A fur seal lazily lifts his head to look at me as the zodiac approaches Cooper Island in South Georgia. More of his friends are scattered along the beach and into the mounds of tussock grass. King penguins waddle along the shore or trudge up the hillside to rookeries. Sea birds fly overhead, darting into the water to snag a tasty meal. Wildlife is everywhere. My first look at South Georgia is exactly as advertised.
In preparing for our cruise to Antarctica and South Georgia on Seabourn Quest, I’d done my homework. So I knew to expect prolific bird, marine mammals and sea life in one of the remotest places on Earth. But reading about the sea birds, seals and penguins that populate the shorelines at this off-the-beaten-path adventure cruise destination doesn’t come close to experiencing it.
Quest arrives at Cooper Bay after a somewhat bumpy two-day journey navigating across the Soctia Sea from Antarctica. At first glance, it’s the scenery that attracts my attention. Rocky-pointed mountains rise up from the beach, accompanied by the white path of a glacier flowing down to the sea. The setting is stark and dramatic.
The plan for the day is a zodiac ride across Cooper Bay for wildlife viewing along the coastline of Cooper Island, our first look at South Georgia. A slight wind causes the rubber raft to bob up and down in the water but waterproof pants and the rain jacket provided by Seabourn, worn over base layers, keeps me dry and warm.
There’s plenty of room on the zodiac to spread out. Pat Keough, one of Quest’s photography lecturers, kneels down to brace his camera as we approach the beach. Alan watches how Pat composes his photos, hoping to learn by example. I check the settings on my Panasonic Lumix, especially the Kelvin scale (one of the many tricks I learned from Pat) and begin to click away.
The beach is littered with animals. Elephant seals stretch their husky bodies on the beach. A fur seal barks near the water line. And king penguins stand in groups as if they’re waiting for the next bus to transport them to who knows where.
As the zodiac maneuvers around a point, a macaroni penguin colony comes into view. Why are they called macaroni? In the mid-18th century, a man who wore flashy feathers in his hat was known as a macaroni. When British explorers saw the colorful crests of these penguins, they named the penguin after that young macaroni with his flashy hat. Their yellow-orange crests look like wiry, out-of-control eyebrows to me.
The guide motors carefully around a group of kayakers, who are on an excursion from the ship. They’re watching the macaroni penguins from the water near a rock dripping with kelp.
A snow petrel flies overhead, a sight our zodiac guide reports to the expedition manager. The birds were once in peril in South Georgia due to an overgrowth of rats that ate the eggs of snow petrels and other birds. But a recent, and very successful, eradication program has eliminated the rodents, allowing a rebirth of the seabird population.
While waiting for our turn to offload the raft, we photograph Quest from the waterline, an opportunity guests don’t often have. And we talk about the species of seals, penguins and seabirds all seeming to get along on this small island beach in the sub-Antarctic. Our first look at South Georgia is a wild success.
Want to read about our entire Antarctica adventure? Start here.
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