The unsurpassed magic of this little-known place
'I crouched down on the shore and let the seals come to me, as much and as close as they liked. They did.' Fairfax's Gabrielle Costa reports.
A trip to Antarctica is a gamble. Everything hinges on one almighty, uncontrollable, unfathomable factor – the weather.
It is not the cold. It's not the rain and not the snow. It is the wind that is your master. The wind decides whether it's safe to disembark the ship and board a Zodiac to go ashore, where the wildlife awaits amid the spectacular majesty of landscapes that exist nowhere else on the planet.
And so it was that after more than a year of anticipation and many days at sea, the first two stops on my 18-day voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, were scratched.
"Sorry folks," came the morning call over the Ocean Endeavour's public address system, "but Carcass Island is not in our future." Then, later the same day, what had been considered the more likely and accessible of the two Falkland Island wildlife stops, West Point Beach, was out as well. Too windy. Too much swell. Ouch.
Suddenly all the expectation that grew from fairytale imaginings was irrevocably punctured. I would never see all those little rockhopper penguins that I had pictured going about their penguin business in what had become my once-again-childlike sense of longing.
I felt utterly deflated.
So many on the ship were downcast. Not angry. Just quietly miserable and sombre.
Then came some hope – literally, as it turns out, because that was her name. Esperanza, Spanish for hope, was the ship's doctor. We sat together one night at dinner. When the conversation turned to our abandoned landings, she told me something that threw everything into stark relief.
She had been on one journey where the passengers were able to disembark for only one day and a half. That was it. On a week-long voyage, it was safe to disembark for 36 hours. The rest of the time the passengers were, in effect, prisoners on the ship.
Suddenly having missed those two landings did not seem so bad. We had been on terra firma a few times by then, done some cruising in the Zodiacs, seen Magellanic penguins in the Falklands and king penguins and fur seals in South Georgia, and albatross and petrels and dolphins and so much more.
I asked her what her favourite place was on this particular itinerary, and she said Gold Harbour, in the South Georgia Islands. We had not yet stopped there and I wondered what was so special about it. "It's magical," she said, simply, because there are animals everywhere.
On shore at 6am, it was an early start for Gold Harbour, so much so that I contemplated staying in my warm bed. A lot of passengers did exactly that but I dragged myself up, donned my layers and waterproofs and went ashore. I wanted to see what was so magical about this place, with its many species and a spectacular Bertrab Glacier as its backdrop. My expectations were dulled at this point, because I know that one person's paradise isn't necessarily the next person's, but I wanted to see for myself.
I walked ashore, removing my lifejacket as I went and then taking all the things I would need out of my waterproof bag so they were accessible. I wasn't really looking around me as I concentrated on my preparations. But as it turns out, there were some baby elephant seals – about a month old and just weaned – concentrating on me.
I looked down to see three of of them approaching me at speed, flubbering their big fat bodies along the ground, with one making definite and determined eyes at my knee.
The weaners, with their giant, shiny, wide brown eyes, were in search of milk, and apparently I looked a likely candidate.
I stepped back, conscious of the repeated instructions we had had to maintain distance from the animals at all times. Then Shane, the expedition leader called out, "They won't hurt you".
I'm not worried about them hurting me, I said, I'm worried about the rules. Turns out if the animal comes to you, it's different. It's OK when they breach the five-metre rule.
In fact, it's not just OK. It really is magical.
And as the others on shore walked away to marvel at the raucous king penguin colony further along the beach, I stayed put. The elephant seals gathered around my feet, looking up at me hopefully, clearly missing the warm milk their mothers were now withholding.
I crouched down on the shore and let the seals come to me, as much and as close as they liked. They did. One was in my lap, a totally wild animal, utterly trusting of another species, without a suggestion of fear or even caution. There are very few places in the world where that is even conceivable. Here, it is normal. But for some reason, only at the beach in Gold Harbour.
Eventually I picked myself up off the black sand and trudged up the beach to see what we had come here to witness: Nesting adult king penguins and last year's chicks, spread out as far as the eye can see, in the shadow of a magnificent glacier and intermingled with egg-thieving skuas, gentoo penguins, every vista was crammed with fearless animals.
It truly was wonderful and like so many other stops on the journey, which took us to parts of the Antarctic Peninsula where there were macaroni penguins and Adelies and chinstraps and leopard seals and kilometres-long icebergs, it was breathtaking.
But the magic of that moment, when a wild animal has total trust in you, was unimaginably special and utterly unforgettable.
LATAM and Qantas offer direct flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Santiago, Chile, and from there, connections are available through a number of airlines. See latam.com, qantas.com. Air New Zealand has a non-stop flight from Auckland to Buenos Aires. See airnewzealand.com.au
Peregrine Adventures runs a number of tours to Antarctica. The 20-day Falklands (Malvinas), South Georgia and Antarctica tour, departs from and returns to Buenos Aires, and includes full-board accommodation onboard the Ocean Endeavour. Extras include cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, stand-up paddle-boarding, ice camping and a range of other activities, at an additional cost. Not all activities are offered on all departures. Prices start from $16,520 per person. See peregrineadventures.com/antarctica/ocean-endeavour
The writer travelled at her own expense.