South Georgia

Ode to the Antarctic Fur Seal

“Whatever you do, just don’t get bit.”

It’s not often that you hear those words, and especially not in reference to what looks for all intents and purposes like a lethargic, terminally bored seal. But, then you see the teeth. They are sharp. And apparently they are in a mouth that’s full of bacteria, not unlike a Komodo dragon. Get bit, and the deep puncture wounds will surely get infected. So don’t get bit. And don’t bother trying to run, cause they can run faster than you can. So just stare them down, make yourself big by throwing your arms out, make some noise and don’t turn your back.

“Okay, guys: Good Luck!”

That in a nutshell is your briefing on the dangers of the highly territorial and incredibly numerous Antarctic Fur Seal. You don’t expect to need to be briefed on the ways of a vicious seal. Hell, the words “vicious seal” sound like an oxymoron. But, here we are.

When we think of seals, we picture a lazy, maybe not so smart creature whose hobbies consist of napping and barking noisily at another seal who’s just stepped on them. They don’t move all that much and don’t seem very agile out of the water. They are certainly in no way frightening.

But those are not these seals.

fur seal

 

“True” seals are ones where all their spine and hip bones are in a line. They flop around or shimmy side to side to move forward and therefore can’t do so very quickly. Eared seals, like the Sea Lion or the Antarctic Fur Seal, have hip bones set up in such a way that they can get their flippers (their feet, basically) under them and use that for forward propulsion.  That’s why you don’t want to run. They’re fast.

furry

Personality-wise these are not the happy-go-lucky seals you see basking in the sun and napping all day. These seals are suspicious. They are short tempered. Some are clearly incensed that you have dared to walk across their beach and want to make sure that you know this. So they make a move on you. You will want to run, believe me. The first time a fur seal opens its mouth wide and lunges towards you, that’s your first instinct.

ANT_4639

But in order to so anything at all on these South Georgia beaches, you have to navigate your way through or around them. So you are faced with scenes like this: a veritable minefield of fur seals. Making your way across that field takes careful planning and a bit of bravado. And please don’t make the mistake of coming over one of those hillocks and surprising one. You definitely don’t want to do that.

minefield

The core of the issue, from a fur seal’s point of view, is that you should not be here at all. They want to make sure that you understand this, and leave post-haste. Even the babies get in on it – the first place we landed there was one very young pup that basically chased us up the beach, teeth bared the whole way. It was quite the introduction.

Suspicious pup
The first few days I was torn between hating their horrible attitude and determined desire to take a bite out of me, and really respecting such a badass animal. As the days went on though, it became funnier and funnier. They were so angry, so suspicious, so peeved, they were really a caricature.

Fur seal

So I made a point to try and get a picture of every time a seal gave me a dirty look. To chronicle their suspicion. Their anger. Their side-eye. It was not that difficult.

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Top Ten Things I Did Not Expect On A Trip To Antarctica and South Georgia

Come for the penguins, stay for the fur seals!

I had done a lot of research before this trip, so I knew quite a bit about what to expect and what would await me there. Years ago I worked for a photographer who visited South Georgia and Antarctica several times, so I had seen tons of  pictures from these places, and could recognize many of them. But even with all that, there were definitely some surprises. Here’s my top ten:

1. This is the best whale watching cruise you’ve never heard of. I’ve seen my share of whales. I’ve gone whale watching on the California coast, on Vancouver Island in Canada, even in Iceland. But even I was shocked at the number of whales we saw. Not only the variety of different species, but the sheer number of whales we saw was incredible.

Line of fin whales in the Scotia Sea

2. Antarctic fur seals are incredibly territorial and downright aggressive creatures. Before our first landing in South Georgia we got a detailed briefing on how to deal with them (basically: stand your ground), but I was shocked to see tiny pups going after us as if they were great big bulls. It was cute when it wasn’t sort of terrifying. Those teeth are sharp.

Fur seal
3. We were really busy. Between the daily landings and the lectures on history and wildlife and geology, meals and being exhausted from being out in the fresh air all day, I had basically no time to read or properly edit my images while on the ship.

4. Just how close to the wildlife you get. The rule is that you need to stay 15 feet away from the animals, keeping in mind that they are free to come as close to you as they’d like… and that is often pretty darn close.

Penguin

4. Doing photography every day for 3 weeks really hones your skills. I’m not sure why this had not occurred to me, but in the course of one of these longer journeys, if you’re using your camera every day and taking at least a quick peek at the results, you’re going to get better. Not only will using your camera become more automatic, but you will be better at evaluating the unique light conditions that occur down there.

Iceberg

5. My shipmates were younger than I expected. When I was in Dallas waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires, I saw the typical cruise crowd all heading down to their South American cruises. Most of them were well over 70, their tickets and IDs hanging on those pockets you wear around your neck. But not on our ship. The group seemed to be about half over 60 and half under, which gave us a good mix. We also had ~ 30% Australians, which of course made the whole thing more fun.

6. The wind is pretty much incessant. If your eyes are sensitive to wind and tear up a lot, make sure to bring wrap-around style sunglasses to help protect them. It will make a big difference. Or be like me and just keep your camera in front of your face all the time.

Wind
7. Getting in and out of zodiacs is easier than I expected… and after learning how to do it in the swells of South Georgia, the landings on the Antarctic peninsula were downright easy, as the water is so much more protected. By the end of it we were all experts, sliding towards the front and swinging our legs over the edge and landing in the water in one smooth motion, like we’d been doing it all our lives.

Zodiac
9. Running up and down the stairs to get to and from your lower-deck cabin is pretty good exercise. My apartment is on the third floor, so running up and down stairs is not new to me, but I was surprised at how by the end of the trip, I was able to race up all 5 flights from my cabin to the deck above the bridge without missing a beat.

10. The weather was fascinating. Between the come-out-of-nowhere katabatic winds (and attendant lenticular clouds) and the thick cumulus clouds that seemed to hover just feet above the water, I was constantly amazed by it. There were thick fogs that dissipated in minutes, mist, snow, sleet, rain — we saw pretty much every kind of weather at some point. I loved it.


Clouds

One thing that doesn’t surprise me? People ask if I want to go back. The answer is simple: In a heartbeat.

Taking a month off for the trip of a lifetime, part 1

I can’t even remember why I decided to look at the Quark Expeditions website that day. A trip to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula had been on “The List” since forever — in fact it was the very top thing on that list. I hate the term “bucket list”, probably because I just hate the word “bucket”, so I prefer to think of it a “life list” – sounds more positive that way, anyway.

King penguins at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

This trip had gained that position at the top of the list years ago — certainly since I worked for photographer Galen Rowell and helped organize images for his book Poles Apart. I had seen so many pictures of these places, it felt as if I already knew them. I had expected that I would never be able to afford to go there, at the very least not until I retired. But looking at that site, seeing the the dream trip I wanted to take, a few things occurred to me:

  • This is probably not going to get any cheaper. It’s got to cost a lot to send a small ship with only 114 people to the Antarctic, and I don’t expect diesel to be getting much cheaper anytime soon.
  • You just never know what is going to happen. Don’t wait for tomorrow to do something you really want to do, cause you might not have a tomorrow.
  • Getting older adds risk. I’ve never had problems with my knees before, but who’s to say what shape I’ll be in when I’m 70? I can easily hop in and out of zodiacs now, but you never know what will happen in the future.
  •  Why on earth would you wait to do something you desperately want to do? — this is more of a philosophical question than anything else. What are you waiting for? Are you waiting to achieve some magic goal that will make you feel as if you can do it? Are you just afraid to spend the money?

Zodiac and Commerson's dolphin, Falkland Islands.

So dear reader, I signed up. My hands were shaking, my heart was pounding — it feels like a drug sometimes — and I put the $3500 deposit on a credit card. Now, even though I travel all the time, I am at heart a cheapskate, and that deposit represented the entire cost of some of my trips. Deep breath. I had some money saved up, a good 2/3 of that I could pay off right away. The final payment was 14 months away. Fourteen months. We can plan for that.

  • So, why Quark? They are the undisputed leader in polar travel. All those years ago, Galen Rowell went on trips with them, in fact taught photo workshops on those trips, so I knew that they are a reputable company with years of experience safely guiding travel in these remote environments. This is not a place to economize.
  • Why then? Booking early gives very significant discounts. For these types of voyages, booking 18 months in advance will often net you a 20% discount off the “rack rate”. I decided to sign up for a twin porthole cabin, figuring that while I could deal with one roommate in a small cabin for three weeks, the two roommates you’d have in a triple might do me in.
  • Why that trip? If you are going to spend the time and the money to go to Antarctica, it makes sense to go for as long as you can. Just getting there is expensive, so amortizing that cost over a longer trip is a better deal. It was imperative for me that I go to South Georgia, which only happens on the longer trips (you can see why in the map below). Aside from the amazing landscape it has to offer, the sheer tonnage of penguins and seals can be found no where else.

 

Crossing the Circle

I know what you’re thinking: “Um… thats a month long trip. What about your job?”

I KNOW!! When I booked this, I was thinking that if I had to quit to go on this trip, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The office had moved, and I now had a much longer commute. The company was doing “ok” but not well, so there was not much advancement going to happen. I was bored. It all added up to: meh, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If I have to quit, I will. I’m lucky I work in an industry and a location with a healthy economy, so I was not too worried about finding another job if it came to that.

As it happened, just two months later I switched jobs. Now, I’ll be honest. I should have told New Job about the trip, I really should have. The complicating factor was that I already had a previously planned trip to India scheduled for one month after my start date. Not a long trip, but still. Telling them about one upcoming trip seemed like enough. Besides, maybe I’d hate it and have a completely different job by then. It was over a year away! Who knows what will happen….

So, how did I pay for it? What preparation did I have to do? Part two to come.