South Georgia Newsletter, November 2014

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

Commissioner’s First Visit

The Commissioner Colin Roberts (second from left) led the service aboard Dias.
The Commissioner Colin Roberts (second from left) led the service aboard Dias.

The Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Colin Roberts, made his first visit to the Island. He was accompanied by his wife Camilla and they arrived for a two-day visit on November 13th. The busy programme of meetings and events included familiarisation with the King Edward Point (KEP) station and Grytviken, and a boat ride to Sorling Valley to see the effect of removing the reindeer. They also went by boat to Stromness Bay to see the three abandoned whaling stations, which will help the Commissioner when assessing any proposed projects there in future.

During the visit Colin Roberts led a ceremony of commemoration aboard the sealing vessel Dias (see below).

The Commissioner, who is also the Governor of the Falkland Islands, resides in Stanley but hopes to make at least annual visits to South Georgia.

Dias and a WW1 Ceremony

The sealing vessel Dias was the focus of a First World War (WW1) commemoration during the Commissioner’s visit. On November 15th a Ceremony of Commemoration was held aboard Dias to mark her involvement during WW1 and to celebrate her remarkable history. This vessel, formerly known as Viola, is the last remaining example of a Hull steam trawler; though she underwent several changes of function and form in a long and interesting history. Dias had sunk at her moorings at Grytviken but was raised in 2004 in order to clean out her fuel tanks, and then pulled up to the land with her bow set into the beach. Inevitably, with little to no maintenance since, her condition has deteriorated; the steel hull is rusting through and her funnel had to be removed when there was a danger of it falling down.

The ceremony was led by Commissioner Colin Roberts and was attended by around thirty people who were able to climb up onto her bow. The Commissioner read out a short history of the vessel which you can read in full here.

The old Viola bell, which is normally on display in the Carr Maritime Gallery at the South Georgia Museum, was hung from a davit and rung to mark the beginning and end of a two minute silence, following which a wreath of remembrance was laid by Government Officer Simon Browning.

The ceremony coincided with the visit of two ship marine salvage consultants, Tim Broughton and Lyle Craigie-Halkett, who came to Grytviken to assess the condition of Dias on a commission for Hull Maritime Museum, UK to assess the possibility of her return to England. Their trip was funded by marine related businesses in the Hull area.

Join the Commissioner Colin Roberts and congregation aboard the Dias for the commemoration service.
You may need to turn up your speakers to hear the address.

Builders Refurbish Heritage Buildings

The GSGSSI building team of eight has a busy schedule of works for the summer including refurbishing several of the smaller buildings in Grytviken and starting a major KEP maintenance schedule.

Three buildings to the northern end of Grytviken, in the vicinity of the old Manager’s Villa (now the South Georgia Museum) will have major restoration work. The Potato Store had some rotten wooden and ironwork supports replaced and was reroofed with corrugated iron in traditional style. Refurbishment of the Slop Chest (company store) has started. The inside panelling and some shelving is being left in the original state but the roof and walls have been strengthened ready for re-cladding. The building, which will become the Grytviken Post Office with an exhibition area behind, is also being insulated. The colour of the roofs of these buildings will be changed from red to black, the colour they were when the whaling station was operating.

Refurbishment started on the Slop Chest.
Refurbishment started on the Slop Chest.

Two asbestos consultants have been working to remove asbestos from the area around a chimney in the Nybrakka. Once the work is complete, further refurbishment of this building will be possible.

The building team also have a lot of work planned at KEP, including some maintenance on the main station building which was constructed in 2000/2001, and reroofing of 10-year-old Carse House, residence of one of the Government Officers.

Bernard Stonehouse

Photo by by John Robertson.
Photo by by John Robertson.

Bernard Stonehouse, who undertook some of the earliest penguin and seal research at South Georgia, has died aged 88.

He was born in Hull in 1926 and went on to have a varied and interesting career, starting in the Royal Navy with whom he trained as a pilot aged eighteen. He then joined the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS, precursor to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)) and went to Stonington as a meteorologist and pilot and biologist. During a survey of Adelaide Island an emperor penguin colony was discovered on the Dion Islands. Bernard returned with two companions to make the first study of breeding which takes place in winter.

In his first year Bernard was one of three men who survived an air crash. Bad weather forced them to attempt an emergency landing on the sea ice. Their Auster aircraft flipped over onto its back on the hummocky surface. They survived the crash but had only a two-man tent, one sleeping bag and a tin of pemmican between them. The next day they set out to walk the 70 miles back to their base using a sledge made from the plane’s fuel tank to pull their few belongings. Poor weather hampered their journey and they made little headway; the three men crowding the tiny tent for three whole days during one blizzard. After a week struggling to reach safety they heard a plane circling nearby and used their last flare to attract attention and were rescued. Bernard had another lucky escape when, during a 500-mile dog-sledge journey, he and a companion survived after they and their sledge broke through thin sea ice and were plunged into the icy water. He and three other members of the base had an enforced third consecutive winter in Antarctica when the relief ship failed to reach the base.

Back in England in 1950 Bernard studied zoology and geology at University College, London, followed by a PhD at Oxford. His field studies for his doctorate brought him to South Georgia where he and Nigel Bonner set up a study site in the Bay of Isles in 1953. They erected a garden shed at Ample Bay in which they overwintered. Bernard made a ground-breaking study of king penguins and Nigel studied elephant seals. They then moved to KEP where Bernard Stonehouse switched his studies to marine biology.

Back in the UK he married Sally. The couple both went to Ascension Island in 1957 where Bernard was leader of the British Ornithologists’ Union Centenary Expedition. They spent 18 months studying the birds partly on the main island but also on a small off-shore island, Boatswain Bird Island, which had a small rock platform just big enough and high enough above the waves to accommodate a small hut with two bunks. The couple celebrated their third anniversary in the hut. Further travels with his career took him to New Zealand in 1968 where be taught zoology at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. From here, summer expeditions with students were to Scott Base in the Antarctic to continue his studies on emperor penguins and other penguins and seals.

In 1970-71 a Commonwealth Research Fellowship at the University of British Columbia gave him opportunities for research on Dall sheep in the Yukon.

Back in England Bernard taught biology in a school in Perthshire and started writing books, then set up a new School of Studies in Environmental Science at Bradford University. He later joined the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) as editor of Polar Record, and he headed a long-term study on the ecological impacts of polar tourism. From this he concluded that Antarctic tourism was broadly positive if properly managed, in that it encourages a public interest in polar conservation. “On the whole,” he observed, “the tourists have done far less damage than some of the scientists who have had the run of the place since the 1950s.” He worked as a lecturer on board tourist ships for more than 20 years, a role which enabled him to revisit South Georgia several times.

His books include ‘Animals of the Antarctic’ and ‘Penguins and Sea Mammals of the World’ and ‘Antarctica: The Traveller’s Guide’.

In 1953 Stonehouse received the Polar Medal. He is also commemorated in the names of Stonehouse Bay and the 3100m Mount Stonehouse in Antarctica.

Bernard Stonehouse died on November 12th and is survived by his wife Sally and by their son and two daughters.

Info: Daily Telegraph

Prince William Backs the ‘Footsteps of Legends 100’

The ‘Footsteps of Legends 100’ team, before they set out. Photo Paul Grover.
The ‘Footsteps of Legends 100’ team, before they set out. Photo Paul Grover.

An expedition recreating Shackleton’s rescue journey reached South Georgia in November on a five-week long expedition that was backed by Prince William. The four-man team, co-led by renowned explorer David Hempleman-Adams and Justin Packshaw, formerly a Captain in the Royal Dragoon Guards, included two other military men who had been wounded in service. The expedition was raising funds for a new military rehabilitation centre as Corporal Ollie Bainbridge and Lance Corporal Keith Harbridge had both been badly injured in Afghanistan by grenades and were helped back to fitness by the military rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, UK.

Prince William, said of the expedition: 'It is very inspiring that 100 years on wounded soldiers are following in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton's daring rescue from Elephant Island to South Georgia. In doing so they will be displaying the same perseverance in adversity that characterised Shackleton's 1914 Endurance expedition and which we see today in those members of the armed forces who are fighting their way back from serious injury.'

‘The Footsteps of Legends 100’expedition sailed to Elephant Island then on to South Georgia in an expedition yacht, then set out to attempt the Shackleton Traverse to Stromness.

Once at South Georgia bad weather quickly became a factor. On an early part of the climb, they were hit by winds reportedly “of at least 120mph” making it hard to stand up and which blew a heavy rucksack away when it was set down. They dug in for a night, but sustained poor weather with very low visibility forced them to retreat to the yacht the next day. It was a frustrating wait for better conditions, but once it relented the party were able to set out once more and this time reached Stromness, on the other side of the island, in just two days.

“To have gone all that way and not made the crossing would have been soul destroying,” said Cpl Bainbridge afterwards. “I was so happy that we managed it. I think the fact we had to come back down and do it again made me appreciate it even more.”

The expedition hoped to raise awareness of the new £300 million facility for injured soldiers, the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, which will replace Headley Court. To donate to the expedition visit the team's JustGiving page.

Read the write up of the expedition in the Telegraph here.

Shackleton Legacy Conference

By Sarah Greenwood

The epic story of Shackleton and the Endurance crew is legendary in Antarctic history as a triumph of leadership, determination and courage, but what was their legacy? On 8th November the South Georgia Association and the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute held a joint conference with distinguished speakers to examine the expedition’s achievements and subsequent developments in leadership skills, Antarctic science and expedition techniques.

Attendees at the Shackleton Legacy Conference.
Attendees at the Shackleton Legacy Conference.

During the morning session, we heard how, 100 years on, Shackleton's characteristics are still used as a paradigm in leadership courses for diverse institutions from global technology companies to secondary education students.

Shackleton used unconventional means to choose his expedition members; but how do modern organisations like the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) choose? John Hall, Head of Operations & Logistics at BAS discussed the ideal requirements and selection process, explaining the idea that nobody’s perfect, but a team can be: You need someone who can do the job, but more importantly, someone who is a team player. And what of the expedition’s science? Frank Worsley, Robert Clark, James Wordie and others, including Shackleton, undertook scientific collections and observations. Worsley retained his logbook, but Clark’s diary, Wordie’s rock collections and other records went down with the Endurance. Although the first edition of ‘South’, included a few reports of their discoveries, later editions cut out much of the scientific information and so the data were ‘lost’ for much of the century.

Fledgling emperor penguins were sighted from Endurance but no one realised they indicated a breeding colony nearby. It was 1987 before the actual colony was discovered. More emperors, “…in wonderfully good condition & of the most dazzlingly bright clean plumage…” were later seen by the Endurance crew. This was the first recorded sighting of emperors returning to their colonies at the pre-breeding stage. These days colonies are discovered and monitored using satellite imagery. There are currently 53 known colonies, with the most recent found in 2014.

South Georgia’s geology was considered 'different' from other oceanic islands. James Wordie’s studies of the Weddell Sea added greatly to the geographic understanding of the polar region and his views have been vindicated by modern research.

But why was the Endurance beset so badly by ice? Were the weather conditions unusual? The lecture by BAS Science Leader, John King, examined the expedition meteorological records which show it was exceptionally cold in the Weddell Sea that year and that a weaker than usual atmospheric circulation failed to move the ice north, possibly contributing towards the Endurance’s entrapment.

It was Frank Worsley's extraordinary skill with a sextant that brought the James Caird to South Georgia. In researching his lecture on the art of navigation from ‘Endurance’ to the present day, Skip Novak of Pelagic Expeditions suggested that whilst classic celestial navigation is still practised today, the art may be lost when the European Galileo System comes into public use in 2017. Finally, Bob Burton showed Shackleton's sledging rations were in advance of their time but modern rations have been hugely improved in calorific and nutritional value by advances in nutrition technology.

A "plume" of Commissioners, left to right Richard Ralph, Colin Roberts and William Fullerton. Photo Peter Pepper.
A "plume" of Commissioners, left to right Richard Ralph, Colin Roberts and William Fullerton. Photo Peter Pepper.

Fishing and Shipping News

November was a busy month for tourism. Thirteen cruise ships called in at Grytviken as well as visits from two expedition yachts, and the super-yacht Hanse Explorer which was chartered by the award winning Polish photographer Tomasz Gudzowaty.

There was a total of 20 harbour visits and 1,439 paying passengers to Grytviken during November.

There is currently no fishing activity.

Endurance Relatives on Centenary Voyage

At least eight families of the original crew members of the Endurance were represented on a special centenary voyage that visited Grytviken on November 29th. The 20-day long trip aboard Akademik Sergey Vavilov was organised by Ice Tracks Expeditions in conjunction with the Scott Polar Research Institute and was sold out well in advance.

Amongst the original Endurance crew represented were Shackleton, Wordie, Macklin, James, Kerr, McCarthy, Orde Lees and Worsley. There were also several special guests and presenters including Rear Admiral Nick Lambert, who commanded the Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS Endurance and who is now Chairman of the Friends of SPRI.

Hon Alexandra Shackleton reads during the service of remembrance, Nick Lambert standing right.
Hon Alexandra Shackleton reads during the service of remembrance, Nick Lambert standing right.

Nick Lambert officiated at the service of remembrance which was held in the Grytviken church. He opened the ceremony using the words “Today we are privileged to gather here at the gateway to the great white continent and to celebrate the heroism and achievements of both the Weddell Sea and Ross Sea parties of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition under the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton”.

During the service several of the crew’s relatives, including Shackleton’s granddaughter Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, made short readings about their forebears. Fittingly, a banjo player accompanied the hymns.

After the service the congregation walked to the cemetery to raise a toast to Shackleton and Wild who are buried there.

There will be a video link for this event in next month’s newsletter.

Shackleton: A life in Poetry

A new book, ‘Shackleton: A life in Poetry' by polar expert Jim Mayer, is a biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton told using the poems he wrote and those by other poets that he loved to read and recite. Shackleton, known as a tough polar explorer and inspirational leader, held the words of poets close to his heart. 'Poetry was his other world and he explored it as eagerly as he did the great Antarctic spaces,' said his friend, Mrs Hope Guthrie.

As well as his favourite poems, the biography includes all the poems and poetic diary extracts written by the great explorer himself, each of which sheds light on significant milestones in his life and adventures. Shackleton used poetry as a tool, to encourage and motivate men who were frequently operating close to their physical and psychological limits. The works of Tennyson, Browning and Robert W. Service were, in Shackleton’s own phrase, 'vital mental medicine' throughout his life. Poems influenced his speeches, his letters to his wife and the way he led his men. These verses, selected from his correspondence and other sources, are linked throughout the book to Shackleton's turbulent and restless life, offering fresh insights into his struggles in the Antarctic, his strained but loving marriage and the magnetic attraction of the polar regions. Shackleton historian Jonathan Shackleton said of the book: “This is an extremely interesting work on a very important part of Shackleton's character.”

‘Shackleton: A life in Poetry’ is a paperback with 176 pages and was published by Signal Books Ltd on October 6th. It costs £9.99. ISBN-10: 1909930105 ISBN-13: 978-1909930100

Bird Island Diary

By Cian Luck at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

November’s been a busy month on Bird Island as there’s no longer any denying that summer has arrived. Since the first fur seal pup was born I’ve been going out twice a day to check on them. As more and more seals return to the shores and the pups are born the beaches are getting more and more crowded, turning my casual stroll to work into a strategic dash through fighting males and brooding females. It’s a joy to have the cute fur seal pups around again and we’re all looking forward to them becoming a bit more adventurous and wandering around looking for mischief.

Newborn fur seal pup and mother. Photo Cian Luck.
Newborn fur seal pup and mother. Photo Cian Luck.

The wandering albatrosses are undergoing a changing of the guard as the chicks are finally old enough to fledge and leave Bird Island, just as the next batch of adults are returning to breed and start the cycle all over again. Jess is weighing the chicks when they are 260 days old, although finding them isn’t always easy as they have become keen walkers and have explored far from their nest sites now. Jess has also counted over 4,000 grey-headed and black-browed albatross in over 19 colonies as part of the annual censuses, as well as traversing the cliffs in search of light-mantled albatross nests.

Light-mantled albatross on its nest. Photo Jess Walkup.
Light-mantled albatross on its nest. Photo Jess Walkup.

Jerry’s study birds have also been returning en masse. The burrowing petrels and prions are calling behind base at night; the giant petrels are all on eggs; and the gentoo penguin chicks have started to hatch. But no return has been quite as spectacular as the macaroni penguins returning to their colony ‘Big Mac’. There are now 80,000 penguins making noise in the world’s second largest macaroni colony. We had to catch and weigh 50 males and 50 females as they returned from a winter at sea. We all bore a few bruises after that as though the macs might be little they pack a hefty flipper-slap.

Eighty thousand penguins at Big Mac. Photo Jerry Gillham.
Eighty thousand penguins at Big Mac. Photo Jerry Gillham.

We have been preparing base for the incoming summer crew of 10, due any day now. We’re all keen to meet the summer team and get the season going with the full team on board.

South Georgia Snippets

Rare Spectacled Porpoise Specimen: A rare cetacean, a spectacled porpoise, was seen freshly-dead and washed up in Stromness Bay. The skeleton was later secured for the South Georgia Museum by the crew of yacht Pelagic Australis who pulled the remains further up the beach until a passing cruise ship was able to assist to bring them back to Grytviken.

Sea Explorer took on a rather smelly extra passenger; by now the carcass was mostly eaten out by scavenging birds leaving only the skeleton. Once at Grytviken measurements and samples were taken from the carcass by one of the resident scientists and now, with advice from a taxidermist, it is being left for nature to finish cleaning the bones.

‘Extreme Ice’ Glacier monitoring: The ‘Extreme Ice’ team returned once again on National Geographic Explorer to continue their work monitoring various glaciers around the island using static cameras. They had installed some cameras last summer and were downloading the collected images from the robust cameras that take a series of time lapse photographs. They also managed to install some more cameras, one monitoring the Nordenskjold Glacier from Ellerbeck Peak and another at Gold Harbour.

Black-browed Albatross Survey: A photographic survey of albatross (mollymawk) colonies was started at the end of the month. Sarah Browning and Georgina Strange travelled around the island on the Fishery Patrol Vessel Pharos SG and were able to photograph the bird colonies from the ship’s boat. The high-resolution photographs will be analysed later by counting the nesting pairs.

Museum Artist in Residence wildlife sculptures: The first two sculptures from Anthony Smith, Artist in Residence at the South Georgia Museum, have been cast in bronze. The life-sized sculptures - 'Gentoo Penguin Chick' and the 'Black-browed Albatross' bust - are inspired by Anthony's two-month stay on the island last summer.

Anthony will return to South Georgia and the Antarctic region next summer, as well as travelling to the Arctic, and will be sculpting aboard Poseidon Expeditions ship Sea Spirit whilst also lecturing and acting as on board photographer.

Both the beautiful sculptures are in a limited edition of just 12 and will cost £3000 each.

Enduring Eye: The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) has announced a centenary exhibition to celebrate Frank Hurley’s photographs of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition. The exhibition, which will start on November 21st 2015, will centre on the 68 glass plate negatives saved by the photographer diving inside the icy shipwreck of Endurance. The plates have never been seen by the public.

The RGS owns the fragile glass plates which vividly capture the experiences of the men in extreme circumstances. They will be used in the innovative new exhibition that tells Shackleton and his team’s story of extreme adventure, team spirit, trust, difficult judgements and an audacious plan to sail 800 miles in little more than a rowing boat as the only possible chance of rescue. Before the exhibition the original glass negatives will be conserved, and the first digital copies of the plates and replica plates will be made.

The exhibition is being made possible with support from the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, the Government of the British Antarctic Territory, Rolex and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

A touring exhibition is also planned, an offshoot of which should come to South Georgia.

Landscape and Wildlife Fix: Another gorgeously shot short video (5 mins) by Matthew Phillips called ‘Winter in South Georgia’ is a mix of gorgeous skies, boating in ice-strewn and ice-covered waters, along with the energy of wildlife returning to breed in early spring. Battling bull elephant seals, krill, South Georgia pintails, wandering albatross chicks and a struggling leopard seal form the cast, and there is an incredible time-lapse of the Milky Way to enjoy.

Dates For Your Diary

A hundred years ago Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition was underway and so most of the events highlighted in this section relate to Shackleton Centenary events. Shackleton had strong links to South Georgia and is buried at Grytviken.

‘Treasures displays’: The National Library of Scotland has a current display commemorating Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and celebrating the expedition's geologist James Wordie. The books and papers of Sir James Mann Wordie form the core of the ‘Treasures Display’.

Glasgow-born Wordie went on to become one of the 20th century's most influential figures in polar exploration. Among his published research are his scientific studies on the Weddell Sea, some of which are featured, this work added greatly to geographic understanding of the polar region.

The 'Geographical Journal' published Wordie's paper 'The drift of the Endurance' in April 1918 along with a map charting the drift. This too is on display.

James Wordie was a keen book collector, and his personal collection of books and papers forms the heart of polar collections at the National Library of Scotland.

The display in the George IV Bridge Building and is open daily until January 28th.

‘Britain's Secret Islands’: A lecture on the environment of the UK Overseas Territories will be presented in Bristol at 7 pm on January 7th by Stewart McPherson. The fourteen UK Overseas Territories are Britain's secret wildlife treasure-troves. The territories collectively comprise an area seven times the size of the British Isles. They are home to over a quarter of a million British people…yet few in mainland Britain know that they exist. Mostly self-governing states that democratically chose to remain under British sovereignty, the UK Overseas Territories are globally important wildlife centres home to thousands of unique species, as well as many of the world's largest populations of penguins, seals, albatrosses, sea turtles, tropical sea birds and land crabs. But the territories and their unique wildlife are under critical threat – exploding volcanoes, devastating hurricanes, declining rainforests, rising coral seas, melting Antarctic ice, retreating glaciers and invasive exotic “alien” species are issues not normally associated with protecting British environments; but across the territories, fighting these and other challenges is a race against time.

Up to now, no one has ever visited all fourteen territories. Stewart McPherson recounts his travels over the last three years to visit complete this feat and film their extraordinary wildlife and conservation stories to complete a 4-part wildlife documentary series and accompanying book.

Ticket Price: Advance £8.00, Door: £8.50, Concession: £7.50

Powell Theatre, Bristol.

Gratuitous photo of the month: The Three Brothers.
Gratuitous photo of the month: The Three Brothers.

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