November 5, 2017

Salisbury Plain


Salisbury Plain lies on the north coast of South Georgia. We started out here, when we first arrived, looking out at the field of penguins from the deck of the ship, and now we return for our last zodiac landing on South Georgia. The great American ornithologist, Robert Cushman Murphy, did much of his research here in 1912-1913 and named one of the many glaciers here after his wife, Grace. The other glacier we can see from our windows is the Lucas Glacier.

The hills are covered in tussock grass which houses one of the largest King penguin colonies in South Georgia, with 70,000-100,000 pairs. PAIRS!

We woke up early, eagerly lifted our blinds and looked out our window. The scene was one of white on white with a few black dots. It had snowed here since we stood here a week ago. After yesterday’s high winds, we were not sure what we would find here, and whether we would be able to go ashore. But while the temperature was low, the wind howling, it was only about 12 degrees F with the wind chill factor.  Doable, as long as we again put on every piece of clothing we had brought along!

I put on my jacket and went to the top deck to take it all in. The sky was blue, the sun was coming out and began reflecting on the glaciers. The plain was covered in snow and the penguins were huddled in groups at the shoreline, reflecting in the calm water. There were a few elephant seals bellowing, but not as many as on other beaches in other parts of South Georgia.

But we had to wait out turn to disembark. We were broken up into 5 zodiac groups; we were group B. The order being called was always varied, and today we would be the 4th group. So we put on just a few of our layers, and waited anxiously to finish dressing and get on shore. Those penguins were waiting for me!

It was finally our turn. We boarded the zodiac, and under the blue sky, we zipped across the open water to shore. We could tell we were getting close when we were hit with the smell of the guano (penguin poop). And then, as we pulled onto the beach and swung our legs over the side of the zodiac unto the sand, we were accosted by the noise. Imagine hundreds of thousands of penguins calling to each other. It was a chorus of sounds. It was a cacophony of music. It was a symphony. It was the call of a trumpet. It was the call of a horn. It was a screech. It was the bellow of an elephant seal. It was loud. It was all of it, all at once.

We walked along for a bit, marveling at how far the sight of penguins went. On all three sides, with the water behind us, there were penguins. Penguins to the right of us. Penguins to the left of us. Penguins in front of us. All the way up the mountain. They stood in groups and just eyed us.  Or ignored us.

The Okum boys (the brown fluffy chicks) stood in their creches, keeping each other warm. But more and more of them ventured out exploring. I’m sure they were thinking: “What were these orange animals?  They seemed to be friendly. Maybe they can feed us.”

And as we sat very quietly, and very still, they ventured right up to us. One nibbled on my boot, but didn’t find much nourishment. Another nibbled on someone’s sleeve or a glove. But to their disappointment, we had no food to regurgitate for them.

One baby chick found its parent who did feed it. I watched as the baby opened its beak asking for food. The parent opening its beak and placed it over the baby’s, and I could just imagine the digested food passing from parent to child. Passing on life.

Another baby chick was trying to find its mother (or father?). It went over to one King penguin and kept opening his beak. The adult ignored him. The chick tried again. The adult ignored him. Finally the adult started walking away and the chick followed. And then it looked like the adult put his wing around the chick and they walked off together.

The wind was blowing on and off. The giant petrels and the snow petrels were everywhere. The giant petrels would open their wings and try to run to take off, but it looked like the wind was just holding them in place in the sky.

In fact, there were birds flying everywhere. It was hard to take a picture without having a flying bird in it!

And we saw the circle of life in action. There was one King penguin who had most likely been attacked in the water by a leopard seal. He made it to shore, but not much further. And then the giant petrels had lunch. It was hard to watch. But at the same time it was part of life. One feeds the other.



I walked to the edge the water and just sat down. It started snowing. The waves washed over my knees (I guess I can say I went swimming in the Southern Ocean). But my water proof pants kept me dry. And warm. I sat there a long time. Shooting lots of pictures and video, but mostly just watching them.

The penguins were lined up, walking along the edge. And then they would face the water, just watching, waiting to see who would jump in first. then they would all follow.

There were three penguins just above me on the little slope. One of our guides told me it was a male trying to decide which of two females to mate with. It looked like the females were vying for his attention, flirting, trying to out do one another. Eventually he chose one and the other one looked dejected. I of course probably just imagined all this. But it was fascinating to watch.

And what do the penguins feel? What are they thinking? Are they anxious to come back from the water, to make it onto land to feed their chicks. And they need to get out quickly as the leopard seal can catch them in the air.  Or do they want to go into the water to get food, to forage, but is it safe to go in? Is there a leopard seal waiting? They stand. They watch. They wait. And then finally one of them takes the plunge and the rest figure it must be safe and follow. And then there would a bunch in the water swimming, porpoising, and then hopping back onto the shore.

But now it was time to return to our ship. On the zodiac trip back, Dennis, our driver, took us slowly along the shore. It looked like the penguins were waving good-bye with their flippers.  I waved back. It was hard to leave. This was our last stop on South Georgia. What a way to end an unbelievable 14 days. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful trip. Oh but, so sad to say good-bye.