5 Reasons to Include South Georgia on Your Antarctica Travel Itinerary

It’s been a lifelong dream, you’ve been inspired by the BBC’s Frozen Planet, you’ve just seen a friend’s photos from their trip or you are a frequent traveller who only has one continent left on their bucket list.  Whatever the reason, the decision has been made: Antarctica will be your next travel destination.

Unless you are a scientist, medic or other specialist who has secured a placement at a research station, or are wealthy enough to arrange your own private yacht, your travel options are limited to a group tour aboard an expedition cruise ship.  But this doesn’t mean your itinerary options are restricted – quite the opposite in fact.

The most common tour offered is an eleven day return trip from Ushuaia that crosses the Drake Passage towards the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.  There are alternative tours that travel a little further south but the grand-daddy of them all is the three week round trip from Ushuaia, via South Georgia – and this is the one I recently enjoyed with Quark Expeditions.

Ignoring the reality that your options may be restricted by lack of time or funds, here are the five reasons why you should consider adding South Georgia to your Antarctica itinerary.

 

1. It feels like taking part in a wildlife documentary

“There were days I felt like I was starring in my own wildlife documentary, with the narration of David Attenborough the only missing piece.”

 

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With its varied and abundant wildlife population, South Georgia is often referred to as the Galapagos of the South.  Fur and elephant seals line the shores of landing sites like guards in front of a Palace, their unpredictable personalities increasing your heart rate as you step onto land. Your presence may be acknowledged with nothing more than a glance of indifference or you may find yourself nervously navigating a maze of belching, growling and territorial adults.  You may even find yourself being comically charged by curious seal pups, mimicking their aggressive, older relations.

Bird watchers will benefit from the rat eradication initiative that is currently underway in South Georgia which is helping sustain a flourishing bird population.  In addition to the iconic and magnificent albatrosses, the world’s only known carnivorous duck (South Georgia pintail) and Antarctica’s only songbird, the South Georgia pipit can be found on the island.

But the star attractions are of course the macaroni and king penguins, thousands of which live in breeding colonies throughout the island.  Prepare yourself for sensory overload as you arrive at your first king penguin colony.  Their melodic chirping creates a symphony for your ears, the scene in front of you resembles a Where Wally’s drawing and the distinctive odour leaves no mistake that this is the home of the penguin and you are a visitor, on the outside looking in.

 

2. It’s all about the journey

“I constantly feel the need to pinch myself but I choose not to.  If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up”

 

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(enjoying the time to practise photographing seabirds on deck – photograph by Merv Colton @ www.moglander.com)

This itinerary is a perfect combination of days at sea, zodiac cruises, ship cruises and landings and not only does it allow you to disconnect from the outside world, it insists upon it.  There is so much to see and experience that there is no room in your thoughts for anything but the moment you are in.

As you drift further away from Ushuaia, your connection with civilisation evaporates.  The ship that began as your ride to Antarctica becomes your mobile base camp, your home.  Strangers you met on Embarkation Day become your friends.  You begin stepping into the zodiac as if you have been doing this your whole life and the time it takes to get into your waterproof ‘landing’ clothes decreases with each excursion.

The disappointment of abandoned landings as a result of changeable conditions is replaced with the awareness that some of the most memorable moments happen when things don’t go to plan.  This extended itinerary has enough days for unplanned changes to result in unexpected highlights.

And whilst the anticipation of arriving in Antarctica (the Holy Grail) builds each day, you will be constantly aware that each experience along the way is unique in its own right.  This is the closest you will get to being on another planet without leaving this one.

Adding South Georgia to your Antarctic itinerary doesn’t just enhance the experience it, it prolongs it!  Three weeks is the perfect amount of time to be fully immersed into the experience and I was constantly saying “I can’t believe how much I’ve already seen and I can’t believe how much I still have in front of me”.  It feels like you are experiencing your adventure in a magical bubble where time stands still.

 

3. The Landscape

“The first iceberg of our journey is spotted at 7pm on New Year’s Day and as we expect to land on the island the following morning, the timing feels appropriate. This single iceberg, floating alone in the sea, feels symbolic of our journey ahead.  It is a beacon, leading us into South Georgia, the gateway of Antarctica.” 

 

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Landscape photographers will feel spoiled for choice as meals and sleep become a mere inconvenience.  Whether it’s capturing wide-angled vistas from the ship, framing snow-capped mountains with a penguin in the foreground on land, or shooting from sea level in a zodiac, you will take more photos than you thought possible.

And it’s not just for photographers.  After the days at sea that are required to reach South Georgia, the island provides a refreshing opportunity to stretch your sea legs.  An afternoon in Grytviken created the choice for us of five different hikes including a challenging climb, a cross country hunt for a nesting light-mantled sooty albatross and a step back in time towards a Shackleton memorial.

South Georgia is long and narrow with many inhospitable peaks and ranges.  Remote, wild and rugged, the island with no trees is simply spectacular.  As you look out at the powerful snow covered peaks and icy blue glaciers, you can’t help but feel small and insignificant.  And yet at the same time you feel inspired, empowered and alive.

 

4. The bonus locations

“Our final day in South Georgia ends out on deck as we sail through the spectacular Larsen Harbour.  I feel small and insignificant as I look around at the snow capped mountains and icy glaciers.  A seal is spotted amongst the carpet of sea ice and our farewell party consists of petrels, terms and snowy sheathbills.  South Georgia has enough highlights to be warranted as a stand-alone tour, I could return home now having had one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life.  But it’s not just about South Georgia…”

 

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South Georgia on its own is an incredible destination.  Visiting South Georgia on the way to Antarctica is pretty special.  But including South Georgia on your itinerary gets you a number of bonus locations that you are unlikely to ever visit on their own.

The ship that departed the day before you was heading directly to Antarctica.  It would spend two days on the Drake Passage before arriving in the Peninsula.  You are also heading to the Peninsula but have taken a different route.  By choosing to include South Georgia in your itinerary, you have also indirectly chosen the Falkland Islands.  In addition to the historical education a walk through Port Stanley provides, your first landing of the voyage may introduce you to four species of penguins, including the entertaining Rockhopper.

And the bonus locations don’t stop there.  You may be lucky to sail past Shag Rocks on a clear day, visit South Orkney Islands if the sea ice has drifted away to allow you access and if not you may enter the Antarctic Peninsula via Elephant Island.

The options are endless.

 

5. It’s a walk through an outdoor history museum

 “Throughout the journey I can’t help but compare my experience to that of Shackleton and his crew nearly a century earlier.  As the movement of the ship rocks me to sleep, I think of the sleepless nights they endured.  As I add on an additional layer before venturing out onto the deck, I reflect on the constantly wet clothing they wore for more than a year.  As I decide between three options of main dishes for dinner, I feel fortunate that my choices are not limited to diet of penguin and seal that they had”

 

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South Georgia, a UK overseas territory, has a rich and interesting history.  Captain James Cook’s account of his first landing in 1775 included descriptions of fur seals and within five years of its publication there were more than 100 ships in the Southern Ocean, taking fur-seal skins and elephant-seal oil.

It would be more than a century later before the whalers arrived.  They would build six stations, and in addition to wreaking havoc on the wildlife population provide a popular stopping point for southbound expeditions.  The most notable was perhaps Sir Ernest Shackleton, who departed from Grytviken on the ill-fated Endurance only to return on foot over a year later in search of help at Stromness Harbour, having been the first man to cross the inhospitable 1,800m range from west to east.

Grytviken provides an opportunity to visit an abandoned whaling station, where you can learn more about the sealing and whaling periods in a museum and you can raise a toast to “The Boss” alongside Shackleton’s grave in the small cemetery.

But the opportunity to take a step back in time doesn’t stop in Grytviken.

Shipwrecks, abandoned whaling stations and whale skeletons are scattered throughout the island’s landscape.  This unofficial outdoor history museum may just inspire your dream of being a time traveller, capable of returning to the island at different times throughout history.

 

And there is a sixth ‘bonus’ reason to include South Georgia on your Antarctica travel itinerary: you only pass through the Drake Passage once!

Have you been to South Georgia?  Do you have a highlight to add to this list?

 

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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