The first paradox for the visitor has to do with one's latitude of departure. To travelers arriving from the north, the island seems forbiddingly antipodal and cold. To travelers arriving from the south, voyaging up from the Antarctic Peninsula, the island seems almost tropically lush. (In Antarctica there are two native species of vascular plants; on South Georgia there are 26.) To the explorer Ernest Shackleton—whose ship Endurance was crushed nearly a century ago by Antarctic pack ice, who rallied his crew through 16 months of entrapment in the floes, and who escaped finally with five of his men in a small lifeboat, crossing 800 miles of mountainous seas to the whaling stations of South Georgia—that snowy island looked like paradise.
Last February photographer Paul Nicklen and I retraced Shackleton's route. We left the Antarctic Peninsula and sailed, as Shackleton had, just offshore to the South Shetland Islands, from which the explorer had launched his desperate run for South Georgia. His lifeboat, James Caird, was 20 feet long. The cruise ship on which Nicklen and I hitched a ride, National Geographic Explorer, was 367 feet and 6,000 tons. Where Shackleton's little vessel was pounded by a hurricane and a succession of gales, our big ship enjoyed fair weather. I was beginning to feel cheated of the true Antarctic experience when we raised South Georgia, which greeted us with hurricane-force winds of 110 miles an hour.
The second paradox of South Georgia is the crazy changeability of its weather. The Southern Ocean, as some call the seas that encircle Antarctica, has, on average, the strongest winds on Earth. There is little to weaken them, for these far southern latitudes circumscribe the entire globe almost without interruption by land. Low-pressure areas are free to chase one another eastward around the bottom of the planet like a howling dog in pursuit of its tail.
South Georgia sometimes seems like a time-lapse film of weather—one of those frantic abridgments in which clouds boil across the sky while a stroboscopic flickering of light and shadow passes over the land. You sail into a bay in bright sunshine and air scrubbed clean by the ceaseless circumpolar wind. You really can see forever. The steep headlands are an intense, improbable green. Depth of field is infinite, from the kelp beds in the foreground to the snows of the peaks beyond. A glacier, cradled in its high cirque, sends a skein of streams down the rock wall, icy rivulets glittering so bright they hurt the eyes. Then, moments later, like Dorothy whirled back to Kansas, you look out on that same emerald Oz rendered suddenly in gray halftones. A new front has blown in. The sun is just a dimly glowing patch of cloud across which flurries of snowflakes swirl and eddy, dark patterns against the glow. South Georgia suffers from a meteorological version of bipolar disorder.