South Georgia and Scotia Sea
Whaling heritage, stunning vistas and remarkable wildlife
Information about 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!
Interesting facts about South Georgia and Scotia Sea
South Georgia is perhaps the best place in the world to encounter the southern elephant seal. This is the largest of all the seals, and the island is home to more than half of the world's entire population of these wonderful animals. October is a great month to visit, as you will see newly born pups nursing from their mothers.
November is more of a challenge with the height of the fur seal breeding season and aggressive bulls everywhere, and in many places it is impossible to go ashore, with the option restricted to offshore Zodiac cruises. But it can still be spectacular with all the fur seals and King Penguins and other wildlife along the beaches.
Later in the season can be great for encounters with cute fur seal pups that can be inquisitive, and also to try and chase you and snarl at you, pretending to be bull seals!
The sea passage, following the Scotia ridge, can be spectacular for seabirds and cetaceans.
Pictures of South Georgia and Scotia Sea
Highlights Close to South Georgia and Scotia Sea
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.
Prion Island, like many places in the Antarctic, was named after what was first seen there. In this case, during an expedition of 1912, the island was named because the naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy noted the large numbers of prions he found here.
The prion is a small petrel also sometimes known as a whalebird, and they get their unusual name because of their saw-tooth bill - the word prion in greek means “saw”.
Prion Island sits in the 9-mile-wide Bay of Isles off the northern coast of South Georgia. It is only 1.5 miles in length but it has been designated a Specially Protected Area in its entirety. Because it has always been rat-free, birds can raise their young here without fear of their nests being raided by non-native scavengers. Because of the need to protect the wildlife, there are strict restrictions on visitor numbers, and only 50 people per day are allowed ashore during the season when Prion Island is open to visitors, so guests are often split between going ashore, doing a really good Zodiac cruise, and sometimes with being onboard ship. You’ll also find that your naturalist guides will ensure that no one is carrying anything on to the island that could harbor an invasive species.
To protect the native flora and to avoid damage to petrel and prion burrows, the South Georgia authorities have built a boardwalk, and you will be required to stay on it at all times during your visit. Don’t worry, though, as the animals seem to have decided that they enjoy using it too and nest and feed right up to its edge, so you’ll have plenty of close encounters!
Another important species that breeds here is the wandering albatross. Indeed, Prion Island is such an important breeding center for them that the whole island is closed to visitors between 20th November and 7th January each year to allow them to pair off without disturbance. This time also coincides with the breeding season for Antarctic fur seals who also benefit from the seclusion.
Other species you can find on Prion Island include South Georgia Pipits and South Georgia Pintails, snowy sheathbills, skuas, Antarctic terns, and gentoo penguins.
Salisbury Plain (known as Llanura de Salisbury in Spanish) is a large coastal flat plain leading to the Bay of Isles, off the northern coast of South Georgia.
Although this area of the coast of South Georgia was discovered by Captain James Cook in the 1770s, there were no detailed maps made of the region until a British Admiralty survey of the 1930s. A chart produced in 1931 is the first time this area was named, and it’s likely to be named after the “original” Salisbury Plain, a grassy, chalk plateau in southern England used for military training and home to Stonehenge.
The Salisbury Plain in South Georgia was formed by the glacial runoff from the nearby Grace Glacier. This glacier was named by American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy for his wife during his expedition of 1912.
Salisbury Plain is world-famous for its remarkable king penguin breeding colony. In 1912, Cushman estimated there were 350 pairs here. Now one of the world’s largest gathering of king penguins, official estimates are as high as 100,000 breeding pairs nesting here in peak season. Seeing the Plain filled with these regal birds is one of the highlights of any trip to South Georgia and to the sub-Antarctic.
Not to be outdone by the king penguins, southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals also use Salisbury Plain to raise their young and can also be seen in good numbers.
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.