On October 29th I packed my bags for a trip of a lifetime to perhaps the most remote place I have ever been – South Georgia Island.
Before this trip I had never been anywhere close to this far south. I had never been so far out at sea. And I had definitely never seen so many penguins!!
It was a mind blowing trip that took me out of my comfort zone of the Neotropics and in to a completely new environment.
I tried my best to adapt and create a portfolio of images that does some justice to just how stunningly beautiful the Sub-Antarctic realm truly is. I hope that you will enjoy this portfolio and trip report!
The trip began with a lengthy journey from Victoria to Toronto to Santiago to the Falkland Islands. Anticipation was running high by the time we all got on board what would be our floating home for the next two weeks.
Our trusty ship that would be our floating home for the next 2 weeks…
That evening we set sail for a truly epic adventure on South Georgia. While the journey across to the Island would take a full three days this was by no means wasted time. On our first morning at sea I headed straight out on to the outer deck of the ship to see that we had picked up a good number of birds following the ship. Cape Petrels, Giant Petrels and the extra-elegant Black-browed Albatross were the most common at this point.
As we continued our journey across the ocean each day brought new sights and different birds. At one point we came across a HUGE tabular iceberg. The estimate was that it was likely to be 5km across (3 miles) and up to 100 feet out of the water.
We also started to see a few different species of birds including Prions, Blue Petrels, Royal and Wandering Albatross.
Wandering Albatross with a whole lot of ice in the background!
Blue Petrels began to follow us too!
We began to see more and more sea birds including these Southern Royal Albatross.
Wandering Albatross joined the party as well.
Eventually after 3 days at sea the call came from the deck – “Land ho!” I’m sure I can speak for my ship mates in saying that we were all happy to hear this news!
After 3 days of nothing but ocean…
Finally we could see the Island of South Georgia!
What a beautiful place!
Time to really get started!
Over the next 8 days we would make one or two landings per day at some beyond-belief sites. Some of the sites really can’t be described in words (or even photos). I’ll do the best I can in the image department below! I won’t describe each and every landing in this report. But I will tell you about a few of my favourite sites and memories.
We definitely saw some unbelievable places.
One of my favourite sites of the trip was actually visited on our first full day on South Georgia. Elsehul was a magical spot that had so much to photograph. I knew from my research that this was definitely the best site to try for Gray-headed Albatross photos at their nest sites so that was my #1 priority. As it turned out the birds were not at their usual site. This meant that those willing had to hike a fair ways to track them down. It was so worth it!
Not only was this a great site for the Gray-headed Albatross but it turned out to also be the best site of the trip for the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. The sights and sounds of these beautiful birds will live long in the memory I can assure you.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
On my walk back from the Albatross nest sights I managed to also find some Giant Petrels nesting and something very rare for South Georgia – The South Georgia Pipit!
Up until this year these most-southerly songbirds had a really hard time on South Georgia due to the infestation of rats on the Island. Just last year though the rats were finally all eradicated (a task that absolutely blows my mind!) and the Pipits have immediately began to recover and recolonize the island. What a great conservation success story!
Northern Giant Petrel
South Georgia Pipit
South Georgia Pintail
Nature isn’t always pretty!
The next day there was an optional hike up and over a snowy ridge. After almost a week of sitting around airports and on boats I jumped at the opportunity. Better still was the weather was spectacular! Our hike finished at the derelict whaling station of Grytviken. It made me sick to my stomach to think about the tens of thousands of whales that were slaughtered here.
Time for a hike!
The former whaling station at Grytviken.
As we travelled to our next destination we passed an area with a lot of icebergs floating about. The shapes and colour of the ice was indeed very photogenic! As an added bonus there were a few Snow Petrels flying around the boat too.
Finding compositions in the ice…
A Snow Petrel in…duh…SNOW!
White on white…
The next morning our landing had two very special features. #1 was that it was the best site to see and photograph the Macaroni Penguin. #2 was that it was the ONLY site to photograph the Chinstrap Penguin. Luckily the weather was cooperative and I managed to get some nice frames of both of these cute penguin species.
Macaroni Penguin taking shelter from the wind and snow.
Macaroni Penguin working its way back to the colony.
Elephant Seals were always present on the beaches of South Georgia.
At our next landing site King Penguins were definitely the stars of the show. The skies were cloudy and the snow was blowing so I tried to create some atmospheric shots to reflect this. I wanted to take some wide angle images of the birds as well as some that showed off the harsh weather.
King Penguin and chick
King Penguin in heavy snow
The Lone Wolf
King Penguin preening on snow
King Penguin porpoising on its way back to land
Back on land. Woohoo!
Heading out to see
Our time on South Georgia was starting to come to a close and we had two “mega-sites” left to visit. Both Saint Andrew’s Beach and the Salisbury Plain are home to enormous colonies of King Penguins. Just how big? The estimate I heard was 500,000 pairs or over 1,000,000 penguins!!! The sight and sounds of a million penguins is out of control. Even better we were so lucky to have great early morning light at both sites!
About 1,000,000 Penguins on one beach.What a place!
King Penguins along the shoreline
Penguins and seals as far as the eye can see
The sun rising on St. Andrew’s Bay
These guys were so much fun to photograph!
We made one more stop to see the Wandering Albatross nesting sites and then it was time to set sail once again for the Falkland Islands.
The crossing on the way back was very productive as well. The weather was calmer than on the way over and we had some great birds following the boat. I took advantage of the opportunities to get some better shots of the Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross and a few other Tubenoses.
Southern Royal Albatross
3 days later we were back in Stanley once again. What an incredible two weeks! We got so lucky with the reasonably good and varied weather conditions. The wildlife was phenomenal. I can’t imagine a place with more densely packed animal life anywhere on earth. Furthermore the expedition staff on the ship were so incredible. As a professional tour leader I couldn’t have been more impressed with the professionalism, knowledge and work ethic of this team. If you have the means to get to South Georgia and you like wildlife this trip is a MUST-DO!
If you get the chance you should go see these guys!
I decided to stay on for an extra week in the Falkland Islands to do some exploring on my own. This turned out to be a great decision and really rounded out my portfolio from this trip. I had a day in Stanley to relax. But relaxing seemed like a bad idea so I went out shooting instead!
I found a small pond that was ideal for waterfowl like this Ruddy-headed Goose.
Patagonian Crested Duck with attitude!
The next day I took a short flight to one of the offshore islands. I decided to just visit 2 of the smaller islands so that I could focus and hope for some good opportunities. The two Islands were also VERYdifferent and each presented some fantastic wildlife photography potential. On the first island I visited the highlights were definitely the Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatross nesting sites.
Rockhopper getting up close and personal!
Doing what they do best…
Early morning on the beach…
Follow the leader…
Kelp Goose – Male
Kelp Goose – Female
Flightless Steamer Duck
Brown Skua with Penguin egg
Black-browed Albatross courtship at sunrise
Striated Caracara and Penguin carcass
The last afternoon that I spent at this site was pure magic! The wind calmed right down and the low angle sunlight was to die for. It was one of those shoots where I was literally running around because there were so many things to photograph and the light could not have been sweeter. The low angle Penguin and Oystercatcher shots definitely put a big smile on my face.
You will likely be happy to know…He got away!
With a successful 3 days on the first Island completed I headed over to the second of my Falkland Islands – Sea Lion Island. This Island was completely different from the first and had its own targets to chase. One of the features of Sea Lion that make it stand out are that there have never been any sheep on the island and as a result the natural vegetation is largely intact. As a result there are so many native bird species that nest here.
Rufous-chested Dotterel – Dad
Rufous-chested Dotterel – Mom
Rufous-chested Dotterel – Baby
Magellanic Penguin at home in his burrow
A second great feature of Sea Lion Island is that it has a large freshwater pond that is home to a variety of waterfowl. I was lucky with the weather here as I got a rare sunny and calm afternoon.
Flying Steamer Duck
On my last shoot of the trip I wanted to really enjoy the shoot. I grabbed a few beers from the lodge and headed down to the beach to wait for the Gentoo Penguins to return from sea. It was so much fun watching these guys come back in to land with some seriously great style!
And then it was over. 3 weeks in the Sub-Antarctic that I will never forget. What a trip it was! For me it was unlike anywhere I have ever been and I enjoyed every minute of the experience (perhaps because I didn’t get sea sick?). I really can’t recommend this part of the world highly enough. It is a nature photography playground!