South Georgia Island is a sub-Antarctic island administered by the United Kingdom as part of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. It lies 1390 km southeast of the Falkland Islands and 2150 km from South America, and is 170 km long by 35 km wide with a mountainous interior. Its bays and islets are home to vast numbers of birds and marine life, but there is no permanent human population, and South Georgia's remoteness makes it a rare destination for tourists.
1 Grytviken, a former whaling station, is the port of entry to South Georgia. In season it hosts the Fishery Research base, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) and the British Antarctic Survey.
There is no airstrip on the island, so the only access is by boat. There is of course no ferry service and tourists arrive on large cruisers or smaller expedition cruisers, often combined with a tour of the Antarctic Peninsula. Research, support and official staff arrive on polar support vessels across a wild heaving ocean. Whatever the size of ship, even the gnarliest old sea-goer can expect sea-sickness.
See Antarctica#Get in for companies that sail here - all the companies that visit South Georgia also visit the Antarctic Peninsula, but not vice versa. It's the wrong side of the world for those cruising out of New Zealand to the Ross Sea.
You don't need a visa but you do need prior permission to land: see SGSSI for the rules and fees. The cruise operator or expedition leader is responsible for organising this.
There are no roads on the island, so all travel is by boat or on foot. The island is mountainous and covered by massive glaciers, so travel by land requires appropriate gear and backcountry travel skills.
The SGSSI Government lists 49 sites that may be approached by small-to-medium sized ships of up to 200 passengers. That's plenty to go at, the others are unsafe or restricted, and even the listed sites may be closed in breeding season or not suitable for landing. They're all on the north coast except Haakon Bay on the dangerous south coast. Grytviken is one of the six sites where larger ships are permitted.
- 1 Willis Island is accessible only by a hazardous landing onto a rocky cliff, followed by a steep ascent over rock and through tussocks. It's home to massive numbers of black-browed, grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatross, as well as macaroni penguins. The islet just east is Vaughan Island, the larger one east is Trinity, then the little ones further east are the Verdant Islands.
- 2 Bird Island is a research area for the British Antarctic Survey and you may not land. The birds include wandering albatross and giant petrels.
- 3 Elsehul is a mainland cove where it's almost impossible to land Dec / Jan with the vast numbers of grumpy fur seals that overrun the beaches. At other times of the year it's home to elephant seals, gentoo penguins, king penguins, sheathbills, and grey-headed albatross.
- 4 Right Whale Bay is a bight on the north coast where cruise ships often stop. The Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis is baleen, a filter feeder, and got its name because it was "the right whale to hunt" - hence the island's stations. Elephant seals and a small colony of king penguins throng the area Sept-Nov then thousands of fur seals take over the beach through February.
- 5 Salisbury Plain is another enormous king penguin rookery, and hosts vast numbers of other penguins and seals.
- Albatross Island 3 km off Salisbury Plain has limited numbers of wandering albatross. You may not land here.
- Prion Island another 5 km east is smaller than Albatross Island but has more of these birds, and parts of it may be visited. There's a boardwalk from the landing point to make access easier whilst protecting the fragile vegetation.
- 6 Leith Harbour or Port Leith is an abandoned whaling station within Stromness Bay, in operation 1905-1965. It was established by Christian Salvesen Ltd, and named for their home port in Edinburgh. In 1982 it ignited the Falklands War when 50 Argentines landed, supposedly contractors come to remove scrap metal from the old station; but they arrived mob-handed and a similar landing was made at Grytviken. Within a month both groups were ejected by the Royal Navy whereupon Argentina, realising that Britain would now reinforce in this region, precipitated their invasion of the Falklands. There are gun emplacements and a cemetery, but much of the station is derelict and unsafe.
- Stromness is another old whaling station 3 km southwest of Leith Harbour, separated by a sharp ridge with no track between. This was where Shackleton, Crean and Worsely finally staggered to safety in 1916 to bring help to their crew. Again, it's mostly derelict and unsafe.
- Grytviken: see the separate page for the island's main settlement. There's a museum, charming old church, and grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The settlement is on what's now called Thatcher Peninsula, which divides the glacial fjords of Cumberland East and West Bay.
- 7 St Andrew's Bay has astronomical numbers of king penguins, plus thousands of elephant seals and fur seals occupying the sands along the water. The sights, sounds and smells of this bay will not soon be forgotten.
- 8 Cooper Bay, sheltered (somewhat) by Cooper Island, has South Georgia's most accessible macaroni penguin colony.
- 9 Drygalski Fjord is a steep-walled inlet with a small rookery of Weddell seals, normally only found in Antarctica. Glaciers and spectacular scenery make this a common destination for cruise ships.
- 10 King Haakon Bay is the fjord on the south coast where Shackleton and five others landed their frail boat after their epic journey from Elephant Island. The entire south coast of South Georgia is a raging lee shore which even modern ships stay clear of. The men knew they were wrong side of the island, but their boat was in no shape to return to the open sea; so they sailed to the head of the fjord and made camp. Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set off inland - the other three were in no fit state. They crossed to Possession Bay on the north coast, famously tobogganing blind down a very steep slope to escape a night on the bare mountain, then across more glaciers and mountains to Fortuna Bay where they heard the Stromness whaling station's morning hooter. Their route is recreated in an arduous organised trek, though the distance varies from 35 to 50 km depending on the condition of the glaciers.
- 11 Annenkov Island is the only sizable island off the south coast, 8 km from the mainland. Being isolated and lacking landing points, it has always been free of rats; 500 pairs of wandering albatross are among the ground-nesting birds here. Its highest point is Olstad Peak, 650 m.
- Pickersgill Islands are a craggy archipelago 24 km southeast of Annenkov. The largest, Tanner Island, is only about 500 m by 200 m.
- Hike: The Shackleton Traverse is the 41 km route that Ernest Shackleton took across the island to bring help to his crew marooned on Elephant Island. It's arduous and hazardous across glacier, and demands mountaineering skills. Visiting parties usually just do the last low-lying 6 km from Fortuna Bay to Stromness.
- Wildlife spotting and photography is the main attraction here.
- Report a rat. Rats arrived in the 19th century as sealer and whaler ships put in for fresh water and established camps, and the rats set about the island's bird life in much the same way that humans were setting about the seals and whales. Birds here have no trees to nest in, and the ground is too hard for burrows, so they nest on open ground where eggs and chicks are easy prey. The pipit and the pintail were wiped out on the mainland and survived only on a few islands that rats couldn't reach; penguins and other birds were also greatly harmed. In 2011 a huge eradication effort began, involving helicopter drops of poisoned bait, though at the cost of some "collateral damage" to non-target species such as skuas. Three seasons of this, plus extensive searches with dogs, led to probable eradication in 2015, and after two more seasons with no further sightings the island was declared rat-free. So if you think you see one, report it - a photo will help, but don't try to whack it yourself.
- Don't introduce reindeer. Rabbits into Australia, wallabies into Herm in the Channel Islands, when will they learn? The rats were an early accidental introduction but in the early 20th century reindeer were deliberately introduced as a source of meat and target for recreational shooting. The first herd was released on Barff peninsula across the bay from Grytviken, where they were seldom bothered, and bred and bred. Herds were wanted closer to the whaling stations: a second herd near Leith harbour was squished by an avalanche but a third became the "Busen herd." These latter were kept in check while whaling continued but grew from the 1960s. The Barff and Busen herds (separated by glacier) reached densities ten times what would be considered sensible in their home terrain in the far north of Norway. They chomped on the vegetation and trod on nests, and the decision was taken to eradicate them by herding for slaughter and by shooting stragglers. This was conducted 2013-2015 with 7000 reindeer killed.
Unless permitted for an expedition, no food may be taken ashore, and fishing and hunting are prohibited.
Visitors sleep on their boat, it's by far the most comfortable and safe. Staying ashore overnight anywhere in SGSSI makes it an expedition, which requires special approval and an extra fee of £1000 per group.
Mail can be sent from Grytviken, and is picked up approximately every two weeks. The only other means of communicating with the outside world is via satellite phone, which most boats make available for between US$2 and US$5 per minute. There is no publicly available internet access.
In short, wherever the boat that brought you is going next. That might be the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands, or a South American port such as Ushuaia or Punta Arenas.