By Eileen Ogintz
SOUTH GEORGIA ISLAND (DAY 7) — Sophie, 10, made a new friend this morning.
Not a human friend; she already has a gaggle of new friends among the 34 on board Le Boreal on this Abercrombie & Kent expedition to Antarctica.
This morning in Gold Harbor on the southern end of South Georgia, an elephant seal pup, just a few months old, approached Sophie as if to say “Be my friend!” Sophie was enthralled. He was twice her weight but very curious, coming up to others as well, rubbing against their legs.
“Squrimy,” she said she’d call him. Here, the seals, unlike the Bull Fur Seals, aren’t aggressive. “I like these seals,” said Ciara, 13, from Truckee, CA who was frightened of the aggressive fur seals., while the elephant seals, far larger, didn’t mind us at all as we strolled down the beach, marching along with e penguins, posing for selfies with the seal pups.
The kids say after four days of seeing such abundance and amazing wildlife—birds, penguins and seals, they felt like “ It was easier to put down the cameras and just look,” said Cole, 13, from NYC. “Kids coming on this trip should take time to just look,” he said.
“The grown ups should put down their cameras too,” said his brother Charlie, 15.
That’s admittedly hard to do as everywhere you look are such great pictures—giant elephant seals snoring, cuddling with others (they love to be touched); penguins diving in the water. “That was awesome to watch,” said Cole. Seeing the differences between Gentoo and King penguins (the Gentoos are smaller and don’t have the distinctive orange on their necks), watching the “flipper fights” of the King Penguins (two males following a female with one male flapping the other as if to say: “She’s mine! Get AWAY!”) THE “Oakum Boys,” juvenile King Penguins, some covered in fluffy down fur, others just with tufts left on the distinctive white and black feathers, as if they had carelessly shaved.
We can walk safely within inches of the lounging elephant seals without bothering them—or them chasing us, as some fur seals have.
There are six species of seals in the Antarctic, their populations thankfully robust, having rebounded from 19th century hunting. None are endangered though all are protected.
There are nine of the 17 species of penguins south of the Antarctic Convergence, where Antarctic waters meet the Atlantic Ocean. We’ve already seen four species of penguin—Magellanic, Rockhopper, King and Gentoo.
In South Georgia, where we are, there are 100,000 pairs of Gentoo. The Kings, as we have seen, breed in huge colonies close to shore. It is estimated, according to Lonely Planet, that there are more than a million pairs on seven sub Antarctic island groups.
Back on board, in between our shore adventures, we can chat up the experts who between them have some 150 years of Antarctic experience and expertise to answer any of our questions. No question is too dumb, they promise.
We reluctantly leave the beach –a scene we won’t see again.