We landed first in King Haakon Bay. Here, near the southwest corner of South Georgia, Ernest Shakleton and his rescue party landed on May 10, 1916 after their desperate, 800-mile trek in a re-fitted lifeboat to secure rescue for their crew left on Elephant Island. The bay here is ringed by Himalaya-like peaks clad in snow and ice. The idea that Shackleton immediately faced crossing these mountains to get help is difficult to ponder. They look utterly forbidding.
A few molting King Penguins were loafing. Blue-eyed Shags occupied one low slope to the water. South Georgia Pintail ducks waddled in the many glacial streams running downslope to the black-pebble beach. Antarctic Terns cheered us with their familiar-sounding calls, reminding us of terns at home. They are breeding now in small, loose groups on open ground. Skuas flew low and fast as though always agitated.
But the elephant seals took practically all our attention. Almost literally inescapable, Elephant Seals jam the beach like drifted logs. Giant bulls weighing 6,000 pound. Cows weighing one-sixth as much. And young pups.
About those pups: They have three weeks of nursing before their mothers leave them. In those three weeks they must grow from 100-pound newborns to 400-pound weaners. It’s all in the milk. Elephant seal milk is 54% fat. Cow’s milk is 4% fat. They’re not fooling around. And the drawdown on the mother is so intense that she can do this for only a few weeks before taking to sea to recover some weight. We saw skuas moving in on pups to rob milk from their mothers. Other than people robbing milk from cows and goats, this is the only animal milk-parasitism I am aware of. Even odder, this milk is being stolen by birds, which of course don’t make milk and can live their entire lives without it.
During the heyday of whaling, elephant seals were also slaughtered remorselessly for oil. That stopped about 60 years ago, and their populations have been recovering well. Of the roughly 750,000 Southern Elephant Seals throughout the Southern Ocean, 400,000 life here at South Georgia.
They may look lazy on the beach, but life for them is full of challenges. Besides the just-mentioned speed-weaning, breeding is a brutal affair in which a few huge males battle successfully to retain control of harems of dozens of females. It’s so bloody and exhausting that harem-holding “beachmaster bulls” seldom last more than a season or so. Inevitably they lose to one of the many rivals that seek to depose him or steal access to females all day and night for weeks on end. And, they live most of their life in the open seas of the Southern Ocean. (The Northern Elephant Seal, also recovering, breeds on California beaches and also lives much of its time far from land.)
They can dive one mile and hold their breath 2 hours. That’s longer than a sperm whale. They exhale when they dive so they are not full of air. Their blood binds oxygen much more strongly than does ours. So instead of holding their breath as a way of carrying oxygen, they saturate their blood with all the oxygen they will need to stay deep a long time while hunting for fish, squid, and krill.
We spent several hours on the beach among the seals. Then we repositioned slightly to better tour an area inside the bay named Cape Rosa. Here, in an outboard Zodiac, we visited icebergs and the tiny beach between sloping headlands where Shackleton and his men spend their first couple of nights recovering from their exhaustion before assaulting the ridges in their three-day walk up, over, and across the ice-spired island.
Day’s end was marked by a spectacular tabular iceberg, with snow petrels flying a halo around it. Rising a hundred feet or so from the water and many times as wide, the sight of it struck us as truly awe inspiring.