South Georgia Newsletter, Dec 2009

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- Disclaimer: This newsletter is not produced by GSGSSI; it does not necessarily reflect their views.

Explosive Finds

One of the ordnance finds this month.
One of the ordnance finds this month.

An unusually high number of ordnance finds were reported in December.

It is nearly ten years since the military garrison left South Georgia, and more than 27 years since the military actions of 1982, but ordnance, items like bullets, mortars and smoke grenades, are still regularly discovered on the Island. It is also normal to have more reports made in the summer months, when the snow has cleared from the ground and more people are out walking in the hills, but this months tally of around 20 separate finds is exceptional.

Ten years ago KEP, the lower slopes of Brown Mountain and the Bore Valley floor area were swept by EOD specialists. Despite this, most ordnance finds are generally in the Grytviken area as this was the area that experienced most of the war action in 1982 and was later used by the military garrisons based at King Edward Point (KEP) for live firing exercises. This months finds however are across a much wider area including Husvik, Corral Bay and Maiviken. They include what are probably: several 2” mortars rounds; smoke grenades; parts of 66mm anti-tank rockets; and small arms rounds. The ordnance will be dealt with by a specialist EOD team who are expected to visit in later summer.

Famine And Feast

Early signs of a lack of krill in South Georgia waters were first noticed nearly a year ago when most of the gentoo penguin chicks failed to survive to fledge last summer. In recent weeks though there are plenty of signs that the krill is back.

Krill poor years are part of a regular cycle around South Georgia, occurring typically once or twice a decade. During the 1990s there were three krill poor years. In those years the reproductive success of krill dependent predators, such as fur seals and gentoo penguins, was correspondingly low. The 2008/9 krill-poor year may, however, have been more extreme.

Antarctic krill play a pivotal role in the southern ocean ecosystem, especially around South Georgia. They are an important food source for penguins, seals, whales and fish. The exact causes of krill poor years at South Georgia are not known, but are probably caused by changes in ocean currents and the extent of winter sea ice further south.

Normally krill arrives in South Georgia waters swept up in cold water currents from further south around the Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice provides a winter habitat for the krill. The sea surface temperature around South Georgia was more than 1°C warmer in 2009 than in the previous year, indicating the sweep of cold water that brings the krill did not form.

With little or no krill around the predators struggle to feed themselves and their young, leading to high levels of mortality. Scientists, and tour staff on the cruise ships, began noticing lots of dead chicks at the gentoo penguin colonies last summer. A study site at Maiviken had over a thousand nests, but less than half that number hatched successfully and only a handful of chicks survived to fledge. Average hatching success for this species is 90% and of those 85% would usually survive to fledge.

Though lots of gentoo penguin chicks were hatched in 2008/9, few survived to fledge.
Though lots of gentoo penguin chicks were hatched in 2008/9, few survived to fledge.

Over the past winter many thin or dead adult gentoo penguins were seen around the coast. How many more died unobserved at sea can only be guessed at, so there has been particular interest to see what would happen when they were due to return to their colonies to breed once again. As the new summer season began GSGSSI produced special posters to try and answer the concerns of tourists visiting the Island. In this they explained that krill-poor years affect survivorship of fur seal pups and the macaroni and gentoo penguin chicks, and they predicted the fur seal and macaroni penguin breeding success would be low for the 2009/10 season ahead, warning people not to be surprised to see “fur seals and penguins in poor condition or even dead animals on the beach during your visit to South Georgia”.

The current breeding season is certainly affected but perhaps it is turning out better than may have been feared. The gentoo penguins were very late returning to the colonies. Whereas last year most of the eggs had been laid by late October, this season it was mid November before the first egg was seen at one site and some birds were still coming up to breed at the end of December. It looks like less than a quarter the number of birds will nest this summer.

It is a similar story with the fur seals. The large numbers of fur seal pups born last year did not fare well as lack of krill for the nursing mothers to feed on meant the pups were underweight and would not have thrived. Many of the poor condition females then failed to breed this following season, they have returned to the beaches but only about half the number of pups have been born compared to last summer.

Macaroni penguins, however, seem to have escaped much of the effect from the lack of krill. Normal numbers fledged at the end of last season, and normal numbers have returned to breed at the beginning of the season this year. 
Now the good news is that the krill have returned.

By November krill was evident in the pink fur seal scats on the beaches. In November and December krill has also been seen in the bays, proving an attraction to excited gulls, terns and other seabirds to feed on them, also bringing several humpback whales close inland.

Though there are a smaller number of gentoo penguin chicks and fur seal pups this year, they seem to be doing very well. Indeed there are so few carcasses on the beaches that higher predators such as the giant petrels are the ones now struggling to find enough food. And with very low mortality rates compared to normal it is possible that, despite the low numbers hatched and born, the final number surviving this summer to adulthood may not be that different from a more normal year.

By later this summer we will know much of the effect of this latest krill-poor year, but the fate of the gentoo penguins that have not returned to breed this year may only be evident next summer. Maybe next season numbers returning to breed will be up again, indicating that this season some adults were just in poor condition and decided not to breed. If however numbers remain low, it may indicate that many died of starvation, in which case the population will then take a lot longer to recover.

The hundreds of thousands of King Penguins that breed on South Georgia appear to be unaffected by the krill-poor season as they mainly feed on lantern fish.

Though there are less of them, this years fur seal pups are doing well.
Though there are less of them, this years fur seal pups are doing well.

Stamp Of Success

The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands 'Shackleton' stamps have come 8th in a vote on the 50 most popular stamps released globally in 2009.

The top 50 stamps released in 2009 were chosen by stamp experts and the readers of the well regarded international publication 'Stamp and Coin Mart'.

The 'Shackleton' set of 12 stamps was released in August as the new definitive issue. The stamps tell the story of explorer Ernest Shackleton's life in photographs.

South Georgia Postal Officer Sarah Lurcock said “We are thrilled that stamps from little South Georgia have done so well against all the stamps released around the world this year. Shackleton is the Island's hero and a fitting subject for this definitive issue which will be on our books for the next five years. Special congratulations should go to designer Andrew Robinson.”

The winning stamp in the competition was a United Nations issue depicting a colourful portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Shackleton stamps came 8th in the 'Top 50' stamps released globally in 2009.
The Shackleton stamps came 8th in the 'Top 50' stamps released globally in 2009.

South Georgia Coins are also attracting admiring attention. The 'Oldest Reigning Monarch' coin issued in 2008 has been chosen to be entered in two categories of the Coin of the Year Awards; the 'Best Contemporary Coin' Award and the ‘People’s Choice’ Coin of the Year.

The Coin of the Year Awards (COTY), run by Krause Publications, are the most prestigious competition in the Coin World. A short-list of nominated coins is produced and then voted on by a combination of the public, numismatic journalists and World Mints. The final round of voting will be completed by February 2010.

Pobjoy Mint, who design and produce coins for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, have previously won 13 COTY Awards.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Island coins can be bought direct from Pobjoy Mint on their website

The 'Oldest Reigning Monarch' South Georgia coin has been nominated for two awards.
The 'Oldest Reigning Monarch' South Georgia coin has been nominated for two awards.

The South Georgia Post Office Centenary

The centenary of the the South Georgia Post Office has appropriately been marked with the release of a new set of commemorative stamps. The Post Office Centenary stamp set was issued on December 23rd, exactly one hundred years after the first official mail despatch from the Island. The stamps contrast the Island’s early postal history with its modern postal service.

The Post Office Centenary First Day Cover
The Post Office Centenary First Day Cover

The need for a postal service at South Georgia grew with the whaling industry. The first whaling station was established at Grytviken in 1904 and was quickly followed by five more shore stations and several floating factories. A population census conducted in December 1909 calculated the Island’s summertime population as 720. With the explosion of whaling activity on the Island, the British Government decided to set up a local administration, and in 1909 James Innes Wilson was appointed as the first resident Magistrate. His many duties included those of Coroner, Registrar and Postmaster. As almost all the whalers came from Europe, Wilson found they were eager to use this new postal service to keep in touch with family and friends on the other side of the world. On 23rd December 1909, one thousand letters and 389 postcards were despatched in the first outgoing mail aboard “S.S. Cachalote” – which is depicted on one of the two 65p stamps.

Wilson lived, at first, at Grytviken and the illustration on the First Day Cover shows him handing out mail outside the front door of the Manager’s Villa. King Edward Point was later chosen as the centre of government administration and Wilson moved across the cove to the new Magistrate’s House there in 1912. All the whaling stations on South Georgia had post boxes, but the mail had to be bought to KEP for cancelling and onward transmission. In the early years mail was sometimes carried between stations by couriers. They would trek across the peninsulas and row across the bays. Small huts were set up in several places around the coast where the couriers could rest or wait for suitable weather before continuing their journey. Sörling Valley postal hut with three men and their rowing boat is depicted on the other 65p stamp. The hut still stands today although it is now a partial ruin. Its wooden beams are carved with the names of bored whalers and the dates of their stay. The practice of using couriers largely died out when it was found safer and quicker to put the mail on a whale-catcher or other vessel moving between stations.

Falkland Islands stamps were used on South Georgia until 1944. To start with they were cancelled on the Island with a Falkland Island date stamp and a metal stamp reading ‘South Georgia’. By 1910 a South Georgia date stamp was being used. The special cancel for the Post Office Centenary First Day of Issue is based on this early date stamp.

During the whaling era ships arrived with mail from the UK, Norway, the Falkland Islands and Argentina quite frequently. To improve the link with the Falkland Islands the Tonsberg Whaling Company, which operated Husvik whaling station, was contracted to provide a mail service with South Georgia and other parts of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. In 1924 “S.S. Fleurus” was purchased for the role and made about eight trips a year until 1933. Thereafter the Falkland Islands Company was employed to carry the mail using first “Lafonia” and later the ships “Fitzroy” and “Darwin”.

In 1944 Falkland Islands Dependencies stamps were provided for use in South Georgia. The first stamps specific to the Island were issued in July 1963, after British Antarctic Territory was separated from the Dependencies as a result of the Antarctic Treaty.

As whale stocks dwindled through over-hunting, the shore whaling stations closed down. By 1966 all whaling had ceased on the Island and South Georgia’s population was reduced to a few tens manning the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) stations at KEP and Bird Island. The KEP Base Commander was Magistrate and Deputy Post Master (DPM). Mail became sporadic, arriving a few times each summer aboard BAS ships or visiting Royal Navy vessels.

After the Argentine invasion in 1982 a British military garrison was stationed at KEP. The troops mostly used the British Forces Post Office services for their own needs and the Commanding Officer acted as Magistrate and DPM. The postal service became more regular again. Incoming and outgoing mail was carried aboard Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which made frequent calls, and the RAF also flew Hercules aircraft from the Falkland Islands to airdrop mail and stores.

The Post Office building, which had been erected at KEP in 1928, remained in use until 2000 when it was replaced by a Post Office in the new research facility at KEP. The new Post Office features on one of the 90p stamps. The current mail ship is the Fishery Patrol Vessel “Pharos SG”, which is depicted on the other 90p stamp.

Today, the Island’s postal service serves the needs of the small population of scientists, government and museum employees and others that make the Island their temporary home. In summer the Post Office is popular with the many cruise ship passengers who want to send postcards home. And, one hundred years after the South Georgia Post Office first operated, a new Post Office facility has been opened at Grytviken which is operated when cruise ships visit.

Philately is the third most important economic activity at South Georgia, after fishing and tourism. South Georgia’s beautiful stamps are desirable items for philatelists around the world.

The Post Office Centenary stamps were designed by Nick Shewring.

The stamps and First Day Cover can be purchased from the Philatelic Bureau, Falkland Islands. Thier website here, South Georgia page here.

Fishing And Shipping News

Fourteen cruise ships visited the Island this month, eight of which visited during the Christmas week from the 23rd to the 29th December.

Though cruise ship “Hanseatic” managed a landing in the evening on the 24th to hold a Christmas service at Grytviken church, it was prevented from doing its main Grytviken landing on Christmas Day by winds with gusts well in excess of 100mph. The several ships around the Island mainly sought shelter in the bays of the north-eastern coast during the worst of the storms and one ship reported a gust of 150 knots (165mph) at the head of Cumberland East Bay.

The BAS ship “RRS James Clark Ross” called in to KEP on December 17th to collect passengers and cargo. It later had problems freeing itself from two fouled anchors after sheltering from the storms in Stromness Bay.

Six yachts were visiting the Island in December, four private yachts and two on charter.

Yacht “Kiwiroa” arrived a Grytviken with a broken boom on December 23rd. An hour out from the port the yacht had suffered an sudden jibe, probably as a result of malfunctioning self-steering gear, which snapped the boom in half. They have been able to make temporary repairs and are now sightseeing around the Island.

High winds prevented the scheduled ship visiting on Christmas Day. Photo Thies Matzen.
High winds prevented the scheduled ship visiting on Christmas Day. Photo Thies Matzen.


A wandering albatross chick fledges almost exactly a year after egg laying. Scientist Derren Fox, who is working with these magnificent birds on Bird Island, has been following the early life of one in film. In March, shortly before the date the wanderer eggs would start hatching, Derren set up his video camera on a fixed point overlooking a nest on the scenic Wanderer Ridge, with the mountains of the main Island behind. Once a week he shot a short bit of video and has now collated the clips into a superb short video showing the first months of the chicks life through to fledging. The egg in this nest was laid on December 20th 2008 and weighed 495g. The egg hatched on March 8th 2009 and the chick was later given the ring number 'B563'. The chick was incubated for 78 days with both parent birds taking turns. Two hundred and sixty days after hatching the chick weighed a hefty 9.75 kilos. Three weeks later, on December 14th, 'B563' took its' maiden flight out to sea, 359 days after it was laid.

Click below to watch the short video of the early life of a wanderer on its nest.

Bird Island News

By Derren Fox, Albatross Zoological Field Assistant at the British Antarctic Survey Station, Bird Island.

As I write this newsletter on the last day of the year, snow is drifting gently down from the sky, covering the island in a thin blanket of white whilst the beach is alive with the calls of fur seal pups and females calling to relocate each other.

December is the month for chicks, be they gentoos, mollies or wanderers. The gentoo penguins started hatching at the start of the month, and seem to be doing well compared to last year. The black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses started hatching late in the month, and Claudia and I have been busy getting hatch dates for the first 80 chicks in our regular study colonies so that we can weigh them at a specific age, later in the season. The gentoo chicks started to hatch on Landing Beach and around the rest of the island towards the end of the month, closely followed by macaronis on the 21st. The skua chicks started to hatch as well this month, the noisy parents screeching at any passers by, giving away their otherwise well hidden nest locations.

Grey-headed albatross chick.
Grey-headed albatross chick.

It’s a busy month for the wandering albatrosses too, last season’s chicks continued to fledge amass with only the last few stragglers left around the island, whilst this seasons adults started laying on the 11th. First signs seem promising for another good year for the wanderers so fingers crossed for them. Richard Phillips (visiting BAS scientist) has been busy deploying all manner of electronic wizardry on flying birds since he arrived at the start of the month. Some of the wanderer chick fledglings were fitted with temporary satellite tags, these will fall off at sea once the birds moult. Until then we should get daily updates on their positions, showing us where these birds go in their first few months after fledging. Richard has also been deploying some TDRs (time depth recorders) on the white-chinned petrels to ascertain how deep these birds can dive.

The seals numbers built up during December, but are much reduced compared to last year. This seems to be having a knock-on effect on the giant petrels this season. They seem to be faring poorly, with increasing numbers of them failing whilst on eggs and with young chicks, probably linked to the lack of available food close by from dying seals. This does mean however that the fur seals that have come in to pup this season are in good health as the krill that appeared to be absent in the early part of the season finally turned up.

There are still plenty of old seal bones about on the beach though, these can be handy for the gentoo penguins building nests nearby. Most gentoos use some of the bones in their nests, but unusually one gentoo has built its nest almost exclusively from them.

Gentoo penguin on nest of bones.
Gentoo penguin on nest of bones.

Norman Ratcliffe (another BAS scientist) is also visiting us briefly. He has been busy with Stacey carrying out research on the gentoo penguins to get information on their foraging trips during early chick incubation. They have also been busy in the shag colony at Wanderer Ridge Extension, putting small GPS devices on the birds and TDRs to see how far the birds are travelling to find food and also to what depths they are diving.

Despite it being the peak of summer here and a busy time for all the base staff, we managed to fit in the usual Christmas and New Year’s festivities. Sam cooked the traditional Base Commander's breakfast on Christmas morning, followed by a fantastic traditional turkey roast with all the trimmings.

Blue-eyed shag.
Blue-eyed shag.

South Georgia Snippets

Tourists visiting Grytviken are usually landed first on the shoreline close to the cemetery where they visit Shackleton's grave before walking round through the remains of the old whaling station to the museum. The route takes them past the new hydroelectric power station. A viewing window was incorporated into the building so visitors could easily see the machinery inside. Interest in the station has been such that tour leaders have asked for more information to be provided. A new poster has now been put up in the building to try and answer the most often asked questions. The power station, which was built over two summers 2007/8 and 2008/9 uses the original dam built by the whalers in the 1920s. Significant works were done to raise the dam and strengthen it for a projected further 50-year lifespan. The pipe down from the dam to the turbine house (the penstock) can deliver 30 tonnes of water a minute to drive a 230KW Gilkes twin-jet turgo generator. The new poster also has a diagram to show how the water flow onto the turbine wheel is controlled by a deflector, which responds quickly to sharp changes in demand. Spear valves then adjust the water flow allowing the deflector to return to its rest position.

The hydroelectric project cost GSGSSI about a million pounds and should pay for itself in ten to fifteen years with a potential annual saving on diesel fuel of 150,000 litres. It can also reduce CO² emissions by 400 tons.

The long days and short nights of midsummer belie the continuing poor weather. Summer has so far consisted of only a handful of sunny or storm free days. The weather seemed summed up by three miserable wet ragged moulting kings that shuffled past the base during our Christmas festivities. King penguins that is.

The “RRS James Clark Ross” collected seal scientist Dr Ian Staniland and Field Assistant Tom Marshall and dropped them in at Wilson harbour, at the northern end of the south-west coast, where they will be camping for six weeks. They are there to continue work to see where fur seals go to feed. They are deploying electronic tags on breeding females. The females go to sea to feed for around five days before returning to feed their pups on shore when the tags and collected data on the forage trip can be recovered.

Though there are far fewer fur seals pups this summer, there have been some, and the first KEP pup was born under Hope Point on December 3rd. By the end of the month there were eight pups in the same spot. Tour ships continue to report good whale sightings around the Island.

The male fur seals are holding territory on the beaches all round the Island.
The male fur seals are holding territory on the beaches all round the Island.

Less welcome wildlife are the rats that are probably the cause of a most unpleasant smell in the office end of the KEP base. We suspected a rat nest under the floor boards and poor Matt got the unpleasant task of crawling under the building to investigate. He found plenty of evidence of rat activity under there.

Biosecurity: The late snows and poor weather prevented the South Atlantic Invasive Species Officer, Brian Summers, completing early spraying of the invasive bittercress during his visit last month, so Government Officer Keiron Fraser has continued the spraying campaign. He has also identified that areas where the plant has invaded are much more extensive than previously thought.

Before they left, the building team installed a vehicle wheel wash in the track between KEP and Grytviken. Vehicles have to drive through the stream-fed wide trough as they pass along the road, which should reduce the risk of moving seeds or other soil born biota between the sites.

The two Government Officers visited the three whaling stations in Stromness bay on December 4th to map the positions of the warning markers around the stations. These markers and signs have been put in place in recent years to give a clear indication of the distance to be maintained from the dilapidated buildings to avoid the risks of asbestos and windblown hazards.

Warning signs at Husvik.
Warning signs at Husvik.

Christmas festivities started with the majority of the locals gathering to decorate the church at Grytviken on December 6th. With so many willing helpers the job was soon done and they could enjoy a reward of mulled wine and mince pies. Ali Massey set up her camera on the church balcony and put together the following fun time-lapse video.

Decorating the church at Grytviken.
Decorating the church at Grytviken.

The several cruise ships used the church to hold Christmas concerts and services. The KEP locals joined with cruise ship “Hanseatic” for a Christmas Eve service. The church looked beautiful with just candlelight and the lights from the Christmas tree. The ship's passengers filled the pews, with others standing at the back. Ship's staff and crew formed a voluminous and tuneful choir that filled the altar area to overflowing. Not to be left out, the locals also stood up to perform the local version of 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. There was gluwein and sweet German Christmas treats on offer outside after the ceremony, but the gluwein was rapidly diluted and the stollen got soggy in the downpour.

The church was packed for the Christmas Eve service.
The church was packed for the Christmas Eve service.

The locals performed a spirited local version of the 12 days of Christmas. Photos Thies Matzen.
The locals performed a spirited local version of the 12 days of Christmas. Photos Thies Matzen.

Christmas Day was celebrated with a wonderful traditional feast cooked by the community, complete with champagne cocktails, turkey and all the trimmings, flaming puddings (mind your teeth on those shiny coins) and much more besides.

Christmas dinner at KEP. Photo Thies Matzen.
Christmas dinner at KEP. Photo Thies Matzen.

The very high winds that day kept many keen photographers jumping up from their dinner to try and catch the biggest gust on film, and some of the more sporting folks ventured out into it.

Ali, Matt and Ainslie brave the ferocious wind. Photo Thies Matzen.
Ali, Matt and Ainslie brave the ferocious wind. Photo Thies Matzen.

There were of course more celebrations on New years Eve. Fishery Patrol Vessel “Pharos SG” was alongside for the evening and the crew came to join the party. The snows held off for the evening, but temperatures were freezing so many enjoyed warming around the brassier on the beach. On the stroke of midnight the champagne corks flew and a trombonist, two saxophone players, a violinist and guitarist accompanied 'Auld Lang Syne'. Not an insubstantial ensemble considering it was recruited from the 12 locals! Many remained up to continue the tradition of seeing the New years sun rise from Hope Point.

View Of The Month

Don’t forget to see this month’s 'View of the Month' on the South Georgia Heritage Trust website.

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