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An Antarctic Expedition: Volume IV

Christmas Day Like No Other

As you know, I spent the entire festive season down South, enjoying the austral summer in all its glory. I’ve never spent Christmas away from home before so it was a little strange, but if there was anywhere to be on Christmas Day, it was Salisbury Plain.

King penguins littering the horizon on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

As a wildlife-obsessed teenager (not much has changed nowadays…), I’d watched documentaries on South Georgia in the hopes of one day visiting such an incredible place. As I got older and tried to figure out what I wanted to do as a career, the prospect seemed more and more unrealistic and, in all honesty, it became somewhere I thought I’d never get to visit. Now, here I am, reminiscing about my memories of one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet!

I was out on deck participating in a busy wildlife watch as we approached our anchorage point for Salisbury Plain. Through my binoculars I could already observe king penguins and fur seals littering the beaches, heads bobbing and flippers flapping in all directions. I stood there, eyes wide, jaw open, scanning the land, trying to take in the scenes unfolding before my very eyes. Excitement and a nervous anticipation (the good kind) was building inside me and I was itching to get a closer look at these incredible animals and immerse myself in their habitat.

Let me tell you, when I say nothing, and I repeat N O T H I N G, could have prepared me for the sheer spectacle that I witnessed as I stepped off the zodiac onto Salisbury Plain. It is one of those truly indescribable places, where no words can adequately do it justice. I am struggling to find the words to describe the area as I sit here writing this. The island is a place of awe and wonder, almost fantastical, that simply takes your breath away. It is absolutely teeming with wildlife: adult Antarctic fur seals bite and snarl at your heels with every step, seal pups frolic around with one another, playing along the beach. Giant petrels and skuas circle expectantly overhead, eyeing up their next victim. And of course, the king penguins (Apentodytes patagonicus)… waddling around and squawking in their thousands. A swathe of black, grey and orange dominates the land as far as the eye can see, with penguins huddled en masse, here, there and EVERYWHERE. Jet black heads and fluorescent orange beaks flicker up and down, left to right, as they assess the foreign entities walking about their territory, dressed in offensively bright red jackets, cameras and walking poles in hand.

King penguins huddled together in their thousands. Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

Sleepy king penguin, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

King penguins are a true thing of majesty. Standing roughly between 70 and 100cm tall, second in size only to the emperor penguin when fully grown, stand proud well above knee and almost waist height. Naturally, I took an instant liking to my new feathery friends that insisted on following me around with every step. They are curious birds, often waddling towards us without fear or hesitation. Due to avian flu, we were not allowed to approach them within 5 metres or sit down, but it was an incredibly hard task to avoid being within close proximity of them at all times. Everywhere you looked and every step you took, there were king penguins. Some grouped together having a natter, others pecking their plumage and some taking a much needed bath.

Selfie time! My feathery friends chilling in the background. Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

‘Weeerk it!’ King penguin playing up for the cameras. Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

King penguins transform when in marine environments. Their streamlined bodies are built for speed underwater and can swim up to 10km/hr to escape predators. They make multiple dives of up to 100m in search of prey and sometimes have been recorded diving in excess of 300m! Their diets consist mainly of small crustaceans, fish and squid. On land they are slightly less agile, relying heavily on waddling, somewhat awkwardly over rocky and grassland terrain and tobogganing over snow and ice.

This penguin species sexually matures at around 3 years of age but are unlikely to start breeding until they are ~6 years old. They are deemed ‘serially monogamous’, breeding with and staying loyal to a single mate to successfully rear a chick. However, they are unlikely to pair up with the same mate during the next breeding season; over 70% of king penguins find new partners. Breeding season usually starts around late September, when adults come ashore to moult and replace their feathers. By November, they are styling a fully functional, newly waterproof coat. How swish!

Two king penguins keeping a watchful eye on their feathery friends. Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

King penguin chick donning a swish (albeit slightly useless) down coat. Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

Myself armed with a pole to politely fend off Antarctic fur seals (mainly the large adult males...). Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

Standing in front of a huuuuge king penguin colony (my 200,000 new besties). Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, 2022.

I had a truly fabulous time exploring Salisbury Plain. To witness first-hand the rebound in nature to an area previously devastated by anthropogenic activity, was both breath-taking and unbelievably poignant. I found myself on multiple occasions looking around in disbelief, mouth agape, in utter shock. As always, I am incredibly grateful for these opportunities and I whole heartedly urge you to venture South and see for yourself, the wonder and exuberance that is Salisbury Plain, South Georgia.

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