South Georgia is a sub-Antarctic island known for its abundant wildlife, unparalleled ecosystem and stunning scenery. The 103 mile (165 m) crescent shaped island is uninhabited with the exception of a handful of lucky humans temporarily stationed on two British scientific bases.
I was one of 10 tourists who traveled to Puntas Arenas in southern Chile in order to board the once-a-week flight to the Falkland Islands and ultimately to the Hans Hansson, our mothership for the next 30 days, where the sea voyage to South Georgia would begin.
The Hans Hansson is an 87 ft (26.5 m) former Norwegian Lifeboat Association rescue boat which has been renovated as a 12-passenger expedition vessel for use in the Antarctic region. I found the choice of vessel in these waters is crucial not only for safety but for the total overall expeditionary experience it will engender.
At the dock in Stanley, we were warmly welcomed aboard by our hosts, the skipper, Dion Poncet, and his first mate, Juliette Hennequin. Cabins were assigned and the entire group of 16 gathered in the dining area for a sobering safety briefing which included distribution of our neoprene emergency immersion suits, instructions on various ways to evacuate the vessel, if needed, and, fortunately the only one implemented, how to securely fasten yourself into your bunk at night with a wooden plank.
“In an emergency, put on several layers of your warmest clothes before donning your immersion suit.” We kept the suits in our cabins. I pre-stuffed a fleece hoodie and hat into mine (along with a stash of peanut m&m’s) so that I could grab the suit on my way to the muster station near the covered life rafts housed in large white tanks on the outside deck. It was made clear that rescue, if needed, would be days away by ship.
In the meantime, still tied to the dock in Stanley, we enjoyed what would be a rare, stationary dinner as the room hummed with the energy created by new friends, the promise of adventure and the anticipation of the unknown. The weather forecast was read aloud by the skipper and he set the time of our departure for midnight.
After dinner on our first night aboard, phone calls were made to those back home and emails sent for there would be no television, cellular service, or internet for the next 30 days. We would be ‘off the grid’ with the exception of a satellite phone. As it turned out, we would see only 3 other boats and a handful of ‘outsiders’ (in Grytviken and Bird Island) in a month’s time.
The first 4 days of the voyage would be on open sea, taking us from the rough South Atlantic Ocean across the Antarctic Convergence into the notoriously bumpy Southern Ocean to finally reach South Georgia. There is no airport on the island, no way to cheat the sea journey. Armed with Scopolamine patches and noise cancelation headphones, I was ready to tackle my lingering concerns about sea sickness and confined company.
“If you can’t identify the most annoying person of the group in the first 12 hours, then it’s probably you.” It must have been me because the group was comprised of kind and interesting individuals from several different countries, all who had previously visited South Georgia and were heeding the beacon to return. We gathered for meals at two, almost adjacent tables of 8 sharing the meal in family-style and chipping in to set the table or wash the dishes, fostering a cozy atmosphere.
Already tucked in my bunk on that first night, I heard the engine come to life, the clink of chain against metal, and the boat leaving the dock. A few minutes later we were all being rocked (not so gently) to sleep by the South Atlantic Ocean and I was already relying on that wooden plank to hold me in place. No turning back now – onward to South Georgia.
Stomping up a hill at St. Andrew’s Bay, you begin to hear it: the escalating din of hundreds of thousands of very social King penguins frantically honking and whistling over each other to be heard. Upon reaching the top of the hill, you will see the colony sprawled out from the sea to the glaciated mountain range in the distance. If you don’t already have a tear in your eye from the spectacle, brace yourself. The next gust of wind should do the trick. It will likely be carrying the pungent scent that only this large of a gathering of creatures can create. Sensory overload completed.
There are certain places on Earth that seem to remain with us well after the visit, somehow resonating within us and compelling us to return. For me, the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is that kind of place.
I am an avid traveler who’s been fortunate enough to have sampled 7 continents and some of the most attractive areas on the planet. I have my favorites but there is something truly magical about the Antarctic region and especially the island of South Georgia – something able to penetrate my 5 layers of weatherproof clothing and leave me with a desire for more wildlife encounters, a deeper respect for wilderness and, of course, a yearning to return.
The cruise providers utilize the days at sea when approaching the Antarctic region to provide briefings from experts in pertinent natural sciences as well as explaining bio-security and wildlife protocols prior to landing. These are the essential visitor’s skills. Even here, learning the customary etiquette enables you to be the best kind of guest to the ‘locals’ you will encounter.
This region boasts the highest biodensity of life found on our planet. Experiencing it usurped my previous points of reference for wildness, such as the Amazon River, Galapagos Islands and African safaris. Perhaps it is the long journey to reach these shores, the otherworldliness of being so far removed from the tempo of human civilization, experiencing unorchestrated wildlife surrounded by majestic landscapes, or maybe it’s really all about the numbers of penguins. Whatever it is, and like so many other visitors here, I have fallen under it’s spell and remain haunted by its extraordinarily pristine beauty and magical interactions with wildlife.
I have been slowly sharing my visit to this enchanting island aboard the Hans Hansson in trip report style on my Instagram account as I eagerly await an opportunity to return.