South Georgia Island Trip Report

Years ago, I wanted to photograph penguins. Most trips where you can see penguins are ~20 days, 10 of which are spent in transit between the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula. So instead, I went to the Falkland Islands. It was amazing, and it made me want to go to South Georgia. Unfortunately, basically no one goes to just South Georgia. I looked into a small boat that leaves from the Falklands and goes there, but it was quite expensive to book, and I wasn’t sure I could find enough people to go with me to make it happen.

Last year, when I went to Svalbard for the first time and met the WildPhoto team, I knew I’d found some kindred spirits. They had a photo tour in 2015 just to South Georgia, on a small ship. We just got back from South Georgia, this was my third trip with them, it was fantastic, and I look forward to traveling with them more. We managed to spend about 60 hours onshore with 14 landings across 8 days, which might be a record. My full collection of images is here. I also shot some 360° spherical stills and videos, which you can find here as well as directly on the Ricoh Theta page and on a YouTube playlist. WildPhoto posted their trip report, but I wanted to provide my own perspective.

We started with an earthquake in Santiago right before our flight to the Falklands, and our bus broke down in between the Mount Pleasant airport and the Stanley harbor. But fortunately, things eased up after that, and we had an amazingly smooth crossing at full speed. About 2.5 days later, we arrived at South Georgia and made an outing at Right Whale Bay.

This was an amazing way to “ease” into South Georgia, as there was so much to shoot, but it wasn’t the overwhelming amount of wildlife we’d see the next few days. We’d all heard about the “stay 5m away from wildlife” rule, but most of the time, the only way to follow that would be to run away from the wildlife and back onto the boat: the wildlife was really curious about us, and it’d come check us out! While I was lying down photographing an elephant seal, I felt something at my boot, looked back, and discovered a sheathbill pecking at my boots. And soon three of his friends joined in. We also lucked out because a snow storm blew in, and we had king penguins on snow in snow.

King penguins on snow, in a snowstorm.

King penguins on snow, in a snowstorm.

While I was lying there shooting them (take a shot, wipe the lens off, take a shot, repeat), a territorial fur seal decided that the entire snowy plain was his and started coming over 100+ meters to let us know. Of course when I stood up, he decided I was bigger, and he was OK sharing the snow.

A fur seal, not sure if he wants to share the snow.

A fur seal, not sure if he wants to share the snow.

The next morning, we landed at one of the major beaches, Salisbury Plain, with a beautiful, partly-cloudy day. There were so many penguins, it was amazing. I was able to inch my way towards this penguin, standing alone with a nice reflection.

A penguin and his reflection.

A penguin and his reflection.

The weather changed quickly, but we were still able to go to Prion Island that evening and see an amazing wandering albatross colony, with a chick nesting right next to the boardwalk. These birds are huge: this baby’s bigger than an adult king penguin. Each wing will be about 5-6′ long.

A juvenile wandering albatross chick.

A juvenile wandering albatross chick.

The next morning, we made our government-required stop in Grytviken. I think a number of us were meh about going to a historical place, as we were here for wildlife, but all of us ended up wanting more time ashore! South Georgia’s had a very successful rat eradication program, and it’s led to local birds like the South Georgia Pipit and South Georgia Pintail prospering. It’s also led to wild things, like an antarctic tern that decided to build a nest on the ground, right next to the main walkway. The parents were very calm while I sat there and watched them feed their chick, but apparently a couple weeks before, they’d been dive bombing anyone that walked by!

An antarctic tern feeds its chick.

An antarctic tern feeds its chick.

It was also neat to see Ernest Shackleton’s grave and the museum with whaling artifacts. And we had the calmest penguin in the world by our landing site, who didn’t care about us one bit.

Ernest Shackleton's grave.

Ernest Shackleton’s grave.

That night, we went to a very nice, calm bay, Godthul, and had some beautiful evening light. It was quite nice for portraits!

An adult male elephant seal swims through the evening light being reflected in the water.

An adult male elephant seal swims through the evening light being reflected in the water.

A baby elephant seal "weaner" poses for a portrait.

A baby elephant seal “weaner” poses for a portrait.

We thought we’d been having a great trip so far, but the next morning blew us away. We were able to get up early (1:45am) to go ashore at sunrise at St. Andrews Bay. There were thousands of penguins and seals. It was epic! This is what the beach looked like:

The epic beach at St. Andrew's Bay.

The epic beach at St. Andrew’s Bay.

The sunrise was rather beautiful, too.

Sunrise at St. Andrew's Bay with an elephant seal.

Sunrise at St. Andrew’s Bay with an elephant seal.

Seriously, everywhere we turned, it was beautiful. After taking the shot of the elephant seal in the surf, I turned around and saw this river with penguins and snow-covered mountains.

Everywhere we looked at St. Andrew's had really beautiful scenery and a plethora of wildlife.

Everywhere we looked at St. Andrew’s had really beautiful scenery and a plethora of wildlife.

A few minutes later, I turned around, and this skua decided to checkout my lens. This is at 14mm.

A skua says hello.

A skua says hello.

That afternoon, we had a calmer landing at Moltke Harbour, but there were still plenty of gentoo penguins, elephant seals, along with some really nice light and clouds.

An elephant seal sticks its nose up at Moltke Harbour.

An elephant seal sticks its nose up at Moltke Harbour.

Our attitude was we could rest on the voyage home, and we kept that attitude up the next day with a sunrise landing at Gold Harbor. Part of what’s amazing at South Georgia is if you pick a spot and just wait, stuff happens. I was lying by the surf, a little worried I was wasting the sunrise light, and suddenly a couple of fur seals emerged from the surf. Then, penguins walked into frame. Oh and it was lightly raining on me, too. I love this shot because it feels like South Georgia in one image: fur seals, penguins, sun, storm, beach, and mountains.

South Georgia in one shot.

South Georgia in one shot.

Ole Jørgen Liodden, Roy Mangersnes, and myself were shooting with underwater cameras, trying to get kings underwater. It was rather hard! We spent a good amount of time at Gold Harbor trying (in addition to failed attempts at other spots), and this was the best I got. I think the animals have a genetic memory of the Norwegians and stay away :)

A king penguin in murky water.

A king penguin in murky water.

That afternoon, we took a break from the king penguins and found some cute Macaroni penguins. They’re so-named because the English explorers who found them in the 1700s thought their yellow crest looked like the feathers that the dandies in the UK called “macaronis” wore in their hats. As an aside, it’s impressive how if you stay low and calm and are patient, many animals will get curious and check you out.

A group of Macaroni penguins walks along a snowy highway.

A group of Macaroni penguins walks along a snowy highway.

Unfortunately that evening, a storm and fog blew in, and we couldn’t make it to Drygalski fjord. But we had a wonderful consolation prize, chinstrap penguins on a beautifully graphic iceberg in very sweet evening light. Rough trip, right?

Chinstrap penguins ride an iceberg.

Chinstrap penguins ride an iceberg.

The simple lines of the iceberg and of the penguin are just so graphic, don’t you just want to order a print of this?

A chinstrap penguin looks at us from an iceberg.

A chinstrap penguin looks at us from an iceberg.

The next morning might have been the highlight of the trip, another sunrise at St. Andrew’s Bay. I wanted to get penguins against the rising sun. I saw a spot they were emerging from, went over they, and they stopped coming out of the surf. I waited, and waited, and started to get worried. But all of the sudden, it was like someone called Central Casting and said, “Send in the penguins. Yeah, just keep them coming. More, yep, uh huh, yeah, just send all you’ve got.” Thousands of penguins walked in front of me, came out of the surf right in front of me, and more in less than 30 minutes.

King penguins emerge from the southern ocean at sunrise.

King penguins emerge from the southern ocean at sunrise.

This was maybe 100′ to the right of where we landed. Then, I walked about 100′ to the left of the zodiac, and the penguins just kept coming. Even better, the golden sunrise light created a perfect reflection in the surf. Only a few of us saw it (I think Joshua Holko and I were shooting this), and hey, this is when understanding light pays off.

A morning mountain and cloud reflection while we watch march of the penguins part 7.

A morning mountain and cloud reflection while we watch march of the penguins part 7.

To give you an idea, I’d soaked my gloves earlier while the penguins marched by and was shooting bare-handed in the cold. My fingers were mostly numb. To get these shots, I was lying in the surf, without waders, and when a wave came, I’d lift myself onto my ankle and elbow to get out of the water, but I still got water in my boot and up my sleeve. And that southern ocean is cold! I also did something to my hands where my iPhone’s touch ID no longer likes my left thumb. Despite all that, I had a big grin on my face, and I hadn’t even gone further than 100′ from where we landed. Here’s what it looked like when I was kneeling in the surf and Ole graciously took a photo of me.

I was actually lying in this surf to shoot. (Photo by Ole Jørgen Liodden)

I was actually lying in this surf to shoot. (Photo by Ole Jørgen Liodden)

That evening was much calmer (and warmer), with a nice landing in Ocean Harbor. There’s the wreck of a three-masted, iron-hulled ship, the Bayard there, which cormorants now nest aboard.

Cormorants on the Bayard.

Cormorants on the Bayard.

The next morning was rather wet at Salisbury Plain, and while it can be hard to motivate yourself to go shoot in pouring rain, the results are worth it.

A very wet penguin, right before he shook himself clean.

A very wet penguin, right before he shook himself clean.

The rain eased, and the light did some amazing things.

A penguin says goodbye to the storm.

A penguin says goodbye to the storm.

Unfortunately the katabatibc winds picked up, going from calm to 60+ knots offshore very quickly, forcing us to abort our landing. But before we left, we got some great shots of penguins being batted around in the surf. Since they couldn’t see out of the surf, they’d come out of it right on top of us.

Penguins emerge on top of us out of the surf.

Penguins emerge on top of us out of the surf.

The winds kept up, making it so we couldn’t do an evening landing, but we cruised around the Bay of Isles. I took a nice, warm shower, walked up to the lounge, looked outside, and saw some amazing light. Unfortunately it was rather rocky, so shortly after I went out to shoot, I got a nice cold shower from the ocean. It was worth it.

A stormy sunset in the Bay of Isles.

A stormy sunset in the Bay of Isles.

The next morning, I was nicknamed “the seal whisperer” as I carefully and calmly walked amidst a large group of fur seals who seemed to dislike everyone but me so that I could setup and retrieve my 360° camera.

Unfortunately, a prediction of hurricane-force winds on the way back and their being one flight a week between the Falklands and Santiago meant that the evening landing would be our last. We went to Salisbury Plain, and I decided to commit full-force to shooting underwater. Let me tell you, standing in very cold water, even in insulated waders, for hours, is rather hard on one’s bladder. Here’s what it looked like:

Me shooting with a pole cam at Salisbury Plain. (Photo by Howard Whelan)

Me shooting with a pole cam at Salisbury Plain. (Photo by Howard Whelan)

Since the penguins could see us today, it was tricky to get them close enough for underwater work. But, I finally got a shot I liked, and it’s different from the usual underwater shot you see.

Finally, a penguin underwater!

Finally, a penguin underwater!

Unfortunately my remote trigger died (I’m glad it waited until the end), but I hand-held my housing, trying to get penguins in the surf. I like the different perspective you get than shooting from land.

Penguins in the surf.

Penguins in the surf.

Sadly, this was it for the trip. Our crossing back started out a bit rough but continuously calmed down, and we all had a good time enjoying each other’s company and looking at our photos. I hope you like looking through my gallery as much as I enjoyed shooting it, and I can’t wait to go back to South Georgia again!