Standing atop Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island I looked down on a colony of over 200,000 king penguins. It was one of the most striking things I've ever witnessed.
Nearing the island on the ship, it took a while to get a feel for the magnitude of what we were seeing. What appeared from a distance to be a large barren area surrounded by vegetation was actually not at all barren. The large brown patch was the second largest king penguin colony in the world and so large that the possibility seemed unfathomable until close enough to make out individuals moving.
We landed right on the beach amongst them, as well as territorial fur seals, at the bottom of a steep cliff that we climbed to get this breathtaking vantage point. Since king penguins breed year round here, every stage could be seen in the colony, from egg to chick to lanky juvenile. The older juveniles were as large (if not larger) than the adults and looked like they were wearing garish brown fur coats to keep warm. Their curiosity of us made them reach out and attempt to check us out with their bills. Though we felt unthreatened by this exploratory gesture, it was very surreal to be so examined this way.
As if Salisbury Plain wasn't thrilling enough to last a whole vacation, a group of us spent the afternoon retracing the last of Shackleton's trek from his landing on the uninhabited side of South Georgia Island to the whaling station where he would make his first contact with civilization in a year and rescue his crew. Much of the climb was through a barren hillside full of slaty scree, surrounded by snow-capped mountains all around. Here and there we'd see snatches of wildlife or trees, but the greatest view of all came just as we crested the ridge and saw the remnants of the old whaling station below. I closed my eyes and imagined that rather than seeing that view after a few hours hike, I was at the end of an arduous journey of many months that held the fate of dozens of men. And then I stepped back into my own shoes and enjoyed the rest of our walk. It was a beautiful sunny day and we did not mind taking our time down to Fortuna Day to be picked up by our ship.
To round the day out, Expedition Leader Dave held a Shackleton reading up in the lounge and we imbibed perhaps one too many Beagle Stouts as we recounted the day's events with fellow passengers and staff. But no regrets for the generous pours, it had been a day worthy of celebration.