Looking through a foggy window on the bridge, I was thrilled to see the rugged landscape of Elsehul appear as the Hans Hansson pulled into the bay.
Everyone was up this morning and the entire boat was buzzing with excitement. After 4 days at sea, we had finally made it to South Georgia! The plan of the morning was simply to land on shore, explore the area and hope the weather cooperated. (Spoiler alert: it did!)
With it's sealer history, scenery and wildlife (even a possible rat sighting) little Elsehul proved to be a wonderful introduction to South Georgia.
Elsehul & The Sealers' Legacy
In the 1700’s, Elsehul was used by sealers as an operations base leaving behind a few trypots near the beach. It was a very lucrative business and the fur seal population of the entire region was nearly wiped out by the 1800’s. The fur seal population has since rebounded - some might say - with a vengence.
The sealers' sought Fur seals for their warm pelts and Southern elephant seals for their blubber which was rendered into oil.
Revenge of the Fur Seals!
Today the local fur seal populations are so large and aggressive, (human) visitors are not able to land at Elsehul when the fur seal come ashore en masse from November through January. We visited in the spring and were told it would not be long before the fur seals would take over the area and this little cove would absolutely teeming with wildlife. Those who visit during summer months can still take in the lovely cove - from a zodiac cruise.
The Introduction of Rats
Norway rats were introduced to South Georgia by way of the early sealers’ vessels and have thrived without predators. Unfortunately, they have destroyed the populations of indigenous ground nesting birds such as the South Georgia Pipit and burrowing petrels, like the White-chinned petrel.
As you may know, a huge, multi-phase restoration project has recently been completed on South Georgia to eradicate rats and, another introduced species - the reindeer.
(Sidenote: During our visit, little tracks were spotted in the snow and identified as rat tracks. This sighting was taken very seriously. The authorities were notified of the sighting and the person who identified the tracks was interviewed over the ship's radio and in the government office in Stanley at the end of the voyage.)
The wildlife scene was amazing - and it turned out to be a perfect appetizer for the feast to come!
It was late October, so the (very aggressive) Fur seal population was just beginning to return and was mostly males. The relatively more mellow and much larger Southern elephant seals were already hauled out on the beach and many newly born pups were already visible. Our visit would coincide with their birthing and mating season. Just steps away from where the zodiac landed, was a group of about 20-30 Southern elephant seals were lounging on the beach, loudly yelping to one another. It was a perfect South Georgia welcome welcome party!
The 10 of us spread out to explore the gorgeous surroundings - and reacquaint ourselves with land again. Like each area of South Georgia we visited, we had the luxury of the entire area all to ourselves - or at least - no other human beings.
I slowly made my way from the beach to the tussock grass. Wasn't sure where I was headed but I spotted some lovely Gentoo penguins and even a few molting King penguins. I had never seen a King penguin before and was amazed at their size! (Much more on King penguins to come.)
I spotted a few of my shipmates gathering on a hill and I decided to join them. They were not only seasoned South Georgia visitors and serious photographers but were always ready to share their discoveries with me.
From the top of the hill, I could see the entire bay. When my eyes adjusted to the view, the cliffsides all surrounding the bay were filled with albatross nests. Up in the sky soared Grey-headed, Light Mantled Sooty and Black-browed albatross! It was astounding.
I found a snowy tuffet to call my own and sat in the grass and tried to take in all the activity. Above my head, dozens of albatross soared and a few swooped down to take a closer look at me. It was heavenly!
After a while I was inspired to continue my exploration. As I hiked down the snowy tussock mounds and headed inland, I came upon an entire Gentoo penguin colony built atop tussock grass - with very snowy looking yet earthen nests. I had seen Gentoos further south on the Antarctic Peninsula craft nests with rocky, sharp pebbles - but this!! If I were a Gentoo, this would be my preferred type of nest - even if it did leave one's belly a bit muddy.
I slowly hiked down to the beach where the zodiak came to shuttle us to the Hans Hansson. I hated to leave but I was hungry. It was already lunchtime and a nice warm soup was waiting for us onboard. This was only our first morning and there was so much more of South Georgia to explore!