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Drastic Decline in Wandering Albatross Numbers Again By Sally Poncet of South Georgia Surveys.
Numbers of Wandering Albatross are declining alarmingly. Photo by Roy Summers.
The South Georgia Wandering Albatross population has sustained another drastic decline. At Bird Island, where scientists have been monitoring the population for over 30 years, a total of 779 nests were counted in January 2007. After correcting for early season failures, this equates to an estimated total of 802 breeding pairs. That is a decline of 49 pairs compared to last season and of 125 pairs since this breeder group last bred in the 2005 season. A similar trend was recorded in the Bay of Isles, with a big drop at Prion Island - 28 nests in total, compared to 33 last year and 42 in 2005.
Dr. Richard Phillips from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) says that analysis of long-term Bird Island data - from ringing-recovery records (both at sea and from other sites at South Georgia), Fisheries Observer reports, satellite tracking data and annual censuses - may provide some of the answers behind the drop. Given the routinely high breeding success of this species, it is unlikely that ocean regime shifts or changing availability of fishing discards is having an impact, and that an increase in adult and juvenile mortality on longlines is almost certainly the root cause of the population declines.
South Georgia albatross and petrel declines due to incidental mortality (rather than introduced predators) are amongst the worst in the South Atlantic (although several species at Tristan da Cunha and Gough are also declining rapidly). Among the many activities that are attempting to address the problem, is an assessment of the impact of ICCAT (International Committee for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) fisheries on seabirds. Initial data collation and mapping will be carried out by BirdLife International and BAS. Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation will do the modelling of total bycatch and impact on populations.
The introduction of mitigation measures in the pelagic and demersal fisheries around the Falklands and South Georgia has proved to be very effective in reducing seabird mortality. Adoption of similar mitigation by other regional fisheries management organisations would be of huge benefit to albatrosses and petrels, and would help stop the disastrous decline of South Georgia's wanderers.
Chief Executive Officer Post Created within GSGSSI
Current SG Director of Fisheries, and Falkland Island First Secretary, Harriet Hall has landed a new job as Chief Executive Officer for GSGSSI. The newly created position comes as part of a restructuring of jobs within the South Georgia Government.
Harriet will take up the new position, which will include the administration of the Territory within the framework set out in the “Plan for Progress” and the job of Director of Fisheries, in July for an initial one-year contract. She will still be based in Government House in Stanley.
South Georgia Liberation Veteran: Frustrations and Euphoria
This article is from the Falkland Island newspaper Penguin News April 4th edition and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
The man who led the land force in the retaking of South Georgia from Argentine forces in 1982, has spoken of the operation's success, which was completed without a hostile bullet being fired. Land force commander Major Guy Sheridan's orders from the Royal Navy were: "To repossess Grytviken and Leith, neutralise Argentine communications in the area, capture or kill Argentine armed forces personnel and arrest and remove Argentine civilians." There was a caveat - "minimum loss of life and damage to property".
Major Sheridan carried out his orders to the letter, and to this day he is clearly pleased with the success of the operation, however, while in Stanley recently, he revealed the experience had also been a frustrating one.
A mountaineer with years of experience, Major Sheridan was against the plan to land SAS troops on Fortuna Glacier; he was clear he felt the plan was unwise but his warning went unheeded. He was eventually proven correct, however, when the landings went disastrously wrong and two Wessex helicopters were lost in appalling weather.
Also a cause of frustration was a delay to the start of the land operation to retake the island. Following a successful attack on the Argentine submarine, Santa Fe, which limped into King Edward Point and tied up at the jetty, the captain of the task group called the helicopter pilots and skippers of the three ships in the area - Plymouth, Endurance and Brilliant - on to Antrim for a debriefing. This was despite Major Sheridan being poised to go in to fight.
He was kept waiting for three and a half hours, "...hours when I knew that the Argentines were ashore, and could be using that time to establish and galvanise a proper defence." He commented, "While these guys talked among themselves on Antrim, it wasn't putting me any closer to achieving my objective. Those three and a half hours were a really frustrating waste of time.
"I was told to bugger off and wait. All it was, was a self-congratulatory chat in the captain's cabin." Having finally been given the go ahead, Major Sheridan, as commander of land forces, prepared his men for a fight.
Incredibly, his concerns that the Argentines would have used the delay to dig in around Grytviken, proved unfounded. "The captain of the submarine had seen four helicopters chase him out to sea and damage him and he must have realised there was a sizeable force; he would have known they were outnumbered."
Major Sheridan ordered naval gunfire to pass over King Edward Point (KEP) to neutralise his chosen landing site on Hestesletten where he landed his force of 75 men at 15.45, and his force moved forward to the settlement. Fortunately, the advance met no opposition, nor was a hostile shot fired at the British troops, and the Argentines soon put white flags up.
Captain Bicain of the Santa Fe, and Major Lagos in command of the Argentine garrison, surrendered to Major Sheridan at KEP and 137 Argentine prisoners were processed and housed in Shackleton House and other BAS buildings. The lack of a fight was no source of disappointment to Major Sheridan. "I was fantastically content that we had achieved this thing without any casualties on both sides.
"It could have been the complete opposite and we could have had a real bloody nose if the Argentines had done their job properly, particularly given the delay we had."
Major Sheridan left South Georgia just days later and headed north to join the Task Force; he soon decided he would be of better use back on South Georgia and there he remained until May 27 when he set sail for the Falklands to rejoin 42 Commando Royal Marines.
With an uncertain time facing him, he wrote a long letter to his wife Molly, explaining what had happened at South Georgia, "...because I wanted it to be known what an extraordinary operation this was, just in case something happened to me here. Otherwise it would have died with me, the history would have gone." The letter is included in Guy Sheridan's new book, Taxi to the Snow Line.
In utterly understated fashion, he described his time in the South Atlantic as, "....an interesting couple of months." Looking back, despite the frustrations he experienced in South Georgia, he is reluctant "to harp on back to the mistakes," as, in the end, the operation was a success.
Guy Sheridan made his third visit to the Island last month, along with fellow veteran Keith Mills, who had led the small force of Royal Marines against the Argentine invasion of South Georgia.
The Princess was approached by the SGHT because of her interest in, and commitment to, the Antarctic region. She is already the Patron of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and recently visited the South Atlantic region on a Royal tour that included the Falkland Islands and the BAS station Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula.
The SGHT- promotes for the public benefit, the conservation and protection of the physical and natural environment and surrounding waters of South Georgia - and advances the education of the public in the Island's historical heritage.
The initial period of the Princess Royal’s patronage will be for three years, during which she hopes to visit South Georgia.
With increasing numbers of visitors to the Island, and climate change potentially making South Georgia more hospitable to a wider range of species, the risk of a new and serious species introduction is ever increasing. In order to prevent the accidental introduction or translocation of invasive species, the Government is currently reviewing and improving all of the existing biosecurity measures before the start of the next tourist season.
Cruise ships already use bootwashing stations to help reduce the risk of introduction or translocation of species onto the Island or between sites. At the coming meeting of International Antarctic Tour Operators (IATTO) in Hobart, Tasmania, delegates will be given a list of proposed Biosecurity measures that will be in place before the beginning of the next tour season. All other ships landing passengers or stores in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, including military, scientific, and fishing vessels and yachts, will have to comply with the same biosecurity protocol and measures in place will be subject to inspections by Government Officers.
These measures will include: bootwashing with a biocide; inspection and cleaning of clothing and equipment; use of rat guards; and all people landing having to sign a declaration that they have checked and cleaned bags, clothing, footwear, camera tripods, walking sticks etc. The new measures have been drawn up after close liaison with the authorities responsible for managing other sub-Antarctic islands.
The recent explosion in numbers of Earwigs in the Falklands has further heightened concerns about the biosecurity threat to South Georgia. In and around Stanley the introduced insect is beginning to plague people’s houses, gardens and businesses, so extra measures have been put in place to try and prevent Earwigs being inadvertently bought to South Georgia as well. Packers of stores and fresh produce destined for South Georgia have been asked to be especially vigilant, and fresh goods being offloaded at KEP and Bird Island are being carefully inspected again for any unwelcome visitors.
Incoming fresh produce is carefully checked for earwigs or other unwelcome visitors. Photo by Pat Lurcock.
25th Anniversary of Liberation Marked by the SGA
The 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of South Georgia was marked in London by a meeting of the South Georgia Association. A reception was preceded by two talks by those intimately involved in the events on the Island 25 years ago.
Bob Headland was living and working at KEP when the Argentines invaded. He gave a talk on his experiences entitled “Galtieri, my part in his downfall”.
Tony Ellerbeck was the pilot of “HMS Endurance’s” Wasp helicopter and successfully attacked the Argentine submarine “Santa Fe”. He gave a talk entitled “Perambulations of the Red Plum”. ‘Red Plum’ was the affectionate nickname of “HMS Endurance”.
The SGA also held their AGM on May 18th. A message from the Commissioner Alan Huckle was read out by Gerry Adamson, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Desk Officer for South Georgia, in which he said that his recent visit to the Island “gave me an appreciation of the stark beauty of the place and importance of preserving its pristine environment.”
His address stressed that the increasing numbers of visitors to the Island requires close monitoring, and following on from the stricter Code of Conduct for Cape Rosa introduced last season, site-specific guidelines for the most sensitive and heavily visited landing sites will be drawn up. He also mentioned: the coming feasibility report on rat eradication; the hope to have completed installation of hydroelectric power early in 2009; and the decision to go ahead with the planned boardwalk on Prion Island with monitoring for any effect on the albatross – “If there is,” the Commissioner said, “we shall consider closing the island to tourist visitors.”
Charles Swithinbank accepted an invitation to become the new President of the South Georgia Association. The AGM was followed by a lecture by Ben Sullivan of the RSPB on “Albatrosses in the Southern ocean, threats, challenges and solutions.”
A decision was made at the SGA AGM to double the maximum award that can be made as part of their “Initiative Fund” to £500. The Fund is open to members of the Association who wish to initiate or support projects that will stimulate awareness of and interest in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
KEP scientists were excited to pull up a Mackerel Icefish in the net on May 31st.
Rarely caught locally, but an important commercial species, the fish was about the same size as those being caught in the commercial icefish fishery this year. Scientists hope that what is caught in the Bay is representative of what is caught in the fisheries, but on a smaller scale.
If it is found that the science fishing, in conjunction with the plankton trawls which catch the fish larvae, can be a predictor of what is happening in the waters around the Island, it may play an important part in future stock assessments.
KEP scientists, Jenn and Anj, were excited to catch a Mackerel Icefish in the bay.
Don’t Count your Chicks before they’ve Hatched
A Wandering Albatross chick on the nest. Photo by Roy Summers.
A Wandering Albatross chick count was done at Prion Island in late April. Patrick and Sarah Lurcock spent three hours on a snowy afternoon collecting data for South Georgia Surveys, checking on all the nests that had had chicks or sitting adults earlier in the year.
South Georgia Surveys will continue to monitor Wandering Albatross numbers in the Bay of Isles for at least the next three years. It is hoped the April count can be achieved with the assistance of the FPV “Pharos SG” to get survey personnel onto the island.
Though several nests were empty, initial analysis of the results showed that, in comparison to the population at Bird Island over the years, the chick survivorship at Prion island this season is within the norm for hatching success. Usually 15–20% (can be 30%) of eggs are lost in the hatching phase, but once the chicks are old enough to be left alone on the nest there is usually very little further mortality.
25th Anniversary of Liberation of South Georgia Coin Released
The 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has been marked by the release of a commemorative coin. The coin shows a Royal Marine raising the White Ensign, and in the background is “HMS Plymouth” with a Wasp and a Wessex helicopter. The coin is available in cupro nickel and in silver.
Another recent South Georgia coin release is a two-coin set to mark the fourth International Polar Year (IPY), which started in March. On three occasions over the past 125 years, scientists from around the world have joined forces for a massive project focused on the Arctic and Antarctic. The two coins both feature polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who has strong links with the Island. One coin depicts him and his crew stranded on an ice floe on New Years Eve 1914, with a stylised representation of the aurora australis in the sky above. The second coin features Shackleton himself with dogs, sledge and one of the lifeboats that were to carry the men to safety. The IPY coins are only available in cupro nickel.
There has also been a three coin set released after more than half a million Britons cast their votes to decide who was the ‘Greatest Briton’ of all time, choosing three people closely linked to South Georgia in the top thirty. Number 24 in the poll was HM Queen Elizabeth II, the current Head of State of the UK Overseas Territories. Sailing in at number 12 in the poll was explorer, navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook, who was first to land on South Georgia and named it in honour of his king. And at number eleven was Island hero Sir Ernest Shackleton. Portraits of the three Great Britons feature on the three coins, which are available in cupro nickel and silver.
All the coins carry an effigy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II by Ian Rank-Broadley on the obverse side. For further information and to purchase coins, contact Pobjoy Mint at www.pobjoy.com
25th Anniversary of Liberation commemorative coin.
The two coins to commemorate the International Polar Year feature Shackleton and his crew stranded on an ice floe.
The three “Great Britons” set: HM Queen Elizabeth II; Captain James Cook and Sir Ernest Shackleton, with obverse design in the lower left corner.
Historic Sites Survey
Sealer site artefacts at Nilse Hullet Hut. Photo by Ken Passfield
The campsite of pioneering South Georgia naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy at the Bay of Isles, and a lost sealer’s grave at Godthul, were amongst the exciting finds of the Historic Sites Survey team. Most of the survey work was done opportunistically during the course of the two-year ACAP Petrel Survey, from the survey vessel “Golden Fleece”. The survey documented 76 sites of historic interest, and priority was given to those sites that are difficult to reach and so rarely visited. High densities of Fur Seals during the survey period made access to some potentially important historic sites difficult, and at times impossible. There are plenty of sites left to survey in the future.
The Historic Sites Survey report, written by Ken Passfield and Sally Poncet for South Georgia Surveys, was published on March 25th.
Fishing and Shipping News
Longliner “Argos Froyanes” arriving for licensing.
The main Toothfish season started on May 1st. Five longliners were licensed and have fished all month. A new ship to the fishery, “Argos Froyanes”, came in for inspection and licensing on May 8th. Another vessel had to leave the area to get its AIS (Automatic vessel Identification System) repaired before being allowed to commence fishing. All the Toothfish vessels are now required to have a working AIS as a condition of their license.
One trawler has also been fishing this month for icefish.
The Carrs’ Successful North American Tour for SGHT By Alison Stewart of SGHT
After 14 years of living and working on South Georgia, Tim and Pauline Carr decided it was time to begin a new chapter in their lives, and left South Georgia on the Explorer II in November 2006. They showed their continuing love and commitment to the Island by embarking on what was originally to be a two month tour of the US on behalf of SGHT. Their presentation brought the wonders of South Georgia to a new audience as well as some old friends, who enthusiastically received the Carrs’ amazing photography and personal account of their life on the Island.
The tour began in Boston at the Explorers Club, and continued down the East coast of the US, through Peabody Essex Museum, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Smithsonian in Washington DC, Cold Spring Harbor Museum in Long Island, New York and finally to Mystic Seaport. Tim and Pauline then flew to Philadelphia to begin a series of public and private lectures arranged by their US friends and admirers, which included a presentation at the Wilmington Club in Delaware and the Whyte museum in Banff, Alberta. As well as raising several thousand dollars in donations to SGHT from the attendees at their lectures, Tim and Pauline’s tour raised enthusiasm for a new project to bring a full-size, seaworthy replica of the James Caird lifeboat to South Georgia Museum.
Tim and Pauline’s popularity meant that they made at least double the number of planned appearances in the US, on both the East and West coast. Their energy and enthusiasm for South Georgia is infectious and has done much to promote the Island and the work of the Trust on wildlife projects such as Habitat Restoration. Tim and Pauline ’s commitment to the wildlife of South Georgia undoubtedly influenced the granting of SGHT’s most major donation to date: 750,000 US dollars from the Island Foundation towards the habitat restoration programme in order to reintroduce endangered birds to the coastline of the Island. South Georgia’s wildlife and heritage will continue to benefit from Tim and Pauline’s ongoing commitment for many years to come.
A Leopard Seal Doesn’t Change its Spots
The first Leopard Seal of winter was seen on King Edward Point jetty on May 6th. The docile young male animal snoozed contentedly allowing photos to be taken to pass on to the scientists at Bird Island for their photo ID project. Leopard Seals are not seen around South Georgia in summer, when they are leading their solitary lives in the pack ice further south.
Leopard Seals have been the subject of a long-term study on Bird Island, with “lep rounds” taking place for the last fifteen years to spot the animals on and around the island beaches. Where possible the animals were given flipper tags to help with identification work. Tagging, though, can only be carried out on hauled out seals so another method was needed to increase the number of recognisable seals. Comparison of spot and scar patterns on the animals can be used to identify individuals, so the photo-identification work was started two winters ago. Photos have the advantage that they can be taken whilst the animals is still in the water.
Each Leopard Seals’ spot pattern is unique. Photo by Donald Malone.
Seventy-nine seals have now been identified using the photographic method, and the pattern of individual seals’ behaviour is beginning to emerge. Some seals stay around for about three months, with other transient animals only being seen once. They have also noticed that just one animal last winter was responsible for the majority of kills observed.
People in the Falkland Islands have also been asked to take photos of any Leopard Seals seen there. It is possible the seals from South Georgia travel that far…maybe we will soon know.
Below Freezing: The Antarctic Dive Guide
The first published diving guide to the Antarctic includes six dive sites in South Georgia. The guide, written by Lisa Eareckson Trotter, starts by giving a brief history of Antarctic diving and an overview of the Antarctic and some helpful “how to…” information, the second and main part of the book individually describes 19 dive sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and 6 sites around South Georgia.
“The general layout is good and the guide easy to use.” said reviewer David Rootes, “It is well designed and produced…although I would have preferred a spiral wire binding simply because it lays open. It is well priced at £19.95”
The reviewer also made the point that he objects to the books subtitle as the guide is “to key sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia but other subantarctic or continental locations are not included."
David Rootes’s full book review was published in the April 2007 edition of the South Georgia Association newsletter and this shortened version is reproduced here with their kind permission.
One to Watch Out For…
A television programme featuring famous yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur’s recent visit to South Georgia will be aired later this year on BBC4.
The Indus film company were recently shooting more footage of Ellen and Sally Poncet at the BAS offices in Cambridge for the one-hour special programme.
The programme producer wrote: “Ellen spent time working on a conservation project with biologist Sally Poncet, a project which involved carrying out albatross and petrel surveys of the Island for the South Georgia Government. The film not only features the personal experiences of Sally and Ellen as they engage with the breathtaking wildlife but also aims to contextualise some of the more turbulent aspects of South Georgia's history, such as the massive whaling operations that went on there.”
Bird Island News By Robin Snape, Zoological Field Assistant and winter base Commander at Bird Island.
Krill heaped on Bird Island’s shores with Giant Petrels feasting in the bay. Photo by Robin Snape
Grey-headed Albatross chick ready to fledge. Photo by Robin Snape
This month saw a long awaited change of season as winter arrived very soon after the “JCR” visited us in late April for last call of the year. Freezing temperatures saw the island frozen solid which made a nice change from wet and muddy. For a week the beaches were pink with tonnes of Krill that had become trapped in the bay, probably blown in by the southerly winds. Giant Petrels, Kelp Gulls, Sheathbills and ducks, were all out in huge numbers taking advantage of this feast, which must have come as great comfort given the freezing temperatures so early in the season. During this period Fabrice and I came across a Gentoo Penguin who had managed to get a hollow limpet shell stuck around its bill, so no krill for this guy, until we gave him (or her) a helping hand.
With all of the seal pups having gone to sea, most of the albatross species having fledged the nest and with none of the penguins breeding over winter, the three field zoologists, myself, Donald and Fabrice have been winding down and taking a break from the daily pressures of field work. We are still fairly busy with annual reports, lab jobs and running of the station, which between just the four of us can be a lot of work in itself. But it is nice to be able to go out and enjoy the island when we choose to, rather than when work dictates, and regardless of the weather. With a decent snowfall at the end of the month we were able to get out on skis and snowboards for some hard earned recreation. The island really is a different place at this time of year, compared to even a few months ago, let alone during the peak of summer breeding. You can certainly see the seasons changing before your eyes, from the muddy commotion of seething masses of seals, penguins and albatrosses who govern your daily routine, their smell and noise dominating your every sense, to the peaceful tranquillity of winter where the sound of crisp snow crunching beneath your feet and the occasional calling of Wandering Albatrosses whilst they feed their chicks, are equally as breathtaking.
We are looking forward to spotting our first Leopard Seal of the winter as they return from summer breeding quarters further south. Apparently our neighbours at KEP have been spotting leps for a while already so I’m sure by next month’s edition Donald will have been busy photographing them for our Leopard Seal identification database. At the end of the month Fabrice the penguin scientist spotted two Humpback Whales close to the coast.
Gentoo Penguin with a limpet shell stuck on its bill. Photo by Robin Snape
One of two Humpback Whales seen off bird island. Photo by Fabrice Le Bouard
South Georgia Snippets
Some fairly freaky icicles formed from the roof eaves
The winter hit early this year, with deep snow falling at the end of April, and it just does not seem to have stopped snowing since. Extraordinary and beautiful icicles have built up hanging from roof eaves and guttering, some up to two meters long. Everyone, including some of the wildlife, has been enjoying the change the snow brings.
Fur Seals in the snow. Flash video clip, press play to start. Note, Flash is required to view.
Everyone gathered to see Ainslie off. Ainslie is centre front with blonde hair.
Ainslie Wilson, who wrote this newsletter the previous four months, left on the Fishery Patrol Vessel “Pharos SG” on May 1st. Ainslie hopes to return next summer, so it was not too sad saying goodbye.
The RAF over-flew the Island two days running on May 6th and 7th carrying out air patrols.
May is a month of indents, with inventories of stationary, food, and all other stores being taken. People seemed to go missing for days and could be found in unlikely corners counting rivets, soap, bags of flour, distress flares and just about anything else you can think of.
Early in the month the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross chicks were still on their nests at Horsehead, and could be seen flapping their wings and building up flight muscles ready for the big off. We hope they fledged soon after or else continued deep snowfall may have made their life uncomfortable. A Cattle Egret landed on one of the fishing boats and was looked after by the Observer on board. Most years a few bedraggled Cattle Egrets are seen, probably blown off course, and sadly they never seem to survive long.
Everyone was keen to get out skiing and snowboarding once a decent layer of snow had built up, but later in the month the new snow was so deep that it was making travel very difficult. Despite that, several intrepid parties went out for day trips or weekends out camping. The route round the track to Grytviken was closed for several days because of avalanche risk. Winter training on base has continued to ensure everyone is aware of the risks and well equipped when they venture out.
Two birthdays were marked in memorable style this month. Anjali, the Chief Scientist, is a keen climber and skier and spent her birthday climbing Mt Duse with Andy and Andrew, returning late afternoon to ski to Grytviken where she was greeted by a surprise birthday party in the snow with a fabulous moonrise setting the seal on what Anjali described as, “the best birthday ever.”
Mel Andy and Anjali at Anjali's surprise birthday party which was blessed with a stunning moonrise. Photo by Charlotte Main
Assistant Scientist Jenn also got a surprise party, but this time the keen hockey player was greeted in the boatshed with a court marked out for the new sport “broomstick hockey”. This hilarious sport is played three a side, with a puck made of electrical tape and a broom or squeegee in place of a hockey stick. Competitive spirit was quickly raised and several close games played, before the lack of entire brooms stopped play. The chippy shop was in use the next day to mend five broomsticks.
Broomstick hockey! Photo by Anjali Pande
Anjali and Andrew “topping out” on Mt Duse, King Edward Point below. Photo by Andy Barker.
The snowmen built by the crew of “Pharos SG” are getting better and better.
View of the Month
Don’t forget to see this month’s 'View of the Month' - available shortly on the South Georgia Heritage Trust website
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