February 25, 2010 – One of the things that our current trip through Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic has made us realize is that the mental images we grew up with about the habitats of penguins and seals are just plain wrong. Maybe not entirely wrong, as such animals can in fact live on top of ice floes, ice-covered beaches, and rocky shores, but wrong enough that we were just stunned to find penguins and seals living on grassy plains, tall cliffs, and hills, distant from water.
The view of the beach at Fortuna Bay from our balcony in the morning
As we anchored in Fortuna Bay, on the island of South Georgia, we took in this environment, so different from what we had come to believe as the sole reality of penguin and seal existence. From our balcony, we could see green, grassy plains extending from the shore, and liberally dotted with Antarctic fur seals, wandering King penguins, and even reindeer. The white specks that were King penguins stretched out even into the foot hills a mile or more from shore (and even further than that as we later observed).
We had already seen penguins climbing to nest at stupendous heights, but not with all the greenery involved as well.
The plains at Fortuna Bay are covered with King penguins and Antarctic fur seals
Upon landing on shore, we also discovered the skeleton of a leopard seal – dried out, leaving only leathery skin, bones, and teeth. Yet another species of critter to dot the landscape.
Close-up of the desiccated skull of a leopard seal we found on the beach
As we wandered inland, for well over a mile, to find the large King penguin colony (7,000 nesting pairs, we were told) at Fortuna Bay, we had to continually dodge around fur seals and King penguins wandering about – mostly to or from the colony.
Three Stages of King Penguins - Adult, juvenile with no fuzz, chick losing fuzz
The King penguins have cute little tails
The fur seals were especially interesting – there were a lot of aggressive young males of all ages that would first growl at us and then charge. However we just stood our ground, stared them down, and occasionally told them to stop in a stern voice, and that took care of the problem. Much like dogs in that way. The fur seal pups, though, were just too cute when they tried the whole growling thing, and would always stop charging and then sulk off when we told them how adorable and cute they were. I hope they survive the emasculation of our comments.
One of the countless fur seal pups on the plain
The King penguin colony we ultimately saw was not nearly as impressive as the one back at Salisbury Plain, but we were interested to see that surrounding the colony were several herds of reindeer, apparently unperturbed by our presence. And seeing the penguins wandering near the reindeer gave the scene a rather surreal atmosphere.
A reindeer buck with tatters of velvet on his antlers - and King penguin in the foreground
As we slowly wandered back to the shore we spent time communing with the King penguins there as they exited and entered the ocean. King penguins feed exclusively in the ocean, and thus they spend a lot of their time in the water. But their chicks are in the various small colonies spread out across the hills and plains, so they spend a lot of time walking back and forth as well.
King penguins charge into the surf
We set off for our Zodiacs, and the penguins around us wandered off to whatever engagements faced them.
A lone King penguin leaves tracks in the sand after exiting the water
Many more photos are available on my Flickr pages.