South Georgia Newsletter, Oct 2009

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

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SG Experience Leads To Dame Ellen Retirement

Dame Ellen MacArthur has announced her decision to retire from competitive yacht racing, citing her experiences at South Georgia as the cause. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's programme 'Desert Island Discs', the record breaking single-handed round-the-world yachtswoman spoke of how camping on Albatross Island, in the Bay of Isles, became a life changing experience.

Ellen joined Sally Poncet of 'South Georgia Surveys' as a Field Assistant to help with seabird census work in the summer of 2005/6, including the wandering albatross census on Albatross Island. Ellen says on her website that the trip "gave me my first real breathing space for a decade and time to think and reflect." During this time her attitude towards her life and her view of the world changed and she gained a new understanding of environmental issues; she now wants to focus on environmental campaigning. "It inspired me to learn more about living in a more sustainable way. I am now on a mission to reduce my own energy and resource consumption. Sharing and communicating this journey to a more sustainable future is one of my big goals for the coming years."

Ellen broke the record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in February 2005. She said : "I never thought that anything in my life could eclipse sailing, I didn't think it was possible. But after being in South Georgia, after learning these lessons I suppose, and the more I researched into it, the more frightened I got and that has really scared me to the point that I can't go back to sea and go around the world again because this really matters."

On her record breaking attempt she took only the absolute minimum with her. She learned to manage her resources because if she ran out of anything there was no way she could stop for more. "I realised that on land we don't see things as precious any more." she said, "We take what we want. And it started to make me think. This not that big. And there's an awful lot of us on it. And we're not managing the resources that we have as you would on a boat because we don't have the impression that these resources are limited."

Dame Ellen said "I still sail, I love sailing, I'll still sail for pleasure, I sail for charity - but as long as this challenge is there to be communicated, will I invest four years of my life to sailing round the world - no," she said. "This new understanding for me has become far more important."

Info BBC news website and

Fishing And Shipping News

"Ushuaia" was the first cruise ship of the season.
"Ushuaia" was the first cruise ship of the season.

The two trawlers fishing for icefish left the zone at the beginning of the month.

The first cruise ship of the season "Ushuaia" arrived at Grytviken on October 6th. It returned on a separate cruise on the 27th. These were the first of 65 expected cruise ship visits during the summer ahead.

The first yacht of the season, "Golden Fleece", also arrived in King Edward Cove on October 6th. Other yachts soon arrived, three on charter and two private vessels. "Australis" dropped off a two-person BBC film crew in at St Andrews Bay to film the elephant seals before touring the island with the remaining charterers. "Pelagic Australis" had a South Georgia Association group aboard and was also supporting a mountaineering team (see below).

HMS Clyde was alongside at King Edward Point (KEP) from the 8th to the 10th (see below).

On the 30th "RRS James Clark Ross" came alongside at the KEP jetty for the annual resupply of the base.

Corals - New stamp issue

A new stamp issue featuring the deep-water corals of South Georgia will be released on November 9th. This is the second issue in the series 'The Waters of South Georgia'.

When people think of corals they often picture the shallow water reefs that live in tropical waters. In fact there are more coral species found in deep than shallow water, though much less is known about them. The seafloor surrounding South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands seems to provide a particularly good habitat for corals and the productive waters provide a rich food supply for growth.

Deep-water corals are quite varied; black corals, hard corals, soft corals, lace corals and octocorals all live in deep water, some to depths of more than 5 km. Lace corals, such as the one represented on the 90p stamp, are a type of hydroid with a hard skeleton and can look very similar to hard corals. Octocorals are defined by having polyps with eight (‘octo’ means eight) tentacles. In the deep water around Antarctica, families of octocorals tend to have polyps covered in plates of calcium carbonate and it is the structure and shape of these plates that define different species. Three unidentified octocoral species of the Thouarella and Paragorgia genera are represented in the 55p, 65p and £1.10 stamps. The difficult task of telling different species apart explains why the corals represented in this stamp set are without species names. Many new species of corals have been described from Antarctica in recent years, and there are many more to come.

The stamps and First Day Cover (£4.10) were designed by Andrew Robinson. These and other South Georgia stamps can be purchased from the Philatelic Bureau, Falkland Islands

(Based on text by Michelle Taylor.)

Visit Of HMS Clyde

"HMS Clyde" spent several days patrolling South Georgia in October. The vessel arrived at Grytviken on October 8th and its crew were glad to be berthed alongside the KEP jetty for two nights after a rather rough voyage to the Island.

The ship hosted a Shackleton themed mess dinner in the wardroom that night. The next day the ship's company enjoyed an opportunity to explore the local area. A few brave folks took a dip in the sea, others headed off for walks around the bay, tobogganing, a climb up Mt Duse or to visit the museum.

The KEP locals were invited to drinks aboard before the Captain and others were hosted to dinner by the Government Officer Patrick Lurcock at Carse House. There was also a lively evening with the Navy visitors at the KEP base.

Several of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and museum personnel were invited to join the ship for a day trip on the 10th. The ship sailed to Fortuna Bay and a large group were put ashore to do the Shackleton Walk across to Stromness. The ship spent the following day in the St Andrews Bay area before continuing its patrol.

Whaler Returns After 55 Years

John Alexander was 21 years old when he first came to work at South Georgia as an electrician at Leith whaling station. Now he has returned, fifty five years later and aged 76, as one of the South Georgia Association (SGA) members on charter yacht "Pelagic Australis", a trip he described as "a dream come true".

John was one of a team of five electrical repairers at Leith. Already a keen photographer, he captured something of the life then with his camera. The bustling factory in summer was staffed by several hundred men, but far fewer were left over the winter. John wintered on the Island twice, so some of his photographs show long lines of whale catchers moored in Leith Harbour, ready for collection by the returning factory ships the next summer season.

Catchers moored through the winter at Leith.
Catchers moored through the winter at Leith.

John remembers especially vividly a trip of a few days he made on a whale catcher vessel. He described it as a "special experience", and he had his camera with him of course, catching some impressive images of harpooning a whale. John went on to work on the factory ships "Southern Venturer" and "Southern Harvester" further south, and then went north to work in the north sea oil trade. When he lived and worked here John saw little of the island. The whalers worked such long hours that he had not even seen Husvik, just two bays and a reasonably easy walk away from Leith, so the trip on "Pelagic Australis" now was important to him as a way to see much more of the Island. But he also wanted to return to his old work place at Leith. He described this as a bit of a heartbreaking experience. He was limited, for safety reasons, to the area 200-meters from the station but he could see how the buildings and tanks of the station had collapsed with time. He could also see his old quarters - in areas the outer fabric of the building has been ripped away by the winds, and now beds hang out of both ends, a forlorn sight.

John recently exhibited his original whaling photographs at Discovery Point at Dundee. He has compiled these on a DVD which is now for sale at the South Georgia Museum to help raise funds for the South Georgia Heritage Trust.

"Southern Harvester", one of the factory ships John later worked on. Photos John Alexander.
"Southern Harvester", one of the factory ships John later worked on. Photos John Alexander.

"Pelagic Australis" leaving King Edward Cove.
"Pelagic Australis" leaving King Edward Cove.

Memories And Mountains

An extraordinary group of travellers arrived at South Georgia aboard charter yacht "Pelagic Australis". Almost all were South Georgia veterans and members of the South Georgia Association.

The group included one ex-whaler; three mountaineers; three ex-field-researchers who had worked on the Island in the 1970's, one of whom, Bruce Pearson, is now a well recognised wildlife/landscape artist; and a member of the James Caird Society committee.

All three mountaineers Skip Novak, Julian Freeman Atwood and Crag Jones have long and varied associations with the Island: Julian accompanied Steven Venables on the 1990 mountaineering trip described in the book 'Island at the edge of the world'; Skip has led several mountaineering expeditions here and is co-owner of two charter yachts operating in the area; while Crag has also climbed here on several expeditions, is Chairman of the GSGSSI's Expedition advisory group, and has a long involvement with the South Georgia fishery.

On October 19th the climbers were dropped ashore to probe inland and make an attempt on Mt Nordenskjold, whilst the others stayed with the yacht to explore the Island's fringe.

Bruce Pearson amazed his co-travellers by managing to paint the coastline on large watercolour canvasses laid out over the life-raft box on the heaving deck of the yacht, allowing the sea spray to become part of the art. At times the water froze on the canvas, creating novel textures and patterns. The yacht visited many anchorages along the north-east coast and at times two of the yacht party, David Mclean and Philip Sanders, were dropped ashore to ski or snowshoe and camp the odd night before meeting up with the yacht in another location.

Bruce Pearson painting on the deck of the yacht. Photo Crag Jones.
Bruce Pearson painting on the deck of the yacht. Photo Crag Jones.

Meanwhile the climbers were struggling in a storm on Mt Nordenskjold. The party had walked up the Nordenskjold Glacier and spent the first night camped at the bottom of the ridge of Mt Sheridan. From there they climbed up the steep snow slopes at the base of Mt Nordenskjold, eventually setting up a top camp in what looked like a safe spot in a snow scoop against a rock wall.

They set off for the summit and reached the ridge that would lead to the top but were then hit by ferocious winds and could find no shelter. The wind was strong enough to blow rocks around, so at 5pm they decided to retreat. They had a tough down-climb and a long night of it in the rough weather and were relieved to reach the presumed safety of their top camp at dawn the next day.

On the long down-climb. Photo Crag Jones.
On the long down-climb. Photo Crag Jones.

For safety reasons they decided it would be wise to dig a snow-hole in case of problems with the tent. Sure enough they woke to find the tent submerged under new snow and decided to retreat to the snow-hole, but as the heavy snowfall continued the climbers found they were getting blocked into the snow-hole. They had to dig through three meters of snow to get back out and became increasingly worried that the snow on the slopes above would avalanche onto their camp. At midnight they decided it was too risky to stay. More digging was required to reach and pack up the tent and then they set off for the ski back down the Nordenskjold glacier for a frustrating end to the expedition.

The tent was submerged in the heavy snowfall. Photo Skip Novak.
The tent was submerged in the heavy snowfall. Photo Skip Novak.

With the whole party reunited aboard the yacht they continued north. Bad weather en route to the Bay of Isles led to a call to Husvik. A party set out on skis and snowshoes to Gulbrandsen Lake from where, due to glacial retreat, they were shocked to be able to see the waters of Cumberland West Bay where last they had seen only ice.

On October 30th, their last day on the Island, the group visited Prion Island and Salisbury Plain, and the mountaineers took the opportunity for a mad dash up the unclimbed Mt Ashley. We hope to bring you a report on all the adventures during this successful climb next month.

You can read Skip Novak's write up of the Pelagic Australis/South Georgia Association cruise here.

Bruce Mair and Les Sturgeon above Gulbrandsen Lake. And the shocking sight of water where the glacier recently was. Photo Skip Novak.
Bruce Mair and Les Sturgeon above Gulbrandsen Lake. And the shocking sight of water where the glacier recently was. Photo Skip Novak.

Killer Connection

An unexpected association between birds and orcas (killer whales) has been discovered after tiny cameras were fitted onto the backs of four black-browed albatrosses on Bird Island last January.

The cameras, which weighed just 83 grams, could take around 10,000 images, one every 30 seconds, as well as recording environmental data. Once the cameras were fitted the birds were released to go on a foraging trip. The data was retrieved when the birds returned to land a couple of days later.

The study was undertaken by researchers from BAS and Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. Going through the images, mainly of open ocean, the scientists were surprised to find the cameras had also caught an image of orcas and other seabird together at sea.

Researchers suppose that the birds are attracted to the areas where the whales are feeding in the hope of finding scraps from the cetaceans meals. It may also help explain why fish that live at depths the albatrosses can't reach are a regular part of the birds diet.

You can read more about this on the BBC Earth News here.

Bird Island News

By Ewan Edwards, Zoological Field Assistant and Winter Base Commander, BAS, Bird Island.

October is ‘peak season’ for the flying-bird fieldwork team on Bird Island. Both Derren and Stacey have spent long days in the field monitoring the arrival of the black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses, and both species of giant petrel. By the end of the month, the grey-heads have finished laying their eggs, which will hatch around Christmas. The black-browed albatrosses arrive slightly later but seem to settle quicker than the grey-headed, which means both egg laying peaks come in fairly quick succession.

Our resident white-capped albatross has returned again. Normally resident on islands off the coast of New Zealand, he has bred with a female black-browed albatross on BI for the last three years. They have yet to raise a chick to fledging – perhaps 2009/10 will be the year they are successful.

White-capped albatross and Black-brow mate.
White-capped albatross and Black-brow mate.

We had another uncommon vagrant this month – a pectoral sandpiper was spotted by Stacey amongst the gentoo penguins at Square Pond. An arctic-breeding species, pectoral sandpipers winter in South America, but occasionally get blown off course and end up in South Georgia. This was the first confirmed sighting on Bird Island for several years.

Unusual vagrant Pectoral Sandpiper.
Unusual vagrant Pectoral Sandpiper.

Stacey’s giant petrel round takes in a large area to the west of the base. Numbers of northern giant petrel nests this year are comparable to the number counted last year. By the end of the month, the southern species had begun to lay their eggs. Stacey also counted 4 hybrid pairs: where a male southern giant petrel breeds with a female of the northern species.

Northern Giant Petrel. All photos Derren Fox.
Northern Giant Petrel. All photos Derren Fox.

Light-mantled sooty albatrosses came back to Bird Island early this month. These biennial breeders nest on rocky ledges on cliffs, and their haunting display call can be heard all around the island on calm days. Pairs of birds fly together in a perfectly synchronous display flight – one of the most beautiful sights on our little island.

After an especially quiet winter here for leopard seals, October has brought with it a good number of sightings. Most were of one individual, a beautiful juvenile female animal, who received the flipper tag W8362, and is now carrying a geolocator device. With some good fortune she will return in one or two years, and a seal assistant of the future (as this will be beyond my tenure) will retrieve the device to see where she has been in the intervening time.

We had one southern elephant seal pup this year – Bird Island does not have large breeding colonies of elephant seals as seen elsewhere on South Georgia, and numbers vary greatly between years. As this years pup was born close to base, we have been able to watch it grow, whilst its mother seemingly deflates as all the fat-rich milk is transferred to her baby. After three weeks she will return to sea and the pup will be left to fend for itself.

October also saw the end of winter for us in terms of personnel on base – "Pharos SG" called on October 5th, ending the tranquillity of winter by bringing with it Dirk (science co-ordinator) and Grant (electrical engineer) from Cambridge, who are visiting for a month, and a very welcome consignment of fresh fruit and vegetables! What a treat to have a salad, after the long months without fresh produce!

All the wildlife action from Bird Island this month..

South Georgia Snippets

The month started with an unusual appearance on Webcam 2. At the moment Webcam 2 is mainly focused on all the action in the elephant seal colony, but on October 1st a rare leopard seal made an appearance.

The leopard seal caught on Webcam 2.
The leopard seal caught on Webcam 2.

Everyone a winner - South Georgia residents had their usual success with their entries to the Falkland Craft Fair. All three entries won prizes. Emma Jones won a First Prize for her beautifully sculpted seal shaped wooden clock. A First Prize was also awarded to Steve Artis for his stunning metal sculpture of a shoal of icefish, utilising beach debris in the structure.

Tommy Vintner's lovely copper penguin tea-light candle holder won a 2nd prize and a Highly Commended.

On October 2nd KEP residents marked 'Livestrong Day'. The event is an initiative of cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's Foundation. The aim of 'Livestrong Day' is to unite people affected by cancer and raise awareness and funds for the cancer fight. KEP residents gathered wearing the organisations colour - yellow, and those that wanted to wrote the names of the people close to them that have had, or have, cancer on a yellow sticky note. Of course few lives are untouched by this disease.

One of thousands of events around the world, the 'Livestrong' event at South Georgia meant the organisation could claim to have events on all seven continents for the first time (South Georgia nominally representing the Antarctic). You can find out more about the work of the 'Livestrong' on their website

Gathered together for 'Livestrong Day'.
Gathered together for 'Livestrong Day'.

New arrivals on October 6th were Museum Curator Elsa Davidson and Taxidermist Steve Massam. They arrived just in time to rush over to the Museum to help with the first cruise ship. Elsa will be continuing with her work to curate the Museum collection, particularly with a view to putting more of the the collection on line on eHive collections website.

Amongst various projects Steve will be starting to make a scale model of Grytviken Whaling Station. He envisages it will take two years to complete.

A team from SMRU (The Sea Mammal Research Unit) arrived back at Husvik to continue the elephant seal satellite tagging work they have undertaken there for the past few years. The four-person team will spend about two months based in the old Husvik Manager's Villa.

The Pelagic Australis/South Georgia Association group were hosted to drinks at Carse House by the Government Officer Patrick Lurcock on October 17th. The group returned on the 27th and were invited to the base to talk about their experiences so far. As well as John Alexander's whaling photos, there was a slide show and amusing talk by mountaineer Crag Jones about the adventures on Mt Nordenskjold, and artist Bruce Pearson bought along some of the work he had achieved so far - unrolling canvases, and passing around stacks of sketches and paintings, of the wildlife he had encountered on land and at sea, and the seascapes and landscapes he had captured. He explained how he had achieved some of the effects and how his whole style of working had changed during the voyage.

During their stay at KEP the Navy were challenged by the locals to a game of football. It was played on the old whalers' football pitch at Grytviken despite much of the pitch still being under snow. The locals were the victors, as they were the last time "HMS Clyde" visited, and Navy players were heard making notes for the next time the two teams meet - the ship must put up their "A" team next time, and when you get the ball just kick it, don't try and play proper football! We will have to wait a few months to find out if the new tactics work!

On October 30th the BAS ship "RRS James Clark Ross" arrived to do the annual resupply. The ship brings almost all the food, fuel, and other stores we will need for the next year and takes out much of the rubbish. It also bought three new base members, Base Commander Ali Massey, Doctor Susan Woodward and Mechanic Matt Holmes.

Les Whittamore the BAS KEP logistics co-ordinator also arrived for a seven week stay.

The Director of BAS, Professor Nick Owens was abroad the ship to familiarise himself not only with KEP but also with the BAS bases at Bird Island and Signy. A barbecue for sixty was held on shore that night, the party extending into the small hours.

Stores are unloaded from the "RRS James Clark Ross".
Stores are unloaded from the "RRS James Clark Ross".

Whilst there is good news from the Wandering Albatross census on Prion Island, all the chicks there had survived the winter, things are not looking good for the gentoo penguins. The colonies should have formed by now but there are few birds back and little sign of egg laying, let alone the early chicks that had been hatched by this time last year. This is presumably a result of the lack of krill late last summer and through the winter. We are also noticing there seem to be fewer fur seals on shore compared to normal.

Meanwhile plump king penguins have started coming up and gathering on the remaining snow patches to start their moult.

Moulting kings keeping their toes cool in the snow.
Moulting kings keeping their toes cool in the snow.

And it has been a bumper year for the elephant seal colony here at KEP. It built up to a maximum of 183 females, evenly split between both ends of the beach, with a further 40 seals choosing the small beach behind Hope Point to come up and pup.

The throng of elephant seals at St Andrews Bay. Photo Angharad Jones
The throng of elephant seals at St Andrews Bay. Photo Angharad Jones
Male and female elephant seals.
Male and female elephant seals.

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