I'm back on the Sea Explorer after having toured Prion Islet. My normal modus operandi has been to download my photos from a shoot, start editing them and then lie down for a while before dinner. On this day, however, the normal schedule is not going to happen. The weather has improved, and now a landing on Salisbury Plain appears feasible. I'm told that we will be having an early dinner, hopping on our zodiacs and motoring to this site, one of the highlights of our trip thus far.
Salisbury Plain is situated on the southern shore of the Bay of Isles, approximately 31 miles from the western tip of South Georgia. Created by the outwash from the retreat of the Grace Glacier, this area evolved to South Georgia's largest parcel of level land. Consequently, the second largest colony of king penguins now occupies this beach with up to an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs present. This number expands to approximately 250,000 individuals during the molt.
In the 19th century, this had historically been a favored breeding site for fur and elephant seals. Since that time, however, sealers inundated Salisbury Plain, favoring this seafront as a prime hunting ground. Although this has affected their numbers, hundreds of elephant seals continue to haul out and breed here in the spring, at which time the seaside becomes replete with weaners and wallowing adults.
It is February now, and no seals are readily visible. Instead, a sea of king penguins can be seen in every direction. The sheer numbers are stunning! Evening is approaching, and the sun is sinking lower in the sky. The ocean is relatively calm, with small waves reaching the shore. Snow-capped mountains are visible everywhere I turn. King penguins line the shore in both directions. On the left side of the plain is Lucas Glacier with Grace Glacier to the right. I have never seen anything quite like this in my travels to date.
As I start to trudge down the beach, camera in hand, I'm greeted by the cackling sounds and the unique smell of penguin guano that permeates the air. Thousands of kings are cavorting in the surf while other large groups are seen molting their old feathers in preparation for breeding.
King penguins are instantly recognizable due to the brilliant golden-yellow plumage that is seen around the neck and throat of these creatures. Second in size to emperor penguins, kings weigh between 24-35 lbs. and stand about 3.1 feet tall. Females lay only a single egg and can be seen holding it on their feet beneath a fold of skin. Unlike smaller penguins, they occupy their rookeries throughout the year. During the summer months, both small and large chicks are easily recognizable. The adults can be seen in all stages of courtship.
Despite long days with up to 11 hours of daylight during February, the lighting has diminished further. I've covered a fair distance up and down the beachfront, although this is just a fraction of what would be available if time permitted. As I return to our landing site, a life vest is given to me, and I board one of the zodiacs for transport back to the Sea Explorer. In transit, I'm struck by the silence of my fellow travelers. I know how they feel. Everyone is processing his experience on Salisbury Plain. For me, this has been one for the ages!