They come to us, like a sweet, subantarctic greeting party, stumbling and fumbling over rain-slicked rocks, shaking off the cold and precipitation and sticking their black beaks in the air, sniffing us at a safe distance.
At first, just a few – then, when all seems safe, many more waddle over. As we lower our hoods and open our shutters, these king penguins – a couple dozen at most – pose for our cameras, turning for profile shots and flapping their wings, before shuffling off, all together, down the hill to some unknown destination.
Welcome to South Georgia Island.
Moments earlier, John Richard Dudeney, a modern-day Antarctic explorer, stood in front of fellow travellers and told us the significance of the spot where we stood – that here on King Haakon Bay, a century ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton and a small crew pulled off a maritime miracle, surviving one of the greatest and most daring seafaring feats of all time.
And those penguins? Dudeney added that, because of their remote habitat, they don't get a lot of visitors. "We may be the first human beings they've ever seen," he said, with a smile.
After almost three days of sailing 1,550 kilometres from the Falkland Islands through a seemingly impenetrable fog, we've landed on South Georgia Island, a British Overseas Territory with few permanent inhabitants and more than five million penguins. Sometimes called the "Serengeti of the Southern Ocean," South Georgia is 165 km long and teeming with life.
Adeline Heymann/One Ocean Expeditions
It's home to wandering albatrosses (among the world's largest birds when measured by wingspan) as well as giant, otherworldly elephant seals and the vast majority of the Earth's fur seals, which were once hunted almost to extinction. It's an island that, even today, feels unexplored, with unclimbed peaks and Technicolor-green shores pulsating with wildlife. Yet its strange, shuttered ghost towns still speak of a fascinating human history. This desolate place was also the last – and only – hope for Shackleton back in 1916. Initially on a mission to cross the continent from sea to sea, Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition foundered when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the notoriously dangerous pack ice of the Weddell Sea, which eventually tore the vessel asunder.
Stranded on the frozen mass of Elephant Island, he set sail with a crew of five in the James Caird, a repurposed lifeboat, navigating across some 1,500 kilometres of grey, tempestuous ocean with just their wits and a sextant, with very little sun to orient themselves. If they were just a half-degree off, these men would have sailed off into the infinity of the South Atlantic, leaving the rest of the men to live out miserable lives back on Elephant. But they weren't. Instead, they landed at Haakon, then hiked almost 50 kilometres up and over South Georgia's daunting mountain ranges and blue glaciers to a whaling station on the other side of the island – itself a trek not repeated for another half-century.
Leaving Haakon, I continue to follow in Shackleton's footsteps. Steaming around to the leeward side of the island on the 117-metre MV Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a small but sturdy expedition ship operated by Canadian-based One Ocean Expeditions, we make our way along an intimidating coast, landing at St. Andrew's Bay, perhaps the most awesome king penguin rookery in the world. Snugly clad in survival gear, I hop out of a Zodiac onto the beach and am immediately greeted by three or four of these curious kings, the second-largest penguin (after the emperor), plus a few mischievous fur seals and, down the beach a bit, a truly massive elephant seal, who inclines his head lazily toward me.
Following a trail blazed by the ship's expedition staff and marked out with blue poles, I stride across the sand, then up and inland over the ultragreen grass, at one point fording a shin-deep, icy-blue stream fed by a glacier, thankful for my thick rubber boots and waterproof snow pants.
Climbing a small incline and reaching a ridge overlooking a broad valley, I can't quite register what I'm seeing – thousands and thousands of penguins completely fill my field of vision, a singular mass stretching from the water all the way to the base of the mountains. Between the squawk and the smell, it's an almost overwhelming experience.
I spot Dr. Stephen Bailey, our affable, ridiculously knowledgeable resident bird expert, who tells me that we're looking at as many as 500,000 kings in total. "Early in the century, the largest colony was just 1,000 pairs," he says. Why so many here now? "My guess is there was an initial, small group that did very well here – and the rest followed."
During our voyage, we would see other wonders: Salisbury Plain, with more hundreds of thousands of kings; beautiful Gold Harbour and its big glaciers; and Prion Island, where we walked up wooden boardwalks, making our way through the tussocks to see wandering albatross up close, on nest.
And we pick up Shackleton's trail again at Fortuna Bay. There, Bailey points out his path, as "the Boss" crossed the island and neared his destination, passing from the mountains and glacier behind us, across the beach to where we now stand, then up and over the saddle on the horizon.
Adeline Heymann/One Ocean Expedition
Later that day, we sail the Vavilov into strong headwinds, the captain holding her steady in the face of 80-knot gusts while Dudeney, a man who spent more than 50 years in this region as part of the British Antarctic Survey, stands beside me on the bridge. With us both looking through the big front windows, he traces the route taken by Shackleton and his compatriots – pointing down the valley and into Stromness Bay, site of a now-derelict whaling station. They were so bedraggled after their ordeals on Elephant Island and aboard the Caird that their appearance was actually scary. "On the way, they encountered two children," Dudeney tells me. "They were so frightened to see them that they ran away."
And we see his final resting place, at Grytviken. Some six years after his remarkable rescue, Shackleton returned here on a third (and final) expedition to Antarctica, but didn't make his ultimate destination, suffering a heart attack on his ship; fittingly, he was interred at Grytviken.
Disembarking the Vavilov into Zodiacs, we tour the once-booming Norwegian whaling station, which still contains a well-preserved church, a small post office, the remains of blubber boilers and other whaling equipment, as well as a small museum that contains a replica of the Caird.
But first, we pay tribute to the Boss. He was laid to rest below a rough-hewn grave amid a green field inhabited by fur and elephant seals, and it seems the perfect place for him to be buried. Taking a small snifter of Scotch, we toast him and his right-hand-man, Frank Wild, a fellow explorer who insisted on being buried beside him.
"Shackleton was not a man who did small things," Dudeney says solemnly, raising his own glass alongside ours. "He was a man who reached for his dreams." Standing there, in that surreal, far-flung place, surrounded by seals and penguins, I feel that, even just a little bit, I had certainly achieved a few of mine.
The writer was a guest of One Ocean Expeditions. It did not review or approve this article.
Adeline Heymann/One Ocean Expeditions
If you go
Vancouver-based One Ocean Expeditions, which recently signed a partnership agreement with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, is a leader in polar voyages, sending ships to Antarctica, the Canadian Arctic and Norway's Svalbard Islands. While the company includes South Georgia on itineraries that sail onward to Antarctica, they also offer a 15-day opportunity to explore the island in depth. Next sailing is Jan. 28, 2017, starting at $13,395 (U.S.) a person (oneoceanexpeditions.com).
One Ocean's South Georgia trip departs from Puntas Arenas, Chile, the largest city (pop. 127,000) south of the 46th parallel. Set inside Chilean Patagonia, it's worth tarrying for a couple days to explore the Strait of Magellan, the city and its Nao Victoria Museum (which includes a full-scale replica of Magellan's ship of the same name, and another of the James Caird). When in town, stay at the intimate, well-kept Hotel Rey Don Felipe, which is within easy walking distance of the main square. Rooms from $217 a night. (hotelreydonfelipe.com)