The journey to the bottom end of the world
South Georgia is a remote British possession deep in the southern Atlantic Ocean, whose “capital” of Grytviken is a former whaling station.
Fortuna Bay in South Georgia is a penguin-opolis populated by thousands of tall, sleek, orange-flashed king penguins. They shuffle, clap, slap each other, trumpet (their shrill, slightly comic calling), breed, feed their chicks, sit on eggs and generally cause mayhem.
Kings are hypersocial and their manner, by turns brazen and bashful, reminds me of teenagers at a youth club. They club together to push one of their number forward so he’s closest to me, as if saying, “Go on, check him out, don’t be such a chicken”. One tall, handsome fellow gets close enough to have a bite at my boot.
Our onboard penguin expert, Kirsten, does an impression of what she calls the king penguin’s “advertisement walk”, when the male does a kind of hip-swinging gallivant and then glances behind him to check his date is keeping up. If she gets lazy, though, and wanders off elsewhere, he pretends he’s actually not interested anyway and goes to lose himself in a gang – or find another girl. Their adolescent attitude seems to extend to their breeding, too. They don’t bother to build a nest but just incubate the egg on their feet, taking it in turns for a process that lasts 15 weeks.
And of course there is the choking smell of half-digested fish, dead penguin and ammonia from the bird’s guano to add to the constant noise. All this is against a backdrop of magnificent glaciers flowing down a mountain range like icy tongues. Some gentoos then waddle out of the sea, and two elephant seals began to fight on the beach. I sit down on a slope and try to let it all sink in.