South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is a remote, mostly uninhabited, and relatively inhospitable collection of islands. The bleak Antarctic climate, with perpetual snow covering three-quarters of the island, supports only hardy grasses and other tundra plants. Nevertheless, this incredible ecosystem is a haven for wildlife and probably the best place in the world to see penguins and seals. In terms of sheer numbers, it is unparalleled and has one of the densest wildlife populations on the planet. What’s more the wildlife is relatively unafraid of humans which provides opportunities for some incredible close encounters.
Together, the islands are home to around five million seals, including the majority of the world’s fur seals and elephant seals. As well as a whopping 65 million breeding birds! In total there are around 30 different species of bird including imperial shags, black-browed albatross, giant petrels, as well as king, gentoo, and macaroni penguins. The waters surrounding the islands are also an important habitat for migrating whales and Antarctic krill populations which are a key link in the southern ocean food web.
Average rating: 5.0 (very good)
Average cost: getting to these remote and spectacular islands is not easy and it is not cheap. The only way to visit is through organised cruises which are likely to start at a minimum of around $12,000.
Best time to visit: the best time to visit South Georgia is from October to March. For the rest of the year, the island is pretty much inaccessible for all but the most intrepid of explorers.
How to get there: there are no scheduled passenger flights or ferries to or from South Georgia. Most visits are arranged through cruise liners which typically leave from the southern Patagonian port of Ushuaia and stop off at a number of key spots in the Antarctic region. For more information on arranging a trip to the Antarctic check out this resource.
Typical activities: bird watching, boat trip, wildlife watching
Number of reports: 1
Last update: 2022
WILDLIFE IN South Georgia
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
fur seal – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
With a population of up to 7.5 million Antarctic (or southern) fur seals, South Georgia is home to 95% of the world’s population – and you can’t miss them! Fur seals cover pretty much every corner of the island, although it wasn’t always this way.
James Cook first visited South Georgia in 1775 and reported that there were a large number of seals. This led to sealers setting sail to the islands to harvest their fur which was made into coats. Less than fifty years later they were thought to be extinct due to years of intensive culling. As the focus of the Antarctic economy shifted to whaling, this left more food (krill) for the fur seals. And in 1931 a small colony of just a few hundred seals was found on Bird Island (off the coast of South Georgia). By the end of the 1950s the population reached 5,000, by 1976 it was 100,000, and in 1993 it was 1.5 million. With the population now reaching up to 7 million, the story of the Antarctic fur seal is one of nature’s most dramatic and astounding comebacks.
Elephant seal – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside fur seals, South Georgia is home to the monstrously sized southern elephant seal – the world’s largest. Just over half of the world’s southern elephant seals breed on South Georgia, and the population of around 110,000 breeding females has remained relatively stable since 1951. Elephant seals were hunted on South Georgia, mainly for their energy-rich oil. However, this was only profitable when large numbers of seals could be found, which led to a more sustainable (though nonetheless brutal) harvest.
Today you can’t miss them on the island. The best time to see them is during the breeding season when the big males compete for females in savage and spectacular battles. The winners become ‘beach masters’ with exclusive mating rights to as many females as they can defend. The males start to arrive in August, with the females arriving a month later. Most pups are born from September to October and stay on land for a couple of months before going to sea. You can see a short clip of their incredible interactions here.
imperial shag – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of the 30 species of breeding bird that make their home in South Georgia is the South Georgia shag. This black and white bird, with distinctive blue eyes, is almost indistinguishable from the Antarctic shag and Imperial shag, and is part of a complex taxonomy of closely related species. This particular species (or subspecies) is only found on South Georgia, South Orkney, South Sandwich, and Shag Rocks. They breed in small colonies on grassy slopes on islets and rocky areas, or on cliff ledges and stacks, and are generally easy to spot.
King penguin – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of the most notable things about South Georgia is the almost overwhelmingly large population of king penguins. The colonies at St. Andrews Bay and Salisbury Plain are the largest in the world reaching into the hundreds of thousands. King penguins are inquisitive and will often approach visitors, especially if you’re quiet and move slowly. So it’s a fantastic place for a photograph! You can’t miss them compared to the other penguins on the island given their height and striking colouring. Check out this short video of these amazing birds.
Macaroni penguin – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Most people who head to South Georgia have king penguins in mind, but they aren’t the only penguins around. The largest population of penguins is actually made up of macaroni penguins. With an estimated 3 million breeding pairs, South Georgia makes up the largest macaroni penguin population in the world.
They are easily distinguished from other penguins thanks to the unusual yellow feathers on their heads. These feathers led early explorers to think they looked like the 18th-century hat style that was called macaroni! There are numerous colonies in the area but the biggest are at Elsehul, Bird Island, and the Willis Islands. Sadly, the colonies on South Georgia appear to be declining, which may be the result of climatic changes or growing competition for food with fur seals. You can see a video of these charismatic penguins here.
Gentoo penguin – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The other penguin species that South Georgia provides a home to is the gentoo. The islands support an estimated 100,000 pairs making up a quarter of the world’s population. You can spot them by the white stripes running from eye to eye across the tops of their heads. Gentoos feed on krill which has put them under threat from fishing operations in the area. Research is ongoing as to how the Marine Protected Area surrounding South Georgia could be managed to support the gentoos.
black-browed albatross – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
With its location near the fertile ocean currents of the Antarctic convergence, South Georgia is one of the few places in the stormy southern ocean where four species of albatross can breed and rear their young on land. Until the last decade, South Georgia held the third-largest population of black-browed albatrosses on any island. However, numbers have nearly halved from over 100,000 pairs in 1985 to just 54,000 pairs in 2021. Although the species is not listed as globally threatened, this decrease is so rapid that the South Georgia birds are listed as one of ten priority populations for conservation worldwide. Conservationists are now working to protect these amazing birds – you can find out more here.
Giant petrel – 100% OF wildside users (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The giant petrel is one of the iconic Antarctic seabirds. There are two species: the northern and the southern giant petrel – both of which are found on South Georgia. They are difficult to tell apart but if get a good enough view, a red bill tip means it’s a southern while a green tip is northern. In total there are around 15,000 northern and 9,000 southern petrels breeding on South Georgia, the largest and second-largest populations in the world. Data suggests that numbers are increasing, which may be due to the recovery of the fur seals which provide a food source through leftover carrion.
These powerful and aggressive predators are sometimes known as ‘stinkers’ or ‘gluttons’. On land, they hunt unprotected chicks, as well as sick or dead adult animals, particularly penguins. At sea, they can be seen feeding on fish, squid, and krill. Giant petrels are inquisitive and will follow and approach boats in the hope of finding an easy meal. Check out this footage of a feeding frenzy at South Georgia!
Photo Credit: heidemsy under a Creative Commons licence from Pixabay