I am the albatross that waits for you at the bottom of the earth.
I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn
From all the seas of the world
But they did not die in the furious waves.
Today they fly in my wings to eternity.
In the last trough of the Antarctic winds
— Sara Vial
Being a whale scientist, I thought that my first experience at South Georgia Island would be to see remnants of the age of whaling and to absorb the reality of the Antarctic heroic era. There is no doubt that I lived a bit of history as I stood in front of the Stromness manager’s villa where Shackleton ended his famous odyssey. I was moved as I read Browning’s passage on Shackelton’s headstone at Grytvyken. And, I felt the ghosts of whaling captains and whale station workers as I walked alone among the ruins of two whaling stations where, for over a hundred years, man slaughtered huge numbers of marine mammals — bringing them close to extinction.
But, my South Georgia Island experience was more mystical than factual or scientific. Here I saw a nearly pristine place. I say “nearly” because the remnants of whaling and sealing still exist but the people and ships are gone. Nature has once again taken over. Truly, animal life in a pristine way has reclaimed this wonderfully remote place.
South Georgia Island is located in the Southern Ocean over 2000 km east of the southern tip of Argentina. It is near the convergence of two major ocean currents where there is considerable upwelling of nutrients. This results in a vitality of life. South Georgia is a place where nature has been left to do its own thing without human influence. All while towering, rugged peaks endowed with dotted snow poke their heads through cloudy mists – like a maiden reluctant to reveal her beauty all at once. One can lie on the tussock grass and literally feel nature through all of the senses. One’s skin feels the force of nature. Driving winds, horizontal rain and cutting snow bring an acute sense of awareness. The eyes absorb vaulting peaks, a sea full of bergs, billowing tussock, and rolling heath.
One’s ears hear a mixture of sounds – seals defending their territory, penguin chicks and seal pups calling out, pairs mating. These sounds reach the ear all at once to create a dissonant but energizing music that no human could ever produce.
One is able to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel all at once. Almost a sensory overload – perhaps that is the emotion. It all does something wonderful to my soul.
But then there is the enormity of it all. The macro rather than the micro. The rugged interrelationships that are revealed in this enormity. The delicacy of life. The ability to survive in such a harsh environment. There is space for all – even though it is an island. But yet, the island is not the creature’s habitat. It’s merely a waypoint for those creatures who visit its plains, grasses, and cliffs to breed, birth, and molt. Except for the predatory and scavenging birds and the newborn, no one eats here.
As I absorbed this grandeur, I found that my intellect was also a sense. One quickly realizes that things are not really random. There are patterns. The patterns of procreation and birth. The patterns of groups. The patterns of sound. In these patterns I sensed an underlying intelligence.
I witnessed elephant seal newborn pups immediately move to mother’s nipple just after birth. I saw skuas sense an impending birth or death – waiting for the nourishment of a dead seal or the placenta released after a pup’s birth. I noted some marvelous automatic reflexes. A gull in flight flaps its wings or glides. And ever so slightly, the bird’s tail is moving up and down as it acts as an elevator or air brake.
How does a bird acquire these skills? A wandering albatross doesn’t teach its chick how to fly. In fact the parents leave long before the juvenile makes its maiden flight. Yet, with lots of practice on the ground, the chick does gain confidence (knowing somehow that it must get airborne to survive) and soars away. How does the chick figure this out?
The king penguins on South Georgia were apparently communicating with their vocalizations. I observed serial vocal patterns between king penguin groups – one then another. All along, the juvenile penguins were close by as if to take it all in.
South Georgia is a place where life begins and ends in its rawest form. It is not just a place. It is a congruence of unspeakable beauty with the rawest of life energy. One needs to find his own mound of tussock grass, settle in, and let the senses be filled. In doing so, one brings his soul in tune with all of this beauty. And that’s what I did.
My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.