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.
A Royal Welcome
During the first month of our visit, Rolf and I never see more than 30 king penguins at a time. We desperately want to see the colony of 200,000 king penguin pairs in St. Andrew’s Bay. But this bay is in the eastern section, the windiest of South Georgia’s three weather zones. It’s also an open roadstead. To make the visit’s degree of difficulty even higher, one can only get ashore on the rare day when there’s very little swell. We hang around at neighboring anchorages, waiting for the right conditions. Finally they arrive. Or so we think. Our first visit ashore in St. Andrew’s lasts only 20 minutes. We never even make it to the edge of the colony. Though it’s calm, a swell suddenly picks up, and the anchorage becomes untenable. We get out in the nick of time. But patience pays off. On New Year’s Day, our second visit lasts a few hours.
The noise level of so many birds is deafening. Nonetheless, time loses meaning as we wander in awe around the edge of the rookery. King penguins are big. An adult weighs in at 35 pounds and stands three feet tall. That means that when we sit down, we’re at eye level with the birds. And they’re beautiful. Besides their teardrop-shaped orange neck patches, some also have iridescent green feathers on their heads. Like the emperor penguin, kings incubate their egg on their feet. Having no nest, there’s no territory to protect. So there’s not as much bickering between neighbors as in other penguin rookeries.
Visitors aren’t allowed to approach a king penguin. But the birds obey no such taboo. They approach us when we’re sitting down to check us out. Some peck at our boots and clothes. As usual, the youngsters are the more playful. One chick, in the brown-fluffball stage, adopts us and follows us wherever we go. It’s so special to have contact with a wild creature that expresses its personality and interacts as it wishes. Rolf and I agree that these encounters alone are payback enough for the concerns and difficulties involved in our high-latitude adventure cruising.
Our visit at the rookery takes place while the glacial backdrop glitters in the sunshine and lenticular clouds hover above the highest peaks. But the 1,007-millibar high is cracking. We move farther east, to anchor in Gold Harbour, considered the most spectacular spot at South Georgia. The barometric pressure drops continuously for two days, until the low’s center passes. At 968 millibars, the system is a signature Southern Ocean blaster.