South Georgia Shag
Antarctica's only cormorant that toughs out the coldest winters
Information about Blue-eyed Shag
Our Expert Says… "The name 'blue-eyed shag' covers a range of species, including Antarctic shag, imperial or king shag, and South Georgia Shag. Further confusion is caused by some of these being different names for the same thing! There are even debates about whether or not it's a true shag species!"
The Blue-Eyed Shag is the Antarctic’s sole cormorant species. It’s currently found in the South Shetland Islands, on Elephant Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula.
There has been debate and confusion about the Blue-Eyed Shag’s taxonomy, and it should probably be more correctly referred to as the Antarctic Shag. However, it’s also known as the Imperial or King Cormorant, or the Imperial Shag.
The Blue-Eyed shag is a 75cm (30”) tall, 3kg (7lb) black and white seabird. It has a 1.2m (4ft) wingspan but unlike its non-polar cormorant cousins it doesn’t spread out its wings to dry them. This is thanks to its very dense under-plumage that makes a waterproof barrier. This means the Blue-eyed shag doesn’t need to dry itself after fishing and expose its body to the freezing Antarctic temperatures.
The “blue eye” they are named for isn’t actually their eye at all! It’s actually blue-colored skin that surrounds the eye, and together with the warty, yellow growth above the bill, it forms the two main identifying traits of the species.
Antarctic shags don’t migrate, staying put winter and summer living in colonies. During the breeding season they pair up and both partners help to build the typical cone-shaped nest out of beach debris, seaweed, and feather, stuck together with their own feces. Both parents take it in turn to incubate the eggs, then the male takes on feeding duties while the female keeps the newly-hatched chicks warm until their downy feathers are formed.
Blue-eyed shags are diving birds, and they usually swim down up to 80ft beneath the waves to catch the fish and crustaceans that form the main part of their diet.
Although not thought to be endangered and currently stable, naturalists have estimated that there are only 20,000 individuals in the entire species’ population.
Interesting facts about Blue-eyed Shag
Shags and cormorants are pursuit divers, using their large webbed feet for propulsion.
Pairs of Blue-eyed Shags spend a lot of time lot of time grooming each other. They use seaweed to make the nest and usually lay 2 to 3 eggs. Incredibly, especially for the Antarctic 'blue-eyed' shags, the chicks are naked when they hatch!
And when the chicks fed they stick their head right down the throat of the parent bird. For the young dark chicks, it looks like the adult bird is trying to swallow them. When they are about to fledge they can be as big as the parent bird and it looks very uncomfortable as the head of the 'chick' eagerly pushes right down the neck of the adult. In the end the adults have had enough, pecking at the chick and then abandoning the birds, that can be told from the adults by the lack of the blue eye-ring.
At this time you can see also of birds busily flapping to strengthen the wing muscles. Then one or two take the maiden flight, then the rest seem to get the right idea and a whole group take off, often crashing onto the sea or onto rocks. At this time they can be inquisitive, even landing on Zodiacs and kayaks But they are also very prone to predators at this stage, skuas often ganging up to drown isolated birds.
Pictures of Blue-eyed Shag
Highlights where the Blue-eyed Shag can be seen
Cooper Bay is a small inlet containing Cooper Island at the very southeast end of South Georgia island. It was first mapped and named by Captain Cook’s 1775 expedition. From this small bay, you will get a commanding view of Cooper Island itself whose 1,300ft summit is always above the snowline, giving some stunning polar vistas even in the height of Antarctic summer.
Cooper Island is heavily protected for wildlife and it is a haven for bird species that love to nest in the tussac grass that covers the island, from the South Georgia Pintail and Pipit, to the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and the South Georgia Shag. It is also home to four species of penguin, attracting Leopard Seals, and Cooper Island has the largest Chinstrap colony on South Georgia and is one of the more accessible places to see the Macaroni Penguin.
Fur seals and elephant seals also breed and also watch out for black-browed albatross, as well as Antarctic prions and snow petrels hunting for food offshore.
Elsehul Bay at the northwest extremity of South Georgia Island is known for two things - its remarkable numbers of seals, and its remarkable number of names!
At various times, and on various maps, it has been known as Elsehul, Else Cove, Elsie Bay, Elsa Bay, Else’s Hole, and (somewhat bucking the trend) Paddock’s Cove! It’s a small bay on the northern coast of South Georgia and is only half a mile wide.
Despite its small size, it is home to an abundance of wildlife including a large colony of Antarctic fur seals. As you arrive in the bay your ears will be ringing with the barks and cries of huge numbers of juvenile and adult seals.
Adding to the barrage are the cries from the seabirds that call Elsehul home, especially the King Penguins. Others that breed include Gentoo Penguins and Macaroni Penguins, Black-browed albatross, grey-headed and sooty albatrosses, and quite a few other seabirds, such as the South Georgia Shag and White-chinned Petrel. And since they eradicated the rat on South Georgia, it is a good spot for South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit.
The shore here is a patchwork of tussac grass and mud - so many seals moving around makes for some tricky conditions! Depending on the time of year you visit, the aggressive males may still be in the bay, or, if the mating season is ended, they may have left, leaving the pups and females in peace.
On the southeastern coastline of South Georgia Island, Gold Harbour is a small bay that leads up to the Bertrab Glacier, with a spectacular backdrop. Known as Puerto de Oro in Spanish, the Harbour was never named officially until the 20th century, but the name seems to have been in use by whalers and sealers and has become formally adopted.
The main theory behind the name Gold Harbour is that the cliffs around the bay shine yellow in the hour after sunrise and again before sunset. There’s no “gold in them thar hills”, but an alternative theory is that that whalers and sealers did financially very well out of the early years of exploitation.
Nevertheless, Gold Harbour is arguable one of the most beautiful places in the whole of South Georgia. As well as its stunning geology and spectacular illumination at sunrise and sunset, it’s also home to a huge amount of wildlife.
The beach here rings with the cries of king penguins, gentoo penguins, and elephant seals, all of whom like to breed in the sheltered bay. They aren’t the only ones, though. Wheeling across the skies in front of the hanging ice cliffs of the Bertrab Glacier are hundreds of pairs of sooty albatross, who come here every year to mate and raise their chicks.
Grytviken, Fortuna Bay
Grytviken only exists because of the whaling industry. It was opened as a whaling station in 1904 because Fortuna Bay was considered to be the best natural harbor in South Georgia. The site operated for almost 60 years and over 53,000 whale carcasses were landed and processed here.
Although founded by a Norwegian, the name “Grytviken” is actually Swedish! It means “Pot Bay” and was named by the Swedish survey expedition of 1902 because they found several old British try pots here - large vessels used to render down seal blubber.
The whaling station was abandoned in 1966 as uneconomical after stocks of whales in the region had dropped to critical levels due to over-hunting, and there are no permanent residents. However, a few officials do live here during the tourist season to manage the South Georgia Museum and the post office which is located here, that is fascinating place to visit, and even purchase some souvenirs
There is more famous Antarctic human history to discover at Grytviken. Just outside the settlement lies the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, who died here from a sudden heart attack in 1922. There is also a marker next to his grave marking the spot where the ashes of his key crew member and fellow explorer Frank Wild were interred.
As well as the museum, Grytviken also has a church - remarkably still used for occasional services.
While most people come here for human history, the area is also great for wildlife and natural history doesn’t disappoint. Fortuna Bay is known for its large king penguin colonies and is a popular haul out for many elephant seals, as well as innumerable seabirds. Just watch out for the fur seals that may be resting amongst the whaling era debris.
Ocean Harbour, on South Georgia’s northeast coast, was once known as New Fortune Bay (indeed, its Spanish name is still Puerto Nueva Fortuna). By the 1950s, surveyors reported that it was known locally as Ocean Harbour, probably after the Ocean Whaling Company that once used the inlet as its base of operations on South Georgia. Because of the potential for confusion with nearby Fortuna Bay, its name was changed to the one in local usage.
Ocean Harbor has some notable human history, including a cemetery which contains the oldest grave on the island, that of sealer Frank Cabrial who was buried here in 1820. There are also old try pots still visible, used for the rendering of seal blubber.
More recent relics can be seen that date back to its time as a whaling station, including the remains of a narrow-gauge steam locomotive that was used to haul coal and supplies to and from the ships.
There’s also a wreck in Ocean Harbour - the Bayard. She was a three-masted, iron-hulled ship over 200ft long that broke free from her moorings during a storm in 1911 and wrecked on the other side of the harbor from the coaling station where she was tied up.
Now, in a sign of nature reclaiming the past, South Georgia Shags and Antarctic Terns can be seen nesting on the grass that grows in abundance on the rotting deck of this 1000 ton former coal hauler.
Orne Harbour is a mile-wide cove on the west coast of Graham Land, just southwest of Cape Anna. It was first discovered by a Belgian Antarctic survey of the Danco coast in 1898 and was then in regular use by whaling vessels in the early 1900s.
The site is popular for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a beautiful location that provides stunning Antarctic views. The exposed rocky shoreline contrasts with the permanent snow patches dotted on the higher ground above it. To the south, there is deep permanent snow and ice. Glaciers ring the harbor and steep peaks rise above. It’s glorious for a Zodiac cruise!
The other reason to visit Orne Harbour is to see the nesting colony of chinstrap penguins that have made their homes here. There’s a steep but safe hike up from the beach to the colony that sits on higher ground above the beach. As well as the penguins, you will be rewarded with remarkable views of the bay, and the glacier that regularly calves into the waters here.
South Georgia and Scotia Sea
South Georgia Island (known as Isla San Pedro in Spanish) is often described, quite rightly, as a highlight of many peoples’ Antarctic cruise experience.
The remote, rocky main island is 850 miles from the Falkland Islands and the same distance from the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s quite mountainous, with a central high ridge and plenty of bays and fjords on its coast, making for some stunning views and remarkable photographs.
There are 8 smaller islands (the South Sandwich Islands) located 400 miles to the southeast which are rarely visited.
South Georgia has a human history mainly centered around the sealing and whaling industries, with relics such as try pots and sunken whaling ships to be discovered. Many people also pay a visit to the grave of Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous Antarctic explorers, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack while in South Georgia.
Part of one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the variety of the wildlife to be found in South Georgia is what attracts most of its visitors. From the world’s largest king penguin colonies to beaches crammed with elephant and fur seals, to breeding colonies of the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, the wandering albatross, to innumerable species of seabirds, South Georgia is a destination that serves up “days of a lifetime” every day!
St. Andrew's Bay
Saint Andrews Bay (more usually abbreviated to St Andrews) is a bay on the eastern shore of South Georgia, part of the British Terriroty of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.
This 2-mile wide bay is overlooked by Mount Skittle, an impressive 1,600ft rocky mountain that forms the northernmost point of the bay itself.
The use of Saint Andrews as the name for the bay can only be traced back to the early 20th century, but it’s highly likely that the first people to sight and map it were the British expedition led by Captain Cook in 1775.
St. Andrews Bay is renowned for its huge breeding colony of king penguins, thought to be over 150,000 strong. The sights and sounds of so many birds together is not to be missed in one of the most spectacular locations in South Georgia with the mountains as backdrop!
There is also a ridge (if you are able to reach it, sometimes there are too many moulting penguins in the way) that looks down over the main colony with breath taking views, and sounds!
Fur seals and southern elephant seals are also frequently seen here, both in the water and hauled up on the shores, and fur seals can make it quite a challenge getting ashore. The rugged, rocky backdrop to the bay makes for some stunning photographs, and really evokes the remoteness of South Georgia.