Most Memorable Moments: Salisbury Plain


South Georgia Island is a surviving fragment from the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent. Located in the far South Atlantic Ocean, at latitude 54° South, about 1,200 miles east of the tip of South America, it’s a long ways from anywhere, but it’s absolutely worth the effort and expense of getting there. The western side of South Georgia Island is battered by the prevailing westerly winds and waves – 11-meter high waves, in WC’s personal experience – so all of the landing sites are on the easterly side of the 103-mile long island.

It’s generally regarded as being on the border between the Southern Atlantic and Southern Oceans. although there is no formal agreement on where the South Atlantic ends and the Southern Ocean begins.

There will be more than one Most Memorable Moment post about South Georgia Island. This one focuses on the Salisbury Plain, a glacial outwash plain in the Bay of Isles, in northwesterly South Georgia Island.

Salisbury Plain viewed from the Bay of Isles, South Georgia Island. The tall, partially hidden peak in the middle left is Mt. Ashley, 3,758 feet high. Lucas Glacier to the right; Grace Glacier out of frame to the left.

While the Salisbury Plain absolutely teems with life, it is most famous as the site of the world’s largest colony of King Penguins, who come ashore there to breed and molt. In numbers that absolutely beggar the imagination.

King Penguins, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island

This photo shows perhaps a third of the estimated 120,000 King Penguins at this one colony. Those are King Penguins going up the hillside to the left and over to the moraines of Lucas Glacier in the distance. There were still more to the right, down to the high water mark, and another immense flock behind WC. You will have to imagine the noise of all of the hatchling King Penguins – they are the shorter, brown feather balls – all calling for their parents. And the eye-watering ammonia stench from the feces of all those birds.

King Penguin Chick in hatchling plumage, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island

If you look closely at the second photo, you can see that about a third of the King Penguins are hatchlings, still in baby plumage. All of them have to be fed, usually 12 to 16 times a day. That involves both parents heading out into the Bay of Isles, where a very intimidating number of penguin-eating predators – sharks, orcas and sea lions and leopard seals – are waiting.

Scouting for predators before heading out to forage, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island

The adult King Penguins line up and scout, very carefully, for those predators before heading out to get food for the kid. Orcas and Leopard Seals, in particular, seemed to target outgoing King Penguins.

The adults harvest small fish, mostly lanternfish and, since they don’t have hands, carry it back to the chicks in their stomachs. In some cases, the kids are more than a mile inland from shore, a long, long waddle to make hundreds of times to feed your chick. For as long as ten months.

Adult King Penguins feeding check; human parents who complain about feeding their kids need to reconsider

In addition to the tens of thousands of King Penguins, there are Southern Fur Seals, a few Southern Elephant Seals, Southern Giant Petrels, a few Gentoo Penguins and even Yellow-billed Pintail ducks at Salisbury. The sheer fecundity, and the implications for the richness of the ocean that feeds all those animals, is stunning. The scenery at Salisbury Plain may not be as spectacular as Gold Harbor, but the numbers of animals is beyond amazing.

Which is why Salisbury Plain is one of WC’s Most Memorable Moments.

Previous Most Memorable Moments
Madre de Dios River Clay Lick
Caroni Swamp
Kaktovik Polar Bears

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