The persistent nudge was annoying. A very large body was trying to push me off the camping mattress. Snugly wrapped in my sleeping bag, I drowsily realized that the firm pressure was not from a tent mate—I was in a single tent—but from something much bigger. It was the unfamiliar, sonorous snort that finally woke me up fully. It came from a two-ton female elephant seal that was trying to snuggle up to me from the outside, with only the thin tent fabric separating our bodies! It was indeed the most unusual tent intruder on a frosty morning on that pebble beach on South Georgia island.
I tore out of the tent door in my skivvies and, ignoring the cold breeze from the Antarctic ocean, I cut the tent lanyards with a pocket knife. I sidestepped the colossal pinniped, who just looked up at me with her enormous wet eyes. She had that startled expression of, “So, what?”
I schlepped the tent way further up the beachhead and inspected the whereabouts of my fellow travelers in their tents. All were safe. I realized that a large herd of elephant seals, led by a couple of three-ton bulls, had invaded our camp site during the previous Antarctic night. It did not take long to alert the rest of the expedition members and then move our shelters to higher and safer grounds.
That encounter was yet another out-of-this-world adventure and total wilderness immersion—perhaps a little too close this time. Yet that is what South Georgia is all about: unexpected experiences steeped in the rawest of nature. This is what has made the island one of the most special wildlife destinations on the planet Earth. It is crazily remote, almost untouched and teeming with wildlife. And that was why we had chosen to launch the world’s first commercial sea kayak expedition here.
Not many people come to South Georgia because it is far away from everywhere. It is a difficult place to reach since you can’t fly there, and the weather is often challenging to predict. The nearest port is Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, four-to-five days of continuous sailing eastwards.
The island of South Georgia is 100 miles long, shaped like a sleek but rugged compass needle, and located in the bull’s eye of the raging westerlies of the southern oceans. These winds are accelerated across a 400-mile stretch of open ocean, just to be slammed into the southwest coast of South Georgia (yet another reason for why so few have sea kayaked there).
So that was what we did. We hired the legendary French captain Jerome Poncet and his 65-foot Golden Fleece expedition sail boat to bring us across, obtained a hard-to-get camping permits and hop-scotched in expedition kayaks down the rugged northwest coastline of South Georgia for a couple weeks.
The whole experience of exploring South Georgia in kayaks, by foot and in a sailboat was life-changing for all of us. For me, this trip was also a connection to my family history. Eighty years ago, my Danish grandfather had spent two years working as a doctor in the small Norwegian community of Grytviken, the largest whaling station in South Georgia. In his diaries he had written about the hardship of the whalers here, as well as the sad slaughter of the many whales in these remote waters.
South Georgia is also one of the most famous places in the annals of polar exploration. It was here Sir Ernest Schackleton’s rescue party miraculously reached the windswept southern shores in a small dinghy, seeking help for the rest of their team stranded 600 miles south on Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. During our trip, we actually paddled below the famous Schackleton Gap. Through that mountain notch, Schackleton and a few men had desperately climbed over the steep Allardyce Range, slid down the steep glacier and finally found rescue at the Norwegian whaling station Stroemnes. Looking far up at the steep gap from the seat of our kayaks below gave us an even greater appreciation for the heroics of Shackleton and his men.
Each new day on our trip brought us great adventures only to be encountered in a wild place like this. One afternoon, we tried to land through the surf in Gold Harbor, but were repelled several times by aggressive and rutting male fur seals jockeying for beach territory. After the fourth attempt, we succeeded in running the gauntlet and not being bitten by their infectious bites.
On another occasion, the Williwaw winds came up so fast and the swells grew so large that our small group of kayaks split up. Each paddle crew had to fend for themselves and seek shore amidst the elements. But we had good gear and our clients and guides were experienced kayakers, so we all had a good story to tell afterwards.
One of the best wilderness moments occurred after a hard day of paddling in choppy conditions though the mouth of St. Andrew’s Bay. We were greeted by an ear-deafening cacophony of tens of thousands of nesting king penguin families. The penguins stood shoulder to shoulder, covering the beaches and the surrounding mountainsides as far as the eye could see. It was another epic place to set up camp, and this time, we kept our distance from those belching elephant seals.
There is a lot see, feel and explore on the island of South Georgia. It is hands down one of the most undisturbed wildlife places on Earth and a “must” for any traveling wildlife enthusiast. Natural Habitat Adventures and our expedition leaders are proud to invite you here—although in a much more comfortable and larger vessel. Although we don’t camp and kayak on this particular adventure, the South Georgia wildlife experience is still unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before.
On our sailing expedition to Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia, you will not be nudged by amorous sea elephants, attacked by rutting fur seals or fighting the open seas. Instead, you will safely explore the coastline by zodiac and have a comfortable expedition ship to sleep in every night.
However you choose to experience the natural wonders of this remote island, the immensity of nature on South Georgia will undoubtedly capture your soul.
Olaf Malver is Chief Exploratory Officer at Natural Habitat Adventures.