Cole Yeoman freaking out because the icebergs look STUNNING. ©AHT/Lily Green
Cole Yeoman was one of 22 young New Zealanders who travelled with the Trust to South Georgia in October 2023 for our ninth Inspiring Explorers Expedition™ to honour the centenary year of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s final expedition, the ‘Quest’.
Reflections on Exploration
I’ve always enjoyed exploration.
The discomfort of achy limbs, heavy rain, clouds of sandflies, trusting strangers, language barriers, cultural differences, getting lost, experiencing unfamiliar things for the first time – it’s a thrill. It’s the stuff I idolised as a kid. It’s probably what’s drawn me to photo/video journalism, and it’s certainly what drew me to the Antarctic Heritage Trust.
I recall at a young age, making a domino run down our hallway from a line of video cassettes, a trail which would always build up to the largest of our collection: a double cassette video of Shackleton’s adventures! How surreal to decades later stand beside his grave and toast his memory with a handful of snow.
2023 felt like the domino run – applying for the expedition, shortlisting, interview process, getting selected, team building weekend, online meetings, a flurry of emails and information, then a week of travel by plane, bus, and boat before finally (like the dominoes) finding our way to the big ‘double-cassette’ obelisk that marks Shackleton’s final resting place.
But South Georgia is so much more than just Shackleton’s graveyard, and the abundance of wildlife, geology, and weather reminded me (as silly as it sounds written down) that people aren’t the story here. The natural world goes on regardless of us being there, but our actions can certainly impact that world for better or for worse. And what a privilege being trusted to capture that with my camera.
Grytviken, capital of South Georgia, official population of eight (grows to approximately thirty during summer). ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
Setting out – a cinematic journey to South Georgia
Scene one: Auckland airport international terminal
Full bags scattered around, hugs and energetic chatter as the group gathers one by one. There is a buzz of excitement in the air – the thrill of knowing this is really happening. We’re going! The trip is underway.
Scene two: Plane interior, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean
The droning hum of jet engines throbs through the dark cabin. Two-dozen little movies flicker light on the hunched silhouettes of sleeping figures across the aisle. I twist in my seat to find the right sleeping position: no success. I turn and exchange an excited grin with Rykien in the seat beside me, a grin that says ‘bro, I still can’t believe this is real!’
Scene three: Punta Arenas, Southern Chile
An icy wind whips down the cobbled streets, stray dogs wander around ‘lovers’ plaza, and the distant sound of a lone guitarist carries over the colourful rooftops. Our delayed flight has grown in us a fondness of the town over several extra days here. The snowballs, the bushwalk, the old ships, the food are all a joy – but surely tomorrow is the day. (It is)
Scene four: Aboard the ‘Magellan Explorer’, departing the Malvinas
As we leave the shelter of Port Stanley, the ship rises on the swell. Antarctic Heritage Trust Executive Director, Francesca Eathorne, reads from Shackleton; “it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown.” An ominous rumble from below harmonises with a chorus of glasses rattling as if in approval. We are underway! *Goosebumps* We gather on the top deck for a muster station safety drill, pale faces losing colour as the swell grows. Trying hard to ignore the retching sound across the room and the pungent smell from somewhere nearby – despite the opulent setting of the vessel, I’m reminded that sea sickness doesn’t discriminate. *small chuckle, surprise burp* I think I might go lay down…
Scene four: East Scotia Sea
Heavy fog outside as we settle into couches for another fantastic lecture from the onboard expedition crew, this time from our enthusiastic historian Tenessee, who has an iconic British blend of David Attenborough’s voice-box with the energy of Boris Johnson. Most of us are now accustomed to the rolling movement of the ship, not in the least thanks to the godsend of modern medication. A minute into his presentation the mist begins to lift, and Tennessee lunges to the portside window; “OH MY GOD, IS THAT AN ICEBERG?!” We all rush over; it is! A gleaming sculpture of deepest blue and white looms out of the misty ocean several hundred metres to our left. A mad scramble ensues about the boat as we rush for cameras and vantage points. Then not a minute later; “OH AND LAND HO LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, LAND HO!” Sure enough the haze around us clears and far ahead, protruding from the wall of cloud, is a distant pinnacle of rock and ice.
Somewhere above Chile. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
Albatross soaring over the Scotia Sea. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
And so, almost a week after we set out from Aotearoa, we first lay eyes on South Georgia Island. We. Are. Here. *more goosebumps*
Our first sight of South Georgia. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
The Island – wonder, highlights, contrasts
How do I describe South Georgia…how does anyone articulate such a magical and incredibly wonderful place? A frosty little croissant of land that fills you with awe and sets your imagination absolutely wild. Sheer mountains, wide glaciers, goliath icebergs, funky fauna everywhere, sexy seabirds wheeling overhead, and a rich story of conservation success. It’s an overwhelming collection of wonder and contrasts; a non-stop overstimulation of incredible experiences – one amazing moment will be overtaken moments later by another, it’s never ending!
There were many surreal and bizarre moments. Watching two-dozen albatross soar behind the ship, cutting low across the ridge of the waves with centimetres to spare. Landing on the rocky beaches for the first time, consumed by the chatter of ten-thousand king penguins blanketing the hillside. Witnessing the first moments of life as a newborn elephant seal finds its bearings, and later watching another newborn torn apart by a pair of giant petrels (yuck! But that’s life I guess).
The impressive Drygalski Fjord. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
A baby elephant seal just minutes old and a king penguin in the rain. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
Not to mention the contrasts. For instance, I stood in the cosy and luxurious dining room aboard ‘the Magellan’ one lunchtime, the chef pan-frying a custom-made pasta dish in front of me, while over his shoulder and out the window King Penguins rocketed across the water past colossal icebergs… it all seemed, to be quite frank, a little bit obscene. But I’m not going to lie, it was pretty damn enjoyable too!
Another was the icebergs. Stunning. Moulded by the ocean into all shapes and sizes like a manic city block – some even defying the laws of physics. We were told it’s a rare treat to witness icebergs around South Georgia, and yet from the time we arrived to the time we left there wasn’t a single moment we couldn’t see an iceberg from the ship. They were everywhere! We were told the Antarctic ice hadn’t formed fast enough this season to hold it all south. What an oddly devastating privilege to float between the giants.
No words can do justice to the abundance and variety of sights, sounds, smells, feelings, memories and experiences of South Georgia – so thank goodness for the camera!
Ice giants near the entrance of Drygalski Fiord. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
Return journey – Leaving is similar to arriving; just more emotional
Our final steps on the island in St Andrew’s Bay. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
Then suddenly, the ‘first time evers’ start to become ‘last time evers’ as our time on the island draws to a close. We begin to realise we may likely never return to this island (though we all hope so) and there’s an emotional shift. That was the last king penguin rookery. The last glacier. The last leopard seal encounter. The last time stepping foot on the island. And you find yourself holding back tears as your eight-person Zodiac bounces its way back to the ship, everyone feeling a little quieter and a little more empty. Then you wake one morning, and the land is no longer in sight, and you realise your last glimpse of the island was yesterday, and you didn’t even know.
The emotion isn’t helped by two-and-a-half days of queasy sea nausea; riding swells of 8–10 metres. 2am in the foremost cabin is a good time to process your feelings with your roommate (thanks Rykien), as the bow rises up one wave and plummets into a trough, the water slamming against the hull with a terrifying boom. The ship pitches sideways; “This is it” you think, “we’re going over! We’re going down!” Then it pitches back upright and you feel like an idiot. Fun times sailing on the Scotia Sea.
And then came the farewells. The worst part of all. Quietly lining the hallway to disembark, joking and laughing and staring at the walls to resist crying. Walking down the gangway and hugging goodbye to the crew who’ve become family over the last two weeks. Then suddenly the bus is moving, and the Magellan slides out of sight, and it all hits you. It’s over. The journey home has begun, and the adventure is coming to an end. (Heartbreaking stuff, I hope you’re crying while you read this).
Sea puppies – the leopard seals and elephant seals of South Georgia. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.
Then we’re back at the Falkland Airbase, which we can’t take photos of. Then we’re back in Punta Arenas watching the dogs walk through Lovers Plaza. Then we’re back on a plane with no legroom and 30 different movies to watch other than your own. Then we’re back in Auckland International Airport with no words meaningful enough to adequately farewell the friends you have such a deep appreciation for. Then suddenly, you’re home.
Reflections on Adventure
There is a privilege to discomfort. Adventure is such a joy, and sure it can be uncomfortable and scary, but I’m reminded often that our choice to experience discomfort is a reality many don’t get to choose.
We returned from South Georgia to news of the devastating escalation in violence throughout Palestine and Israel – another place I have been privileged to explore. The two lands so vastly different have both moved me in ways hard to describe, and I couldn’t help but see the contradicting similarities of how we experience ‘adventure’.
We opt in and opt out of realities many people face day after day. What a joy to walk for fun; to sleep in a tent by choice; to hunger, to thirst, and to shiver in cold knowing you have shelter waiting nearby. Safety. Home.
Returning from such an experience of joy and wonder, into a messy and chaotic life full of real-world problems was a stark contrast. I’m left with an immeasurable magnitude of incredible memories that simultaneously clash so harshly against the realities of our world, and I’m left wondering ‘where to next?’
What does one do with such a life-changing trip?
Penguins emerge from the water at Fortune Bay and a giant petrel at Salisbury Plains. ©AHT/Cole Yeoman.