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Amazing wildlife at the edge of the world

AntarcticaPetsColleges and UniversitiesMaxfield Parrish

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.

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.

Twenty-five thousand pairs of penguins breed here. A wall of animals parted as we landed on the beach, and then we were surrounded by curious penguins and territorial fur seals. We hiked up through the tussock grass beyond the beach and onto a high headland. Below was an incredible sight: Gold Harbour's mile-long crescent beach was completely covered with animals; the air was filled with their calls.

Next was Ocean Harbour, a well-protected cove and former whaling station site, complete with a wrecked square rigger on the beach. Now a hulk and breeding ground for blue eyed shags, the "Bayard" is still beautiful and impressive. Her riveted 200-foot iron hull remains equipped with a bowsprit, deadeyes and three huge masts. She was built in Liverpool in 1864 and was blown ashore here in 1911.

We explored the whaling station and found an overturned steam locomotive and all kinds of industrial revolution machinery. We uncovered harpoon heads, massive blocks and wire rigging. Wandering about everywhere were hundreds of fur seals. These prolific mammals ran the place before the station was built. A hundred years later, they frolic in the wreckage of man's brief foray here, along with the shags, who now command the Bayard.

Cobbler's cove followed, a nearly landlocked basin surrounded by 1,500-foot cliffs and lower hillside folds covered in tussock grass. Colonies of penguins and fur seals abounded. We hiked up through steep rock scree to a 500-foot plateau above the cove.

Incredibly, we found even more penguins, seals and now reindeer existing peacefully around the soft grass edges of a lake. This Maxfield Parrish scene was fed by a glacial waterfall. Resting quietly, we were amazed to hear the calls from thousands of mammals below, their cries echoing across the granite walls rising a thousand feet above us.

We are currently anchored 30 miles further northwest at Prince Olav Harbour. We've had two more exceptional hikes; one about 10 miles from Grytviken to Maiviken in an approaching gale, and another retracing a portion of Ernest Shackelton's famous trek across the Island, hiking again in gusts that forced us to take an occasional stagger step.

Ashley Perrin, our friend who works here for the British Antarctic Survey, led us on the Grytviken hike. Like many BAS staff, Ashley thinks nothing of running (literally) all over the mountains here, in any weather. It was pleasure and a struggle to keep up with Ashley on her day off, but we could ask for no better leader up scree waterfalls, over mountains and through the growling tussock grass.

Thursday we make our final move to visit Prion Island and nesting grounds of the wandering albatross. In the afternoon, we will prep the Alaska Eagle for the 1,500-mile voyage to Buenos Aires. We'd like to stay longer; South Georgia puts a hold on you. But the forecast is too good to pass up. In the Southern Ocean, if you get a weather window to sail without storms, you take it.

BRAD AVERY is director of Orange Coast College's School of Sailing & Seamanship on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach. The school is one of the nation's largest public sailing programs, offering courses from beginning sailing to advanced level offshore voyages. The school is supported through course fees and private donations. During this voyage to South Georgia Island, Avery will be submitting weekly reports to the Daily Pilot. The voyage can also be followed on Alaska Eagle's Facebook page and occsailing.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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AntarcticaPetsColleges and UniversitiesMaxfield Parrish
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