Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why I'd Revisit S. Georgia

A few birds and a few marine mammals sighted on the way to Argentina
     After S. Georgia we had planned to visit Sea Lion Island in the Falklands, but sadly - this was not to be.  Guess why?  Yes, weather.  Again. We sailed all thee way there but could not land.
      It seemed like the 19 day trip to S. Georgia was way too short, with the time it took to get there, and the many landings prevented or cut short by weather.  Wildlife trips are always a crapshoot in that you never know what you will see, there are never any guarantees, you have to go with the flow, and itineraries are subject to change.  Still, generally even if you can't have the experiences you had planned, you can do something, and overall it doesn't seem like there is a lot of downtime.  For example, in the Galapagos there were a few days where we couldn't snorkel as planned due to storms or poor visibility, but we still had enough snorkeling that it didn't seem like a big deal in the overall trip to miss a couple.  In Raja Ampat, Indonesia, we could not always snorkel where planned due to currents, but we always found a place to get in the water that was workable, we just might have to move the ship or wait a bit. 
     S. Georgia seemed different - and I think the way to approach a trip in the southern ocean, whether to Antarctica, S. Georgia or the other islands in that part of the world, is to expect you will not be able to do 1/3 of the landings.  Just accept going in that 1/3 of the itinerary is unlikely to be possible - you don't know which third until you get there.  When you can't land, there is nothing else to do - you read or hang out on the ship but there is not an alternate activity, there is down time.  You might get lucky and not miss 1/3 of your planned landings, or you might get unlucky and miss more than 1/3, but I highly recommend having the expectation that you just physically cannot do about 1/3 of what you plan to do, so stock up on your Kindle books and don't be surprised.  It is also a little shocking how much travel time it takes to get to S. Georgia and back, and between landings - it doesn't pay to do the math on hours spent on the ship vs. land, it would not be a number I'd want to see.  I know there's a TON more ship time than land time.  But still, it's worth it - and knowing going in what the time investment is would be a plus the second time around.  The first time is was a bit of a shock.
     Each landing site was unique and special, and I understood, having been to S. Georgia, why so many people who go do in fact repeat the trip and go more than once.  As I wrote in my post about the beginning of the trip, I was shocked how many repeat visitors there were to a place so hard to get to and on a trip so expensive most would consider it once in a lifetime.  But now I completely get it.
     First, you want to go back to see the landing sites you missed the first time due to weather. 
     And second, you want to go back to see again the incredible places that were so stunning, yet so overwhelming they were hard to completely take in.  Having been to St. Andrews Bay once, for example, I know where the colony is and how the terrain is and where I would want to spend more time ashore.  The same is true of all sites.
     For me personally, the incredible shock of evidence of all the massive killing, and how much mankind has managed to completely screw up this unique ecosystem in just a few hundred years was like a very strong undertow the first part of the trip.  Although it bothered me throughout the trip in the same way visiting a holocaust museum weighs on one, eventually I learned to cope with it and set it aside enough to be in the present, which is very hard to do for an introspective person sometimes.  I am sure it would still be difficult again, but not with the same intensity.  My best analogy is how I felt visiting the Rwanda genocide museum.  The first time, I didn't sleep for a few days, and I carried some of the images I saw with me for months (and still have them, though farther in mental storage now vs. present and disturbing me unexpectedly).  The intensity of the horror was staggering; the scale and the degree of cruelty was previously unknown to me and as I learned details and saw photos, it was horrific beyond measure.  I then read a ton of books on the genocide, and when I revisited a few years later, more educated and with more reflection, I had better coping skills.  The atrocities were just as horrific but I was in a better mental and emotional place to deal with them and carry on - the museum remained terribly moving but was no longer so overwhelming it was hard to function. 
     Third, the density of wildlife is stunning and it is far more sparsely visited than Galapagos and thus far more appealing a place to spend time with animals who do not fear man.  Having had a baby elephant seal in my lap once, how could I not crave another?  Having had penguins walk past me mere inches away, unbothered, and fur seals mock charge me, and giant elephant seals bellow so close to me the steam from their chest gets into my could I not want to experience those magical moments again?
     Fourth, it takes awhile to figure out the logistics of such a trip - and the second time around I would not fret about what gear to wear or bring, or worry about getting on and off the zodiac.  Repeaters know when to queue up and how to efficiently spend the maximum time at each landing site and the least amount of time waiting for zodiacs.  This is a different kind of trip and there is a learning curve, and right when you learn how to do it well, the trip is over.  One is left with a sense of disappointment, as though there is unfinished business.  It's like learning an instrument and then never getting to play it again.  Bummer.
The metal stairs off the side of the ship and a zodiac; mastering
 getting on and off the ship was non-trivial and took time
      Fifth, the Southern Ocean summer is so short, each week belongs to a different activity - so visiting one time of year you will see mating elephant seals and elephant seal pups, as I did, but a different time of year will bring mating fur seals and fur seal pups.  One week offers penguins buildings nests, another time penguins sitting on eggs, another time penguin chicks.  Whale activity varies greatly as well.  I now know what to expect in November on S. Georgia, but I haven't seen the offerings for December, January, February or March! 
     If I had the money, I would visit once a year, despite all the expense and the hassle and the difficulty.  I would go into it each trip with the notion that I had bought a chance to land and nothing more, and wait to see what the weather brought.  I have no idea if I will ever make it back to S. Georgia, but I do hope so, and I no longer scratch my head in disbelief at the repeat visitors.
     I wish I had links to all the blogs and websites that had photos taken on the same S. Georgia trip I was on.  I should have done a better job of tracking them down, but I was in a kind of shock after the trip that made it hard to think about such details.  I do know there are a few, if they are of interest, to see what others captured from the same trip.
     Clemens Vanderwerf, a professional photographer whose photos I really, really admire has a few photos from the trip (and trips he has taken to Antarctica) on his website.  I think his photos are stunning.  Sean Traynor is a photographer who took some really great photos on the S. Georgia trip and was also on the Antarctica portion with us; this is his website. An interesting video blog, that captures a lot of the sounds of S. Georgia, done by fellow passenger Glenn Bartley, can be viewed on Youtube here. Marian Herz was a professional photographer who worked really hard to capture pippet photos (among others) and her website is here.  Arthur Morris, a professional photographer specializing in birds, had several posts with his photos; you can start here and search "South Georgia" on his blog if you want to see more. A fellow traveler who was not a professional photographer wrote a lovely blog about the trip you can see here.  I know there are many others and it was/is interesting to see what others took away from the same landings.
     We sailed for Ushuaia, Argentina, and that meant crossing the dreaded Drake Passage, which generations have classed as the roughest part of the world's oceans.  Sailors back in whaling days wrote of how difficult the passage was to cross, and how many feared the journey.  Based on the storm we went through to get from the Falklands to S. Georgia, I could really see why one would fear the passage. 
     We got unlucky and had a storm on the way to Argentina, crossing the Drake.  Once again, everything was tossed violently around the ship.  All the windows and port holes were closed.  All one could do was take the seasickness medicine of choice and wait it out, being tossed about in the process.  For two long days.  At long last, after more dishes were broken, etc., we arrived in Ushuaia, where we had to disembark for a few hours as the crew readied the  ship for a new group of guides (different company) and passengers, ready to sail for Antarctica that evening.
Sighting land again, Ushuaia

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