Grytviken, South Georgia Island

Photo: Lexaxis7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Lexaxis7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

After spending days at sea, you’re getting antsy. Between the rough swells, the bone-chilling wind, and the consistently gray horizon, you quickly realized you weren’t cut out for life on the water. But a few minutes ago, someone spotted land in the distance. Not a chunk of floating ice or an enormous whale breaching, but actual land. As the ship moves closer, you start to see mountains and glaciers. Dark mounds on the ground are actually big seals and penguins. While gulls and terns start circling overhead. You finally made it. Made it where, though?

You’re on South Georgia Island. The remote island is a British Overseas Territory, along with the South Sandwich Islands, in the southern Atlantic Ocean. They’re more than 1,300 kilometers from the already remote Falkland Islands and more than 2,000 kilometers from South America, where you originally departed from Uruguay. The islands have no native population. Only government officials and scientists live here. People-wise, at least. Birds, seals, penguins, fish, and whales thrive on and around the rugged islands. Especially since a ship is the only way to visit them.

After stopping in Right Whale Bay—where earless elephant seals, sea lion-like fur seals, and a king penguin colony live—the ship finally drops its anchor in sheltered King Edward Cove. Grytviken, a small settlement on one of the island’s few flat areas, sits along the cove. It was first established as a whaling station. It’s now home to a rare fresh-water supply. The South Georgia Museum provides details about the island’s history, the Falklands War, and the sealing industry. A little library is found in the black-steepled Whalers Church. While polar explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s grave is outside in the cemetery.

Photo: nomis-simon (20090109-IMG_0490.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: nomis-simon (20090109-IMG_0490.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But you aren’t really here to explore buildings and learn about history. You’re here to see the animals. Ride a smaller boat to Willis Island, off the main island’s northwestern tip. The rocky island is where yellow-crested macaroni penguins and lots of albatrosses—black-browed, grey-headed, and light-mantled sooty—live. Scan Bird Island for giant petrels as you pass, since no tourists are allowed to visit the island. See thousands of penguins. Long-tailed gentoo penguins live around the small harbor of Elsehul, and a king penguin rookery is on Salisbury Plain. Don’t miss the small rookery of Weddell seals, which live among the gorgeous scenery at Drygalski Fjord. And keep an eye out for reindeer—they were introduced to the island for hunting—in the distance.

Eventually, hike part of Mount Paget, the highest peak in the Allardyce Range. From high above the island, you have a panoramic view of the glaciers, the calm bays, the anchored ships, and the endless ocean. Listen to the waves crash, the ice break, and the birds screech. Plus, breathe in the salty air and the faint, unpleasant stench of an island covered with penguins and seals. South Georgia Island was well worth the long trip.

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