On our expedition’s last day on South Georgia, we went ashore on the narrowest part of the northwest coast, a wild, Lord-of-the-Rings landscape of steep rock-and-hummock slopes, howling winds and sheets of shrouding mists. This pilgrimage was prompted mainly by the chance for a visitation with nesting Gray-headed Albatrosses on the high slopes.
The place is called Elsehul. The name dates to the early 1900s and probably refers to a now-forgotten woman near to the heart of a now-forgotten whaler or sealer. A major colony of Antarctic Fur Seals breeds here, and the vanguard of the coming season were already in evidence.
Hunters had killed well over a million of fur seals as early as the 1820s, according to our expert guide Mike Nolan. So many fur seals, in fact, that before 1900 they were believed utterly exterminated. Their continued existence was uncertain for about two decades. Toward the latter 1900s they began increasing. Now there are 4 million, increasing at nearly 10 percent annually. So many fur seals, in fact, that they trample the tussock grass high up the slopes, crowd out penguins, and cause erosion. Such a population explosion might be facilitated by a lack of competitors and predators. Is their explosive increase due partly to the lack of whales competing for the same food? And was there perhaps a crash in Killer Whales—their only open-ocean predator here—following the destruction of whales, fur seals, and sea lions?
Also here, more of the ubiquitous Southern Elephant Seals. On the beach lie three large iron cauldrons in which hunters boiled some of those seals for oil during the first half of the 1900s. It must have been a miserable time for hunters and hunted, full of blood, pain, and loneliness. But now, the sealers are gone, the pots lie cold, and the seals are back.
But the main event here, as I said, was the albatrosses. Both the Gray-headed and the ethereal Light-mantled Sooty nest here. Guided by bird expert Richard White, we climbed up, up, up until we were at albatross elevation. And there we beheld not only nesting birds but the astonishing sight of the great creatures gliding along the cliffs into the wind at eye-level.
And it was albatross weather all right—blustering cold winds and curtains of rain-like mist that lofted and propelled the birds along the high ridges.
We were in one of the world’s most “remote” places, but in the company of exquisite birds who were very much in their own home. And there—on the high, cold, wet, wind-bitten slopes—our great-winged co-voyagers impressed themselves forever into our minds and memories.