The first time I visited South Georgia was something akin to a spiritual experience. Hundreds of thousands of king penguins stretched as far as the eye could see, an endless cacophony of sound and motion. Miles of beaches were blanketed with fur seals and elephant seals, many of them humungous. What's more, this wildlife spectacle was set amidst a dramatic landscape of jagged mountains, sweeping glaciers and lush vegetation, both green and polar at the same time. The words creation's playground came to mind, and still do, every time I am privileged to set foot in this astonishing place.
Thousands of miles away from any continent, the remote subantarctic island of South Georgia is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. Visiting South Georgia is like stepping back in time, to an untouched world of abundant animal life in unbelievable densities. Some compare it to the Galapagos – and it's a similar concept, only exponentially multiplied.
A point-of-view selfie at St. Andrew's Bay on South Georgia, home to some 150,000 king penguins. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
While South Georgia's distant location doesn't allow for the kind of species diversity found, say, in the Falkland Islands, it makes up for it with extreme abundance. In the breeding season, the coast of South Georgia – only 104 miles (167 kilometers) long – is home to over 60 million breeding birds of over 30 different species, and over four million seals. At the height of the breeding season, the area on South Georgia between Elsehul Bay and Salisbury Plain is believed to have more wildlife per square foot than anywhere else on earth.
A lone king penguin stands out in the landscape at Grytviken, South Georgia. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
Elephant seals and king penguins gather on the shores of the river at St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
Why here, of all places? The story starts with the Antarctic Convergence, a marine zone continuously encircling Antarctica. Where the cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer currents of the subantarctic, they sink below them and create a great deal of mixing and upwelling. This fosters extraordinary levels of marine productivity, especially for Antarctic krill – the favorite food source of most of Antarctica's seabirds, whales and seals. Tremendous numbers of animals rely on the Antarctic Convergence for food, spending their lives at sea until they come ashore to breed.
"It's a matter of limited space," explained Quark Expeditions' ornithologist and expedition guide Sarah Gutowsky on my recent expedition to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. "There aren't that many [islands in the Southern Ocean], so all the animals that want to use the Convergence for food have to come ashore to breed in very condensed areas. Over evolutionary time, they've all evolved behavioral adaptations that allow them to breed in really high densities."
King penguins gather along the streams of Salisbury Plain, South Georgia. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
A male fur seal patrols his harem on the beach at Stromness, South Georgia. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
A Quark Expeditions guest enjoys a moment of reflection with the St. Andrew's Bay king penguin colony on South Georgia.
Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
On my recent expedition to South Georgia, it was easy to see what Sarah meant. As we explored during the daily hikes, we noticed how king penguins gathered just outside of bill's reach of their neighbors; how fur seals played out the politics of their massive harems; and how gargantuan male elephant seals jousted for reign of the beach. Our expedition guides also took us out for Zodiac cruises each day, which offered unparalleled opportunities to view animals in the water, their true element – and access hard-to-reach nesting sites such as sea cliffs and rock spires. The best part: these animals have no fear of people, making it easy for us to engage in candid close encounters (respectfully) and immersive observation of their remarkable lives.
Traveling by Zodiac, Quark Expeditions guests are guided into the mythical landscapes of Cooper Bay, South Georgia - hoping to catch a glimpse of macaroni penguins or light-mantled sooty albatross. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
A tiny fur seal pup poses for the camera at Grytviken, South Georgia. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
By remaining still and quiet, a Quark Expeditions guest is rewarded for his patience by the approach of a curious elephant seal pup.
Photo credit: Acacia Johnson.
Every excursion in South Georgia is a sensory overload. However, as with many experiences in the Polar Regions, it's often the expertise and passion of Quark Expeditions' field guides that bring the experience to life. On my expedition, we were privileged to travel with our ornithologist Sarah, a seabird researcher whose knowledge and enthusiasm transformed even the subtlest of bird behavior into captivating, educational entertainment. Also on our team was lecturer Pat Lurcock, who actually lived on South Georgia for 25 years and played a vital part in developing the careful administration of the island's fisheries, tourism and biosecurity procedures. Throughout our expedition in South Georgia, his insights, anecdotes and perspectives were refreshingly genuine and informal, lending a unique expertise to every excursion. That's just the tip of the iceberg (sorry, I had to). With experts in marine biology, geology, photography, and history among the team, there was always someone nearby who could illuminate our encounters on shore.
Quark Expeditions' ornithologist and Expedition Guide Adrian Boyle interprets the behavior of king penguins at Gold Harbour, South Georgia.
Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
King penguin chicks are always entertaining to watch – early explorers believed they were a completely different penguin species! Throughout the season, their fluffy brown chick down will molt as they journey awkwardly through adolescence. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
A Quark Expeditions Guide leads guests to an overlook of the St. Andrew's Bay king penguin colony, home to some 150,000 king penguins.
Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
What surprises me most about South Georgia is how infrequently it is visited compared to the Antarctic Peninsula. Many of South Georgia's animals are difficult to spot further south, especially king penguins - the second largest penguin species in the world. The breeding season on South Georgia is long, and animal densities remain spectacular from November through March. If wildlife is your thing, South Georgia may be for you. It's one of the most overwhelming wildlife spectacles on earth, with an intensity of experience that will linger for a lifetime. Plus, you won't miss out – all Quark Expeditions' voyages to South Georgia also visit the pristine Antarctic peninsula.
A trio of king penguins approach passengers overlooking the St. Andrew's Bay penguin colony on South Georgia. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
"Ultimately, the coolest part about South Georgia is its accessibility," said our ornithologist Sarah, who has traveled extensively in the Southern Ocean. "The other subantarctic islands don't lend themselves well to tourism – they're not managed in the same way, they're too far to access, and often in places with rougher seas that can make landings impossible. South Georgia is unlike any other. Here, we have the time and skills to make it happen. But we're still lucky to make it happen.
If you've always wanted to visit Antarctica, don't forget to consider South Georgia as part of the expedition.