Ushuaia, Argentina sits at 54°S latitude and is known as the fin del mundo, principo de todo – end of the world, beginning of everything. This perfectly summarized our adventure in the Sub-Antarctic. From the docks of Ushuaia, we boarded the National Geographic Explorer, owned and operated by Lindblad Expeditions, for our journey to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
Bradford joined Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic as a videographer, and I, Ebba, was the lucky one who got to accompany him on this trip of a lifetime. Together with another 100 or so guests, we spent 17 days in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
South Georgia is part of the British Overseas Territory and home to incredible wildlife, including penguins (Kings, Gentoo, Macaroni and Rock hoppers), elephant seals, fur seals, and seabirds like Petrels and Albatross. Humans are heavily outnumbered by wild animals: there are only 6 humans living on the islands.
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How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is clearly ocean. ~ Arthur C. Clarke, undersea explorer and author
On the journey to South Georgia, we were surrounded by Ocean as far as the eye could see. I do not have sea legs, and I thank modern medicine for sea sickness pills that made the journey bearable. I munched on ginger candies all day long and sought horizontal positions or seats surrounded with windows. We were fortunate with ‘calm’ seas, but for a first-timer, the supposedly small swell and reasonable winds were more than enough.
Despite my sea sickness, there was plenty to keep us entertained and distracted. The onboard Naturalist shared interesting presentations on the wildlife and geology of the Falklands and South Georgia. We were also fortunate to have legends Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing Norgay (sons of the first men to reach the top of Mt. Everest and mountaineers themselves) onboard to share their (and their fathers’) experiences on the tallest mountain on Earth.
After two days at sea, the land crab in me started to get antsy. When Captain Aaron Woods told us that land was within reach, the excitement in me reached fever pitch. I walked to the top of the bridge and let the wind and occasional rain drops wash over me. I could see something faint in the distance: South Georgia! I realized how remote and wild these islands are. My mind wandered to the story of British polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and the men who survived in the Weddell Sea for over 2 years to finally reach South Georgia after 16 days at sea in a comparably tiny life boat. It’s impossible to comprehend what they experienced during that time. We were warm and safe in the comfort of a luxury ship, and yet the south Atlantic Ocean feels intense with the swell and biting winds.
South Georgia was a magical and wild island. Each and every day of this trip was full of impressions out of the ordinary, but the morning of March 17th will forever be ingrained in my memory bank.
At 4:30 AM, Expedition Leader Russ Evan’s voice came over the PA speaker. We were in Gold Harbour and about to experience the origin of the harbor’s name. After quick sip of coffee and bit of toast, we hoped in the Zodiac and raced to shore. The waves rolled us onto the beach as in the darkness my senses awakened in full force. From the recognizable penguins and waves crashing to mysterious grunting, I picked up sounds from all directions, near and far. The smells were quite pungent as well. It was challenging to find a spot without dark forms of potential wild animals, but I managed to carve out a space where I could stand still and wait for the first signs of light.
With every passing minute, I could distinguish more and more detail on the beach. The visual impressions slowly surpassed the audible ones. A large glacier and rolling green hills formed the dramatic backdrop, while a colony of thousands and thousands of King Penguins made the forefront. Elephant seals, fur seals and Gentoo penguins were scattered at the edge of the colony.
The early blue morning light progressed to warmer tones before exploding into golden light. Golden Harbour left me awestruck.
Later that afternoon, we hiked up the hillside to gain perspective on the vastness of this harbour. Our guide navigated our way along the beach and through a tight crowd of mammals before leading us up the Tussac-filled hillside.
The fur seals and their pups sat on their thrones marking their territory as we passed through. It was easy to let their cuteness fool us before they start barking and fake attack us (they actually bit a few of the guests!). It was absolutely incredible and intimidating to be in the midst of such vibrant wildlife.
We reached the top and were met by 60 knots/hour gusts of wind that almost knocked us over. Utterly exposed, I felt small as a human in this environment.
Gold Harbour was one of the many landings we did during this trip. Each and every one of them was wild in their own way, although they all carried a sense of remoteness, majestic landscapes, history and wildlife. Thank you South Georgia for an experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives!
Bradford McArthur is a filmmaker and photographer who specializes in alpine climbing and ski mountaineering. He’s currently traveling the world filming for Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic. Ebba Hassel is a writer who loves to capture moments and turn them into stories. She advocates for growing the community of women in the outdoors. Together they make a passionate and playful team who explore the mountains every chance they get.