Cloaked in deep grey fog, the island reveals itself in layers. Staring into the wet, blank abyss of the southern Atlantic Ocean, I see no hint of the land our digital instruments place at just over one nautical mile away. I can’t see South Georgia Island but I know we are close, because holy hell does it ever stink.

Blowing directly into our faces, the gentle breeze carries a damp ferocity that attacks my nostrils and sticks to the back of my throat. It smells like a sewage treatment plant mixed with an animal skin tannery—with a pong of rotten fish, wet soil and old kelp tossed in for good measure. 

What I can smell, but cannot yet see, are a quarter of a million king penguins, thousands of Antarctic fur seals and a few hundred gigantic southern elephant seals all jostling for turf on a single beach in a chaotic metropolis of biological drama. Welcome to South Georgia Island, the most wildlife-dense place on the planet. 

 

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Penguin metropolis. Around a quarter-million king penguins call Salisbury Plain home.

 

A mere 165 kilometres long and 35 kilometres wide, South Georgia Island sits alone, completely exposed to the southern extremities of the Atlantic. At this latitude, storms rage uninhibited. Driven by hurricane-force winds that traverse the globe, storms gain intensity with alarming consistency and power. Massive waves, up to 60 feet high and half a mile long, abruptly end their journey here in mass explosions of water and foam. The mountains rise thousands of metres straight out of the sea fractured by immense glaciers tumbling from the island’s icy heart into sheer, frozen cliffs glistening white and blue. Constantly battered by the elements, it’s incredible the island can withstand this savage onslaught, let alone the wildlife.  

Unfortunately, the human history here is much more barbaric than the natural elements.

Since the early 1800s, the island’s mammalian riches have been exploited at an unprecedented scale and speed. European and American sealers tore into the vast populations of Antarctic fur seals, highly prized for their pelts (which contain roughly four times the fur density of other seals). By the early 20th century, fur seal numbers had been reduced to about 400 animals worldwide. Through conservation and a declining marketplace, the beasts have bounced back with a vengeance and current estimates put their numbers somewhere between 4.5 and 6 million. South Georgia Island holds roughly 95 per cent of the population during the breeding season which takes place from October through December.

 

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An abandoned whaling station reminds us of South Georgia Island’s darker history, where whales and fur seals were harvested with no thought for sustaining the populations.

 

Next up, whales. After hearing reports of bays packed so full of whales you could walk across their backs for a kilometre without getting your feet wet, British and Norwegian whaling operations sprang up. Between 1904-1965, a reported 175,000 whales—mainly humpback, blue, fin, and sei—were hunted in South Georgia Island waters (although actual numbers are likely twice that or more with pelagic, ship-based operations).

And don’t forget about the birds. One of the most important breeding islands on the planet, South Georgia Island is home to roughly 30 million breeding pairs of seabirds. This staggering number is made up of giants like the wandering albatross—the largest bird in the world with a wingspan of 3.5 metres—to smaller birds like petrels, prions and pipits. Rats, reindeer and invasive plant species brought by European ships decimated local flora and native bird populations for nearly 250 years. The South Georgia pipit (the world’s southernmost songbird) was nearly brought to extinction due to rats eating eggs and young. The island was on track to become another sad story of decimation on the road to human development, but local officials, scientists and a group called the South Georgia Heritage Trust saw the potential to set things right in this special place.

 

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It’s bad luck for sailors to turn their backs on the sea. Luckily, these seafaring king penguins aren’t sailors—they just turn their backs on the sea to stay warm against the stiff breeze while incubating eggs the size of grapefruits.

 

Habitat restoration initiatives began in 2008 with the world’s largest rat eradication program kicking off in 2011. By 2018, South Georgia Island was officially declared rat-free.

Furthermore, in 2012, South Georgia Island and the adjacent South Sandwich Islands were designated as a marine protected area, now comprising one of the world’s largest marine reserves and covering 1.07 million square kilometres. All tourist operations are strictly controlled and require expensive permits with stringent biosecurity protocols. Commercial fishing is closely watched and regulated. 

This 180-degree turn from exploitation to conservation has been fully embraced by the wildlife and government alike. Fur seals, elephant seals and penguins now gather in record numbers, and while whales are rebounding more slowly, they are returning to bays that have not seen cetaceans for nearly 100 years. The island is an amazing success story which has proven that given enough time and a little help, mother nature can bounce back to her near-natural state.

 

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Young male elephant seals practice sparring to prepare for their adult lives as 4000-kilogram beasts needing to defend their beach against other marauding males.

 

As a human being on South Georgia Island, that natural state is as untamed as it comes. Along with guide/friend Sophie Ballagh, I am suddenly surrounded by massive fur seals who seem to prefer their island without us on it. In our haste to find a suitable route to a colony of Macaroni penguins, Sophie and I had come ashore and voyaged forth without our collapsible hiking poles, the best defense against fur seals any of us have yet discovered. 

 

 

So, we resorted to banging beach stones together in hopes the sound would deter the five large, aggressive males shuffling towards us. Weighing up to 130 kilograms (and a distant cousin of the grizzly bear) any male fur seal worth his salt will fiercely defend his patch of beach—guarding his females from any possible suitors or random invaders like us. 

Blocked from our original destination and with our escape route nearly cut off by three more hulking seals, Sophie and I ditch our rocks and make one last screaming charge for the water, our Zodiac and the safety of the ship. I block a lunging bite with my boot and after a few metres of pursuit, the entire squad of South Georgia Island locals gives up—we are off their turf, someone else’s problem now.

 

Island-of-Life-Restoring-and-Reclaiming-One-of-Earths-Most-Untamed-Places-photo-by-Ben-Haggar-penguins-with-young
Each chick has a unique call that helps parents find and feed their young amongst the chaos.

 

 

The sea is an erratic, rabid mess but just beneath the surface, fur seals glide gracefully amongst the kelp, their underwater demeanour much friendlier than on land.

 

Safe in the Zodiac, we follow the strong localized katabatic winds that race down the glacier and across the beach, and power back to the boat. The sea is an erratic, rabid mess but just beneath the surface, fur seals glide gracefully amongst the kelp, their underwater demeanour much friendlier than on land.

Heading back to our floating home, I can’t help but appreciate the peaks, glaciers, beaches—and even the odours—as South Georgia Island fades back into the fog. Looking back at the scene on the beach, it’s as if we were never there. The small gap we once occupied has been filled in by penguins going about their penguin business and seals fighting for supremacy; biting, barking, battling and thriving.

Just knowing a place like this exists, the way nature intended, brings a smile to my face. I seek out these wild, untamed places to feel the fury and beauty of nature firsthand, and in that sense South Georgia Island has delivered far beyond anything I could ever imagine. And while the smell will hopefully fade, I suspect the memories never will.

Excerpted from the Winter/Spring ’21 issue of Mountain Life–Coast Mountains.

 

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