This remote British outpost, a stepping stone to Antarctica for intrepid explorers and cruise passengers alike, is an enchanting wildlife sanctuary with a fascinating past. Rugged cliffs and towering snow-covered peaks rise from the sea forming a panoramic postcard. We have sailed for two days across the Southern Ocean from Ushuaia in Argentina. Now, bundled in layers of warm polar clothing – sturdy rubber boots, two pairs of socks, thermal underclothes, jeans and red polar jackets – we are about to set foot on the British overseas territory of South Georgia.
Our first stop is Stromness – the place where explorers Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean were rescued in 1916 after their ill-fated Antarctic Expedition.
Passengers are transferred ashore and one by one, we swing our legs over the raft’s edge and step onto the beach.
Before us are crumbling buildings with rust-covered roofs which once formed part of a busy Norwegian whaling station. But the whalers are long gone.
Our welcoming committee is a pod of fur seals – they stare at us curiously with big bright eyes.
Their playground is a landscape of old cables, dismantled propellers and other rusty parts left behind from decommissioned whaling ships.
The three Norwegian whaling stations in Stromness Bay – Stromness, Husvik and Leith – processed more whales than any other whaling base in the world before the IWC (International Whaling Commission) voted to protect whales in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, an area of 50 million square kilometres surrounding the continent of Antarctica.
These days, de-commissioned stations are gradually being restored by volunteers from the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
We trek to the waterfall made famous by Shackleton and his companions.
The walk from the beach follows a trail through flat boggy terrain past playful fur seal pups and, surprisingly, herds of reindeer – brought here by Norwegian sealers and whalers.
Shackleton’s South Georgia ordeal began on November 5, 1914 on his expedition to become the first man to cross the Antarctic continent on foot.
He and his party sailed from South Georgia in December but luck was against them. Before they could reach Antarctic shores the weather turned and their ship, Endurance, became stuck in ice.
For one month they waited, hoping the ice would clear but their ship eventually sinking.
After a harrowing journey, the crew reached Elephant Island, where they holed up for four months while Shackleton and a handful of men set out in an open lifeboat for South Georgia to find help.
After crossing 800 miles and some of the world’s stormiest waters on what has become one of history’s greatest boat journeys, the party landed on the southern coast of South Georgia.
Soaked to the bone, hungry, thirsty, frostbitten and exhausted, they dragged themselves across the harsh mountainous terrain.
After a gruelling 36 hours their final descent down a frozen waterfall brought them back into Stromness and civilisation.
Cruising the Southern Ocean
Our voyage of the Southern Ocean is somewhat different to Shackleton’s: our ship has a cinema, beauty parlour, gym, gift shop, an extensive library, a couple of bars and an army of chefs who prepare a different menu each night for her two restaurants.
Days are filled with fascinating lectures delivered by a team of experts including ornithologists, historians, naturalists, geologists and research scientists on topics ranging from Southern Ocean birds to expedition history.
However the wildlife is the same. We spot a myriad of whales including pods of orcas, humpbacks, minke and fin whales.
We’re also fortunate to catch a rare glimpse of a blue whale, the largest mammal on the planet. Dolphins frolic alongside the ship and a multitude of seabirds swoop and soar above our heads.
To comply with biosecurity measures adopted by the South Georgia government, we scrub our boots and vacuum seeds from our clothing diligently each time we step ashore to reduce the chances of introducing foreign organisms into the territory.
The main attraction at Grytviken, the principal settlement in South Georgia, is Shackleton’s grave at the whalers’ cemetery.
Shackleton died of a heart attack while visiting here on a return voyage to Antarctica in 1922. The crew has come prepared with a flask of rum which we use to toast “The Boss”.
From the cemetery, we make our way past young southern elephant seals basking in the sun. One passenger loses her footing and slips into a seal wallow. She is chin-deep in muddy water and seal excrement but fortunately helpful expedition crew members are on hand to pull her out.
The bay is scattered with rusty whale-catching boats, blubber cookers and whale bones. A more picturesque sight is a Norwegian church standing amid green fields with the snow-capped Allardyce mountain range as its backdrop.
Near the church there is a post office which sells souvenirs and a whaling museum filled with artefacts, story boards and old black-and-white photos.
Whistle Cove at Fortuna Bay is packed with mischievous Antarctic fur seal pups and plump adults lazing along the beach. We slush through a stream of glacial melt to a colony of king penguins.
A penguin chick runs towards us playfully, flippers flailing and calling out in a high quivering whistle. Other penguins preen, incubate eggs or stand sleeping with their bills tucked under a flipper.
At Gold Harbour, a magnificent glacier tumbles down one side of a steep cliff creating a spectacular backdrop for the wildlife colony nestled on the beach below.
Back at the landing site, duelling between massive elephant seals provides plenty of entertainment.
One of the ship’s naturalists explains that the blubbery animals are engaged in thigmotactic (touchy-feely) lounging and play-fight lunging.
A challenging bellow is followed by a short charge across the sand and two testosterone-laden males rear up and slam their bulks into one another.
Further along the beach at the king penguin colony, the birds court with head-bobbing walks, trumpeting calls and caresses.
The cacophony of cries from last season’s chicks mingles with the whirring calls of adult birds to create a melodious natural symphony.
South Georgia’s exploration and whaling histories are fascinating but the territory’s abundant wildlife is the real star.
Discover South Georgia
Cruises to South Georgia leave from Ushuaia in Argentina. Watch my video of my visit to Ushuaia for inspiring views.