St Andrew's Bay / by Jerry Gillham

One of the best things about being at King Edward Point is that we get to go on holidays. Not too far - just away from station for a few days on one of the neighbouring peninsulas. After a busy end to the summer I was certainly ready for mine. I'd tried to get one in January but that was at the height of the comms blackout and I cut it short to try and fix that, though wasn't much use.

So at the end of March, Paddy (boating officer) and I headed out to St Andrew's Bay. This is one of the highlights of South Georgia, any time you've seen king penguins on a nature documentary there's a very good chance it'll have been filmed there.

It was an early start, just as the sun was rising, when we set out in the boats. Well wrapped up in our boat suits as the journey can take the best part of two hours. It's not too bad inside the jet boat but we'd volunteered to do this on the RHIB, mainly so whoever took it back wouldn't have to be in there the whole time. It was a calm enough journey round - any big swell or change in the weather and we'd have had to head for home or shelter in one of the bays as this journey took us outside of the safety of the local travel area and down the coast with nothing to our port side but the southern sea until you reach Africa.

It was shortly after 9:00 when we jumped off the boat and waded ashore, the others departing quickly to pick up a few field workers and head back before the weather changed. With a boat drop-off we'd been able to bring a few extra luxuries (pre-cooked dinner, crate of Guinness, loads of camera gear). It took a few runs to get it up to the hut but the sun was shining clearly as we sat and had a cup of tea.

It wasn't long before we got together our camera gear and headed over toward the king penguin colony.

With an estimated half a million birds here on undulating terrain it's impossible to get a photograph that truly does the place justice. For what must have been the first hour we just wandered round the edge of the colony, sitting where we got a good vantage point and just observing in genuine awe the spectacle. I'd heard all sorts of good stuff about St Andrew's and it truly lived up to the superlatives.

With so many penguins about it was difficult to know where to point the camera. I didn't have any specific photographs I wanted to take to for much of the time was just sitting watching the interactions between adults, chicks and each other.

The vast majority of king penguins I've seen before, especially those at Bird Island, were mainly moulting or lost. But these ones seemed more confident on their breeding ground. Sitting at the edge of the colony I'd be passed by streams of individuals who were unconcerned by my presence, though some did wander up to investigate.

Down the far end of the beach there were off cuts from one of the three glaciers that pour into St Andrew's Bay. It's long been an ambition to stand on an iceberg, but with them being slippery, usually surrounded by cold water and liable to tip over at any opportunity I wasn't sure I'd get the chance to do so. However this one was free of the last two issues and not so slippery I couldn't climb it.

The Mercer is one of the three big glaciers that roll down into the bay. I walked up to take a good look at it, though didn't have the kit, people or permission to clamber about on it.

Sometimes the colours and curves of the king penguin makes it impossible not to try and do arty photos.

The majority of the chicks were medium sized and forming little creches. King penguins lay an egg every 18 months, which may be unique in the bird world. Although those that are hatched at the start of winter have a very tough early life it means there's every stage of development on the beaches most of the year round, from eggs to nearly moulted chicks starting to enter the sea.

Although there's movement in and out the sea all day the early mornings and sunset were the best times to see trains of penguins walking down the beach, looking for the perfect place to enter the water - maybe somewhere safer form the risk of leopard seals, maybe somewhere easier to navigate in or out from, maybe a weird penguin tradition.

The hut is located about 500m away from the colony, far enough to avoid disturbance both to the birds and to the hut's residents as the colony can be quite noisy and smelly. In the way is this river which we crossed with ease on the first day but on every subsequent crossing it had risen a little higher as the warm (well, above freezing) weather melted the glaciers a bit more. By the end we'd tried so many places, boots, wellies and bare feet and none were truly satisfactory.

As with most of South Georgia you can't just look at one part - you focus on the penguins and before you know it you're staggered by the mountains behind them.

We quickly got into the habit of getting up at sunrise to catch the best light, having a few hours with the penguins, coming back for a late lunch, doing a bit of reading or a short nap, lunch, more penguins and then back for dinner before it got dark. Then a few drams and ready for an early night.

The hut at St Andrew's is fantastic - cosy for two people but with bunk beds, separate rooms for wellies and storage. It's rustic and full of character but clean and dry. I know that looks like mould on the walls but it isn't. Perhaps historically but not now. The visitor book makes reference to problems with rats stealing food and leaving a mess, thanks to the eradication it sounds a much more pleasant place to stay now.

Cooking is on a big old primus stove and light is from a tilley. It feels good to cook on them, like you're properly living the wild, hut-dwelling lifestyle. 

After two and a half days we had to start heading back. The first obstacle is getting out of the plain, up a very steep scree slope that just when you think is done turns into what at first glance appears to be a wall. Then you start scrambling up it.

We were well loaded down with kit, both carrying large rucksacks on our back and day-sack sized ones on our front. Partly because we had a fair amount of camera gear each but in these locations you have to carry a good amount of safety kit with you. If we'd got into trouble (weather, injury etc) on the hike back we could be a few hours away from a hut and, depending on the weather, several days away from a pick-up.

From the top of the pass looking down on St Andrews Bay and the Mercer glacier. The hut is toward the coast, bottom left of the green plain. The flat grey area above the green is all penguins.

We split up the walk back with a night in another hut, this one at Hound Bay is a lot newer than the St Andrew's hut, with four beds and a gas oven! We still cooked the rehydrated meal packs, livening them up with a bit of bread, cheese and spice.

The next day we walked back to one of the beaches from where we got picked up. It was nice to back on station where I could have a warm shower and something other than rehydrated food, but it was an excellent trip. I shall certainly be going back in the autumn when the elephant seals start fighting for control of the beaches and giving birth, while Paddy is going back next week.