South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) is a UK Overseas Territory, situated 800 miles SE of the Falkland Islands. The main island of South Georgia is approximately 170 km long and between 2 and 40 km wide and occupies an area of 3,755 km2, more than half of which is permanently ice covered. Mt Paget rises to 2,934 m and is the highest point in all UK mainland and territories outside of Antarctica. The South Sandwich Islands are a chain of eleven small volcanic islands stretching from 56-60oS, 350-500 miles SE of South Georgia. The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Maritime Zone (200 nm from baselines) occupies in excess of 1,000,000 km2 of the Southern Ocean.
South Georgia was first sighted by London merchant Antoine de la Roche in 1675 and was claimed for Great Britain by James Cook in 1775, with government arrangements established by Letter Patent in 1843. Cook also discovered the South Sandwich Islands (1775) and the islands were subsequently annexed by Great Britain through the 1908 Letters Patent.
A Norwegian, Carl Anton Larsen, established the first land-based whaling station and first permanent habitation at Grytviken in 1904. Throughout the 20th century, South Georgia was a base for whaling and sealing industries. Operations ceased in the 1960s and the whaling stations were abandoned.
The Territories have been under UK administration since 1908, but were briefly occupied by Argentinean forces in 1982. Until 1985, SGSSI were part of the Falkland Island Dependencies, after which they became a separate UK Overseas Territory. Argentina has maintained a claim to the sovereignty of South Georgia since 1927 and to the South Sandwich Islands since 1948.
SGSSI are of global significance as a relatively pristine and rich environment that sustains major populations of seabirds and marine mammals including globally threatened species, like the iconic wandering albatross. South Georgia is also home to one of the longest and most detailed scientific datasets in the Southern Ocean, with over 30 years of population data on seabirds and marine mammals at Bird Island. South Georgia waters are highly productive, supporting a large biomass of krill, on which many marine predators depend. The waters around South Georgia have also been identified as a globally important location for marine benthic biodiversity, but that biodiversity is under threat from rapid regional warming. In contrast to South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands are rarely visited and information on the terrestrial and marine flora and fauna is sparse. Recent scientific work on the RRS James Cook has indicated hydrothermal activity in deep water off the SSI, which may be home to unique fauna.
There are no permanent residents in the Territory but the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) operates two bases on South Georgia. The base at King Edward Point (KEP) is operated under contract to GSGSSI and the FCO and is staffed by eight BAS personnel, plus two GSGSSI Officers and their spouses. Bird Island has a year round complement of four BAS personnel who undertake long-term monitoring of seabirds and marine mammals. The South Sandwich Islands are uninhabited, though an originally undetected, and subsequently allowed, manned Argentinean research station was located on Thule from 1976 to 1982.
GSGSSI is financially self-sufficient, with an annual revenue derived primarily from fishing licences, tourist landing fees and sale of stamps. Revenue is spent on fisheries research and protection, fisheries observers, salaries of established staff and environmental management.