Pearls Around the White Continent Part V: A Natural Extravaganza
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. Click here for previous installments.
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.