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.

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Cooper Bay: Gentoo penguins porpoising around the Hans Hansson.
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Moltke Harbour in Royal Bay, South Georgia: The zodiac arrives to retrieve a few of my shipmates on the beach after a hike.

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.

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Cooper Island, South Georgia: The two zodiacs out on a crisp morning cruise around the bay. I’m with our skipper, Dion (left) and first mate, Juliette (right).

“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.

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Neumayer Glacier, South Georgia: Looking back from the top deck of the Hans Hansson. The white containers housed the emergency life rafts.

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.

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Shackleton Hike: Glissading into the Shackleton Valley. We hiked from Fortuna Bay to the famous Stromness Whaling Station (in the distance).

“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.

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Huddled over a hot lunch aboard the Hans Hansson. I’m the one seated in the middle of the photo with the permanent grin. PC: Roland Gockel
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St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia: A front row view of an amphitheater of King penguins.

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.

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Gold Harbour: A Southern elephant seal hollers at a King penguin.
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Right Whale Bay, South Georgia: We followed the marching King penguins from the bay to this spot near a hill where they gathered. Surprised to see how beautifully they blended into the white landscape.

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.

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Right Whale Bay, South Georgia: A rather formal looking gathering of King penguins reaches into the foothills.

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.

Gold Harbour, South Georgia: A juvenile King penguin and his shadow.
Gold Harbour, South Georgia: A juvenile King penguin and his shadow.
St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia: King penguins gather along the melt water river.
St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia: King penguins gather along the melt water river.
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Shackleton hike: Pausing to take in the view of the famous Stromness Whaling Station.

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Maji Bransfield
Maji Bransfield is an avid traveler based in Chicago. Her passion for unique journeys is only equaled by her desire to share her experiences. Currently, she is on a quest to spread her love for the beauty, creatures, and history of the Antarctic region. For more information, visit MajiBransfield.com.