A leopard seal in the water. ©Antarctica21/Rodrigo Moraga
Rediscovering my Passion for Wildlife:
A Journey to South Georgia
Savannah de Vos 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’.
From a young age, a fascination with animals has been a defining aspect of my life. Recently, Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Inspiring Explorers Expedition™ to the enchanting landscapes of South Georgia rekindled the flame of my childhood passion, prompting me to reflect on how I can continue to keep this spark alive. As a child, my love for animals was evident in my actions. At the age of four, I insisted my godmother take a nest of baby birds to the vet after their mother was lost in a storm. In Year 5, my best friend and I embarked on a mission to end deep-sea trawling, braving the challenges of a fishing enthusiast town to collect signatures for our petition. I remember feeling helpless attending a whale stranding in Northland as a teenager. The release of Nim’s Island on DVD had me glued to the screen, dreaming of a life where I could coexist with animals, much like the characters in the film.
As I transitioned into adulthood, my love for animals persisted, albeit in the background. Living a vegan lifestyle became a conscious choice driven by health and ethical reasons. Yet, despite these subtle expressions of my passion, I realised that I had not actively engaged with the realm of wildlife learning since my younger days. The turning point came with our expedition to South Georgia, a place where nature reigns supreme, and wildlife thrives in its purest form. I was surrounded by people who also shared this awe of place and creature. I felt a profound connection with the environment that had captivated my childhood self.
Picture this: a northern giant petrel, determined to soar into the boundless sky, clutches a fluffy penguin chick, its fluffy innocence a stark contrast to the struggle at hand. The bird concedes and settles for pecking away at the chick amidst the rookery of penguins. The discarded feathers of penguins create a whimsical trail resembling bunny tails in the patches of tussock grass. A cheeky leopard seal lurks in the dancing kelp, its curiosity piqued as it momentarily surfaces, scrutinising our presence and playfully investigating a GoPro.
Classroom display of our adventure. ©AHT/Savannah de Vos.
Two Southern Elephant Seals calling back to one another. ©AHT/Savannah de Vos.
A lone Gentoo Penguin exploring the shoreline of Grytviken’s whaling station. ©AHT/Savannah de Vos.
An Antarctic Fur Seal sunbathing amongst the tussock grass. ©AHT/Savannah de Vos.
Venturing into Drygalski Fjord, an Antarctic fur seal tenaciously attempts to conquer ‘growlers’ (floating pieces of ice), facing limited success but resolute in its efforts. At Gold Harbour, a formidable wall of elephant seals becomes an imposing obstacle preventing us from landing, a powerful reminder that we are mere visitors in their realm. In this harsh environment, birds diligently peck away at the placenta of a southern elephant seal.
Navigating an obstacle course amidst king penguins and southern elephant seals, the air is heavy with the scent of decaying wildlife, the remnants of flesh ground into the landscape. Witnessing the unlikely companionship between southern elephant seals and the resilient South Georgia ‘chickens’ is a testament to the intricate web of life here.
Barking seals in Fortuna Bay serve as a vocal warning, urging us to maintain a respectful distance. A squadron of king penguins emerge from the sea, their calls resembling a whimsical kazoo orchestra, echoing against the looming backdrop of mountains. Often travelling in a mischievous pack of three, it is almost like they pose for our cameras. We give way to penguins marching, no road rage in sight. The rumbling breathing of steam-expelling southern elephant seals adds a surreal soundtrack to the surroundings, as if Papatūānuku herself is battling indigestion.
South Georgia unfolds like a living screensaver and poses a sensory overload—dead carcasses providing sustenance, waves crashing onto a vulnerable southern elephant seal pup, and northern giant petrels seizing opportunities with ruthless efficiency. The experience is nothing short of otherworldly, where the raw beauty and harsh realities of nature combine. We are some of the few that are fortunate to have been given the opportunity to witness the abundance of untouched life.
A moulting King Penguin going through an extremely sensitive cycle. ©AHT/Savannah de Vos.
A line of King Penguins exploring together. ©AHT/Savannah de Vos.
Upon returning from South Georgia, I’ve actively shared my passion for wildlife through outreach presentations to young people. Recognising the importance of genuine excitement in teaching, I focused on captivating my students by sharing facts, anecdotes, images, videos and audio recordings of the wildlife we encountered. The students commented on the “popping candy” sound of the icebergs creaking, the sound of sizzling onions as icebergs broke up and the noises of the southern elephant seals that was reminiscent of the snores of some of their fathers. When I asked the Year 5 and 6 students what it means to be an explorer, the key phrases that kept coming out were “adventurous,” “brave” and “having a passion to learn.” It is these traits alongside the Antarctic Heritage Trusts’ explorer mindset that I will hold dearly moving forward.
To do this justice, I am trying to upskill myself to learn more and more. Attending the University of Otago’s event, ‘Thirst for Knowledge: Living with Leopard Seals,’ was a valuable experience. It connected me with like-minded individuals and provided insights into wildlife conservation. Driven by curiosity, I’ve also delved into Zoology textbooks, deepening my understanding and connecting theoretical knowledge with practical experiences from our expedition. I hope to do some additional tertiary study in this area.
Getting ready to present to a group of Year 5 and 6 students. ©Dr Amanda George.
My journey to South Georgia served as a rediscovery of a lifelong passion that had momentarily taken a backseat. Thank you to the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the Trust’s generous donors and partners, and the incredible people that made this trip possible.