Skies were sunny and seas calm as we approached the island of South Georgia*. We gathered excitedly on deck as we passed our first iceberg, and glaciers began to appear through the distant clouds. With Caribbean-blue waters and steep green mountains rising sharply from the sea, my first impressions of South Georgia reminded me of Lofoten, mixed with Alaska, mixed with something else entirely. We anchored near Grytviken, an abandoned Norwegian whaling station, home to a research station, seals, penguins, and the grave of Sir Ernest “Shack-Attack” Shackleton.
Our zodiac landing at Grytviken began with a careful walk through a field absolutely full of elephant seals and territorial fur seals, the latter of which made no delays in charging us whenever we got too close (and sometimes, even when we didn’t). While you may have envisioned seals as cute, endearing creatures, which they are, you probably haven’t imagined that they have quite a vicious streak as well. Rick, the expedition’s marine biologist, showed us some alarming pictures of seal bites, which can quickly turn into “sealer’s finger”, a nasty infection that lasts for months and renders the bitten body part (usually, as the name implies, a finger) relatively useless afterwards. Having experienced this firsthand, he gave us detailed instructions about how to handle fur seal attacks, which are as follows: When a gigantic, snarling fur seal begins running full-speed towards you, yelping madly and bearing its teeth, stay calm, and simply clap your hands in its face. As counterintuitive as this seems, it works, and the seals turn right around.
Our first stop was to the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the legendary Antarctic explorer, deemed “the Shack-Attack” by Tom and Josh. There, we were each given a shot of whiskey to toast to the deceased adventurer, tossing the last drops onto his grave in honor. At this point I was able to casually ask my mother to hold my whiskey for the first time in my life, which was entertaining.
After that, Grytviken was ours to explore. I was feeling low-energy and opted out of the group hike, the popularity of which had left the entire whaling station and surrounding areas abandoned. For hours I wandered alone amongst the rusting metal, king penguins and lounging seals, warding off their attacks and absorbing the surreal atmosphere. Some of the world’s most incredible wildlife mingled calmly with the impressively rusting ruins of man’s brutal presence. Time seemed to stand still.
The sun slowly sank behind the mountains of Grytviken and we returned, dazed, to the ship. Apparently, we still hadn’t seen much.
(*Largely unheard of, this island of South Georgia has absolutely nothing in common with either the state in the southern US or the country in Eurasia. Like the Falkland Islands, it is a British Overseas Territory).