National Geographic : 1955 Jan
A Naturalist in Penguin Land Braving Stormy Seas in a Converted Lifeboat, a Briton Studies the Strange Wildlife of Lonely South Georgia Island BY NIALL RANKIN With Illustrations from Photographsby the Author ON the oil-streaked waters of Leith Har bour, one of the chief anchorages of the island of South Georgia, my 42 foot cruiser Albatross bobbed jauntily. She had just completed a 10,000-mile pickaback voyage from England on a factory ship of the whaling trade; off-loaded now, she seemed oblivious to the skeptical stares of seamen lining the wharf of this storm-chewed outpost of the Antarctic (map, page 97). Leith's station master summed up the whalers' opinions of Albatross: "A nice little boat for a summer cruise," he told me, "but not for South Georgia." Stormy Dot in the Far Atlantic I must confess I had a few doubts myself. The island is a rocky dot in the far South Atlantic, amid some of the wildest seas in the world. Off its shores a dead-flat calm can turn into a gale within half an hour, the whole surface of the ocean being swept into the air and flung forward in a blinding sheet of spindrift (page 96).* Yet I still thought that if any small craft could weather South Georgia's squalls and navigate round its cliff-lined coasts, Albatross could do it as well as the next, or better. I had stumbled upon her in the shipyards of the Clyde, near Glasgow, Scotland. On sick leave from the British Army, I was searching for a boat that might let me realize a long-cherished dream: to settle upon a far southern island and study for an entire breed ing season bird and animal life typical of the Antarctic. Round the yard I wandered, put tering among forlorn deserted craft that the Admiralty had requisitioned at the outbreak of World War II, used to the limit, and then laid up. Suddenly I saw a hull that brought me up short. The deck was dirty, the paint was cracked and chipped, and two metal patches marred its double mahogany skin. But it bore the unmistakable lines of a Royal National lifeboat, the tough, stoutly built vessel of the British lifesaving service, designed to buck the worst weather the North Sea and the English Channel can throw at it. Overhauled and refitted during the next few months, and christened Albatross, this was the boat I finally took south with me (page 101). In my crew I was even luckier. Campbell Gray and Robert Inkster, from the Shetland Islands, had sailed together in the merchant navy during the war; they made a good team. And in South Georgia I acquired a third and invaluable member as pilot: Capt. Konrad Olsen, master of an overage whale catcher now used solely as a communications vessel be tween the island's whaling stations. It took us several days in Leith Harbour to stow our gear, scrub ship, tune up the en gines, and fill the fuel tanks. But late one December morning we slipped our mooring at last and headed toward the open sea. Our first objectives were breeding colonies of the king penguin and wandering albatross. The barometer was steady, and the day promised the best type of boating weather in South Georgia-a dull, leaden sky with traces of mist trailing round the mountaintops. Bright sunny days may be pleasant ashore, but off the island they are usually accompanied by a strong breeze. As Albatross drew away from the harbor, we could get a better conception of South Geor gia's dimensions. If one were to take a giant carving knife, slice beneath a mountain ridge just where its huge glaciers tumble into the valley, and then drop its snow-frosted peaks * See "South Georgia, an Outpost of the Antarctic," by Robert Cushman Murphy, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1922, and the following by Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd in the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Our Navy Explores Antarctica," October, 1947; "Exploring the Ice Age in Antarctica," October, 1935; and "Conquest of Antarctica by Air," August, 1930. The Author Lt. Col. Niall Rankin is one of Great Britain's leading wildlife photographers and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. At his home on the Island of Mull, in Scotland's Inner Hebrides, he main tains a notable aviary of ducks, geese, and other birds. The author's wife, Lady Jean, is a lady in waiting to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.