circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean. Sailing the 40-foot steel ketch Northern Light in the Roaring 40s, Furious 50s, and Screaming 60s, Deborah and Rolf explore the beautiful and far-flung subantarctic islands strung like pearls around the bottom of the Earth.
I’ll be forever grateful to the Swiss man who taught Rolf and me how to interact with fur seals, because dealing with them improperly can turn any visit ashore on South Georgia into a dangerous encounter. Luckily, we met Hansjoerg in Grytviken, our first stop and his last after a monthlong charter around this overseas territory of the United Kingdom.
“I was really scared of fur seals at first,” he told us over a cup of tea. “Just getting close to shore in the dinghy, where we could see the bulls fighting, made my heart pound hard. When we landed, I instinctively wanted to get through the line of seals on the beach as quickly as possible. My friends and I moved as a group, each of us brandishing a stick. The seals moved out of our way, but that movement aggravated their neighbors and created a ripple of conflict through the community. Our skipper took it slowly instead. It didn’t take long to learn that his method was better.”
Naturally, previous experience colors us all. On this circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean, our first run-in with a seal was on the subantarctic Auckland Island, which lies south of New Zealand. There Rolf and I were repeatedly treed by a Hooker sea-lion bull that wouldn’t allow us to walk anywhere in the cove where he kept his harem. The next season, I was scared silly on New Zealand’s Campbell Island when I was suddenly surrounded by five roaring bull sea lions. I was sure one was going to knock me over, then crush me to death. As a consequence, I’d been dreading that there are now 4 to 5 million adult fur seals filling South Georgia’s beaches. Our permit protects us from the “worst” places—tourists aren’t allowed to go ashore on the western part of island, where the most crowded breeding colonies are located.
A Moment of Truth
After finishing our check-in procedure at the administrative center in Grytviken and resting for a few days to recover from the passage, it’s time for Rolf and me to put ourselves to the test. We move to Jason Harbour and anchor just outside a shallow, nearly enclosed lagoon. Aboard the inflatable, we cruise along the shore checking out the situation. There’s a lot of movement on the beach. Even above the noise of the outboard, we can hear the cacophonous bellows of the disgruntled bulls and the wails of crying pups. Family groups are spread across all the potential landing spots. Fortunately, the narrow beach is only one breeding group deep—not so scary a scene for our first attempt. Finding one group of resting elephant seals, we decide to land in the few feet of open space between them and the fur seals. In our experience, elephant seals usually don’t wake up from the noise we make while landing. If they do, they just raise their heads, maybe open their mouths wide, then go back to sleep. If they move, it’s to get away, not to charge.
Following Hansjoerg’s advice, we don’t wear black clothing. And after pulling the dinghy up on the beach, we sit on a pontoon. The bull closest to us is agitated by our arrival and dances around at the edge of his territory, making a lot of fancy head moves and growling. But he doesn’t attack! While waiting for him to calm down, we check out his small family, just one female and one pup. After a few minutes, the bull ignores us completely. To re-establish contact with his pup, he gently noses it in the ribs. The pup, only a few weeks old, gets curious about us, but its advances in our direction are warded off by his father. We stand up and walk slowly inland. The elephant seals slumber. The papa and pup don’t react as we pass. The female never even wakes up.
Including the ones in the back of our heads, we keep our eyes on the seals on the beach and in the neighboring tussock grass as we continue onward. Climbing, we pass between nonbreeding solo seals resting on the hills. I’m still nervous, and my mouth is dry, but I remain adamant that when charged, I’ll hold out my ski pole and stand my ground. Hansjoerg assured us that the fur seal’s nose is so sensitive that it won’t risk advancing into the pole. The most dangerous part of the climb is through a small gully, where seals on both sides are hidden between overhanging clumps of tussock. We move as quietly as we can, but some seals notice us and lunge at our heads. Luckily, we’re out of range.
The next day, when we go ashore in the same place, the elephant seals are gone. The fur-seal harem whose space they temporarily commandeered has moved back in. We land between it and yesterday’s family of three. We’ve been accepted. The only reaction to our intrusion is the new bull making a noise like a whining dog—until his attention is diverted by one of his females giving birth. As he and we watch silently, the procedure is completed in seconds. Immediately, the mother moves the pup away from the bloody placenta, then licks her newborn clean. A young nonbreeding male comes barreling down the hill. He’s got speed on to run the gauntlet to the water. Snarling, the bull intercepts him. He tries to bite the youngster’s neck, but he misses and sinks his teeth into a hind flipper.
“That youngster could use a session with Hansjoerg,” Rolf says. We walk on.
South Georgia is a high island, with a mountain ridge running along the entirety of its 100-mile length. At 54 degrees south, the island sits in the cold Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The summertime water temperature near the island used to be 35 F to 40 F, but with the recent breakup of the Larsen Ice Shelf, there’s more ice near South Georgia these days, and the water temperature remains closer to the freezing point.