I’m often asked how frequently we get let off South Georgia for holidays and to see family. The answer is never!
For an entire year, I am restricted to the island.
But we do get much more freedom than other Antarctic bases and have a very generous travel limit. And we do get ‘holidays’ – kind of – where we get to visit neighbouring peninsulas for a short period with the help of boating support.
After a hard and very long summer, I took a few days off to visit St Andrews Bay. This is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, since watching David Attenborough documentaries as a kid.
St Andrews Bay is a stretch of land lying at the foot of Mount Skittle on the Barff Peninsula. It stretches 3km from the mountain ranges at each end and 2km between the ocean and the glaciers located at either side.
More spectacular than the bay itself are its residents. St Andrews Bay is home to the largest breeding colony of King Penguins worldwide. Depending on who you talk to, the numbers of penguins residing here are between 400,000 and 600,000. And having visited the colony, I can now understand why there is such ambiguity.
Literally everywhere you look, there are King Penguins. Along the beaches, there is a constant conveyor belt of birds as adults either return to land to feed their chicks or head to sea to stock up on baby food.
We were incredibly lucky to visit the colony at this time of year. Not only was it covered with a thick layer of snow, but also, amongst the adults, were chicks of all different sizes. Surprisingly, there were even a small number of adults still incubating eggs.
I wish St Andrews was on our doorstep but unfortunately not. In fact, in order to reach this spectacular phenomenom, we had to walk 20km across knee deep mountainous terrain in snow shoes. Upon arrival at our St Andrews Bay hut, myself and Robbie, exhausted from walking, ingested a kilogram of chocolate in seconds, which some philanthropist had kindly left for us in the hut.
Was it worth all the effort and exhaustion …? Well, you decide for yourself. As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, so the rest of this post is silent …
After a long overnight cruise we arrived at one of the most northern islands, Genovesa. This island is ridiculous. Everywhere you look there is wildlife, before we even landed we had seen Galapagos Sea Lions loafing on exposed rocks, endemic swallow tailed gulls fighting over scraps of unlucky crustacean and three species of boobies surveying the coastal waters for fish. The island itself is unbelievable, it is absolutely covered in nesting seabirds. Unique to this island are the red footed boobies and the Genovesa mockingbird but the supporting cast of breeding, masked and blue footed boobies, frigate birds, Short eared owls, tropic birds and Galapagos storm petrels weren’t half bad either.
The east side of this island is absolutely swarming with storm petrels. You could spend hours here watching the tropic birds trying desparately to navigate safe passage through the awaiting frigatebirds to their nests. Whilst I was doing just this, we were lucky enough to see a Short Eared Owl grab a Galapagos storm petrel out of the sky with so much agility and ease. What made this even more spectacular was when this owl set about devouring its prey it was clear to see that it only had one eye.
After returning to the boat we had a quick turn around before getting into the sea for our first snorkel. Unlike many of the worlds most famous diving sites, visibility around the islands is frustratingly turbid at times. When you focus on what is causing this turbidity you realise that its not sand or pollution but billions of tiny organisms called plankton. This plankton is here as a result of oceanographic systems and is responsible for feeding the incredible diversity of life that is found both in and out of the water around the islands. Highlights on our first snorkelling trip included, a shoal of golden cownose rays, hammerhead sharks, and a single Galapagos shark.
For the afternoon we moved around to Darwin bay for more of the same. Highlights of the landing trip were white morph red footed boobies and their prehistoric chicks, baby sea lions and also a couple of very obliging night herons. The snorkel was slightly less uneventful although a number of white tip reef sharks were cruising within the bay.
The best dive site I visited was Gordon Rocks. I had four dives here in total and saw hammerheads on three of these including 46 on one dive. I also had breaching Mola Mola around the boat during a surface interval and two sightings in the water. Other highlights included a Sea Lion eating a barracuda, Galapagos and White Tip Reef Sharks,
Be prepared to be overwhelmed! The diversity and the abundance of animals is absolutely breathtaking. There are two snorkelling sites I would recommend one for this diversity and the other for a particular species. The first of these is Kicker Rock which is situated off San Cristobel. Here you will see crazy numbers of turtles, sharks, rays and bait fish but with the water here being deeper and more exposed, visibility can vary greatly. The second snorkelling experience for me was at Sante Fe Islet, with the Sea Lions. Here, you anchor in a sheltered cove where hundreds of sea lions haul out. When you approach in the water the inquisitive ones are quick to surround you for a play.
Best Wildlife experience
Espanola is very similar to Genovesa in that it is used by large densities of breeding seabirds. I went to the Galapagos preying for my first good views of Albatross but was told that the very best I could hope for was maybe flight views of any recently fledged individuals still lingering in the wider area. During the peak breeding season Espanola is home to 25-30 thousand breeding pairs of waved albatross. However this was mid January after the last birds should have fledged.
The island was still great with huge numbers of Nascar Boobies some with chicks born that day as well as mockingbirds, blue footed boobies and a Galapagos Hawk. When we reached the island top I was shocked to see a fat still, partially downy, Albatross chick looking at me, right beside the pathway. I then went on further to see a pair of incredible adults performing their courting bill tapping behaviour. What the hell these guys were still doing here, I don’t know but I don’t care! It was more than I could ever have hoped for, and to top it off, when we returned to the yacht, we were followed back to Santa Cruz by another adult.