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Salisbury Plain and Prion Island

Most of us are still sleeping when we heave anchor this morning. We leave Rosita Harbour just before breakfast – gusty conditions have been easing down overnight and the start of the day looks great to give a try to the exposed beach of Salisbury Plain. Our plan A landing site is just a few miles away, so, shortly after breakfast we arrive to the vast expanse of glacial outwash on the Southern shore of the Bay of Isles. The place is quite unprotected to the elements – but today we are lucky, yesterday’s strong winds are long forgotten, even by the swell. The promised wet cold and miserable landing becomes in fact quite easy, with just a bit of surge at the sandy beach. It is still early when we set foot on Salisbury Plain, having in our pocket a few hours to enjoy this fantastic site. South Georgia is just 10 km wide here, in the distance we can see the peaks of mount Ashley, a thousand meter high. The plain is formed by the retreat of the Grace glacier, that left behind the largest area of level
ground in South Georgia – in 1984 it was even investigated if there could be an airstrip here. Luckily the plans never prosper and nowadays the place is teeming with wildlife. A committee of curious King penguins welcomed us to land. They are in the water, in the surf, on shore – everywhere. Salisbury Plane is what is considered to be the 2nd largest known penguin colony on South Georgia. After staying around the landing site for a while, observing the kings come and go, we start walking to the actual colony. The mountains are covered with fresh snow, which will slowly be melting during the morning. We follow the higher beach until we reach the dense rookery of busy and noisy penguins. Because the King penguin has a unique reproductive cycle, we can see a whole variety of stages in the life of a penguin. Some are sitting on eggs, others on new-born chicks, while at the same time enormous downy brown chicks are hanging around waiting to be fed, and some adults are going through their catastrophic moult. For the king penguin it requires about one year to raise a chick. They can raise two chicks in a tree year period, but usually raise one chick and have one failed breeding attempt over a two-year period, as in this way a small chick hatched at the end of summer has to withstand the raw winter conditions on the island. Different pairs will start their breeding cycle at different times – which is the reason why all these stages can be seen at the same time. Before the curious cycle was discovered, the king penguin chick was thought to be a different species, as they were around at any time of the year. Standing in front of the densely packed colony is a jaw dropping spectacle. We can see the colony stretching out all the way up and onto to the green hills framed by glaciers and stunning mountains. The bright yellow and orange patches of feathers, together with the intense green of the plain, makes for a colourful spectacle – especially after our
time in Antarctica and our recent time at sea. After a while standing amongst the thousands and thousands of penguins, it was time to redo our tracks along the beach towards the landingsite.
Our next stop planned for the afternoon, Prion Island, is just about 3nm from Salisbury. It is still inside the Bay of Islands, and offers a very different scene. It is a site of high environmental sensitivity and exceptional conservation value, partly because it has always been one of the few rat-free tussock islands remaining along the rat-infested coastline for many years. Thanks to the great efforts of the South Georgia Government and the South Georgia Conservation Trust Organization, nowadays the whole South Georgia shares the privileged Prion Island status of being rat-free. The highlight of the island is that represents an important breeding site for Wandering albatrosses, besides the endemic South Georgia pipit.  But curiously when it was named by Robert Cushman Murphy in 1912, he focused his attention on the numerous Antarctic prions he found nesting here. All this array of birdlife nest amongst extensive areas of fragile vegetation, including stream margin flushes and tussock areas also burrowed by petrels. For all those reasons, a few years ago it was decided to restrict the access through having to apply to special permits and also a boardwalk was built, not allowing visitors to step off it. Once all briefed about the special rules to apply once ashore, a scout zodiac was sent first, with the guides making sure that everything is in order before the landing. Boardwalk is not too long and after scouting the entire length of it we radioed Europa to start with bringing people ashore. The easy beach where we went ashore is the only designated landing area at Prion. Small as it is, hosts a wide as-sortment of wildlife. Starting from very curious fur seal pups, through native pipit, Giant petrels, King and Gentoo penguins to name the few. As on previous landings, they
were curious and not afraid of us at all. We proceeded to pack away the life jackets, removing everything from beach as it is one of the restrictions on this landing site. Then we continued on the boardwalk that leads along a green tussock grass area, so refreshing for our eyes after overly “grey” days at sea. It looks like seal pups are taking over the island. They are everywhere. Few of
the followed us on board walk, few of them stopped our progress by being on the board walk in front of us. Seems the boardwalk is an easier way for them to get up hill. So quite often it meant for us to stop, give them a way and then proceed slowly further. Continuing our way up, we turned around and enjoyed the sight of Europa at anchor set in a beautiful harbour framed with rugged shores of South Georgia. Seal pups were squeaking at us from left and right, birds flew above our heads to complete the experience. What a magnificent sight. We all enjoyed this place, even though quite restricted, yet it offered something different from other landing sites.
As we made our way all the way to the top of the hill, we finally spotted them. The wandering albatrosses, the largest flying bird with a wingspan of 3.2 up to 3.5 meters. They were quite a few nests around with one of them just few steps from the boardwalk with a magnificent specimen. We were all lining up and trying to get a good photograph. The albatross didn’t seem to be disturbed and he was not really ready to pose for photograph. Only after some time he showed some sign of activity. So far we have seen those ocean travelers while flying around the ship on the windy Drake Passage and Scotia Sea. Once every couple of years they come back to their breeding colonies to find their partners, year after year the same one, as the Wanderers use to pair for life. Other characteristics that make them special is that they breed during the austral winter, still today laying on eggs that soon will hatch, but rearing the chick will take over 250 days. The sight of such amazing birds was breathtaking but so was the view from the top. And of course we were accom-panied by more seal pups. It makes us wonder, why they climb all the way up the hill. The time came to make our way down to the beach and return to Europa. As first of us approached the beach, the guides called in zodiacs by radio. Shortly we saw “Blacky” and “Grey” making their way to the beach. One by one we “jumped” into zodiacs. One more look at the green Prion Island, one more great experience and of course one more check we don’t leave anything behind. From then on, the evening was used to motor a handful of miles to the relatively sheltered anchorage of Prince Olav Harbour, located at the entrance of the large Possession Bay, where we plan tomorrow’s activities.

Geschreven door:
Jordi Plana Morales | Guide

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