"Start with some of the world's best alpine landscape, add an overwhelming abundance of tolerant wildlife, finish with tour operators who put you there and give you the freedom to explore. Doesn't get any better."
South Georgia is the diamond in the Southern Ocean's crown of Subantarctic islands, a spectacular glaciated landscape home to some of the greatest wildlife densities found anywhere on earth. The island remains extremely difficult to access and few expeditions do it justice. Consequently, we are extremely pleased and excited to have pioneered a ten participant expedition with a renowned Penguin Scientist and professional photographer Tom Murphy for an unparalled 17 days intimately exploring South Georgia. Our small group will benefit from an exciting science component to the voyage which, in combination with the ease of getting such a small number of folks ashore, means a strong likelihood of visiting sites rarely or never accessed by tour vessels. And as far as time ashore, there will be simply no comparison; we will be able to explore in quiet serenity, and even camp ashore for those who wish. With the safe and comfortable vessel Hans Hansson at our disposal, we will not be inhibited like larger ships, needing dozens of zodiacs back and forth from shore at any site, nor constrained by the limitations of small yachts. This expedition offers great depth of exploration, contributes significantly to conservation science, and provides unparalleled experiences for a small, intimate group.
Cost: $18,450 to $21,450 per person, shared occupancy, depending on cabin choice, not including airfare, singles extra. See cost details.
Group Size: 10 participants, not including staff.
Number of Days:32 days total, including estimated travel time with 29 days onboard the Hans Hansson.
Leader and Staff: Tom Murphy along with three additional experienced staff members. See staff details.
Boat: The Hans Hansson. See ship details.
Accommodatioins: Life on board is relaxed and informal. For important information about the uniqueness of our accommodations, see more ship details.
Conditions: This is a non-smoking safari for people who are very interested in all wildlife and spending the maximum time in the field. See condition details.
Itinerary Updated: June 2014.
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Tom Murphy - Professional Photographer and Naturalist
Special Scientist - Penguinologist
Caitlin Black - Penguinologist
During this expedition, Caitlin and another Penguinologist will deploy time-lapse cameras and time-lapse thermal imaging cameras and collect feathers for genetic analysis. These cameras are left in place for up to two years and will store or relay images back to his research team via a satellite link.
Dion Poncet - Skipper
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The Hans Hansson was originally built for the Norwegian Lifeboat Association and in 2005 underwent a major refit, including renewing the interior to provide comfortable accommodations for twelve passengers and six crew. She is ideally suited for extended voyages in comfort and safety anywhere in the world. Although the vessel is primarily a workboat, she has a comfortable main saloon, library/recreational area, and kitchenette.
The crew likes to create an informal and relaxed atmosphere. They appreciate any help you would like to give, such as setting the table for meals and lending a hand with clean up afterwards. Two full meals will be served and breakfast is typically self-service, because we have access to the kitchenette. Provisioning occurs in the Falkland Islands where they try to obtain local produce, when possible, and local meat. Meals are home-cooked style, typically French cuisine.
See more ship details, including deckplan, cabin descriptions and photos.
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Please note: Due to the expeditionary nature of our voyage, specific stops cannot be guaranteed. Flexibility is paramount in expedition travel; the following itinerary depends on the conditions at the time of travel. We strive to land often and stay as long as possible, abiding by the Guidelines for Responsible Ecotourism from IAATO.
October 16–17, Thursday–Friday: Flights to Santiago, Chile.
Depart by October 16 to arrive in Santiago, Chile by the evening of October 17 for an overnight in Santiago before our flight to Stanley, Falkland Islands. See Flight Information at the end of this itinerary. Please contact us if you would like to arrive early to spend extra time in or around Santiago. We would be happy to book extra hotel nights and arrange or suggest activities.
October 18, Saturday: Flights from Santiago to Stanley, Falkland Islands for embarkation.
Fly from Santiago to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, arriving in the early afternoon. We will be met at Mount Pleasant Airport and transferred to the dock where the Hans Hansson will await. You will have time to walk through town and explore this small corner of the English empire that appears as if time has forgotten it. Stanley is an attractive town and the only center of human population we will see on this voyage. We will enjoy a welcome meal and drink with our fine staff and crew before departing for South Georgia!
October 19, Sunday Falkland Islands
October 20–23, Monday–Thursday: At sea.
By morning, we will be far from the Falklands, heading southeast with albatross at our stern. If the skies are blue, the weather could be quite balmy, between 50–60°F (10–15°C). Photographers will have a field day following birds on the wing including Wandering and Black-browed albatross and other "tubenoses." We always have a chance of a Royal Albatross as well. In these waters, we have counted almost a dozen species of petrels, three species of storm-petrels, Common Diving-Petrel, six species of albatross, thousands of Antarctic Prions, Southern Fulmars plus Greater and Sooty shearwaters.
En route to South Georgia, we will cross the Polar Front (also called the Antarctic Convergence) where we officially enter Antarctic waters. Two bodies of water meet here and as the salty, cold Antarctic water mixes with warmer, fresher water from the north, the water temperature plummets from about 4–6°C down to 0°C in about eight hours of cruising time. Fishing fur seals and pods of whales illustrate the richness of these waters. We have a chance of sighting Fin, Minke, and Blue whale, and perhaps more elusive species as well. The ever-changing Polar Front is also an excellent birding habitat. As we continue southeast, the bird population begins to include more Cape Petrels, Southern Fulmars, and even Antarctic and Snow petrels as we come around the northeast end of South Georgia. During this time at sea, crossing about 730 nautical miles from the Falklands, we will have the opportunity to discuss wildlife, wildlife photography, ecology, geology, and history of the Scotia Sea and South Georgia. The prevailing current will be in our direction.
October 24–November 9, Friday–Sunday: South Georgia
Arrival time at South Georgia will depend on weather conditions. One of the most remote islands in the world, South Georgia is the heart of this expedition, as we spend ten to eleven days in this wild landscape of penguins, albatross, and seals. The mountainous rugged interior, a geologic continuation of the Andes chain, is carved by more than 150 glaciers into spectacular fjords and is ringed by smaller islands. South Georgia has incredible possibilities for landings all along the northeastern, leeward coastline, the focus of our exploration during these days.
The timing of this voyage is carefully chosen to experience South Georgia in a seldom seen but extremely vibrant time. Our itinerary makes the most of our time in South Georgia by paying close attention to the changes in breeding seasons, particularly of Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals. The peak of fur seal breeding is in November and December, when males stake out territories in the northern reaches of the island at densities so high that travel ashore becomes both dangerous and disruptive. Meanwhile the peak of Southern Elephant Seal breeding is in October, and, during this time, the world's largest seals vie to be "beachmasters," dominating stretches of beach where females come to pup. We will make it a priority to experience this! We therefore plan to land in the northern part of the island first, for an introduction and a chance to land at some of the special sites that will become unavailable to us once fur seals are in the height of their breeding. Then we will travel south to experience the scale and density of breeding colonies at sites such as St. Andrews Bay and Gold Harbour. From there, we will take our time exploring back northward, absorbing the great richness and variety offered by South Georgia to voyagers so fortunate as ourselves. We may have a chance to circumnavigate the island for a truly thorough exploration of this crown jewel of the great Southern Ocean!
We are, of course, on an expedition where the weather and sea conditions will determine our daily schedule. Each day's plan will be discussed the prior evening, with adjustments made as necessary when weather changes overnight from our expectations. As well, for those who wish to experience the first light of dawn ashore, we will seek permission from the Government of South Georgia to be able to camp ashore.
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Potential Landing Sites in South Georgia
Elsehul and Undine Harbour: Our first landings in South Georgia may be at some of the favorite breeding sites of the male Antarctic Fur Seals; in as little as a few weeks, these beaches will be covered with territorial males charged on testosterone. Elsehul is a perfect example and it is the only location where we will be able to see the beautiful Gray-headed Albatross nesting. These are the first albatross to lay eggs, so we are sure find them sitting on nests looking out over the dramatic cove of Elsehul. We'll find them sitting in the tussock grass above a prime fur seal breeding beach, and, at this date, the seals should not be so territorial as to refuse our passage. The opportunity for up-close views of Gray-headed Albatross on their nests is one that few can hope for in a lifetime of travel. Black-browed Albatross also nest here, along with Macaroni, Gentoo, and King penguins; we can expect to see Gentoos on nests in the saddle between Elsehul and south-facing Undine Harbour. One trip our expedition staff even spotted a Wandering Albatross chick nesting further inland and took a few eager photographers trekking up for a closer look – a very special treat! These two little sheltered coves sit on the northwestern extremity of South Georgia on the eastern side of the rugged Paryadin Peninsula. The peninsula blocks the strong westerly winds of the Southern Ocean with 400-meter high walls of ancient sedimentary rocks, folded and stacked during the formation of the Andes.
Right Whale Bay: Right Whale Bay has dramatic scenery to provide a fabulous backdrop for wildlife photography. Groups of penguins pose together on a vast sheet of snow reaching far back from the black beach before the mountains rise to a conspicuous peak. Antarctic Fur Seals are just beginning to set up territories here while male Southern Elephant Seals exchange deep bellowing roars as they proclaim their dominance over the groups of females and pups. On the east side of this sharply walled cove, a colony of King Penguins stretches from the beach up into the tussock grass inland. Hundreds of chicks eagerly await the return of their parents who have been out fishing. If you sit down quietly, you may find yourself the subject of penguin curiosity as one brave individual might try to see if your shoelaces will detach with a tug. There are great opportunities for action shots as adults come in out of the surf and trek up to the colony to feed their young. A small waterfall pours out of the interior of the island and is worth the walk, navigating through seals and penguins, down to the end of the beach.
Salisbury Plain: 60,000 pairs of King Penguins call this glacial plain home, making it a beloved site for any who explore South Georgia. Salisbury is located in the Bay of Isles, looking out on the Wandering Albatross breeding islands of Prion and Albatross, and is the largest area of level ground on South Georgia. A hike up atop the hill that pokes out into the penguin colony will give you an incredible view of its vastness, though many prefer to stay in the plain at the edge of the colony for a close up view. Hopefully snow will still be on the ground around the colony, a canvas of white for the penguins to walk upon. King Penguins have a staggered breeding season, where each adult's activities are dependent upon what they did the season before. Those that had no chick or an early fledging chick the previous season will now be found courting and mating, whereas those that did have a chick in the previous year may delay breeding. These early breeders have the best chances of a successful chick this year. Molting penguins can be found lining the fresh water streams that run from the glaciers to the sea. The Kings share the beach with fur seals and elephant seals, and many a giant petrel will be patrolling the shores for the penguins that did not make it through the winter.
Prion Island: We will have an unforgettable experience on Prion Island in the Bay of Isles. This island has great conservation value, as it is an important nesting site for the Wandering Albatross. Each pair has a private estate with open space of at least 30 square meters around the nest site for courtship, take-offs, and landings – a real contrast with the King Penguin's territory of less than one square meter. Southern Giant-Petrels also nest here and will remain quietly incubating as long as you keep your distance. Tragically the Wandering Albatross are declining rapidly in number, disappearing at sea due to illegal pirate fishing vessels mining "white gold," as the Chilean Seabass or Patagonia Toothfish is sometimes called. We will tread very lightly during our visit to Prion Island in respect for the albatross and petrels and for the sake of the burrow-nesting birds that make their homes on this rat-free island. The charming South Georgia Pipit, the world's southernmost passerine (perching bird) and an endemic species, will look upon us curiously, singing a rare songbird's tune. Our visit to Prion comes just before the young over-wintering albatross fledge, to start years of seafaring life before finally returning here as young adults with hopes of breeding.
Fortuna Bay: At this beautiful site in the lee of the central rib of South Georgia's impressive mountains, we have good chances for clear skies and calm conditions. Fortuna Bay ends in a glacial alluvial plain upon which a beautifully photogenic King Penguin colony resides. Fortuna Bay is the heart of a most wonderful and exciting restoration process in South Georgia; in the 2012–2013 summers, both rats and reindeer were eradicated from the area. We will be witness to the beginning of a long awaited recovery from the depredations of these introduced species!
Shackleton Walk to Stromness: Throughout our voyage, the history of Antarctic exploration will come alive as we experience the places where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team walked. These famous explorers crossed the rugged backbone of South Georgia from the west to arrive at the Stromness seeking help for men stranded on Elephant Island. The story of their ship is well known of course, the self-rescue of the crew of Endurance after being crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton and his men set off in small boats and landed at Elephant Island on a small, storm swept desolate beach. From there, Shackleton and a handful of men continued in the pint-sized James Caird to South Georgia, returning to Elephant Island 105 days later to rescue the men. The crew of the Endurance, hand picked by Sir Ernest Shackleton in England for his 1914–1917 expedition to the South Pole, survived on the nutritious, though unappetizing, meat of penguins and seals while waiting for rescue on Elephant Island. Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley were very near the end of their dramatic and perilous self-rescue when they stumbled down into Fortuna Bay from the interior of the island. They had just one short hike remaining, an eastward walk of about three miles over to Stromness Harbour to reunite with civilization after over 17 months in the Antarctic. This very enjoyable historic walk will take us over a 300-meter ridge with a stunning view across the König Glacier and down to the now rusting inactive whaling station at Stromness to reunite with our ship and any who prefer to skip the hike and enjoy the navigation. This is but one of the many extended walks we will have the opportunity to enjoy in our time on South Georgia. In Stromness Harbour, you can see the remnants of three old whaling stations. A Zodiac cruise near Stromness will give you a good view of the Manager's house where Shackleton and his men stumbled into at the end of their amazing journey.
Hercules Bay: Macaroni Penguins are the most numerous of any penguin on South Georgia yet the most difficult to observe. They nest on steep tussock slopes and are especially fond of inhospitably exposed beaches. We hope to be able to slip into Hercules Bay to see the striking Macaronis just as they are returning to shore from eight straight months at sea. Impressive cliffs of wonderfully folded rock surround this narrow bay and a long waterfall drops down the back of the bay adding to the dramatic scene. This is also a great area for Zodiac cruising around Hercules Point where more Macaronis will be coming in from sea to stake out their nesting sites. You'll want to have your camera ready for the wonderful "porpoising" penguin action shots as they quickly dart in and out of the water on their way to shore. Even more spectacular is the final launch onto the rocky shores, followed by the awkward-looking waddle up the slippery rocks and steep slopes, reminding us that this truly is a marine, not land, animal. The kelp forests here are also good for Leopard Seal, so we'll keep our fingers crossed.
Grytviken and King Edward Point: Grytviken was one of the most active whaling stations in all of the history of whaling, but the flensing plan is now empty, the boilers silent. Over 60 years of whaling history is now well told in the excellent exhibits of the South Georgia Museum. The natural history exhibits are enriching as well. When you have finished browsing and perhaps doing a little museum store shopping, you may explore the whaler's graveyard where Shackleton lies after a short walk around the bay. In the graveyard where Shackleton is buried, many young Southern Elephant Seals now snooze atop the whalers who no longer threaten them. Gentoo Penguins and South Georgia Pintails are just a few of the other species that have taken up residence in and around the old whaling station. Set back behind the other buildings, a pristine white church, which was brought to Grytviken in 1913, stands restored just in front of the snow-covered slopes, waiting for visitors. On the opposite side of King Edward Cove from Grytviken is King Edward Point, where the research station now sits, and a short walk beyond that you will find the Shackleton Memorial Cross.
Godthul: Gentoo penguins are now the principle resident of this site where whaling once dominated, as evidenced by the remains of wooden platform boats called jolles and a beach thick with whalebones. Two small lakes sit on the gentle shoreline before jagged peaks rising into the island's interior; these are waterfall fed and frequented by reindeer. We can expect the sky to ring with the reedy, beautiful Light-mantled Sooty Albatross courtship calls as they sail in synchronized flight overhead. These subtly beautiful torpedo shaped birds favor nests in the steep tussock slopes above the inlet.
Ocean Harbour: Ocean Harbour housed a whaling station until 1920 and remnants still scatter the site, though the most impressive remain is the Bayard. The rusty ship now serves as a vibrant nesting site for over 80 pairs of South Georgia Shags, one of the larger colonies on South Georgia. We'll take a Zodiac in for a close look at the shags courting and nesting in the tussock grass growing on the slanted deck, a wonderful display of nature taking back this region. The beach here is a popular haul out for Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals and herds of reindeer may be spotted on the slopes above.
St. Andrews Bay: There are places in the world so far beyond description that any attempt rings hollow. St. Andrews Bay is such a place. Upwards of 150,000 pairs of King Penguins form not a colony, but a landscape. You will think you are among many penguins walking along the beach from the landing site, the air filled with calls and life all around you, but as you arrive atop the glacial moraine bordering the north end of the colony, the mass of penguin calls hit you, all blended together into one vast wave. Here you will see the bounty of the rich, vast Southern Ocean. You must see, hear, and experience St. Andrews Bay to believe it.
At this time of year, King Penguins will be far from the only attraction at St. Andrews. The world's largest seal, the Southern Elephant Seal, gathers here by the thousands creating one of the densest concentrations of life on the planet. We can expect to see thousands of females with young pups nursing. Many large male "beachmasters" seek to own a stretch of the long beach and are willing to fight in great tonnages of seal jousting because here lay their best hopes for breeding. The male elephant seal puts so much into his territorial defense that his life expectancy is less than half that of the female. If he is a successful beachmaster, however, this short life is one of great glory! We are very fortunate to be able to experience the elephant seal breeding season, usually long past when most travelers to South Georgia have the chance to visit. The peaks that rise behind the beach, plus the glaciers, streams, and pools here, all add to the majestic scenery of this magical site.
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Gold Harbour: Simply put, Gold Harbour is a glorious place, with something, indeed many things, for everyone who enjoys nature. Both the wildlife and scenery are fabulous. We will find a beach at least as densely packed with Southern Elephant Seals as St. Andrews Bay (though a smaller beach, so less numbers overall), about 25,000 pairs of King Penguins, many of whom line a glacial meltwater river winding behind the beach, a Gentoo Penguin colony, steep but hikeable slopes with Light-mantled Sooty Albatross nesting on their flanks, and a tumbling icefall bordering the back of the Harbour making for stunning landscapes and the occasional explosion of glacial blocks tumbling down to the coast. More than a few will likely elect to skip lunch, unable to leave this wildlife rich scene, especially if the skies are blue, as the often are.
Royal Bay: Several landing sites attract us to Royal Bay, though the exposed bay is very weather dependent. A fjord-like glacially carved valley empties into Moltke Harbour, a backdrop to as many as 1,000 elephant seals. A growing King Penguin colony has topped 30,000 pairs at Brisbane Point in recent counts, with constant activity bouncing in upon the cobblestone beach boulders. Across the cove from Brisbane Point, the striking Weddell Glacier looms and creates the perfect backdrop for photographing the many species that frequent the point, including Antarctic Terns, giant petrels, elephant seals, and more. If calm conditions prevail, we will enjoy landings here.
Drygalski Fjord and Larsen Harbour: The southern part of South Georgia differs strikingly in geology from the rest of the island and in the sheer-walled Drygalski Fjord we can really see this difference. As we cruise up the fjord, we can see granite, gabbro, and metamorphic rocks to starboard (ship's right), remnant of the Gondwana continental margin. To port (ship's left), the mountains are built of the Larsen Harbour Complex, uplifted ocean floor basalt and granite that rose in the formation of the Andes and was then ripped and rafted east to its present location over the last 40 million years. At the end of the fjord, the Risting Glacier calves frequently into the waters, stirring up marine life that is quickly grabbed by Antarctic Terns and maybe a few pure white Snow Petrels. We may take a short Zodiac trip up Larsen Harbour to check in on a small colony of Weddell Seals who are likely to have pups ashore with them.
Cape Disappointment: Captain Cook was the first to lay eyes on South Georgia and his great hope was that he had found the tip of a great southern continent. The name Cape Disappointment reflects his feelings when he found that South Georgia was no continent at all. He was none too impressed with South Georgia without apparent exploitable resources, but the Black-browed Albatross that breed in great numbers on the sheer slopes here never did mind his departure. They are less numerous now due to the impact of long-line fishing, but still impressive in number. If weather is favorable, we may ship cruise to this southern extreme for a good look and perhaps even a circumnavigation of the island.
We have listed a mere tasting of the sites we intend to visit. The joy of our expedition is our luxury of time, with many more possible sites to visit, extended hikes between sites, and exploration on a level very few ever have the opportunity for on glorious South Georgia.
November 10–13, Monday–Thursday: At sea back to Falklands.
Sadly, we must bid farewell to magnificent South Georgia as its last islets slip astern. Yet even as we leave, the wildlife opportunities are far from over. We may find whales and will certainly see many seals in the near-island waters. Now familiar seabirds will make fine companions for our travel to the northwest. We will pay attention to ocean temperature with interest to see if the polar front has shifted during our stay on South Georgia. We can also take this chance to rest a bit after many long days in the field, catch up on reading, photo editing, and sharing memories and images of the unique Antarctic environment.
November 14, Friday: Stanley, Falkland Islands.
Depending on the forecast for our crossing back to the Falklands, we are likely to arrive with a bit of time to spare. Stanley is well worth exploration and a day in this classic old town, more British than any town left in Britain, will be a soft entry to the culture shock of civilization after such a glorious reprieve in the wilds of South Georgia.
November 15–16, Saturday–Sunday: Flights to Santiago and home.
Transfer to the airport for flights back to Santiago in the afternoon. Most travelers will overnight in Stanley for onward flights on the 16th of November. If you wish to stay for a time in South America, we can help you with arrangements.
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Costs, Payments and Cancellations
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To Make a Reservation
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Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris is registered as California Seller of Travel #2063050-40. Registration as a seller of travel does not constitute approval by the State of California. Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris is a participant in the Travel Consumer Restitution Corporation (TCRC). In event of a client canceling where a refund is applicable in accordance with the schedule above, or in the event that CES needs to cancel the trip, all payments for transportation or travel service not provided to the client shall be promptly refunded, unless the client instructs us otherwise in writing. All client payments are deposited into a trust account in accordance with California law. If for any reason a valid refund is not forthcoming, the client may request reimbursement from the TCRC within six months of the scheduled end of the tour. Please feel free to ask us for more information.
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