South Georgia Destinations!

General Information

The crescent-shaped island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean is geologically a fragment of the South American continent and has been called the planet’s Garden Eden. The island resembles a huge glaciated whalebone located approximately 1290 km / 802 miles east-south-east of the Falkland Islands on a latitude of about 54°20’ S. Two impressive mountain ranges characterize the spine of South Georgia: Allardyce Range (Mt Paget, 2934 m / 9625 feet) and Salvesen Range (up to 2330 m / 7650 feet). In total, 11 peaks exceed 2000 m / 6600 feet. Tussac grass (Parodiochloa flabellata) extends from sea level to about 200 m / 660 feet altitude on the south coast and 400 m / 1300 feet on the north coast.
This 170 km / 105 miles long and 2 to 40 km / 3 to 65 miles wide island is certainly one of the most isolated places on earth. The geographical counterparts of South Georgia in the northern hemisphere are places such as Northern Ireland, Hamburg in northern Germany, the Alaska Peninsula, or the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. One might wonder upon the great differences in appearance when comparing those northern places with South Georgia – all on about 54° of latitude, either north or south, and yet so different. The city view of Hamburg, for example, has not one single drifting iceberg to offer – what makes that terrific piece of nature called South Georgia where glaciers permanently cover over half of the land so different? The cold Antarctic water masses are to blame for the frosty face of this rugged, mountainous island – a beautiful piece of the Alps, but in the middle of the southern seas. The Antarctic Polar Front (formerly called Antarctic Convergence) where cold, dense water from the Antarctic mixes with warmer water from the north, skirts about 350 km / 220 miles north of South Georgia leaving this island from a biological and oceanographic point of view inside the Antarctic realm. The zone of the Polar Front is rich in nutrients hence attracts hordes of creatures from all levels of the southern food chain. Therefore, South Georgia is of enormous importance for wildlife such as penguins (above all King penguin), seals (most notably Antarctic fur seal and Southern elephant seal) and flying birds particularly the majestic albatrosses. For those birdwatchers who are keen on seeing a species that does not live anywhere else on earth (i.e. a so-called endemic), South Georgia holds the South Georgia pipit – the most southerly passerine (song bird) in the world amounting to about 3000 to 4000 pairs. Compared to a global scale, South Georgia boasts some ornithological records. The island holds the largest Grey-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) and (probably) Light-mantled sooty albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) populations in the world. In a total of 21 known breeding locations for both, Black-browed (Thalassarche melanophrys) and Grey-headed albatross, a 2004 bird census resulted in an estimated 74’296 pairs of Black-browed (representing the third largest population of this species in the world), and 47’674 pairs of Grey-headed respectively. In these two species, there has been a major decrease in numbers in the last 20 years, but South Georgia is still by far the most important site globally for Grey-headed albatross.
Concerning the Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), a total of 30 breeding locations in South Georgia have been found with an estimated 1553 pairs in 2004. This, too, indicates a decrease of 30% compared to the census in 1984, but makes still makes it the second largest populations in the world for Wandering albatross. Six of the seven species of breeding albatross in the South Atlantic are in decline. All recent count of all bird species noted on South Georgia stood at 84 species.
Talking about marine mammals, South Georgia has a say when it comes to southern seal species. Over 300’000 Southern elephant seals breed here. And around 95% of the world population of the Antarctic fur seal call South Georgia their home. It is quite tricky to estimate their number – for which reason guesses range from 2 to 4 million individuals breeding on South Georgia alone.

Albatross Island / Bay of Isles

This small tussock-covered island in the Bay of Isles is home to many nesting Wandering albatrosses (155 breeding pairs). Antarctic fur seals that sometimes make it difficult to go ashore at the few designated landing spots on the south coast heavily occupy its shores. Here, one can easily spot the Southern giant pipit (endemic bird species) feeding between the kelp washed ashore. Brown pintails populate the near shore water.

Cooper Bay

Located at the south-eastern end of South Georgia, Cooper Bay is one of the few good spots to observe Macaroni penguins in the tussock grass. Landings at the site are conducted in one of the three small coves in the bay, all of which are subject to swell at times. Narrow Cooper Sound separates Cooper Bay from rat-free Cooper Island located offshore and measuring about 3.2 km / 2 miles in length. Captain James Cook discovered it in 1775. It was him who named the island after the officer Robert Palliser Cooper onboard his vessel Resolution. Cooper Island cannot be visited (Special Protection Area). However, many of its wildlife species can be observed in Cooper Sound such as some of 12’000 breeding pairs of Black-browed albatrosses, Snow petrel, Antarctic prion, Chinstrap penguin, Macaroni penguin.

Cumberland Bay

This indentation is 6 km / 4 miles wide cutting into the northern coastline of South Georgia. It is divided into two extensive arms, Cumberland West Bay and Cumberland East Bay where Grytviken and King Edward Point are located and which is ends with the impressingly huge Nordenskjöld Glacier.

Drygalski Fjord

This wild fjord indenting the southern part of South Georgia near Cape Disappointment and Cooper Bay is geologically the oldest part of South Georgia and features today a highly picturesque area abounding in glaciers and sheer mountain peaks of the Salvesen Range that fringe this fjord. Extreme katabatic winds from the glaciers can reach hurricane-force. The discoverer of South Georgia, British merchant Antoine de la Roché, probably found shelter in this fjord during two weeks in 1675. Drygalski Fjord is named after Erich Dagobert von Drygalski (1865-1949), a German geographer, geophysicist and polar explorer (leader of the first German Southpolar Expedition, 1901-1903). For modern Antarctic expeditions, Drygalski Fjord is a convenient first or last stopover to/from the South Orkney Islands or the Antarctic Peninsula.

Elsehul

Located at the very north-western end of South Georgia island, Elsehul is a small cove, a paradise for animals within the paradise of South Georgia. The shore of this bay is one of the main breeding grounds for South Georgia's three million-strong Antarctic fur seal population. Therefore, landings are not always possible depending of the time of year because thousands of aggressive seals are defending their portion of the beach and make landings and walks unsafe. However, offshore Zodiac cruising during these months allows excellent close-up views, with minimal disturbance. Approaching Elsehul, Joke Cove comes into view whose beach is crowed by animals year round therefore landings are normally conducted at Inner Bay where remains of a hut of the British Antarctic Survey BAS can be found – but here, too, the beaches are usually covered by Antarctic fur seals. The very narrow Survey Isthmus separated Elsehul from Undine Harbour to the south. Here, James Weddell anchored his two expedition vessels, the Jane and the Beaufoy between 12th March and 17th April 1833 in order to repair and resupply his ships.

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