Resurrection Island

Once a scene of slaughter, icy South Georgia is awash with life again.

This story appears in the December 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

South Georgia rises sheer and stark from the sea, a hundred-mile arc of dark Antarctic peaks, ice fields, and hanging glaciers. From the deck of a ship, the island makes a startling apparition, like the Himalaya just emerged from the Flood. For a polar outpost so solid and austere, covered half by permanent snow and ice and half by bare rock and tundralike vegetation, South Georgia is strangely chimerical. Its meanings are contrary and elusive. Its moods are mercurial, brightening one moment, darkening and spitting sleet the next, then brightening again. The island seems marked in some unusual way, simultaneously favored and cursed. Few spots on Earth are so full of ambiguity and paradox.

The first paradox for the visitor has to do with one's latitude of departure. To travelers arriving from the north, the island seems forbiddingly antipodal and cold. To travelers arriving from the south, voyaging up from the Antarctic Peninsula, the island seems almost tropically lush. (In Antarctica there are two native species of vascular plants; on South Georgia there are 26.) To the explorer Ernest Shackleton—whose ship Endurance was crushed nearly a century ago by Antarctic pack ice, who rallied his crew through 16 months of entrapment in the floes, and who escaped finally with five of his men in a small lifeboat, crossing 800 miles of mountainous seas to the whaling stations of South Georgia—that snowy island looked like paradise.

Last February photographer Paul Nicklen and I retraced Shackleton's route. We left the Antarctic Peninsula and sailed, as Shackleton had, just offshore to the South Shetland Islands, from which the explorer had launched his desperate run for South Georgia. His lifeboat, James Caird, was 20 feet long. The cruise ship on which Nicklen and I hitched a ride, National Geographic Explorer, was 367 feet and 6,000 tons. Where Shackleton's little vessel was pounded by a hurricane and a succession of gales, our big ship enjoyed fair weather. I was beginning to feel cheated of the true Antarctic experience when we raised South Georgia, which greeted us with hurricane-force winds of 110 miles an hour.

The second paradox of South Georgia is the crazy changeability of its weather. The Southern Ocean, as some call the seas that encircle Antarctica, has, on average, the strongest winds on Earth. There is little to weaken them, for these far southern latitudes circumscribe the entire globe almost without interruption by land. Low-pressure areas are free to chase one another eastward around the bottom of the planet like a howling dog in pursuit of its tail.

South Georgia sometimes seems like a time-lapse film of weather—one of those frantic abridgments in which clouds boil across the sky while a stroboscopic flickering of light and shadow passes over the land. You sail into a bay in bright sunshine and air scrubbed clean by the ceaseless circumpolar wind. You really can see forever. The steep headlands are an intense, improbable green. Depth of field is infinite, from the kelp beds in the foreground to the snows of the peaks beyond. A glacier, cradled in its high cirque, sends a skein of streams down the rock wall, icy rivulets glittering so bright they hurt the eyes. Then, moments later, like Dorothy whirled back to Kansas, you look out on that same emerald Oz rendered suddenly in gray halftones. A new front has blown in. The sun is just a dimly glowing patch of cloud across which flurries of snowflakes swirl and eddy, dark patterns against the glow. South Georgia suffers from a meteorological version of bi­polar disorder.

The third paradox is historical. In bay after bay the backdrop is pristine—the trackless peaks, snows, and glaciers that form the spine of the island—while the foreground is tarnished by the wreckage of a whaling station, one ruin after another, rusting away above a pebbly beach reclaimed by penguins and seals. South Georgia is a virgin wilderness that lost its virginity yet is becoming virginal again. Here paradox verges on miracle: The island, epicenter of one of the worst marine mammal massacres in history, now teems with multitudes on the scale the planet knew before the invention of the spear, the bow, and the gun.

Captain James Cook, after exploring South Georgia in 1775, dutifully reported an "island of ice" that he briefly mistook for the southern continent he had been sent to find. Then, fatefully, he went on to mention the extraordinary abundance of seals. Scarcely a decade later the first sealing vessels arrived. In the sealing season of 1800-1801, a single ship, Aspasia, out of New York—just one of 18 American and British sealers then working the island—brought back 57,000 pelts. The Antarctic fur seal, Arctocephalus gazella, would be hunted to the verge of extinction. The southern elephant seal too would be brought low, killed in great numbers for the oil rendered from its blubber.

Next came whalers. First they chased down slower whales such as rights, humpbacks, and sperm whales. Then, early in the 20th century, with the invention of fast, steam-powered catcher boats and explosive harpoons, they built whaling stations on South Georgia and turned their attention to the big, fast baleen species, the fin and blue whales. The largest whale ever recorded, a female blue more than 110 feet long, was hauled ashore at South Georgia's Grytviken whaling station in 1912.

The 1920s saw the introduction of factory whaling ships that could catch and process whales on the high seas without needing shore stations. Grytviken and South Georgia's other whaling bases slowly declined. For me, these ghost towns of rusty flensing platforms, boilers, chimneys, and whale-oil storage tanks were poignant. The year before, on assignment for this magazine, I had spent a month in the tropical Pacific with the largest remnant population of blue whales (see "Still Blue," March 2009). I had come to understand the blue whale slaughter intellectually—that in just four decades we nearly extinguished the largest creature ever to live—and now I grasped it viscerally. Here was the hard evidence in oxidizing steel that rang dully under my knuckles. The blue whale had disappeared into these giant tanks, arranged in long rows as at any refinery.

But just as sun follows sleet in South Geor­gia, so it is with the oil-tank blues. They are soon chased away by the reality of the present. It is the whaling stations that are now extinct. It is the sealers who are long gone. Most of the victim species have come back strong—the blue whale being a notable exception—and today these rusting death camps are mobbed by life.

A white wall three feet tall—the massed shirtfronts of a phalanx of king penguins—greets a skiff or Zodiac approaching the beach at St. Andrews Bay. The white wall here was once 65 feet tall and made of ice—the terminus of the Cook Glacier. But for the past 30 years all three glaciers of St. Andrews have been in galloping retreat, and penguins have stepped in to fill the void. Walk up to the beach crest and the view opens up: to the south, penguins forever, a rookery of 150,000 pairs, the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia. The birds crowd shoulder to shoulder, except where glacial rivers clear channels through the rookery. Along the beach where the Cook Glacier once calved great pinnacles of ice into the sea, the rookery now calves flotillas of king penguins. They raft sociably for a while, then melt away to go fishing.

The king is the second largest penguin, about a foot shorter than the emperor. Like other penguins, it undergoes an annual molt, replacing all its feathers in a few weeks. At the time of my visit, 10 to 15 percent of the adults were in the grip of this transformation. Amid the multitudes in sleek evening garb, the molting birds had the look of disheveled bounders or tipplers in moth-eaten raccoon coats.

Mixed with the penguin multitudes were many hundreds of Antarctic fur seals, mostly pups, sleeping or jousting or playing tag in small gangs. Young seals long ago reached a truce with penguins but not with humans, and the pups like to make bluff charges at people. The attacks are entirely bogus. Clap your hands, shout "Stop!" and the pup instantly loses courage and veers off sheepishly. Elephant seal cows—as many as 6,000 in October, at the height of their calving season—add to the crush at St. Andrews Bay.

Both fur and elephant seals have made spectacular rebounds. By the early 1900s, after a century of hunting, only a relict population of Antarctic fur seals survived on South Georgia. Today they number in the low millions, the vast majority of which breed on South Georgia. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of southern elephant seals come to the island each summer to breed and to rear their young.

South Georgia's king penguin populations too are soaring. In 1925 only 1,100 kings were counted at St. Andrews Bay; since then there has been a 300-fold increase in the rookery. A gathering of 300,000 penguins would usually raise a deafening roar of debate and protest and recrimination, but at the time of my visit the nesting birds were relatively laconic. There was no great din at St. Andrews Bay; the loudest noise here was visual, the sheer spectacle of numbers.

In places, the rookery's soil seemed composed mostly of the narrow white barbs of breast feathers, spiky with barbules, and loose feathers lay in drifts on the ground. Gusting winds sent ground storms of feathers scurrying seaward. Seen from a distance, the effect was like heat shimmer over the whole rookery. Somehow these feather blizzards, more even than the legions of birds that generate them, testify to the exuberance of life on South Georgia. Watching, I was moved almost to tears. I grew up in a family where environmentalism was religion; here in this rookery, for someone of my faith, was life as it is supposed to be, in all its amplitude.

This sort of epiphany waits in almost every bay and inlet of South Georgia. Sometimes the animal multitudes are horizontal, as on Salisbury Plain, a glacial outwash delta densely colonized by king penguins, fur and elephant seals, and kelp gulls. Other times they are vertical, as at Elsehul, where the shores and lower slopes are thick with penguins, fur seals, shags, and sheathbills, while the steep, tussocky headlands are dense rookeries of grey-headed, black-browed, wandering, and light-mantled sooty albatrosses as well as skuas and Antarctic terns.

This profusion of life has a secret: South Georgia is a relatively temperate island in the path of a seasonal swarm of krill borne up by currents from the Antarctic Peninsula—a living river of small, red, shrimplike crustaceans. If South Georgia has a special dispensation, it is this river of krill. It fed the largest herds of fur seals and great whales on Earth in the ages before the sealers and whalers came. Today it is fueling the astonishing resurrection of the Antarctic fur seal, as well as the slow but steady recovery of several whale species.

Periodically, once or twice a decade, the river of krill seems to go astray. The year 2004 was a poor krill year at South Georgia, and 2009 has been a very bad one. A trend often masquerades as a cycle at the start, and evidence suggests that these scarce krill years may foreshadow a new South Georgia. A 2004 paper by Angus Atkinson of the British Antarctic Survey presented evidence of a 30-year decline in krill over a wide sector that holds more than half the krill stocks in the Southern Ocean.

Krill, especially the larvae, are dependent in winter on sea ice, and for the past few decades this layer of frozen seawater has been shrinking in some parts of the Antarctic (although overall it has increased slightly). Earlier this year a team of oceanographers reported that the seas to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula have been warming many times faster than the world average over the past 50 years. The warming is strongest near the surface and in winter—not good news for winter sea ice.

Neither is the news good for Antarctica's ice shelves—glaciers that extend into the ocean. Much of the vast Larsen Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002, and the smaller Wordie Ice Shelf vanished last April. If the magnifying glass of global warming has a focal point, it would seem to be the seas of the western Antarctic Peninsula, headwaters for South Georgia's river of krill.

On the day I left the island, the ship overtook an iceberg at sunset. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The glistening white wall towered above us, sheer as El Capitan and lovely in the last light of day. Icebergs have long been icons of the great white continent—Antarctica in microcosm. At a time when sprawling shelves of ice are disintegrating, this berg seemed to signify more. It was a last paradox. In this new era of climate change, icebergs are doubly symbolic, both of the pristine beauty of the Antarctic region and of the trouble that lies ahead.