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Call of the Wild: Exploring the Beauty of South Georgia Island

By Sara Button

Oct 19, 2021

From the November/December 2021 issue

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South Georgia Island is rugged, remote, and home to large colonies of seabirds and penguins.

Photograph by Peter Fisher

South Georgia Island is rugged, remote, and home to large colonies of seabirds and penguins.

On an isolated island in the southern waters of the Atlantic Ocean, untrammeled landscapes—and curious bird life—abound.

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Each year, millions of birds return to breeding colonies on a remote island roughly 1,300 miles from the southernmost tip of Argentina. King penguins, gray-headed albatrosses, speckled teals, and endemic South Georgia pipits—the Antarctic’s only songbirds—are among the 30 species that call South Georgia Island home. The birds aren’t alone: Elephant seals battle for both turf and mates, and humpback, fin, and blue whales migrate through the waters. Though whaling and sealing ships docked here until the 1960s, today the few humans to explore the island’s glaciers, bluffs, and snowfields are scientists and other visitors. 

The island’s singularity is what first attracted photographer Peter Fisher several autumns ago. Based in New York City, Fisher wanted to experience the exact opposite of his home—and South Georgia fit the bill. To get there, Fisher flew to Buenos Aires and then on to Ushuaia, Argentina, where he boarded a Lindblad Expeditions ship that took him to South Georgia. Moored offshore, the ship was home base for Fisher, who spent six days traveling to and from the island via Zodiac boat, passing his time hiking, exploring, and taking photos with a medium-format 55 mm camera that required manual focusing, which forced him to take his time with each shot. He was constantly aware of his surroundings. 

The island is home to six different species of seals with elephant and fur seals being the most common.

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“There’s always an element of danger on South Georgia Island. It’s part of the appeal,” Fisher says. “It’s not Disneyland. There are no set trails or paths. The animals don’t keep their distance. You’ll get scrapes and bruises. The occasional snow squall will descend and you’ll wonder if the four layers of clothing you’re wearing are enough, but you don’t complain, because you are lucky enough to witness one of the most beautiful and pristine places on Earth.” 

To capture these photographs, Fisher spent a lot of time just staying still. He sat in a valley surrounded by tens of thousands of penguins, who waddled up to poke and peck him with their beaks out of curiosity. And he observed elephant seal pups, who nudged and napped near him on the beach. In other instances—when male elephant seals began jousting for territory—Fisher moved a little faster: “When they rear up and start charging each other, it’s like two walls of blubber closing in,” he says. “When that started to happen, I booked it out of there really quick.”

At the end of his trip, Fisher says he was left in awe of South Georgia and the verve of its residents. “When I was sitting there taking these photos, looking in these animals’ eyes, I felt I was having a deep connection with the planet. Every now and then I had to put down the camera and just take it all in.” 

King penguins are the second largest species of penguin in the world behind emperor penguins.

Grytviken Church, also known as the Whalers Church, is a Norwegian Anglican church that was built in 1913.

King penguins often dive to depths of 100 meters and can hold their breath for up to 10 minutes. South Georgia Island is a major breeding ground for the species.

South Georgia Island's surreal landscape offers craggy rock formations and dramatic glaciers.

Left: Penguin egg shell. Right: Macaroni penguins are one of six types of crested penguins and are known for the distinctive yellow crest and bulbous beak.

>>Next: In the Faroe Islands, a Photographer Meets Locals Embracing Their Roots

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