South Georgia Newsletter, July 2014

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

Cruise Ship Visits To Increase

The number of cruise ship visits to South Georgia is set to increase by at least 10% in the forthcoming 2014/15 season.

Sixty-four cruise ships are currently booked to visit the island on the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) ship scheduler; six more ship visits than were booked last season. In the event, only 55 cruise ship visits were made last season, due to cancellations after breakdown, bad weather etc. Therefore the actual year on year increase in cruise ship visits this season could be up to 14%.

The forecast increase builds on the steady increase in ship visits and passenger numbers over the past two seasons. However, ship visit and passengers numbers have still not returned to the record levels seen in 2008/09 when 71 ships brought circa 8000 passengers.

A total of 7,024 passengers reached South Georgia by cruise ship last season, a figure that looks set to rise a little in the coming season if bookings (occupancy levels) remain about the same. If the vessels were fully booked in excess of 8100 passengers could visit. This will be confirmed when all of the visit applications have been received.

Twenty-two different cruise ships are scheduled to visit; the smallest being the 40-passenger sailing vessel Bark Europa and the largest the 450-passenger Seabourn Quest. Two of the cruise ships will be new to South Georgia: National Geographic Orion and Le Soleal.

Two of the vessels, Bremen and Hanseatic, are set to make six visits each during the season ahead. The season starts on October 24th with Ushuaia and ends on April 3rd with Plancius, and the vessels are reasonably well spread through the six-month period, though November and December are the two busiest months with 14 cruise ship visits each month, and as usual the Christmas to New Year period is very busy with nine cruise ships due during the week.

BAS Fur Seal Conclusions Challenged

Antarctic fur seal colony at Bird Island during the breeding season. Photo Jaume Forcada, BAS.
Antarctic fur seal colony at Bird Island during the breeding season. Photo Jaume Forcada, BAS.

Claims by a BAS scientist that South Georgia’s Antarctic fur seals are suffering as a consequence of a decline in krill abundance associated with climate change has been challenged by the South Georgia Government and by DEFRAs Chief Scientist.

South Georgia is home to vast populations of Antarctic fur seals, which crowd the beaches during the breeding season. The numbers have increased rapidly in the last few decades after uncontrolled sealing in the 19th century brought them close to extinction. Abundance is particularly high at the western end of the island, but the population continues to spread eastwards.

Studies of fur seals started on Bird Island in the 1950s and a special study beach was established near the base to study population demographics. A recent study of animals from that beach by Jaume Forcada (BAS) and Joe Hoffman (Bielefeld University, Germany), which was published in Nature, showed that the birth weight of pups has declined in recent years.

Dr Forcada suggested that the smaller size of the pups is a response to less krill on the feeding grounds and that fur seals have “food stress because of a long term shortage of food”. Dr Jaume Forcada added “Compared with 20 years ago, we can see that female fur seals are now born with a lower weight. Those that survive and return to breed tend to be the bigger ones and they have their first pup later in life than they used to. Such changes are typically associated with food stress.” Dr Forcada describes the results of genetic studies over the past two decades as “amazing”. They have showed that heterozygosity (the difference in the two strands of DNA, one inherited from each parent) in South Georgia fur seals is unprecedentedly high compared with other animal species. This means that they should have a better chance of adapting through natural selection and so surviving. However this is not happening and fur seals are not coping better with climate change because the mothers, although showing high heterozygosity, do not pass this survival advantage to their pups. Dr Forcada said “Whilst the more heterozygous females are more likely to survive and breed, their pups will only have the same advantage if they too are heterozygous. However, the heterozygous characteristic is not inherited; it depends on which male the female mates with and so arises mostly through chance. This means that many seals are born who are not heterozygous and are therefore less able to cope with the changing environment. The climate will select fitter animals to survive, so the less fit are lost and the population will decline.”

GSGSSI Director of Fisheries, Dr Martin Collins, questioned the conclusions of the study, noting that the results came from a single study beach, on one small island, where fur seal density is particularly high. Thus the effects on pup weight detected by Forcada & Hoffman could be due to competition associated with the high density. Dr Collins also pointed out that a recent BAS publication had shown no discernible change in krill population abundance in the last 16 years in the area just north of Bird Island. BAS recently undertook an aerial survey of Antarctic fur seals and, whilst the data is not yet published, it shows a significant increase in abundance of fur seals.

Professor Ian Boyd, Chief Scientist at DEFRA and previously a senior BAS scientist and head of the Sea Mammal Research Unit, also criticised the conclusions drawn by the study in an online blog ( Prof. Boyd criticised the authors for linking the study to climate change stating “We all need to be mindful that in making science accessible that this is not at the expense of scientific accuracy. However, even more important is the harm that over-statement of the evidence does for those studies that really do have something important to say about climate change”.

Overview Of Tourism Last Summer

Cruise ship visits have nearly doubled, and cruise ship passenger numbers have tripled over the fifteen years that modern tourism data have been collected by GSGSSI. Last season 55 cruise ship voyages came to the island bringing just over 7000 passengers - numbers which continue a steady increase since the big downturn seen in the 2010/11 season, which was partly attributed to the depressed world economy.

In the 2013/14 season there were 8% more ship visits (55 compared to 51) and 21% more passengers (7,024 compared to 5,792) than the previous season. The increase looks set to continue (see lead story) but it will be a while yet before the 2007/8 season tourism highs of 70 cruise ship visits and over 8000 passengers are met.

Table showing the number of cruise ship visits and number of passengers visiting South Georgia since 1998.
Table showing the number of cruise ship visits and number of passengers visiting South Georgia since 1998.

Many others also visited the island last season on yachts, research, military, and other vessels.

Fifty-nine different nationalities were represented amongst the passengers and although the majority still come from English speaking countries (USA 25%, Australia 11%, UK 10%) the trend for increasing numbers of eastern tourists (6.5%) continues with visitors from China increasing 50% this season (318). The 4000 crew on the vessels came from 65 different nations, although 45% of the crew were Filipino.

Most cruise ships (65%) carried between 50 and 150 passengers, with only four visits from ships carrying less than 50 passengers and one carrying more than 400. Increasingly, cruise ships offer passengers the opportunity to take part in more unusual pursuits such as kayaking or overland overnight expeditions; in particular 32% more passengers (612) took part in short kayaking trips compared to the season before. There was a small increase in the number of yacht visits to the island, 18 visits compared to 16 the summer before.

Last Man Off; The Sudar Havid Disaster

Book Review by Crag Jones (edited)

In the recently published book ‘Last Man Off’ by Matt Lewis, the author recounts his experiences of disaster and survival while a Fisheries Observer aboard the South African long-liner Sudur Havid. It sank in atrocious conditions whilst fishing for toothfish off South Georgia in the winter of 1998.

It is a remarkable book and all the more powerful for being told in simple clear language. The honesty and integrity of this harrowing account should be a lesson to all of us who go to sea and are responsible for those at sea.

The author recounts in candid detail the lot of the fisheries observer. Typically young and inexperienced (at least for a first trip) graduates are suddenly transported from the irresponsible joys of academia and first loves into the harsh surreal world of a working fishing vessel. With the prospect of working in isolation, often for months at a stretch, they have to harden up quickly to a rigorous schedule and fit into an established crew whilst also maintaining a professional detachment in the execution of their duties. It’s a tough job on the best of vessels. But here the suspense builds as Matt’s tale lists all the ingredients that could combine into tragedy. Uneasy, but uncertain on how to proceed against established lines of authority and experience, all of this is stripped bare in the lethal realization that the ship is going down and someone has to try to do something to avert certain death for everyone.

Laziness, selfishness, incompetence and a lack of action among the senior officers led to the foundering. Despite the protestations of those trying to act; the arrogance of those responsible, and their wilful ignorance led to the vessel disappearing beneath their very feet. By the time their unbelieving eyes finally saw what was happening, it was too late. The inevitable grim reality of abandoning ship, the sinking and desperate fight for survival is heart wrenching and frightening. Scared and panicked, Matt summons the courage, dignity and resolve to do his best not only for himself but for the others as well.

Finally they struggle free of the vessel and drift in flooded life-rafts. The will and ability to live is being stolen by the mountainous, freezing, benighted seas. Those left alive don’t even know if their final cry for help has been heard and understand the ridiculous hope of ever being found at night in such a storm. Those who survived serve as a testament to the decency, skill, determination and bravery of Captain Sandoval and the crew of the Isla Camila who somehow managed to find and recover them.

It is some consolation that as a result of this and other incidents the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has taken a lead in establishing the regulations, procedures and expertise to try and prevent it happening again. GSGSSI now demand high safety standards and all vessels are inspected to ensure they meet the requirements of the Torremolinos Protocol on Fishing Vessel Safety and are further inspected by the Government Officers at KEP.. Seaworthiness and minimum standards of crew accommodation, health and safety are vital conditions that must be met for a vessel to be issued with a licence.

Last Man Off by Matt Lewis was published by Penguin-Viking on July 6th

Hardback ISBN-978-0-241-00278-0

Paperback ISBN-978-0-241-00279-7

Signed hardback copies can be ordered from the website for £16.99

Fishing And Shipping News

Pharos SG the Fishery Patrol Vessel breaks the ice in King Edward Cove. Photo Matthew Phillips.
Pharos SG the Fishery Patrol Vessel breaks the ice in King Edward Cove. Photo Matthew Phillips.

The busy winter fishing season continued throughout July with up to eleven vessels fishing in the SGMZ and 22 vessel visits to East Cumberland Bay. Toothfish catches averaged 3.5 tonnes/ship for the first week of July but tailed slightly off during the month as some of the best catching vessels caught their catch and left the fishery. Two vessels made mid-season transhipments in the Falkland Islands before returning to the fishery. Four long-liners were still fishing by the end of the month.

The krill fishery has been very active with six trawlers fishing and three different reefers anchored in Cumberland Bay during July to receive transhipments from the krill fleet. A tanker also visited to bunker vessels.

A gale caused large sea-swells on the fishing grounds and all the trawlers stopped fishing and heaved-to during the worst of the weather on July 8th. Despite this krill catches remained good, averaging nearly 160 tonnes per vessel/day during the first two weeks of July. Average catches then dipped a little mainly due to transhipment activities reducing fishing time before recovering to an average of 167 tonnes/ship/day. The best day’s catch was 484 tonnes by one vessel.

Krill trawler and reefer in Cumberland Bay. Photo Simon Browning.
Krill trawler and reefer in Cumberland Bay. Photo Simon Browning.

Shackleton’s Boat Replica In Cambridge

A replica of Shackleton’s lifeboat James Caird will go on permanent display at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI). The replica closely matches the boat Shackleton and four other men sailed the 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia in April / May 1916 to seek rescue for the rest of the Endurance crew left on Elephant Island after their ship sank.

The replica, called the Sir Ernest Shackleton, has made the same journey. Over the turn of the year in 1993-94, in an attempt to replicate Shackleton’s extraordinary rescue journey, this tiny 7.26 meter long boat was sailed by expedition leader Trevor Potts and three other adventurers on the first attempted reconstruction of the feat. The boat was launched off Elephant Island from a cruise ship for what Trevor Potts described as “a pretty cold, wet, and miserable trip, but I’m very glad we did it.”

The replica is now being refurbished in a shed in Scotland; a coat of paint will help get it ready to go on show and protect it from the elements, as the boat, which should go on show from September, is to live outside under a canopy at the SPRI Museum in central Cambridge. Trevor Potts said: “There has been some fundraising done to get it refurbished and to take it down to Cambridge. The idea is not to confuse it with Sir Ernest’s own boat, the James Caird, but to display it as a boat that followed on from his work and took his story on into modern times.”

The James Caird replica Sir Ernest Shackleton will be painted before being exhibited in Cambridge. Photo Trevor Potts.
The James Caird replica Sir Ernest Shackleton will be painted before being exhibited in Cambridge. Photo Trevor Potts.

A Serious Matter Of Peas

The suppliers of Victoria Peas to the whaling station at Leith were sent a letter of complaint by the Salvesen Company who ran the station. The letter, dated December 1912, told the pea supplier that they had received “A very serious complaint from the whaling station at South Georgia” and that the Manager there had complained the peas were “of such bad quality that it is impossible to get them boiled down so as to make pea-soup.” The complaint continues, “seeing we have to send provisions so far away it is a very serious matter sending out inferior goods...”

This letter was one of several items researched by the University of Edinburgh in the Salvesen Archive in anticipation of an increase in enquires following broadcasting of the two part whaling documentary “The Whale Hunters” in June.

A ‘Marconigram’ sent to the Grytviken Magistrate following the loss of a propeller from a vessel that hit rocks at Bird Island was also discovered.

Another report unearthed from the archive is a report from whaling station Manager Leganger Hansen to the Magistrate about two sailors who had taken 10 kilos of gunpowder and other materials from a ship’s powder magazine and then gone ashore to make fireworks. They put the gunpowder into a cast-iron pipe and lit it; one of the sailors was killed as a result.

Documents relating to the export to Denmark in December 1926 of 75 penguins for “exhibition purposes” were also discovered. Many of the penguins were then to be delivered to London Zoo.

You can see the documents and read the original blog from the Edinburgh University Archive here.

The Marconigram reporting a shipping incident to the Magistrate. Photo Salvesen Archive, University of Edinburgh.
The Marconigram reporting a shipping incident to the Magistrate. Photo Salvesen Archive, University of Edinburgh.

Bird Island Diary

By Cian Luck, Zoological Field Assistant (Seals) at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

The winter months have picked up pace now and July flew by on Bird Island. We’ve been blessed with temperatures that have hovered at or below freezing, transforming the island into a winter wonderland. We made the most of the snow early in the month when we dragged the sledge up the hill. Bird Island isn’t known for its ski slopes, but if you know where to look you can enjoy a few seconds of high speed sledging.

Enjoying high speed sledging!
Enjoying high speed sledging!

The wildlife on Bird Island has mostly been keeping out of sight this month, with a notable exception - July is typically the busiest winter month for the seal assistant as leopard seal activity peaks, and true to tradition, leps have been popping up everywhere. It’s not unusual these days to have one of the regular leps such as Maurice or Keeley floating around in front of base all day. We’ve seen some old faces return, such as Max, as well as some new faces, including this handsome chap who I’ve taken to calling Gil, after a favourite Simpsons character of mine.

Max asleep on the beach.
Max asleep on the beach.

The beaches have become a bit busier this month with male fur seals spreading themselves out on the shores. It’s far too early for them to be claiming territories for the breeding season (November-January) but it hasn’t stopped the younger males getting some practice in. This mostly involves rounding up some of the smaller seals and chasing me whenever I come within 6 metres of them. I now have to tactically dash across some of the beaches on my daily rounds.

Male fur seal.
Male fur seal.

Undoubtedly the most spectacular wildlife display we had this month, and perhaps all year, was the show a group of Southern right whales put on for us a few weeks ago. I was out on my lep round photographing a couple sleeping leps when I saw these enormous flippers waving a bit further out to sea. They appeared to be jostling with each other as they seemed to be swimming atop one another, regularly raising their flippers, emitting loud blows, and sometimes swimming upside down. They swam close to the island and eventually disappeared down Bird Sound, but not before coming within 30 metres of shore. It may well have been a once in a lifetime experience, one of many I’ve had on this island.

Cian caught this image of two of the Southern right whales jostling just off shore.
Cian caught this image of two of the Southern right whales jostling just off shore.

South Georgia Snippets

FI talk series: Residents of the Falkland Islands were given the opportunity to find out about a range of South Georgia activities in the past weeks as GSGSSI hosted a series of presentations open to the public. The series started with a public showing of the two part whaling documentary “Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story” by KEO Films. GSGSSI staff were there to discuss the films afterwards and give information about plans for the future of the old whaling stations.

Another presentation was a short talk about the management of South Georgia, including recent projects such as the eradication of reindeer; attendees even had the opportunity to order reindeer meat.

Curatorial Pecha Kucha: Pecha Kucha is a presentation style that limits the presenter to 20 images each shown for 20 seconds. Recently returned to her home in Dundee, Scotland, from a season as the Curatorial Intern at the South Georgia Museum, Suzanne Paterson made a Pecha Kucha presentation about her experiences on the island. The video of the event held on May 20th has just been published. Have a look to see what Suzanne, a taxidermy fan and self-confessed Museum Geek, said and showed about her experiences during her short presentation.

Suzanne Patterson’s Pecha Kutcha presentation about her time as Curatorial Intern
at the South Georgia Museum last summer.

Government Officer’s blog: For another view of life on South Georgia, read current Government Officer Jo Cox’s blog. If you follow the link below, you can read her view of the job she does through the main fishing season (and winter).

Shackleton banjo: Shackleton described Leonard Hussey’s banjo as “vital mental medicine” and allowed it to be carried to Elephant Island when all the shipwrecked crew members of the Endurance were being exhorted to leave behind everything not vital to survival before they took to the lifeboats.

Shackleton’s name is now associated with the first production banjo to be manufactured in Great Britain for more than 60 years. Inspired by Hussey’s banjo (which was an American folk banjo), The Great British Banjo Company used the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter, to raise the quarter of a million pounds needed to bring the Shackleton banjo to market. The instrument is a handmade six-string banjo and has been a great success, selling 150 instruments in the first six months with pre-orders for 100 of them.


Hear the prototype instrument and some of the story about the production of this
new banjo in the video clip from ITV.

Shackleton Life and Leadership: In August, to mark the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic (Endurance) Expedition, 1914–17, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) will unveil a redesigned and expanded exhibition on Shackleton's life and career in their permanent galleries. The exhibition explores the life of the young merchant sailor who went on to achieve fame as one of the great Antarctic explorers. He was knighted, received the Polar Medal with three clasps and the Royal Geographical Society's special Gold Medal. Thirteen other nations honoured him with a total of 27 awards.

The Polar Museum at SPRI, Cambridge, is opening Tuesday-Saturday, 10.00am - 4.00pm. Admission is free.

This tin of pemmican was taken from Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island. Shackleton commissioned the pemmican to be made by J.D. Beauvais Ltd in Copenhagen for the British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition, 1907–09. Photo SPRI.
This tin of pemmican was taken from Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island. Shackleton commissioned the pemmican to be made by J.D. Beauvais Ltd in Copenhagen for the British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition, 1907–09. Photo SPRI.

Dates For Your Diary

August marks the start of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition 100 years ago and so most of the events highlighted in this section at the moment relate to Shackleton Centenary events. Shackleton had a strong links to South Georgia and is buried at Grytviken.

1914 Commemorative Exhibition: Antarctic Witness: The South Ribble Museum has several talks and an exhibition to mark the Endurance expedition centenary. The travelling exhibition of Frank Hurley’s photographs is being exhibited from August 1st to October 18th, it is on loan from the Royal Geographical Society.

There are also several illustrated talks in the current programme at the museum including: August 9th, ‘Winston Churchill and the Imperial Tans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16’ by Malcolm Tranter.

August 30th, ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton: Leadership and Navigation in the South Atlantic’ by Ted Miley (FRS navigation).

October 9th, ‘The Life and Journeys of Sir Ernest Shackleton' by Malcolm Tranter; South Ribble Museum.

Shackleton’s Legacy: A one-day joint meeting of the South Georgia Association and Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) on November 8th will explore ‘Shackleton’s Legacy’ in a series of talks and presentations. The programme of events will examine the achievements of Shackleton and his men, demonstrating the development in leadership skills, Antarctic science and expedition techniques following the Endurance expedition and successful rescue of the shipwrecked crew.

The event is open to the general public but seating is limited to 120 so book early. Admission (£25.00) includes morning coffee, buffet lunch and afternoon tea.

To see the full programme and to book click here.

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