South Georgia hosts some of the most spectacular wildlife colonies in the world. People pay thousands of pounds and travel from all over the world to visit. Our most famous inhabitants are the penguins (4 species), seals (2 species) and albatross (4 species). There is an abundance of less ‘sexy’ wildlife utilising South Georgia for its breeding habitats and proximity to rich foraging grounds. Many of these species can be very elusive on the islands, breeding down burrows, visiting nesting sites in the dark and living predominantly over open ocean. This has meant sightings have been few and far between from base. I have spent the last two weeks on board a vessel in the southern ocean and this opportunity has allowed me time to see some of these scarcer pelagic species
Probably the most common of these pelagic species around boats are the cape petrels (seen above), often spotted cruising in the slipstream of ships in the southern hemisphere. As a result, I have a number of the same shots of capes in flight. However, it was a great surprise to see one diving and fishing alongside our ship. The bird must have unearthed a small quantity of krill since it wasn’t long before other species were investigating – like this Antarctic Petrel.
Finally it was the turn of the most elusive of them all, the Blue Petrel. I have spent hours on board ships trying to get pictures of these guys. Although common around boats, they tend to keep their distance. They also move incredibly quickly, meaning previous attempts have been limited to blurry distant unidentifiable specs. When this bird came in close to take advantage of the easy krill meal, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the sun decided it was a good time to hide away but you can’t have everything!
A regular follower of this blog, who wishes to remain anonymous (don’t worry, mum – it’s our little secret) frequently complains that there isn’t enough factual information in some of my posts so here goes on one of favourite subjects …
Macaroni Penguins are the largest of the six crested penguin species. They breed between October and March. Adults arrive at the colonies and lay an A egg and a B egg. Colonies are usually on rocky slopes or in the tussocks. In the majority of nesting attempts, the A egg will fail when the B egg is laid and the B egg will then subsequently succeed. Once the female has laid, the male and female share the responsibility of incubation for the first 12 days. This is then followed by a 10 day shift by the female, followed by a 12 day shift by the male. Once the chick has hatched, the male will continue to guard and incubate the chick for 20-25 days whilst the female completes daily foraging trips. This is followed by a “crèche” period, where chicks gather in small groups for protection, allowing both adults to forage.
Adults tend to stay on the colony overnight and forage from early morning until late evening. After the chicks have fledged, all birds will leave the colony and head to sea, often migrating north, until the following breeding season.
Range – Mainly found breeding around the Antarctic Convergence – Sub Antarctic Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, south of other crested penguins Status– Declining – IUCN threatened species Productivity – 1 chick per nest Incubation Period – 35 days Fledging Period – 60-70 days
Total Population: 10,000,000 pairs Largest populations: South Georgia 5,000,000 pairs Diet: Mainly krill and small fish Fact: Macaroni penguins complete an ‘ecstatic display’ in pairs, which allows pairs to recognise each other
Weight: 4.5 – 6Kg Height: 24-28 inches Fact: Their crest develops with age
Sexual Dimorphism: females smaller Diving Depth: 50m – birds spend little or no time at the base of their dive meaning the dive is V shaped Diving Time: 2 minutes
Sexual Maturity : 5 in females – 6 in males
Fact: Males will return to the same nest annually to display – more often than not breeding with the same female in consecutive years (mainly monogamous) Predators: Leopard Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals and Killer Whales
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.
No matter how confident you are in your sea faring abilities take sea sickness tablets. The trip is incredible but you don’t want to risk anything as manageable as sea sickness ruining it.
Buy sun cream in advanced of travelling to Galapagos. Shops have very limited supplies on offer for extortionate prices
Take snacks – Snorkelling is hard work and even the most restraint of our team were craving snacks by the end of our cruise. A snickers on Galapagos will set you back $4 in places so take your own!
Trip Advisor before paying for anything! It is not possible to review every tour provider and trip however there is a lot of helpful information on trip advisor, especially with regards to the safety of certain scuba diving providers.
If you are taking a waterproof camera, look into buying a red filter for your lens!
Booking my trip to the Galapagos Islands was a ridiculously stressful process. There are so many things to consider, especially when parting with so much money, to ensure that your trip is as amazing as it should be.
Here I hope to take you through the booking process I went through in order to make your experience that little bit easier and your decision making more informed.
This is the most incredible place I have ever visited, absolutely full of unforgettable memories. As a marine biologist, I dreamed of visiting the Galapagos since before I can remember. When I realised I would be in South America, I knew I had to do it and do it properly because it is not cheap and I didn’t want to leave with regrets. The booking process is a whole other blog post in itself but it wasn’t simple and it definitely wasn’t cheap. But having got this sorted I started to worry that maybe it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, because nothing can really be that good. Also I worried I wasn’t worthy of walking where the legendary Sir David Attenborough has graced so frequently.
Fortunately, by the time I had made it onto the cruise boat my expectations were already in the process of being smashed. My first glimpse of the water on the shuttle bus was of a brown noddy using a pelicans head as a fishing post. Whilst waiting for our shuttle boat to come to ferry us to the Yacht Fragata, out home for the next week, we were surrounded by a feeding frenzy of blue footed boobies. Unfortunately all before I managed to get the camera out.