(Statement issued 20/12/19)
British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI) wishes to extend its condolences to the family of all those tragically lost on Monday 9th December. The Commander of BFSAI thanks all who contributed to supporting the UK’s search effort for the missing Chilean C-130 aircraft. The search made full use of assets and personnel available including military resources and those of the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) and the Falkland Islands Government.
British Forces South Atlantic Islands, based in the Falkland Islands, deployed its first wave of support, within 36 hours, by way of a Royal Air Force A400M Atlas aircraft, tasked to contribute in the over water search role, directing maritime assets in debris fields.
In addition, the liaison team from the Falkland Islands quickly established itself in the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Punta Arenas, providing specialist Search and Rescue advice to the Chilean search command. It included a Falkland Island Government member of staff to act as an interpreter between the Chilean military and British personnel.
The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands immediately made available their fishery patrol vessel the MV Pharos SG. She was diverted from South Georgia patrolling tasks to assist with the search and provided the UK marine presence until relieved by HMS Scott. Pharos was guided by BFSAI in the search activities and debris recovery.
HMS Scott was re-directed to support the search effort and arrived on Saturday 14th December. One of the Royal Navy’s most advanced deep-water survey ships; she was tasked to use her specialist sonar capabilities to survey the ocean bed. Alongside this, she has deployed sea boats, which allowed for debris collection, for further analysis. The search is continuing.
245 years ago on 17th January, James Cook, after 3 years at sea, took possession of South Georgia and claimed the land for His Britannic Majesty, King George the Third. On what must have been a routine summer’s day in the South West Atlantic, the explorer described what he had discovered as a ‘land doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness’.
Cook noted in his journal the abundance of both seals and whales around South Georgia, an observation that helped encourage entrepreneurs to cash in on a growing global demand for pelts and oil. The sealers came in the 1780’s, the whalers in the early 1900’s. Over 175,000 whales were caught before the last station closed in 1966. However, this unrestrained exploitation also triggered scientific research; notably the Discovery Investigations carried out between 1925 and 1951. The work was seminal, making clear the unsustainable nature of over-exploitation. This in turn led to tighter industry regulation.
Today scientific endeavour and environmental protection are at the very core of what happens on South Georgia. Many contribute to that outcome, building on the work of their predecessors. The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Island (GSGSSI) is small and widespread – staff are based not only on South Georgia at King Edward Point, but also at offices in the Falkland Islands, Cambridge and the outer-Hebrides in the UK. Despite this geographic range, all members of the team are deeply dedicated to working together to responsibly manage the territory. GSGSSI is however acutely aware that collaboration with our partners is vital to achieve the goals of the Government.
There have been many achievements to celebrate. The significant habitat restoration projects of the last decade to remove reindeer and rodents were major steps in seeking a return to the native flora and fauna that Cook would have observed. Whilst perhaps not as headline grabbing, the removal of non-native plants by our delivery partners Indigena is an important programme and one that will continue.
Protecting what has been achieved is understandably a key objective for Government. A stowaway reindeer should be fairly easy to spot, but this cannot be said so nonchalantly for other species. It is for that reason GSGSSI has sought out global leaders in biosecurity and worked in partnership with them to deliver a rodent detector dog programme. Based in the Falkland Islands and checking vessels bound for South Georgia, Sammy and his handler Naomi Baxter provide the rodent free assurance needed for ships travelling to the territory. GSGSSI are also delighted to be collaborating with the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) on how the evolving capability may be of use to the Falklands.
Whilst James Cook may have been the first tourist to land on South Georgia all those years ago, in the past year alone the island welcomed 10,337 guests and 7,757 staff from 67 countries. GSGSSI are working with the International Association of Antarctica Tourist Operators (IAATO) in seeking to determine how best to manage a growing demand to visit the islands in a manner that is consistent with maintaining high standards of environmental protection and animal welfare. The Government seeks to deepen the relationship with IAATO still further, a development that will hopefully complement the Falkland’s ambition to become an Antarctic Gateway.
Working with colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and other research organisations is vital in furthering the scientific understanding of the territory and the animals that call it home. Their studies and analysis enable the evidence-based decision making which is fundamental to the management of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
GSGSSI also acknowledges the fishing companies who are licensed to operate in the South Georgia Maritime Zone. They make a critical contribution to both scientific research and protection of the territory.
The flag ship of that protection, quite literarily, is the MV Pharos. This Fisheries Patrol Vessel is leased from a Falkland Island company, with many of her crew from the Islands. They do an incredible job and the support the crew provided to the sad events surrounding the search for the Chilean C130 lost just before Christmas brought deserved credit to all involved. That includes the personnel of the British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI), for whose efforts GSGSSI are always grateful.
Possession Day is a time to look back at the history of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands from that significant date in 1775, to reflect on the work done thus far, and to thank everyone who contributes to the stewardship of the islands. It is also an opportunity to look to the future. 2020 will see the development of GSGSSI’s new 5-year strategy and input from stakeholders and partners will help shape the decisions the Government needs to make on the sustainable and responsible management of this unique territory.
The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands Celebrate Possession Day 2020
The permanent Biosecurity Dog Programme has got off to an excellent start. Naomi (Handler) and Sammy (The one with the nose!) make up our full-time dog team, and have already checked countless yachts, ships and their cargoes making sure they are rodent free before sailing to South Georgia.
The programme wouldn’t be as successful as it is without a dedicated team of volunteers in the Falklands who help the dog team with a range of tasks. Naomi commented – “there has been a great response to a request for volunteers, and volunteer training sessions have been well attended and provided volunteers with the skills necessary for the role and a deeper understanding of why the dog programme is an important part of protecting South Georgia’s ecology”.
Volunteers help out during training exercises and live searches. It is really important that both dog and handler can find ‘blind’ hides, that is, where neither of them know where things are hidden, and we can only do that with the help of volunteers. This support from the local community helps Naomi and Sammy improve and become a better team, strengthens the programme, and is important in raising awareness and education about biosecurity and the use of dogs in conservation.
It’s not just in the Falklands that detector dogs have been used to check vessels and cargo before sailing to South Georgia, but a satellite programme was set up to oversee ship loading in the UK as part of the KEP wharf redevelopment project.
Anna Malaos, BAS’s Environmental Manager said:
“The Environmental Impact Assessment for the KEP Wharf redevelopment project identified the introduction of new non-native species as one of the most significant potential environmental impacts of the construction work. BAS and BAM have therefore been working hard to ensure that all cargo sent to King Edward Point for the wharf project is thoroughly cleaned and inspected to ensure no soil, plant fragments, insects or rodents are inadvertently introduced”.
Kevin Hughes and Anna Malaos (BAS Environment Office) visited Teesport in the UK in mid-December, where the MV Billesborg ship was to be loaded prior to sailing to KEP, to audit the biosecurity measures being implemented by TransGlobal on behalf of BAM. Thorough cleaning and inspection measures were observed being implemented on all the vehicles, construction materials and containers on the site.
Additional reassurance was offered by Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) and their UK team of handlers and dogs from Conservation K9 (CK9). The handlers and their dogs inspected all the warehouse spaces and all the stored cargo over a two-week period. Once the MV Billesborg arrived they also inspected the empty vessel and monitored all the cargo as it was loaded and finished with a final inspection of the loaded vessel prior to departure to KEP. CK9 declared the ship and all its contents rodent free offering us the reassurance that South Georgia and its endemic species will continue to thrive.
Having the capacity to check ships and their cargo in the UK is a major step forward and complements the GSGSSI Programme giving stakeholders the choice to have their vessels checked in the UK or in the Falklands – not only protecting South Georgia, but other rodent-free parts of the South Atlantic and beyond!
On the 16th January, the arrival of the MV Billesborg marked the commencement of the construction stage of the new wharf at King Edward Point to support the new British Polar Research Vessel the ‘Sir David Attenborough‘ and GSGSSI scientific research and operations for the next 50 years.
The design of the wharf was completed at the end of 2019 and logistics operations started in Teesport (UK) in November. Following a stringent biosecurity process (more about that in this newsletter) the team arrived a week prior to the MV Billesborg to install 2 new onshore mooring points. Over 5 days the team worked 14 hour days to offload the vessel which was completed safely and ahead of schedule, making the most of an excellent weather window. Since completion of logistics activities, piling of the wharf has started and to date, we have 14 of 19 piles on the berthing face, a rear ‘anchor’ wall has been installed and quarrying works are in full flow to produce 5500 Tonnes of material to fill the new wharf and Dolphin.
The team still has a long way to go to the finish line but progress is good and moral on station in high. Look out for more updates via twitter as the build moves forward.
BAS biologist Dr Jennifer Jackson shares updates from the South Georgia southern right whale expedition currently in progress in the sub-Antarctic.
During January 2020, the British Antarctic Survey’s wild water whales team have been conducting surveys for southern right whales all around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. The expedition is composed of ten international experts from five countries (the UK, USA, Canada, Brazil and New Zealand) and includes marine mammal observers, photo-ID specialists, geneticists, acousticians, a drone pilot and an expert in satellite tagging. The wild water whales expedition is running for 33 days on New Zealand research vessel the R/V Braveheart.
Since arriving in South Georgia on the 10th January 2020, the whale team have surveyed all around the island, between the coastal waters and the 500m shelf break far out to sea, using acoustics to listen for whales as well as an observer team to look for them.
The BAS wild water whales team have now been at sea for just over two weeks. They have sailed right around the island of South Georgia, seen countless humpback whales and regularly sighted Antarctic blue whales. Since they sighted their first southern right whale last week, they have seen right whales on four occasions, each time solo whales.
Why are there so few south right whales at South Georgia this season? We think it may be because they have decided to feed elsewhere this summer. Colleagues at the #trackingwhales research project in Argentina tagged 23 whales during the austral winter (in September 2019) in order to see where they went. Of those 23 whales, none have travelled to South Georgia this season, and as of the 20th January most are still on the Patagonian Shelf, presumably they are finding abundant food and so are delaying their migration south.
Read the full update on the British Antarctic Survey site here.
The British Antarctic Survey South Georgia Right Whale project – here.
Follow the project on Facebook here.
Sailing Yacht Pelagic Australis has just returned to Stanley following a very successful multi-disciplinary expedition to the South Sandwich Islands. The work, supported by GSGSSI, Quark Expeditions and with researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Cornell, Maine, UCL, Bristol and Southern Cross. The South Sandwich Islands are a highly active series of volcanos that are covered in glaciers and penguins. Their remoteness and difficulty of landings mean that they are one of the richest and yet least studied places on earth. In the winter most of the islands lie within sea ice and in the summer there is a continual stream of brash and large icebergs out from the Weddell Sea, but the krill rich waters support the largest bird colony on earth; 1.3 million pairs of Chinstrap Penguins on Zavodovski. The islands are now protected, but are seldom visited due to very difficult landings. Most of the islands have steep drop offs with large Southern Ocean swell breaking onto them.
Pelagic Australis, led by Skip Novak and skippered by Chris Kobusch, sailed to the islands to complete penguin surveys, volcano sampling and ice coring. Throughout the expedition, Ted Cheeseman from Southern Cross University and Happywhale recorded whale calls, sightings, and sought photo id of whales where possible. A film crew, consisting of producer director Ruth Peacey and wildlife cameraman Hamza Yassin, documented the expedition and captured footage of wildlife in the South Sandwich Islands’ unique landscapes. The team members describe the expedition as a huge success; completing ice cores on Thule as well as South Georgia and collecting volcanic samples on Candlemas, Saunders and Bellingshausen. Penguin surveys were completed for all of the islands visited including Zavodovski and were possible largely thanks to advances in drone technology since the last visits.
Tom Hart, from Oxford University who organised the expedition, said:
“It’s a rare privilege to get back to the islands; it was particularly important to reassess the penguin populations since many of the islands erupted in 2016. First impressions are that the populations appear to be in good health, but we have a lot of data to go through.”
Vicki took time out of her busy schedule of running the post office at Grytviken to give us a brief update on activities in the middle of busy summer season:
“January was a busy month in the South Georgia Post Office with 21 tourist ships and a further four vessels including research vessels and yachts making visits to King Edward Point and Grytviken. Whilst the range of philatelic stock remains as popular as ever, a number of new high-quality stock lines have been added to the shelves from artists with strong links to South Georgia. These include limited edition bronzes, beautiful handcrafted pewter black-browed albatross brooches, whale tail pins and a number of new mounted prints and greeting cards designed exclusively for the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. January also saw record monthly sales figures with all our proceeds supporting GSGSSI various conservation projects and maintenance programs”
South Georgia supports huge 8,000-mile homecoming for historic Hull trawler Viola
“The campaign to bring the historic steam trawler Viola back to Hull from her current resting place in the near the Antarctic has received messages of support from South Georgia.”
Albatrosses used as flying spies to detect illegal fishing boats
“Sea birds with radar detectors attached to their backs can detect illegal fishing boats in real time, potentially allowing such boats to be caught by authorities, a new study shows.”
Sarah Whitby takes oath as Falklands, South Georgia Senior Magistrate
First-ever Pride held on tiny remote island of South Georgia between South America and Antarctica
“Around 20 people showed up holding rainbow flags, a latex horse head mask and environmentally-friendly glitter to hop behind a pickup truck and drive along South Georgia’s winding snow-tipped cliffs.”
Living with albatrosses: Bird Island human stars- Part one
“And whilst some of us sit in the comfort of our own homes, marvelling at these incredible birds, there is a team based on Bird Island, South Georgia, hard at work to get the much-needed data to help study, understand and protect our albatross.”
RRS Sir David Attenborough latest milestones
Relationship with South Georgia benefits Falklands assures SG Government
Antarctica: A timeline of human discovery
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: the pick of the penguins
“This group of king penguins were heading back from fishing and up the beach to their colony on South Georgia to feed their chicks.”\
A Flexible Diet is Key to Antarctic Penguin Survival, Study Finds
“Gentoo and chinstap penguins are closely related, and both reside on the Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands, and South Georgia”
The Most Beautiful Places On the Bottom of the World
“Teeming with penguins and seals (both elephant and fur), South Georgia is even better-known for its pristine glaciers and fjords. It’s part of the same territory as a chain of smaller, less-trafficked islands to the southeast known as the South Sandwich Islands”
Where to See the Elusive Southern Lights
“The Antarctic cruise season wraps at the end of March. Unfortunately, that’s also the beginning of the unofficial Southern Lights season in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s tricky to visit South Georgia Island during winter, and nearly impossible to travel to and around the White Continent. But, with a little bit of luck and the right atmospheric conditions, travelers who time their cruise toward the end of the cruise season can see some of the most spectacular aurora displays on the planet.”