We have spent two days embedded with elephant seals and king penguins in Gold Harbour and St. Andrew’s Bay. The two sites combined probably have over 500,000 king penguins and 10,000 elephant seals. We have taken over 1500 pictures, but I’m sure we missed a few animals… Fortunately (for you), we are only going to show you a dozen of them.
Male elephant seals arrive in Sept. and start claiming beachfront property. They have to defend their real estate from other males, so only the largest & strongest guys get to hold onto their plots. Males only live 16-18 years, reach sexual maturity at 7-8, but probably can’t achieve beach-master status until 12. At this point they can weigh 8,000-10,000 pounds. After only a year or two, they are forced out by the younger studs and go into retirement.
Then the females arrive and join in the harems of the beach-masters. I don’t know how they pick a fellow, all the guys look alike. The females have their pups, feed them for 3-4 weeks fattening them up tremendously, then the kids (called weaners) are sent off to fend for themselves. The weaners hang out on the beach using up their fat reserves for several weeks, then head into the sea to start eating and growing — they don’t seem to travel in groups, they are on their own. They don’t come back to the beach until they reach sexual maturity.
After the pups are born, the females are ready to breed. The beach-master is happy to oblige, but since he is many times larger than the female, it’s not a very romantic encounter. All the while younger males are hanging out around the edges of the beach-master’s property, trying to sneak in for a romantic encounter.
The beach-masters have no paternal instincts, they will run over the little guys as they move around to see the ladies or run off interlopers. Most pups survive, but a number are crushed or smothered.
This morning a new pup was born just a few feet from where we landed. We were a short walk up the beach, but came back when everyone started waving and we got there a couple of minutes after the pup was born. Mom & pup were calling to each other constantly from the moment of birth, bonding and imprinting their voices so they can identify each other.
King penguins aren’t nearly as dramatic, they are just goofy. It takes their little ones nearly a year to mature to the point that they get their adult plumage and can go for a swim, so the parents are feeding them continually. The kids get to be as big, and often fatter, than the adults, and are covered with brown feathers, so they look like fuzzy balls. The kids hang out in groups while their parents are out feeding. When the parents get back with food, they have to find their kid among the hundreds of thousands! They do it by voice – the kids call out and the parents somehow find them.
It’s a little too early for egg-laying, that happens a few weeks from now.
Our weather has been fantastic, sunny and calm seas. At wake-up it’s 32-36, getting into the 40’s in the afternoon. South Georgia is one of the most beautiful places on earth when the sun is shining — the whole island is covered with snow-covered peaks that look like the alps and glaciers are everywhere. Highest peak is over 9,000 feet.
We were up both days before sunrise so we could be on the beach when the sun came up — fantastic sights!