South Georgia may be one of the world’s more remote and inhospitable destinations, but for naturalists, adventurers and photographers, it’s a major global attraction. During the Antarctic summer, many of the hundreds of tourists and wildlife photographers who sail to the Antarctic Peninsula also visit Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, anchoring in the freezing waters off Grytviken, the former whaling station that ceased operations in 1965.
The rusting relics and wrecks of the whaling station at Grytviken are a reminder of a bygone era. During the first half of the last century, South Georgia was home to seven whaling stations, all lying within sheltered harbours along the island’s north coast. Today, Grytviken is renowned as the resting place of the great Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was buried here in 1922 after he died at sea while on yet another expedition to this harsh corner of the globe.
Nearly 60 years after the last whale was landed on these shores, South Georgia is home to a small number of scientists working for the British Antarctic Survey on bases at Bird Island and nearby King Edward Point, the ‘capital’ of South Georgia and home to several British government officials. With the two museum staff at Grytviken, South Georgia has a winter population of just 14 (doubling to 28 in the summer). It’s the last habitable place in the South Atlantic before the Antarctic ice shelf.
Far more numerous are the penguins and other seabirds that make South Georgia and the neighbouring South Sandwich Islands such an important location for wildlife. These islands have been designated Important Bird Areas by Birdlife International and are home to several unique species, including the South Georgia shag, South Georgia pipit – Antarctica’s only songbird – and the South Georgia pintail, the world’s only meat-eating duck.
However, it’s the penguin colonies that provide the greatest spectacle for the camera. An estimated five million pairs of macaroni penguins nest along South Georgia’s coastline and hundreds of thousands of the much larger king penguins (the world’s second largest species of penguin – only emperor penguins are bigger) breed on the island’s gravel beaches. Other penguin species to be found include the gentoo, Adelie and chinstrap, but the king penguins’ impressive height and stature, along with their snowy white breast and
golden collar around a dark-chocolate-coloured head, make them a favourite with photographers.
Out of the water, king penguins are cumbersome and slow moving, so they can be approached fairly easily; here’s one subject that doesn’t require a super-long telephoto lens and teleconverter to photograph from a safe distance. In fact, thanks to the concentration of penguins in colonies that number in the tens of thousands, wide-angle and short-telephoto zooms are the best choice for capturing the scale of these populations – something an isolated, frame-filling portrait can’t really convey.
THREAT AND SURVIVAL
South Georgia is also an important breeding ground for four species of albatross, including the wandering albatross, the world’s largest seabird. With a wingspan of up to three metres and weighing up to 12 kilograms when mature, a wandering albatross gliding overhead is a sight not easily forgotten.
Sadly, it’s also an increasingly rare one, even on South Georgia, which is home to around a fifth of the world’s population. Albatrosses cover vast distances over the world’s oceans and scientists at the British Antarctic Survey estimate that around 100,000 are killed every year, primarily due to being caught on the baited hooks of tuna long-liners in temperate waters.
Albatrosses have long life spans – some birds are known to live beyond 60 years – but they have a very low reproductive rate, laying only one egg at a time, sometimes only every second year, and not reaching breeding age until ten years of age. Add these factors to the high death rate caused by long-line fishing, and it becomes clear why biologists fear that these magnificent seabirds are heading towards extinction.
A century ago, it was South Georgia’s marine mammals that were nearly hunted to extinction, but the bans on seal and whale hunting have since seen an impressive recovery in numbers. In fact, South Georgia has become synonymous with seals, and is home to half the world’s population of elephant seals, and more than three million Antarctic fur seals. Like penguins, these seals congregate in vast colonies along the coast and can be approached closely on foot.
As the ruined whaling stations testify, the waters around South Georgia once supported huge populations of whales and other cetaceans. Since the whaling ban, populations have recovered strongly and whales are often seen from tourist ships and the shore.
All of which contributes to the fact that the waters around South Georgia have one of the highest levels of biodiversity among the world’s ecosystems. This was duly acknowledged in 2012 when the British overseas territory government that administers the islands created the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protection Area. Comprising more than one million square kilometres, it’s the world’s largest protected area.
Because of the extreme climate, the best time to visit these protected waters is during the Antarctic summer. This is also the best time to see all of the major whale species that frequent the Southern Ocean: sperm, humpback, fin and blue. These whales are migratory and during winter, they swim north to warmer waters to calve, returning south during the austral spring with their offspring.
Whale watching is one activity that does require a longer lens to fill the frame: getting close to one of these behemoths is a risky undertaking. Any photography from a Zodiac or other small vessel requires extra care and attention. The constant swell and movement of the sea means that you should switch on the image stabiliser of your lens or camera (should it have one), as well as select a fast shutter speed to help eliminate image blur caused by camera shake. It’s also advisable to avoid changing lenses in order to prevent saltwater spray entering the camera.
Although South Georgia has no native land mammals (seals are counted as marine mammals), wildlife photographers can still expect to find some evidence of introduced species, the most conspicuous being reindeer. Norwegian whalers introduced these animals just before the First World War to hunt for a year-round supply of fresh meat.
South Georgia’s reindeer population eventually grew to around 5,000 animals, but their detrimental impact on the island’s ecosystem resulted in the implementation of a cull last year. By the end of the year, around 1,500 animals remained, with total eradication expected by the end of this year.
Another unwanted species being targeted by zoologists is the brown rat, which came ashore from the ships of seal hunters and whalers from the late 18th century. Rats have had a devastating impact on South Georgia’s ground-nesting seabirds, eating millions of eggs and chicks.
In 2011, a four-year programme began to eradicate rats from the island. The main phase of the operation took place in May last year, when 180 tonnes of rat poison were dropped over 70 per cent of South Georgia by helicopter. It’s the world’s largest rat-eradication programme and total eradication is expected by next year.
STORIES OF ADVENTURE
For such a small island – it’s around the same area as Essex – South Georgia is one of the world’s most spectacular locations, with a biodiversity of global significance. With its mountainous terrain – there are 11 peaks that rise above 2,000 metres – glaciers and rugged shoreline, there’s also enough to keep landscape photographers occupied.
The natural scenery contrasts starkly in places with the remnants of the past whaling industry: pristine snow-capped peaks rise above the rusting wrecks of capsized vessels in Grytviken harbour. On a good day, summer skies of cobalt blue add another colour to the photographer’s palette, forming the perfect backdrop to the elegant spire of the restored Norwegian church.
Probably the most difficult subject to capture with any creative impact is Shackleton’s simple grey stone grave. There is nothing around it to hint at his extraordinary feats of exploration or survival during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914–16. But that’s another story…
Wear good quality three- or four-season boots. Getting around South Georgia is all done on foot and the terrain is rugged and uneven. Shingle beaches, rocks, glaciers and ice – this isn’t territory for trainers
Use a standard zoom lens that gives wide-angle coverage. Much of the wildlife, especially seals and penguins, can be photographed from quite close up and a wide view will show
the mindboggling scale of the animal colonies
Keep your shutter speeds fast. Whether shooting manually or using an automatic exposure mode, make sure your exposures are fast enough. And if you’re using a lens with image stabilisation, switch it on to help counteract image blur caused by camera shake
Try to change lenses when on a Zodiac or other inflatable vessel at sea. Do so, and at best you risk getting salt spray on your camera sensor.Worse, you could end up dropping the whole lot overboard
Go out without hat or gloves. Even in the austral summer, temperatures can drop below freezing and the polar winds are bracing. In this climate, staying warm is essential to good photography
Forget to keep your batteries charged. Batteries drain more rapidly in cold air, so have some spares handy and make a habit of recharging at the end of each day
The Island of South Georgia by Robert K Headland, Cambridge University Press, pb, £31.99
A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia by Robert Burton and John Croxall, Princeton University Press, pb, £17.99
A Visitor’s Guide to South Georgia by Sally Poncet and Kim Crosbie, Princeton University Press, pb, £19.95
Lens option: Fast wide-angle zoom
A few months ago, Sigma launched its 18–35mm f/1.8 DC HSM lens (£650), the fastest constant-aperture zoom ever made. It’s designed specifically for the cropped APS-C digital SLRs and available in mounts for Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Sony and Pentax bodies. At f/1.8, this lens allows a stop more light onto the image sensor than the f/2.8 maximum aperture found
on lenses of these focal lengths.
Outdoor option: Four-season boots
The rugged terrain and extreme weather of South Georgia offer a real test for footwear, so robust four-season boots are the best option. Scarpa Manta (£200) has long been the benchmark for all-season mountain boots. Rated as B2 crampon compatible, these are the boots of choice for outdoor pros and British mountain rescue teams. Endorsements don’t get much better than that.
Camera option: Pro-spec SLR
For remote places with extreme weather conditions, you really need a pro-spec SLR with a robust body. The Canon EOS 1Dx (£4,000, body only) is a prime example – an 18.1-megapixel full-frame digital SLR with an incredibly fast 61-point AF system. It’s a big camera but with a great grip and magnesium-alloy weather-sealed body that’s built to perform in the toughest locations. Image resolution at higher ISO settings is probably the best there is.
This story was published in the January 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine