Story and photos by Debbie McCulliss
I spent weeks preparing and packing for my “Epic South Georgia” voyage, a photographer’s dream bucket-list trip, run by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris. One of my main priorities was having proper clothing and photography gear. That and staying healthy before and on the trip, especially because there is no airstrip, rescue or other emergency service on the island, nor is there cell or Wi-Fi service.
By the time I left home the first week of October 2019, I had watched plenty of YouTube videos and seen enough Facebook and Instagram posts from South Georgia Island to make me vividly imagine returning home with memories and images of magical experiences. In reality, I had no idea what to anticipate. Nor could I assume I would get great images, having only two years of experience in nature photography. Little did I know I’d go as a hobbyist wildlife photographer and return as a budding conservation photographer and advocate.
South Georgia Island lies 1,300 miles from Cape Horn, in the cold waters of the South Atlantic. As the captain sailed the small expedition ship Ushuaia toward our destination, passengers were given presentations by the expedition team on all things South Georgia—its storied past, its seabirds and its important role in the history of Antarctic exploration. Photography workshop leaders provided lectures on a variety of topics, from photography basics to advanced landscape and nature photography, as well as opportunities for informal chats on anything photographic. And when the deck wasn’t icy and the waters were somewhat calm, there was a lot of outside deck space for photographing beautiful seabirds and landscapes or catching a glimpse of an occasional whale.
South Georgia is home to more than half of the world’s population of southern elephant seals. As I stepped off of the Zodiac on our first landing at Elsehul Bay, I could see seal pups being born. I’ve been a nurse for 30 years and worked 15 years in obstetrical-related clinical areas, so seeing these healthy seal pups nurse for the first time held special meaning to me. Skuas (predatory gull-like birds) hovered around waiting for the placenta to be expelled so that, within what seemed like seconds, they could consume it. The countless massive elephant seals on the sandy beach, both bulls and their female harems, made odd noises, fought for territory, slept, or waddled awkwardly out to sea to hunt for food. The animals provided countless opportunities to tell compelling stories about live in this difficult environment.
Little did I know that Elsehul was just the beginning of this magical trip. On Prion Island, a sanctuary for a variety of seabirds and seals, albatross chicks were learning to take flight, and on Salisbury Plain, best known as the breeding site for upwards of 60,000 king penguins, chicks of all ages were seen in high density. The chicks rely on their parents to hear their sounds and find them. Both king penguin parents can recognize their individual chick’s voice, despite the size of the cacophonous colony or the length of time that they have been out at sea catching food for their young. The huge breeding colony of king penguins at St. Andrew’s Bay is continuously occupied with an estimated 150,000 birds (the largest colony of its kind in South Georgia) due to their long breeding cycle. The sights and sounds (and smells) of the wildlife are everywhere. This penguin paradise is a captivating spectacle.
It was fascinating to see, firsthand, the various nesting behaviors of the different species of penguins and birds on our diverse landings. King penguins, for example, lay an egg and carry it on top of their webbed feet, keeping it warm under folds of skin and fur. No nest is required, unlike the gentoo penguins who, by contrast, nest. In both species, though, incubation duty is shared by both parents.
In addition to learning that South Georgia was home to millions of seals and birds, during my visits to Grytviken and Stromness I also learned about the now defunct, shore-based, commercial whaling and seal industry. Millions of whales and seals were hunted on the open sea, killed by harpoons loaded with explosive grenades and towed to port. There their blubber was removed and boiled under pressure to extract the oil—much of it used in the making of margarine and cosmetic products, such as soaps and lotions. Other uses included fueling oil lamps and boilers and as a component of explosive artillery shells and bombs.
The whaling industry here started in the early 1900s and, after several profitable decades, made South Georgia the world’s largest whaling center. It ended in the mid-1960s when, one by one, the whaling stations on South Georgia closed their doors. Uncontrolled and unsustainable whaling around the island resulted in significant reductions in the whale species that were being exploited, making the industry here economically unviable. The slowly decaying buildings and equipment offer evocative imagery to chronical the human impact in this region.
In recent years, reindeer that were intentionally introduced to help feed the whalers during the southern summer and the rats and mice that were unintentionally introduced have all been eradicated. Grytviken has also been extensively cleaned up to remove hazardous materials, including asbestos.
The harsh weather has over time buried or destroyed the whaler’s homes. The church, cemetery, rusting equipment, and ship skeletons remain. The exploited whale populations have shown considerable recovery but remain vulnerable.
I also visited Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave, a focal point for many visitors and a place where we toasted the lives and adventures of Shackleton and his crew. First discovered in 1675, South Georgia was claimed by the British Empire when Captain James Cook became the first known person to set foot on the island in 1775. The island was isolated, nothing more than a spec on the map. There was no indigenous population or permanent inhabitants. Cook claimed the territory for Great Britain and named it after King George III. But it was British polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, with his Endurance expedition and one of the greatest survival stories of all time, who made the island famous. In 1922, Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was aborted when pack ice trapped and crushed their ship in the Weddell Sea. After months of living on the sea ice, Shackleton and five other men traveled 800 miles in a lifeboat, named the James Caird, to the southern coast of South Georgia, from which he organized a rescue operation for his crew.
Along the southeast coast of South Georgia, we were awestruck by the glaciated mountains in Drygalski Fjord, a one-mile-wide bay, which recedes northwestwards about seven miles. It is a place where every scene was stunning and where we witnessed a glacier calving.
My three-week photography adventure was highlighted by the opportunity to circumnavigate the entire island, a rarity as stormy seas and windy weather conditions usually make that impossible. We also experienced more landings with greater time onshore than is typical for this kind of expedition. Landing options vary with larger cruise ships only permitted to land at certain approved sites. Sudden and unexpected changes in the weather, and the potential numbers of elephant seals onshore during mating season can also prevent landings.
In the incredible weather and light of the South Atlantic Ocean, we saw icebergs, so many icebergs. We even saw chinstrap penguins hanging out on one iceberg before lunging into the cold water. Icebergs that have broken off from glaciers in Antarctica and get swept toward the Atlantic Ocean oftentimes ground themselves on the shallow continental shelf that surrounds South Georgia Island. The presence of icebergs in this region is not unusual, but other passengers who had previously journeyed to South Georgia had seen many fewer icebergs. The presence of these icebergs presented the opportunity for me to use my wide-angle lens, something I hadn’t done much with as a wildlife photographer. I was able to focus on composition and lighting, while being enchanted with the sizes, shapes, and varying blue and white coloration of the bergs. Seeing these icebergs made climate change more real to me, while also making photographing them even more of a high point for me.
Today, South Georgia teems with wildlife as a result of the efforts of the South Georgia Heritage Trust (a U.K. charity) and the government of South Georgia, as well as Friends of South Georgia Island (a U.S. nonprofit) . In 2012, the U.K. government designated South Georgia as one of the world’s largest sustainable use Marine Protected Areas. Some conservation efforts focus on increasing the numbers of southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals, who were hunted to the brink of extinction, as well as the recovery of seabird colonies that were devastated by the rats and mice introduced by the whalers and sealers. The island is, once again, uninhabited by humans except for the scientific researchers who set up research bases on the island. Official biosecurity inspections continue to take place on ships as part of the rat eradication efforts and in the ongoing prevention of non-native invasive species being accidentally introduced by humans. Since the reindeer, rats and mice were eradicated, the island once again belongs to penguins, sea birds and seals.
This trip was truly epic. As I work on post-processing my images, I relive the privilege of seeing the stunning, awe-inspiring, and breathtaking landscapes that exist on this remote island. Seeing firsthand the abundant wildlife—a substantial portion of the world’s penguins and a plethora of breeding birds, southern elephant and fur seals—wowed me even more.
On a map, South Georgia may have only appeared as a spec, but now that I have visited, I’m aware of the powerful presence of South Georgia in both my head and my heart. I imagine it’s had that same impact on many other photographers. It’s not difficult to lose yourself in its (mostly) unspoiled beauty or come away with a reverence for Antarctic explorers of centuries past. I understand now why South Georgia is a place to which scientific researchers and photographers are repeatedly drawn.
Yet I still find myself reading about the killing of whales and seals for their blubber to make oil, rat eradication and the efforts of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, the size and number of icebergs and the potential for a decrease in the inflow of krill, a main food source for the penguins. How, I wonder, will my grandchildren (now four and under) experience South Georgia? I find myself thinking about the number of tourists who will visit South Georgia in years to come. Larger ships are being built to bring people here and, as with many popular destinations, everything will get more crowded. More people on the island may also mean more damage to the ecosystem.
The vitality of the Antarctic Ocean ecosystem is changing. As climate changes continue to affect the natural world, the need for protecting the wildlife and marine environment around South Georgia becomes ever more important, lest we risk losing this special place forever. I hope my words and images educate, document, and raise public awareness of and appreciation for the wondrous beauty of the landscape of South Georgia, the perils that the wildlife may continue to face, the progress that has been made, and the conservation challenges that lie ahead. South Georgia is such a special place but, like many other fragile environments, it faces many threats. If you want to take action to help protect this epic landscape, suggestions include supporting the conservation efforts of the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the Friends of South Georgia Island organizations (which includes The South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project that is sustained through visitor education).
Debbie McCulliss is a Colorado-based wildlife and nature photographer whose work is represented in the Windfall Fine Art Gallery in Steamboat Springs.
She is a certified applied poetry facilitator and holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing and nonfiction writing. She came to photography after an unexpected fascination with the behavior of bald eagles. It didn’t take long before she fell in love with photographing a variety of wildlife and witnessing the strength, fragility, beauty and rhythm of nature. The more she learns, the bigger her photographic world becomes.
With camera in hand, she travels the globe, mostly to colder regions, to capture images that speak to the heart. She believes that her photography speaks, not only for her but for people who can only imagine what it would be like to explore the world with freedom of mind and imagination. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation.
See more of her work at debbiemccullissphotography.com.