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Animals of South Georgia: An Overview of South Georgia's Wildlife

Animals of South Georgia: An Overview of South Georgia’s Wildlife

Becky Lima-Matthews image

Welcome to our South Georgia wildlife guide.

The remote, sub-Antarctic Island has long fascinated explorers, scientists and researchers.  South Georgia is the final resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton. And in 1925-1951, it was one of the sites of The Discovery Investigations – one of the most ambitious scientific studies ever commissioned. There is no permanent population on South Georgia, but these days scientists, government officials and museum staff work on the island for part of the year.

Tourists have become increasingly fascinated with this remote island too. But it’s not just the rugged landscapes and glaciers that attract adventurous, expedition micro-cruise operators like Secret Atlas to South Georgia. The island is home to an abundance of wildlife including over 7 million penguins, millions of breeding birds, and over 50 per cent of the world’s population of Southern elephant seals. South Georgia is also home to seven of the thirty species currently listed under the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatross and Petrels (ACAP).

And we can take you on the wildlife spotting trip of a lifetime. From 2024 Secret Atlas will be heading off on an in-depth, 15 day  South Georgia Photography & Wildlife Tour. Departing from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, we’ll set sail across the Scotia sea with opportunities for wildlife spotting before we even land. We may see albatrosses and orcas from the deck before we arrive. Once there, we’ll explore the island as part of a small group with just 12 guests, visiting sites that larger vessels can’t reach.

Wildlife and watching and nature opportunities during February and March include seeing baby fur seals on South Georgia’s beaches. We should also be able to land on Prion Island, which is closed for much of the year, and off limits to large ships where we’ll witness the spectacle of wandering albatrosses feeding their newborn chicks.

What animals and birds can I see in South Georgia?

South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands are UK Overseas Territories. And in 2022 the Government designated them as Protected Areas for better conservation and to keep tourism responsible too. Secret Atlas is committed to sustainable travel and limiting our impact on the places we visit. We also follow Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) and WWF guidelines which creates safe, responsible wildlife watching experiences.

Of course there is never any guarantee of what you’ll see on any expedition. But given the diversity and abundance of wildlife in South Georgia, you’re highly likely to witness some spectacular animals, birds and marine life. And a lack of much human interference creates greater opportunities for spotting wildlife.

Although one thing you won’t spot is rodents. The island was declared free of rats and mice in 2018, after the world’s largest eradication project. Good news for visiting humans. More importantly, it’s great news for South Georgia’s bird populations, as rats eat the eggs and chicks of many ground-nesting birds. Among South Georgia’s thriving wildlife are King penguins, macaroni penguins, elephant seals, Antarctic fur seals and wandering albatrosses.

1. King Penguins

King penguins are the second largest penguin species in the world (second only to the Emperor penguins found in Antarctica). Most King penguins live in the sub-Antarctic area, and have adapted to the freezing temperatures, including being covered in three layers of down feathers for insulation.

Like other penguin species, their bodies are black and white but they have distinctive yellow splashes on their heads and necks. King penguins can grow up to 100 cm tall and weigh an average of 16 kilos. They are raised in large colonies, and visitors to South Georgia will have fantastic opportunities to witness King penguins in incredible numbers. The largest King penguin colonies can be found in St Andrews Bay and Salisbury Bay with over 200,000 each. Without a doubt it is number 1 on our South Georgia wildlife guide.

Three king penguins in South Georgia

2. Antarctic Fur Seals

The most abundant species of fur seals are Antarctic fur seals. There are around 5 million of them on South Georgia, which is about 95% of the global population. Antarctic seal fur seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. These days they are protected and thriving. Male Antarctic fur seals can weigh up to 210 kilos and grow up to 1.8 m in length. But females are much smaller, weighing up to 55 kilos and growing to 1.4m in length.  Antarctica fur seals are mostly brown in colour, and unlike many seal species, they have visible ears. Breeding season is in October to December, which is the peak time for them to gather. But there are opportunities to observe them from a distance at haul out sites between December and March too.

Fur seal in South Georgia

3. Wandering Albatross (and other albatrosses)

South Georgia is also home to the wandering albatross – the largest flying bird in the world.  It has a huge wingspan of up to 11 ft. And there’s a good chance of seeing these magnificent birds flying (or most likely, gliding) past our ship as we travel towards the islands. These  stunning birds are white with grey-black wings and can fly up to 40 mph. Wandering albatrosses only breed once every two years and they have a long life span of up to 50 years. South Georgia is also home to the light-mantled albatross, grey-headed Albatross, black-browed albatross and white-capped albatross. Prion Island is a potential landing site for our itinerary, which is a great place to witness nesses albatrosses.

Two wandering albatross

4. Macaroni Penguins

In addition to King penguins, South Georgia also has an abundance of Macaroni penguins. It’s home to 3.5 million pairs and they can be found in large colonies, often with their heads tucked into their chests. Macaroni penguins have distinctive yellow feathered crests and pink feet, and they’re the largest of the crested penguins. They can dive to as deep as 100 metres when they hunt, feeding on krill, fish, crustaceans and squid. Unlike most penguins, Macaroni penguins hop rather than waddle. Elsehul Bay in the northwest of South Georgia is home to some of the largest numbers of Macaroni penguins. But they can also be seen in the tussock grass of Cooper Bay.

Two macaroni penguins

5. Southern Elephant Seals

As well as being home to most of the world’s Antarctic fur seals, South Georgia is also home to 50% of the global population of southern elephant seals (around 400,000) . They are the largest of all seal species.  Males typically weigh six times more than females,  and can weigh up to 4.5 tonnes. Southern elephant seals are carnivores that dive for more than 20 minutes at a time to hunt for squid and fish. When they’re not diving down deep into the ocean, they can be spotted resting on South Georgia’s beaches.

Elephant seals in South Georgia

6. Antarctic Prions

Another bird to look out for over the skies of South Georgia is the Antarctic prion. Also known as the dove prion, it has distinctive ‘M’ shaped markings across its back and wings which can be spotted as they fly above. South Georgia is a breeding site for the Antarctic prion and Prion Island has been designated a Specially Protected Area by the South Georgia Government.

7. Humpback Whales

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to witness Humpback whales on many of our voyages. They live in oceans all over the world and have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth. During the summer, they can be close to the frozen shores of Svalbard. But, in the winter months, they  migrate south to mate and breed in warm waters. Commercial whaling has decimated their populations, but a 2020 study shows that humpback whales had made a welcome return to the waters around South Georgia, with an estimated seasonal population over around 20,000. Humpback Whales are easy to spot, named after the humps on their backs just before the dorsal fin. They can measure up to 18 metres and have distinctive songs that carry long distances within the ocean depths.

8. Southern Fin Whale

Another whale species to have made a welcome return to sub-Antarctic waters is the Southern Fin Whale. The second-largest animal in the world is second only to the Blue Whale. They are actually close relatives, but the Southern Fin Whale has a slender body and can cut through the water at speeds of up to 45mp, hence its nickname was coined as ‘the greyhound of the sea’. Southern Fin Whales are still fairly small in population, and tend to feed in small groups.

9. Blue Whales

We can’t talk about marine life without mentioning the mighty Blue Whale. The largest animal ever known to have existed can grow up to 30 metres in length and weighs a colossal 150 tonnes, with a heart that weighs as much as a car. The largest ever blue whale (33.58 metres) was recorded at Grytviken, South Georgia in 1912. Blue whales can consume up to four tonnes of krill in a single day. Like other whale species, blue whales have had a resurgence around South Georgia in recent years.

Blue whale in South Georgia

10. Gentoo Penguins

As you may have guessed by now, South Georgia is a haven for penguins. Another species of penguin you can see occupying the island is Gentoo penguins. They are black-and-white with a white mark like a bonnet across the side of their eyes and head. Gentoo penguins are the fastest-swimming penguins in the world, and can reach speeds of up to 22 mph. Although relatively small in number compared to other penguin species, they are the only species that are expanding along the Antarctic Peninsula.

11. Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstrap Penguins are named after the distinctive black bands under their beaks. There are at least 6000 pairs in South Georgia. Although they’re rather small in number compared with other penguin species on the island – there’s still a good chance of seeing them gathering in areas like Cooper Bay. They’re a particularly vocal species, Chinstrap penguins also have the nickname ‘stonebreaker penguins’ because their piercing screech is alleged to have the power to break stones.

12. Southern Giant Petrel

South Georgia is home to several species of petrels,including cape petrels and diving petrels. It’s also a major breeding site of the Southern giant petrel, a large brown-feathered bird with a wingspan of 200cm. These large birds breed in colonies on the slopes and can be seen circling around the sea surrounding South Georgia where they feed.

13. South Georgia Shag

Also known as the South Georgia Cormorant, this shag is native to South Georgia and other sub-Antarctic islands. It’s a member of  the ‘blue-eyed shag’ group with distinctive bright blue rings around their eyes, as well as  pink feet and legs. Both male and female South Georgia Shags have similar bluish and black and white plumage, although males are slightly larger.  They breed on grassy slopes, rocky areas and in areas with tussock grass.

14. South Georgia Pipit

South Georgia wildlife includes several species unique to the island. The South Georgia pipit is endemic to the archipelago, and is the southernmost songbird in the world. The small bird is the size of a sparrow, and is one of the region’s only non-seabirds. South Georgia pipits build their nests within tussock grass and have can be seen in higher numbers on Prion Island and South Georgia’s beaches since the successful rodent eradication project. This is one of the potential landing sites for our Wildlife & Photography tour – where we might hear the sound of the South Georgia pipits’ bird song, before we see them.

15. South Georgia Pintail

Another endemic bird species to South Georgia and nearby islands is the South Georgia pintail. It’s also the only wildfowl that breeds in South Georgia, and one of the first species noted by Captain James Cook when he made the first recorded landing to the island in 1775. A combination of rats and commercial whaling had depleted their population, but the current population in South Georgia is around 2000. They can be found at various locations including Cooper Bay and Grytviken.

16. Orcas

The Southern Ocean is home to the highest population of Orcas, the largest member of the dolphin family, around 25,000. These magnificent, highly intelligent black and white marine mammals can grow up to 9.5 metres (31 feet in length). Otherwise known as Killer Whales, they can be seen in the waters surrounding South Georgia in the summer season from November to March. February and March are the best months for whale watching in the region. Like wolves, they hunt in packs and demonstrate a sophisticated method of communication to secure their meal.

17. Leopard Seal

The Leopard Seal is the third largest seal species in the world. Unusually, females are the larger sex, and can grow up up to 3.8 metres (10ft) and weigh around 590 kg. They have large heads, but long, slender bodies and are solitary by nature except for breeding when they communicate with long calls under water. Despite their relatively small population, they can be seen at haul out sites such as on Bird Island. Although fast predators while hunting penguins in the water and on the ice, they are far more slow on land and can sometimes be observed hauled out on pebbled beaches to rest.

South Georgia Wildlife Leopard Seal Antarctica

18. Hourglass Dolphin

Hourglass Dolphins are a small dolphin species found in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters. They have a distinctive black and white pattern, but they are a somewhat elusive species. Relatively little is known about Hourglass dolphins. They tend to avoid human contact, and there aren’t many scientific studies on their behaviour or biology. Despite the fact they’re rare, they are not endangered or under threat, and have been seen in the waters around South Georgia.

19. South Polar Skua

The South Polar skua is the largest of the skua family and is seen in the skies of the Southern Ocean or frequently patrolling the penguin colonies for hapless chicks and abandoned eggs. Like other skuas, they are territorial and will attack any creature (or human) that gets too close to their nest. South Polar Skuas are gull-like in appearance, brown and grey in colour. During feeding, they can be seen and heard in noisy flocks of up to 100, and can reach flight speeds of 50 kmph.

20. Antarctic Minke Whale

The small, slender Antarctic minke whale has a distinctive pointed snout, and it has the nicknames “little piked whale” and “sharp-headed dinner”. During the summer months Antarctic minke whales gather in large numbers to feed, and not all migrate during the winter. They can usually be spotted alone, in pairs or groups of three. Some can be very curious and seem to enjoy approaching ships.

This is just a snapshot of South Georgia’s incredible and diverse wildlife. One of the best ways to see these magnificent animals, birds and marine life in their natural habitat is by going on a Secret Atlas Expedition Micro Cruise. 

Join us to witness wildlife unhurried and undisturbed by large crowds as we travel in small groups of just between 36 and 80. Find out more about our 2024 wildlife and photography tour to South Georgia.

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