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Amazing wildlife at the edge of the world

Crew of OCC's Alaska Eagle enjoys seeing penguins and more while exploring South Georgia Island.

February 23, 2011|By Brad Avery, Special to the Daily Pilot
  • OCC's Alaska Eagle pushes through the ice at South Georgia Island.
OCC's Alaska Eagle pushes through the ice at South… (Courtesy Brad Avery )

ABOARD THE ALASKA EAGLE, anchored at South Georgia Island — We've spent the last week exploring the southern half of this extraordinary sub-Antarctic island.

Our days have consisted of sailing to a new anchorage in the mornings and going ashore in the afternoons to visit the abundant wildlife and do some incredible hiking.

We have found that sailing 15 or 20 miles to the next cove involves 40 to 50 knots of wind. After three weeks aboard, the Alaska Eagle's crew is now taking heavy-weather sailing in stride. Everyone has the right kit for such work. The normal outfit is layers of thermals, jackets, spray hoods, gloves, foul-weather gear, boots and safety harnesses.

Reefing Alaska Eagle's big mainsail is now second nature, along with changing our array of heavy-weather jibs. No one, however, is getting used to the incredible views or the velocity of the frigid water that flies across the boat. The big breezes are generated off the glaciers along this 100-mile coastline of snow-covered mountain peaks.

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Once secure in a new harbor, the hiking gear goes on for a beach landing and challenging scramble through tussock grass, up rock scree, and finally along ridges. South Georgia is inspirational; it demands all the energy you have to fully take it in.

Our cruising route began at Drygalski Fjord at the southern tip of the Island (59 degrees south.) This allowed us to work northward up the island for our departure to Buenos Aires. We navigated through ice into the fjord and then jogged left into narrow Larsen Harbour.

This is the oldest part of the island and a geologist's dream, with 150-million-year-old rock formations. Granites and gneisses here tell that South Georgia is an ancient fragment of Gondwana, when South America and Africa were one landmass.

Recent history here is compelling as well: Just a few miles away from us is Cape Disappointment, named by Cook in 1775 after he went around it and realized he'd discovered an island and not his hoped-for "Southern Continent," Antarctica.

The following day, we sailed on to Gold Harbour, where the retreating Bertrab glacier has left ideal real estate for massive colonies of king and gentoo penguins, fur and elephant seals.

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