An Afternoon in Cumberland East Bay, South Georgia Island

It is morning aboard the Sea Explorer. Looking out of the porthole in my room, rough seas and storming skies stare me in the face. We are supposed to make landings on Fortuna Bay and Stromness on South Georgia Island today, but from what I can tell, I'll be reading my book, working on my pictures and attending lectures instead.

Miraculously, as afternoon approaches, the weather is starting to improve. The Sea Explorer has negotiated its way to Cumberland East Bay, situated along the northern coast of South Georgia Island. Four miles wide at its entrance, this invagination is flanked by Larsen Point and Barff Point on either side. The zodiacs are lowered, and we proceed to motor around this cove that recedes nine miles inland.

This area experienced turmoil during the Second World War, at which time most of the British and Norwegian whalers were destroyed by German merchant raiders. The Royal Navy protected the entrance to Cumberland East Bay with batteries manned by volunteers, many from whaling ships that patrolled these waters.

As we cruise through the bay, our geologist staff member explains to us how this area was formed by past glacial advances and retreats. I find it difficult to wrap my head around the span of time it took for these mountains of ice and snow to form the landscapes that surround me, dating back to approximately 24,500 BCE. For instance, techniques such as radiocarbon isotope dating place much of what lies before me into the time frame of the Last Glacial Maximum. This is the last period in the earth's climate history when ice sheets were at their greatest extension.  An abrupt rise in sea level occurred by 12,500 BCE that resulted in drought and desertification. The vistas that now surround me are the remnants of this geologic evolution.

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It turns out that due to the configuration of the earth's magnetic field, a shield is created that protects the planet from particle radiation born in space. The South Atlantic has a weakness in this screen, the result of which is a much greater penetration of radiation deep into the atmosphere in this part of the world. This phenomenon is known as the South Atlantic Anomaly. Our guide relates to us that this anomaly presents a hazard to satellites, spacecraft and other high-altitude aircraft. With this science in mind, the New South Georgia Magnetic Observatory has been established in the Cumberland East Bay area for long-term monitoring of this phenomenon.

My hands are starting to get numb from taking photos with no gloves on during our excursion around this scenic area. The cold conditions are exacerbated by the windchill which appears to have increased. It is time to head back to the Sea Explorer where I expect to thaw out. I will be ready for an excursion to St. Andrew's Bay tomorrow, weather permitting.