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South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands: Saint Andrews Bay

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Saint Andrews Bay | South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands | Antarctica

[Visited: December 2011]

We entered wide Saint Andrews Bay, on a sunny afternoon, and our eyes were scanning the land just under an enormous glacier for a sign of our beloved king penguins. We were about to see the largest king penguin colony of South Georgia, and after our gripping experience of a large king penguin colony a few days earlier at Salisbury plain, we were very excited again. There was quite some wind blowing off Heaney, Buxton and Cook glaciers when we were zodiaced to the beach; when we got off, fur seals were again eyeing us, but decided not to do anything. The colony was to our left, and since most people were heading that way, I decided to go to the other side instead. Walking along a creek on the inside of the beach, I saw several rows of king penguins standing at the waterline with a glacier behind them. I walked through the creek, parallel to the beach, until I reached a point where seals were sunbathing, and king penguins walking around where the creek entered the sea. Careful not to disturb any of them, I made my way towards the large colony. At some points, while the sun was still shining, I turned my back towards the wind, and initially, thought I was being hammered by unusually hard hail. However, I soon realized that grit wad being blown through the air every now and then by gusts that were always more violent. I was happy for the protection my sunglasses offered to my eyes, and was as careful as I could be with my equipment. Meanwhile, I wondered how the penguins could stand this kind of brutal abrasive blasting. At a distance, a bluish iceberg was floating in the bay, while right in front of my eyes, penguins were struggling against the wind. I sat down on the beach, with the cap of my parka securely fastened around my head for protection against the merciless onslaught of small stones that was hitting me every now and then. The wind was coming off the glaciers, blowing the heads of the waves off the water in fantastically wild sprays. I stayed there for a while, watching as the king penguins struggled to get in and out of the water. It was fun to see them swim, dive, porpoise, and be very agile in the water - as soon as their feet had to carry them out of the wild surf, against the strong wind, they turned into clumsy creatures. When standing, they were often with their backs against the wind, just like I was; sometimes, the grit blast was so fierce that they turned into silhouettes in a dark grey dust storm. From close up, I could see their faces covered in small pieces of stone, and was all the more happy with my parka: my best clue of the worsening conditions was the almost constant sound of grit against the shell.

Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Wild surf at the beach of Saint Andrews Bay

I was about to reach the edge of the enormous king penguin colony of Saint Andrews Bay when my eyes fell on a lone king penguin facing the sea. A small pool of blood was below his left leg, and a skua was eying him coldly. Wondering what was going on, but with a bad feeling, I saw the skua trying to go for the wound in the penguins' back. The king defended himself by furiously picking at the skua, managing to keep him away. However, at one point the storm just pushed the penguin down, and he now proved more vulnerable. The skua thankfully dug into the soft flesh of the animal, and came out with a bloody bill, eating whatever he had taken. The penguin cried out in pain, could not stand anymore, and tried to move forward by making a swimming movement, leaving a trail of blood behind. More skuas moved in, but the first one made sure that this penguin was going to be his. Then, surprisingly, the king managed to stand up again, which allowed him to defend himself again. The skua, although bigger than its victim, was actually afraid, and nothing much happened for a while. Then, suddenly, another, vicious attack by the skua, who now managed to tear bits out of the penguin and eat them, while the king went down on his belly again. The skua continued to pick away, and the king could only scream, trying in vain to reach his attacker with his bill. I was convinced the fight was over, but to my astonishment, the king did not give up, stood up again, and managed to scare the skua away again, and even move on a little bit. But the poor animal continued to bleed, and it was only a matter of time for his fate to come. As I watched the scene, while knowing that this was nature at work, I felt tears running down my face, for I knew there was no hope for the king to survive, and the fact that the skua did not dare to kill the elegant penguin made the scene seem very cruel. Other king penguins passed by but did not seem interested at all in defending their mate. Dragging its body through the dirt had made the once snowy white belly of the penguin dark grey and brown, but it still tried to appear strong and proud. Things changed for the worse when a giant petrel landed behind the king. The skua immediately stepped aside: it had inflicted some bad damage on the king, had eaten some of its intestines, but the main course would not be for him. Even the enormous petrel was scared of the king while on its feet. It still did not want to admit defeat, and tried to chase the petrel away with its pointy beak. It was a slow dance of death, the giant petrel circling the penguin, looking for the right moment to attack, the king following the big bird with its head, trying to keep up with the petrel, trying to guess where the next blow would be, and attempting to prevent it. It was David against Goliath - this time around, David did not stand a chance. The giant petrel started eating from the right hand back side of the penguin, which fell down again for a third time.

Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguins at Saint Andrews Bay

This would be his last. The petrel now dug deep into the inside of the penguin, hopped to its head to give the king its final blow. Its beak was red, it had fresh red blood stains all over its neck. The skuas now only dared to watch while the petrel was eating the king. I had enough of the raw scene - we were running out of time, and I still wanted to go to the viewpoint. Fortunately, two of the staff had not been there either, and the three of us fought against the hurricane force wind to reach the spot. It was hard to stay on our feet - but the view was totally worth the struggle. At our feet, a colony which according to some estimates totals half a million king penguins was standing at both sides of a river and reached all the way to the glacier lake. Looking towards the sea, the sight seemed out of this world: an ocean of king penguins reaching to the blue waves, and a rainbow forming in the spray blown away by the storm. We could only feel infinitely small by the powerful elements, the overwhelming number of king penguins, the setting at the foot of high snowy mountains and massive glaciers... To me, it was fantastic to see that both staff members, who had already been a number of times to South Georgia, were yelling out their excitement about this thrilling experience. A message over the radio had us make our way back to the landing site for the zodiacs. The petrel was still feasting on the carcass of the penguin of which little remained now. Back to our landing site, we were in for a wild ride to the ship which saw us get soaked. Once on the ship, I ran upstairs, and was almost blown away at the bow of the ship. The hurricane force wind was now hammering the ship, and the sight of the katabatic winds storming down the glaciers where huge whirlwinds carried snow high up in the sky and hitting the sea was mesmerizing. Occasionally, the spray would form rainbows, whirlwinds of spray coming out of the surface of the sea. Another sunny summer day in South Georgia: we later learnt that the wind speed had topped at 94 knots; some 170 km/h. Strangely enough, as soon as the staff was back and we started sailing, the wind dropped almost completely and we could just sit nicely in the sun - pondering over another splendid day.

Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): River and glacier with King penguins
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Skua feeding on a live King penguin
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Skua attacking a King penguin
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguin on stones with glaciers
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguin trying to walk against the storm
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Iceberg and rainbow in the spray caused by hurricane force winds
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguin colony right at the mouth of massive Cook glacier
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguins swimming in the sea off Saint Andrews Bay
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguins braving the elements with hurricane force winds
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Dance of death performed by a hungry giant petrel and King penguin
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): King penguin being eaten alive by a giant petrel
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Spray blown across the water with King penguin colony in the background
Picture of Saint Andrews Bay (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Giant petrel eating a King penguin

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