Going wild in South Georgia

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Each year, organisations like the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) work tirelessly to raise money for conservation projects and communities – in an attempt to stop some our planet’s incredible wildlife becoming extinct. The truth is, since 1970, populations of wild species have fallen by half. Which means iconic species like tigers, elephants and rhinos could become extinct in our lifetime.

To help raise funds for their work, the WWF celebrates ‘Wear it Wild’ on Friday 27 May. And this year, I really wanted to do my bit – because I’m lucky enough to see and learn so much about some of these beautiful species in their natural habitats as a part of my work. So I’ve shared my diary blog about my most wild adventure so far – my visit to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia last year.

It’s experiences like this that make me realise just how special our planet is, and just why we, as humans, need to work together to understand and look after our environment and our wonderful wildlife – to keep all species of life existing for as long as possible. Each animal has a place in the cycle of life – we owe it to them and ourselves to help them survive.

I was lucky enough to visit South Georgia with the fantastic Expedition Team on Silversea ship, the Silver Explorer. It blew my mind. I hope this inspires you to want to appreciate and fight for our amazing world too.

Gold Harbour, South Georgia, November 2015

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I am surrounded by thousands of King penguins. A sentence I never thought I would stay. But here they are – a metre in height and a mix of black, white, silver and yellow – scuttling and squawking while going about their daily lives. 

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In front of me are scores of Elephant seals; large, brown blubbery masses unlike any animal I have ever seen. They snort and sneeze while they snooze, the size of their facial trunks identifying the older males from the juveniles.

‘Welcome to wonderfully wild South Georgia’, I tell myself. I can’t believe I’m actually here!

It’s mating season for both the penguins and the seals, which is why the black sandy coastline of South Georgia’s Gold Harbour is blanketed in these incredible creatures. A few of the King penguins are already nesting. Their eggs firmly tucked beneath the females while the males forage for food. Small, wide-eyed Elephant seal pups, born last year, dot the landscape too – their cuteness beyond description.

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I take a deep breath and let my eyes absorb the full picture. As far as I can see, there are beautifully elegant black and white heads bobbing around, and occasionally among them a sausage-shaped mound of brown. Wow.

Famously explored by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his unsuccessful quest to Antarctica on the Endurance in 1915, South Georgia was originally established as a whaling and sealing station throughout the 19th Century. Situated 864 miles east of the Falkland Islands, this land in the middle of the Southern ocean has remained remote. Whaling was banned here in 1960. Today, only research vessels and small expedition ships, like the Silver Explorer, visit – usually during the summer months.

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I gaze around. The backdrop to my wild scene is a stunning mountain glacier. Its blue ice glistening under the peeping sun. Frozen waterfalls glaze the rocks; the cascading water now crystal clear icicles, stalactite-style shapes dropping from great heights. It’s truly beautiful and I feel ever so lucky to be in such a unique place. This is the stuff Sir David Attenborough documentaries are made of. To be here and see it with my own eyes is unbelievable.

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I’m brought back down to earth by a loud belch. I turn to see one of the Elephant seal males is awake. One eye opens, then the other. They widen as he realises another bull has dragged himself out of the sea and is now trespassing among his harem of females.

Many of the Elephant seals here are adult males, weighing around three tonnes. Arriving back on land in early November, following a season at sea foraging, they are here to reproduce – with the larger males competing to be the beach-master. If they win, they get mating rights with the cluster of females who are currently piled up against each other, snoozing. If they don’t, they return to an isolated spot on the beach, bloody and scratched, banished from reproducing for yet another day. Needless to say, the strongest, most vicious male will win the battle.

The intruder has now dragged his bulky form onto the beach and is looking for a female to mate with. But the first belching bull, the beach-master, isn’t having his harem approached by another male. So they both rise from their flabby, flat-out positions on the sand; their necks thick against the freezing South Georgia air, their eyes red and bloodshot with rage. The stranger goes in with one swoop, using his mighty neck muscles to deliver a wincing blow. The beach-master roars in pain but has not been defeated, instead he fights back by opening his huge jaw and planting his rotting incisors into the intruder’s neck, drawing blood.

Suddenly it’s quiet. The beach-master has won yet another battle and rules the roost for yet another day. The intruder sluggishly drags himself away and collapses on the sand, blood trickling from his neck. The slender females remain unaware of any commotion, a few young pups suckling as they sleep.

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With the drama over, I tear myself away to take one last glimpse at the penguins. Three of them waddle past in a row, their postures impressively elegant. I take a seat on the sand and watch as a line of them flop out of the water and proceed past me in an unmentioned game of ‘follow the leader’. Then one turns and looks at me square in the eye. Amazing.

Before arriving on South Georgia, my fellow travellers and I had been introduced to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators’ (IAATO) guidelines by the Expedition team on board the Silver Explorer. There, it is explained why a five-metre wildlife rule is so important. It’s simple: to avoid disturbing the wildlife, we are to stay at least this distance from them.

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I adhere to the rules but no one has mentioned this to the Kings. I watch in awe as they make their way to me and gently peck at my boots.  Their curiosity has got the better of them and my still, low-lying form in the sand makes me less of a threat. They spend a few minutes eyeing me up, before carrying on with their journey across the beach.

One of the Expedition team approaches to tell me by January, this beach will be covered in small brown fluffy penguin chicks. The eggs will have hatched by then and a new generation will attempt to make it in the world.

I could not have dreamed of a wilder adventure.

Celebrate our beautiful planet and do your bit for WWF’s Wear it Wild. Visit the Wear It Wild website for more information.

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