South Georgia Newsletter, March 2013

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

HMS Protector’s First Visit

HMS Protector in KE Cove.
HMS Protector in KE Cove.

HMS Protector, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, made her first ever visit to South Georgia on March 16th.

The vessel replaced the stricken HMS Endurance, which nearly sank in the Straits of Magellan in 2008. HMS Protector began life as the MV Polarbjørn (Polar Bear), a Norwegian icebreaker and polar research vessel. The 90m long vessel has a crew of 88 and is larger than, but looks very similar to, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) vessel RRS Shackleton which is her sister ship. HMS Protector’s overall mission is to provide a UK Sovereign presence in the British Antarctic Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and their surrounding maritime areas, to underpin their security and good governance; and meet the UK treaty obligations and exercise rights under the Antarctic treaty system through inspections, hydrographic charting and support to scientific research.

During this first visit to South Georgia, surveyors from the vessel were put ashore to install tide gauges both at KEP and on the Tonsberg Peninsula to assist with survey work in the area. Surveys were carried out in the Cumberland Bay and Stromness Bay areas using another strikingly familiar looking vessel. The specifically designed survey jet-boat James Caird IV is a 10.5m Mustang Marine boat and was based on the jet-boats used by GSGSSI as harbour launches at King Edward Point (KEP). The main difference outwardly is the “wrap around” windows of the survey vessel.

Survey jet-boat James Caird IV with its “wrap around” windows. Photo Boxpr.
Survey jet-boat James Caird IV with its “wrap around” windows. Photo Boxpr.

HMS Protector used its dynamic positioning (DP) capability to hold position in KE Cove instead of anchoring. The DP system is capable of positioning the ship with great accuracy even in high winds. The ship is fitted with an impressive array of other specialist equipment including: a hull mounted multi-beam echo sounder; an 8.5m ramped work boat, Terra Nova; 6 high-speed rigid inflatable and inflatable boats; 2 specialist tracked vehicles; 3 quad bikes and trailers, and a Land Rover.

Captain Rhett Hatcher only joined the ship for the first time in the Falklands before the ship sailed to South Georgia, but has previous experience in the South Atlantic as he was Flight Commander on HMS Brazen when the vessel was on South Atlantic patrol. During the visit to South Georgia Rhett was pleased to help with a last wish of an old sailor (see below), and also presented the ship’s plaque to the South Georgia Museum.

HMS Protector also assisted the SGHT Habitat Restoration (rat eradication) project by collecting empty fuel drums from Husvik and transporting them round to KEP.

Fishing and Shipping News

Longliner enters KE Cove for inspection and licensing.
Longliner enters KE Cove for inspection and licensing.

Six cruise ships visited Grytviken during March; the largest was Fram carrying 222 passengers. Just two more tourist vessels are due this season, in early April.

One trawler was fishing for icefish at the beginning of the month. It finished on March 10th, calling in at Cumberland Bay to drop off scientific samples and equipment before heading for Punta Arenas, Chile.

Longline fishing for toothfish has started in the South Sandwich Islands (SSI) region. By the end of the month two longliners had been inspected and licensed in Cumberland Bay before sailing for the fishing grounds. Catches so far have been variable. Both vessels have completed their Total Allowable Catch in the Northern area of SSI, and are now fishing in the Southern area.

The German research vessel Polarstern arrived in Cumberland Bay on March 28th and undertook science work in the bay overnight before dropping off a science field party at Jason Harbour. The vessel will be in the South Georgia and South Sandwich region for a few weeks.

There was also a visit from HMS Protector, see above.

Nybrakke Refurbishment

The Nybrakke.
The Nybrakke.

In March work started on refurbishing the Nybrakke in the old whaling station at Grytviken. Wooden cladding on the western end of the building was replaced and efforts have been made to drain the basement of water.

The building is currently used for storage of building materials and equipment, but the plan is to refurbish it so that it could be used as an emergency shelter.

The Nybrakke (New Barracks in Norwegian) was one of the more modern buildings at Grytviken when the whalers left. Built in the summer of 1945/46, it housed 100 men in 21 bedrooms. Most bedrooms on the ground and first floor had four bunks each. The two bedrooms on the third floor slept eight men each. Toilets and washrooms were in the basement.

Work on the building will continue next summer.

Unusually Windy Weather Hampers Rat Eradication Progress

Work to eradicate rats and mice from South Georgia is falling behind the planned schedule as continued windy weather in target areas towards the northern end of the Island is preventing the helicopters from baiting.

Throughout March unrelenting winds have kept the baiters waiting, sometimes as long as 10 days, for a chance to work. In the latest edition of the South Georgia Heritage Trust’s Habitat Restoration newsletter ‘Project News’, Project Leader Tony Martin confirms that they have been unlucky, and are indeed being subject to worse weather than usual for the Island.

“Perceptions that this season’s weather has been far worse than normal have recently been confirmed.” he writes, “The Polar Vortex increased in strength just 10 days before we reached South Georgia, and ever since has been bringing rapidly-moving, more intense weather systems over the Island, with attendant high winds.”

Despite the poor weather, the baiters have already completed 3 complete Baiting Zones, and almost exactly half of the rat-infested land area targeted for this season. A lot can be achieved even in short opportunities. In just 3 hours of baiting, with three helicopters working, they can remove rats from 72 sq km (28 sq miles) of land.

“Ironically, the only flyable weather in recent weeks has been when we find ourselves at the very centre of a low-pressure system.” Tony Martin said. “If this happens in daylight hours, and we know where the lull is likely to occur, we send out our ‘flying circus’ to take advantage of it. Given half decent weather, we make serious progress! There’s nothing we can do about the weather, and we knew that this notoriously windy island was unlikely to roll over without a battle, so we’re not dismayed and remain ready to move forward at the drop of the forecaster’s hat.”

The helicopters cannot spread bait safely and accurately with more than a moderate wind speed, so weather forecast charts and weather reports from the field parties put out to watch for breaks in the weather are eagerly analysed in search of elusive patches of slow-moving air.

Pilot George Phillips, writing in his blog ‘The Mad Ratters Tea Party’, gives a flavour of what it is like to be at the mercy of the fickle weather: “The Mad Ratters hadn't baited for 10 days--- until yesterday! A weather window of opportunity opened up to the west in Possession Bay and the team launched.

The three helicopters waiting for less windy weather at Husvik
The three helicopters waiting for less windy weather at Husvik

This time all 3 helicopters were available and 4 hours later an effective 12-hours worth of bucket baiting had been carried out. This one afternoon brought our total score up to 48% of the rat-infested zones from the 42% we had been holding on to 10 days. 6% of the whole rat task in just one afternoon! 10 afternoons like that could have the mission complete! Just 5 full days with 3 serviceable helicopters we could nail the job. As little as that! It's worth the waiting.”

If progress sounds slow, it is worth noting that at the end of the March Tony Martin pointed out that with just two days baitable weather the Project would be back to progressing as predicted.

There are several ways to follow the progress of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project or ‘Team Rat’ as they are often known, the latest edition of ‘Project News’ can be downloaded here [pdf, 1.5mb], or go to the home page and sign up to follow SGHT on Facebook or Twitter.

The Mad Ratters Tea Party blog can be read at

The baiting flight-lines over the areas baited until the end of March.
The baiting flight-lines over the areas baited until the end of March.

Centenary Shackleton Scholarship On Offer

The Committee of the Shackleton Scholarship Fund have announced an exceptional or ‘flagship’ scholarship of £10,000 to mark the centenary of the start of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

Scholars, or teams of scholars, who want to apply for the one-off funding can come from any country in the world so long as they propose to undertake research in natural or social sciences of relevance to the countries of the South Atlantic, in particular the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the British Antarctic Territories.

The Fund usually grants smaller amounts of money to around five academic or ‘quality of life’ scholars a year.

The Chairman of the Fund’s committee is Commissioner Nigel Haywood who said, “The Shackleton Scholarship Fund has always been a considerable asset in encouraging serious academic study in the South Atlantic. This Centenary Scholarship is a very welcome step on the part of the trustees to offer the opportunity for a high-impact academic study which will be a fitting tribute to the spirit of Shackleton and his expedition in his centenary year”.

Applications should be made to the Funds website by September 15th 2013. The winning applicant/s will be informed in November, and the successful applicant will be expected to start work on their project in 2014.

New Book - Cry Argentina

A semi-fictionalised book set in South Georgia around the time it was invaded by the Argentines in 1982 has just been published. The book is written by Ian Sykes who worked in this area of the world as a member of the Falkland Island Dependencies Survey, ‘Cry Argentina’ features a BBC camerawoman, Alison Shackleton, who signs on for a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Antarctica. According to the synopsis, she could hardly have imagined the extraordinary events that would unfold during her travels. And, when Argentinian naval officer Hugo Corti first encounters his nemesis Alfredo Astiz – the treacherous ‘Blond Angel’ – during his country's covert 'dirty war', he could scarcely predict the fate that would await both men five years later. Cry Argentina tells the story of the build-up, invasion, occupation and eventual liberation of South Georgia. Mixing real-life episodes, characters and dialogue with a continent-hopping, multi-layered narrative.

The paperback was published on March 28th, ISBN ​9781846248719, and costs £8.99. We hope to publish a review of the book by one of those present on South Georgia during the time it is set in next month’s edition of this newsletter.

Successful Old Bird

The fifty-four year old with its chick.
The fifty-four year old with its chick.

Grey-headed albatross are known to be one of the longest-lived bird species. Bird ringing allows scientist to follow the individual fortunes of the ringed birds, and some of the earliest ringing of grey-heads was done on Bird Island in the late 1950’s. A bird on a nest at Bird Island this summer was ringed as a chick by Lance Tickell and his team in 1958.

The 54-year old bird is not perching-back and enjoying its retirement, but has partnered up with a much younger bird which is just 12 years old. Grey-headed albatrosses first breed when they are 10–14 years old and attempt to raise a single chick every two years. Not surprisingly the folks on Bird Island fondly consider the older bird to be a bit of a cradle snatcher….or should that be nest snatcher? The mismatched grey-head pair have so far successfully raised a chick which is due to fledge in May.

Studies of grey-headed albatrosses have not yet continued for long enough to know the longest time an individual can live; but a paper published a few years ago then recorded the oldest known-age individuals at 46 years old, but correctly stated that “it is quite likely that some individuals live considerably longer.”

Museum’s Bumper Year

The South Georgia Museum has had a particularly rich year for attracting new artefacts for its Museum Collection. Around 90 new objects have been acquisitioned this year, a huge number considering the acquisitioned Collection only numbered some 400 objects before. The most important new addition was Frank Worsley’s almanac, donated by the family of Endurance physicist Reginald James.

One of the reasons so many new objects are listed is because at least two large groups of objects were donated this year. The Museum was given an impressive and well-researched collection of clothing used on the Shackleton Epic expedition recently, 27 of which items were added to the Collection. The entire Shackleton Epic donation was immediately put on temporary display in the Carr Maritime Gallery, and the Museum plans to make a permanent display of clothing and some of the other items next summer. Another ten items form part of a Royal Marine’s uniform which was worn during the defence of KEP when the Argentines invaded in 1982. The uniform is on show in the revamped display covering the military history of South Georgia.

SGHT Director South Georgia Sarah Lurcock said she was delighted the Museum continues to attract exciting and important artefacts to the Collection. “We are regularly contacted by people involved here during the whaling years or shortly after asking if we would be interested in items they have had stored in garages or attics. Often these are people who realise the ‘treasures’ they collected before the whaling stations were seen as part of the Island’s history have little interest to their children other than as rather odd ornaments.” Other recent and varied acquisitions include: a model whale claw (the full sized ones were used to grab the tail of a whale to haul it up the stern ramp of a whaling factory ships; a handwritten signature by Sir Ernest Shackleton; and a bar of Guerlain whale oil soap (which still smells very nice!).

Late Wish – Return of the Stone

Captain Rhett Hatcher or HMS Protector had an unusual mission to complete during the ship’s visit to the Island, he had been asked to perform a late wish of sailor who had visited the Island in 1937. The sailor, Joseph Collis, had removed the small piece of granite from Ernest Shackleton's grave as a souvenir when he visited South Georgia aboard HMS Ajax. According to Captain Hatcher he had later realised that was the wrong thing to do and it had played on the sailors mind, and so late on in his life he had asked that someone take it back for him. After Joseph’s death, aged 95 in 2012, his son Malcolm set out to see that his father’s wish was carried out and got in contact with the Royal Navy

Capt. Rhett Hatcher returned the stone to Shackleton’s grave.
Capt. Rhett Hatcher returned the stone to Shackleton’s grave.

The small granite chipping was in a small wooden box and a sticker on the underside read “Feb 1937. From the grave of sir Earnest (sic) Shackleton in South Georgia”. It had been flown to the Falkland Islands where it was put aboard HMS Protector. So, seventy-six years after it had been collected, Captain Hatcher fulfilled the wish and replaced the stone on Shackleton’s grave where is was indistinguishable from the others around it other than being slightly darker in colour from either being often handled or less weathered.

After the stone was returned Joseph’s son Mr Collis said: “To know that the stone has finally returned to its rightful place after 75 years is very fitting and I would like to thank the Royal Navy for helping my late father fulfil his long-held wish."

This is not the only case of “souveniring” from Shackleton’s grave. A bronze leaf and twig from one of the grave tributes left on the grave were removed and are now in the collection of the Shetland Museum, Scotland. According to the museum website the leaf and twig was “..broken off and taken home by a whaler working at South Georgia.” You can see it on the Shetland Museum website here.

A whaler’s souvenir from Shackleton’s grave is now in the Shetland Museum, Scotland. Photo Shetland Museum.
A whaler’s souvenir from Shackleton’s grave is now in the Shetland Museum, Scotland. Photo Shetland Museum.

Bird Island Diary

By Craig, Technician at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

I arrived at Bird island after wintering at Halley and it is a privilege to be here and able to call it my home for a year.

On March 8th the whole base were involved in seal pup weighing. It turned out to be a bit of a competition in my eyes, girls vs. boys, the race was on to finish first.

We had a leaving party - the new BI winterers cooked for the old winterers, summer BC, and Iain who were soon due to be leaving. But as it turned out their departure was delayed as the weather was bad, with lots of snow, so instead we made a snow man!

Craig and Jen making the snowman. Photo Ruth Brown.
Craig and Jen making the snowman. Photo Ruth Brown.

When the RRS Ernest Shackleton did get in on the 14th it dropped off Jack to help me out with the Bob-cat mini digger that requires a lot of my attention throughout the summer. We solved the Bob-cat problem then got the call to make all the leavers’ personal belongings available to the ship, and then they were gone! It all happened so fast. So now it’s just the four of us.

On the 24th, my birthday, I helped out with black-browed albatross chick weighing.

Steph and Jen (before she left) were busy visiting Wanderer Ridge daily to get hatching dates of the wandering albatross chicks. The first chick on its own, without an adult, was seen on March 31st, which is the earliest date recorded.

They have also been weighing black-browed albatross chicks at Colony J when they reach 80-days old, and have just started weighing the grey-headed albatross chicks at Colony E on their 100th day.

Jerry and Ruth have completed the penguin fieldwork for the season, culminating in the final PIT tagging of the adult penguins at the Little Mac colony. Ruth has also been out in the field ringing all of the northern giant petrel chicks, and also deployed geolocators on 36 chicks. Hopefully in a few years, if they return, we will be able to see where they have been.

Working with the fur seals, Hannah has been very busy with the attendance study that has been going on over the last few months. She has been deploying GPS and TDR/Accelerometers on females to see where they are going, and how they are feeding while away from the island. She has also been continuing the daily pup-weighing and GPS deployments on the pups. It’s been getting more challenging as the pups become more mobile and spend longer swimming at sea.

Now we are only four people on base there are less demands on me as base technician, so as well as completing a 10 000 hour service on generator 2 I have been very busy assisting with the science that is going on whenever possible.

I finish with my favourite picture of the month.

An albatross chick breaking out of its egg.
An albatross chick breaking out of its egg.

South Georgia Snippets

Polar Pioneer Shackleton Crossing: A small party aboard the tourist vessel Polar Pioneer was put ashore in King Haakon Bay in the middle of March to attempt the Shackleton Crossing to Stromness. They were unlucky with the weather and so their crossing turned out to be a short affair. They headed up to Murray Snowfield on the afternoon of the 14th in perfect conditions, enjoying a spectacular sunset, but then got blasted by about 40-50 knot winds and snow just after midnight. The storm had increased slightly by morning and with visibility poor they decided to go down to Possession Bay to be reunited with the vessel. It turned out to be the right choice as the weather stayed bad for the remainder of the day and they had limited time. They and other passengers from the vessel enjoyed a much nicer walk from Fortuna to Stromness on the last leg of the famous journey.

Fittingly the Polar Pioneer was also picking up the Shackleton Epic Expedition’s James Caird replica Alexandra Shackleton at Grytviken. The tiny boat, which recently made the 800-mile journey from Elephant Island to King Haakon Bay and was then towed to Grytviken to await the pickup, was easily hoisted aboard the vessel to start the journey back to the UK. It will accompany ‘Shackleton Epic’ expedition leader Tim Jarvis as he makes his round of lectures on their successful expedition.

Alexandra Shackleton was moored alongside Petrel to await collection by Polar Pioneer.
Alexandra Shackleton was moored alongside Petrel to await collection by Polar Pioneer.

Shackleton Epic Expedition at Grytviken, site of Shackleton's grave.

Snowy sheathbills, usually only seen in ones and twos, gather in large numbers near the king
penguin colony at Fortuna.

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