Gold Harbour, South Georgia Island

It’s very difficult to describe life changing experiences. Standing on Gold Harbour beach at 5.30am witnessing the sheer volume of life and realising the absolute fragility of the planet, exacerbated by man…… was like no other moment in my life.

Me, aged 2 in the snow

How do passions begin? There was no ‘aha’ moment for me. Looking back with hindsight, I was always drawn to penguins and snow. Perhaps being an early February baby, meant I liked cold snowy days – my first memory of about 2 years old, is playing in the snow!

I can’t pinpoint my fascination with Penguins, just distant childhood memories of zoo visits, where they were the animals I spent the most time looking at. Seeing penguins in their natural habitat was my life dream but visiting Antarctica and South Georgia felt unachievable.

About 10 years ago, our fortunes turned a small corner, coupled with a close family member’s move to Australia and a visit was planned with the chance to see the Little penguin up close at Philips Island, off the coast of Melbourne. My quest had begun!

Not everyone has passions – I seem to have been granted with many, along with a personal relationship where they are not only encouraged but actively supported. As hubby and I sat that night at Phillips Island, ‘being a stone’ so as not to frighten the penguins coming into their burrows from the sea, in sou’westers and a howling gale, we were spellbound by these beautiful and comical marine birds. As they chattered and tumbled up the beach, falling over each other in an attempt to safely reach their burrows, I was in total wonder at nature.

Two years later, a trip to New Zealand presented the opportunity to see Yellow Eyed and the Little Penguins again at Otega Peninsula, Dunedin. Not in very many numbers at the time, but still an achievement!

Another two years passed and a Hurtigruten brochure arrived – we had recently been on a Norwegian Northern Lights trip with them, and had really enjoyed this type of ‘cruising’. A small, educational ship, with experts on board sharing their knowledge of the local wildlife and region. We made an early booking, 18 months ahead, to go to South Georgia and Antarctica on a new fully electric ship.

Initial hopes were dashed, but patience brought knowledge and excellence. There is always a reason!

Two or three months before departure date, the trip was cancelled – the new boat build was delayed. The replacement offer from Hurtigruten no where near matched our original booking.

Initial ‘gutted’ feelings gave way to ‘thank goodness that was cancelled’, as through more research we realised it wouldn’t have been the trip for us! With over 100 passengers, trips ashore were restricted – quite rightly to protect the environment – but could have meant we would not have been able to get off the ship at all of the stops, or had limited time ashore and of course could miss penguin sightings!

Swoop Antarctica a specialist travel agent, were just brilliant!!! They work with the operator Polar Latitudes and I can’t recommend their trips enough. They are as responsible and sustainable as they can possibly be. Our trip was gifted with incredible scientists, climatologists, historians, ornithologists – all sorts of specialists for that region plus onboard citizen science programs. I didn’t even know these existed! Coupled with just under the key 100 guests, all excited, interested and passionate it made for the trip of a lifetime.

We experienced challenging weather, kicking off with storm conditions our first two days at sea – not over the Drake Passage, we went the other way round from Port Madryn to the Falklands first – where nearly everyone, crew included, took a while to get their sea legs. Aborted zodiac landings and a few very early mornings… to avoid the aborted zodiac landings – it was all worth it.

A windy start to our trip. We narrowly avoided seasickness!

I think most of the story is best told in photographs and videos, so am sharing a few here and more detailed blogs on the journey will follow.

Sustainability: Polar Latitudes were exemplary in their care of the environment. No plastics were aboard. We had refillable bottles provided and water stations throughout the ship. With the eradication of non-native species in South Georgia and concerns about preserving bio-diversity in the region, sanitisation and de-seeding of all our boots and clothing on and off each shore visit was expertly carried out. Their management of fresh food was pretty interesting, taking on local produce on their way to the initial port and fresh lamb at Falklands, but loved all of the different fridges kept at different temperatures to manage fresh produce. The food was excellent. All food waste was put through digesters and made safe to dispose some at sea, and the rest in port. We couldn’t even leave footprints – well at least not deep ones – onshore. Penguins struggle with any deep holes. Visits ashore were carefully managed, no food or drink taken with us, we kept to set routes, equipment and boots sterilised on and off the ship, did our utmost not to disturb the wildlife and minimise any impact. Impeccable!

The talks we had on board were outstanding. We learnt about the early explorers, Shackleton’s expeditions especially. Took part in citizen science spotting whales, clouds, birds, sea water temperature and salt content. Climate presentations with frightening facts and figures were discussed as a group including what each individual might do and yes, each individual does have impact, believe me!

South Georgia Heritage Trust came on board and educated us on the past issues on the island with rodents, deer, non-indigenous species and the huge efforts this small team had gone to, over several years to reverse the human effect from the whaling times (1950’s approx). We had a fabulous auction for them onboard, and helped raised funds.

Gold Harbour, South Georgia at 5.30 am

It’s a double edged sword visiting this area – by doing so, we have an impact there, but until you experience the fragility of the planet first hand, stood amongst hundreds of thousands of penguins, seals and sea birds, your own David Attenborough moment, that’s when you REALLY REALLY get it. All we can do if we do visit, is to become an ambassador for protecting the area and spreading the word about changing our impact on the planet’s environment.

Through this trip, we gladly contributed funding both personally and through our business, and I became a Guardian of South Georgia. What does that mean? I am an ambassador for the wildlife and nature in this area doing my best to help raise funds for future works, share amazing stories, photographs, and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Its how this all started for me.

Resources and Links:

South Georgia Heritage Trust

Antarctica Heritage Trust

British Antarctic Survey

International Association Antarctica Tour Operators