South Georgia Newsletter, December 2010

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

Two Five-Year Strategies For South Georgia

GSGSSI has published their strategic objectives for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) for 2010 - 2015. These are summarised as:

  • To manage the affairs of SGSSI and the surrounding 200 nautical mile Maritime Zone through good, efficient and effective government;
  • To conserve the relatively pristine nature of the Territory’s environment, preserving and, where practicable, restoring the native biodiversity and habitats;
  • To provide safe and sustainable management of SGSSI fisheries to ensure minimal impact on non-target species and habitats, including engaging in CCAMLR;
  • To manage tourism in a way that has minimum impact on the SGSSI environment but optimises the income to the Territory and contributes to the overall regional management of commercial tourism;
  • To preserve, where practicable, the unique industrial heritage of South Georgia either in situ or through transfer to museums;
  • To encourage high quality scientific research to underpin GSGSSI management of the Territories;
  • To manage government finances prudently and, where possible, to diversify the Territory’s revenue streams, which are heavily dependent on income from fishing licences;
  • To maintain the inhabited facilities at King Edward Point and Grytviken to a reasonable and environmentally friendly standard;
  • To improve public awareness of South Georgia issues by effective and economic dissemination of information.

The full 17-page pdf document “South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands Strategy 2010-2015” can be downloaded here [pdf, 0.45mb].

At the same time, on December 22nd, the Polar Regions Unit of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) have published the UK Government's Strategy for SGSSI. This five-page document outlines the UK Government's policy on the SGSSIs over the next five years and has been developed in conjunction with GSGSSI to complement GSGSSI five-year strategy.

In it, the UK Government state that they have "long-term strategic, scientific, environmental and sustainable resource management interests in SGSSI", and that "The successful environmental protection of SGSSI gives the UK significant international profile, and is consequently a key principle underlying the UK's interests in the Territory."

The document states that: “The headline aim for the UK is to ensure the security and good governance of SGSSI, by safeguarding its sovereignty and supporting its long-term economic and environmental security. In addition to supporting GSGSSI to deliver its own 5-year strategy, the following headline objectives set out the specific focus for the UK Government over the next five years:

  • To ensure the security of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands through a continual British presence, which supports GSGSSI's implementation and enforcement of the rule of law;
  • To promote British Sovereignty over SGSSI and increase awareness of the UK's current and historical interests in the Territory, both within the UK and internationally, and help maintain UK influence within the region;
  • To uphold the UK's leading role within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in contributing to the effective conservation of the Southern Ocean, including to underpin and protect the sustainable management of the SGSSI fishery;
  • To work with GSGSSI to ensure sound financial and risk management and economic policies which contribute to the long-term financial self-sufficiency of the Territory, and minimise contingent liabilities;
  • To support GSGSSI's environmental stewardship of the Territory, including through tough environmental and biodiversity protection measures, effective fishery and tourism management; and, where feasible, the eradication of non-native species to restore the natural habitat of South Georgia.”

In the document each of these 'headline objectives' is further broken down to show the priorities the various agencies involved will focus on. The success of this strategy document will be assessed annually. Minister for the Overseas Territories, Henry Bellingham, has commented that, “The publication of this strategy is an important step in ensuring the future security of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and illustrates the importance the Government attaches to our Overseas Territories. It sets out our priorities for action over the next five years and in particular highlights the environmental value of the islands which are internationally recognised for their biological importance.”

The FCO 5-year strategy for SGSSI can be downloaded here [pdf, 0.12mb].

Fishing And Shipping News

“Sea Spirit” in King Edward Cove
“Sea Spirit” in King Edward Cove

Eight cruise ships visited Grytviken during December, four in the Christmas period, Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, so they could enjoy a Christmas celebration in the festively decorated church. One vessel, the 120-passenger “Sea Spirit”, made its first visit to South Georgia and was joined for two days by Government Officer Patrick Lurcock, who was inspecting and overseeing the new vessel's operations.

Five yachts were visiting the Island this month, four were on charter: one supporting a Korean film crew on their second visit to film this summer; one supporting a kayaking expedition; and two with tourist groups aboard.

Optimism Over Latest Wanderer Numbers

The latest wandering albatross egg count in the Bay of Isles led surveyors to be guardedly optimistic about the future of the birds there.

At the end of December, 'South Georgia Surveys' Principal Scientist and Project Officer, Sally Poncet, was accompanied by co-researcher Ken Passfield to undertake the count of wandering albatross eggs in nests on Albatross and Prion Islands in the Bay of Isles. This is the thirteenth consecutive year of survey, a period which has seen an alarming decline in the egg count across the two islands from a maximum of 217 in 2001 to a minimum of 159 in 2007.

The general decline in breeding wandering albatross on South Georgia as a whole is confirmed by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research at Bird Island. Censuses there began in the 1960s and have shown that each year, on average, there are approximately 5% fewer birds nesting than the previous year.

For logistical reasons the census in the Bay of Isles, normally done around January 12th, took place early this year. A total of 165 eggs were recorded, but Sally said: “There are a few more birds to lay yet, maybe up to 6 on Albatross Island, and at least 1 on Prion Island, as it is nearly 2 weeks earlier than usual and well before the last egg-lay date.” Counts in recent years appear to show a cessation in the decline in numbers of breeding birds, maybe even signs of a slow recovery.

The researchers camped on Albatross Island from December 29th to January 1st. They then had just a single day to census the birds on Prion Island but were luckily blessed with good weather for it. The researchers were transported and supported by the “FPV Pharos SG”.

Other studies undertaken by 'South Georgia Surveys' at Albatross and Prion Islands include: censuses of giant petrels and other birds; an assessment of the degradation of seabird habitat due to trampling of vegetation by fur seals; monitoring of tourism numbers from visiting cruise ships; and assessing any impact of the boardwalk on Prion Island.

GSGSSI has just committed to support the wandering albatross census for another three years.


Chart showing the number of wandering albatross nests with eggs on Albatross Island (blue) and Prion Island (red) since 1999.
Chart showing the number of wandering albatross nests with eggs on Albatross Island (blue) and Prion Island (red) since 1999.

New Stamp Issue: South Georgia Flora

(Based on text written by Jonathan Shanklin, British Antarctic Survey.)

A new set of four stamps and a First Day Cover featuring South Georgia Flora, with designs painted by Robin Carter, was issued on December 15th.

Although South Georgia was sighted as early as 1675, knowledge of its flora did not begin until James Cook landed on the Island one hundred years later. He recorded “Not a tree or a shrub was to be seen, no not even big enough to make a toothpick…Our botanists found here only three plants, the one is a coarse strong bladed grass which grows in tufts, Wild Burnet and a Plant like Moss which grows on the rocks…..The land or rocks bordering the Sea Coast, was not covered with snow like the inland parts, but all the vegetation we could see on the clear places was the grass mentioned above”.

The grass was Tussac grass, Poa flabellata, which fringes much of the Island. The Wild Burnet was Acaena magellanica, but the identity of the “Plant like Moss” is uncertain – it might be a moss as Cook literally reported.

Another century was to pass before serious study of the Island’s flora began. In 1882 – 1883 the German International Polar Year Expedition collected thirteen plants and three ferns from the area around Royal Bay. Then, during the first decade of the twentieth century, Carl Skottesburg paid two visits to the Island with Swedish expeditions. On his first visit he recorded an alien plant, Annual Meadow-grass, Poa annua, the first of over 60 species likely to have been brought in by human visitors, though fewer than half persist. He added several more native species to the list, and published the first ecological study of the vegetation. Further study had to await the formation of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey and following that the British Antarctic Survey, with the latter publishing BAS Scientific Report No 45 “The Vascular Flora of South Georgia” in 1964. None of the 25 native species of flowering plants described are endemic to the Island, with the possible exception of hybrid burnet.

Since then BAS botanists have identified further species, all aliens, as human visitors have continued to introduce them. In recent years a highly aggressive new species, Wavy Bittercress, Cardamine flexuosa, was found at King Edward Point, probably brought in by building contractors. Despite attempts to control the plant, it has continued to spread and seems likely to continue in the wake of other aliens such as Dandelion, Taraxacum agg. and Common Mouse-ear, Cerastium fontanum. In 2009 botanists from Kew undertook a survey of introduced plants which resulted in a couple more finds, and most recently Cock’s-foot, Dactylis glomerata, was found at Grytviken. Curiously, this latest alien is the plant that Cook’s botanists had erroneously confused with the first plant that they recorded from the Island - Tussac Grass.

Small Fern, Blechnum penna-marina (27p stamp) is only known on north facing slopes in a valley above Husvik, where it is frequent. It is widespread in the Falklands, other subantarctic islands and southern South America, and has been found in England as an introduced plant, though here it is known as Little Hard-fern. The plant has separate vegetative and fertile fronds, with the latter growing up to 35cm high. Its Latin name Blechnum is derived from the Greek name for a fern – Blechnon.

Water Blinks, Montia fontana (70p stamp) often covers patches of damp ground by streams, though its small white flowers can be confused with another plant that occurs in the same habitat – Antarctic Water-starwort, Callitriche antarctica. Water Blinks has a widespread distribution across the globe and the plant genus Montia was named after the Italian botanist Giuseppe Monti who died in 1760. Its leaves are edible, though make a somewhat bland addition to a salad.

Antarctic Pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis (95p stamp) is, as its name suggests, found in Antarctica and is one of the continent’s two native flowering plants (the other is a hair-grass, Deschampsia antarctica). On South Georgia it is widespread and often forms cushions on stony ground. The flowers are only a few millimetres across and rarely stand more than a centimetre above the cushion. Its range extends north along the Andes to Mexico and so it is sometimes called Andean Pearlwort.

Looking a little like a rattlesnake’s rattle, the “flower” of Adder’s-tongue, Ophioglossum crotalophoroides (£1.15 stamp) is sometimes hard to spot in its damp grassland habitat. This little plant puts out a single leaf from its bulbous rhizome and the spore cases are born on the “rattle” held on a short stalk a few centimetres long. It is also found in the Falkland Islands and central Chile. The family of the Ophioglossaceae is an early branch of the vascular plant lineage, and it is separate from that of the true ferns, which includes all the other ferns found on South Georgia.

South Georgia stamps can be bought from

Habitat Restoration Project Starting Soon

Preparations for the South Georgia Heritage Trust's (SGHT) 'Habitat Restoration Project' are picking up pace; there are only weeks now until the eradication team arrive on the Island to start work on the first phase of rodent clearance.

Chief Pilot Bob Brett.
Chief Pilot Bob Brett.

Several new members of the team were announced in December, including a Project Administrator Nici Rymer who started work in September, and a new chief Pilot Bob Brett. The only remaining team member yet to be named is the Helicopter Engineer.

One of two Bolköw-105 helicopters to be used in the project is en route to the Falkland Islands aboard an MoD vessel which left Southampton, UK, on December 6th. The second helicopter should follow in January. They will then be loaded onto the cruise ship “Marina Svetaeva”, which has a hangar and helideck, for transport to the Island.

One hundred and fifty drums of aviation and other fuel for the project were delivered to KEP by “FPV Pharos SG” this month, and moved to storage at Grytviken.

Seven containers of specially manufactured bait is also en route to the Falklands for onward delivery to South Georgia in mid-February.

Eleven Habitat Restoration staff will arrive at the Island in late February, as well as a three-person film crew to film the eradication attempt.

Fund raising for the later phases of the 'Habitat Restoration Project' is ongoing. The 'Sponsor a Hectare' scheme has been well supported by staff and passengers on cruise ships visiting the Island. Restoring a hectare (2.5 acres) of the Island will cost £90, a sum many have been happy to donate.

The latest edition of the Habitat Restoration Project newsletter can be downloaded from the SGHT website here.

The first helicopter is loaded onto the ship for the journey to the Falklands. Photo SGHT.
The first helicopter is loaded onto the ship for the journey to the Falklands. Photo SGHT.

150 drums of fuel were stored at Grytviken. Photo Ruth Fraser.
150 drums of fuel were stored at Grytviken. Photo Ruth Fraser.

Mountaineering In Antarctica

A glossy coffee table format book on the history of climbing in the Antarctic and some of the subantarctic islands was published in November. Entitled “Mountaineering in Antarctica: Climbing in the Frozen South”, the book is written by experienced Antarctic climber and expeditioner Damien Gildea. The book follows Damien's previous publication of “The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology” in 1998.

The new book, published in Belgium by 'Editions Nevicata', has 192 pages and around 200 quality colour images and maps. It includes a 20 page chapter on climbing in South Georgia. It is also available in French entitled “Les Montagnes de l'Antarctique”.

The book, priced around £30, is available from some bookshops and can be ordered online from ISBN 978-2-87523-000-3

There will be a review of this book in next month's newsletter, meanwhile there is more information on the author's website

Bird Island Diary

By Joe Corner, Wintering Technician at the British Antarctic Survey Research Station at Bird Island.

The summer months are extremely busy for everyone and everything on Bird Island, with fur seals covering every inch of the beach, males holding territory and females having pups. Mick, our seal man, has been over to the Seal Study Beach twice a day every day to weigh, sex, take samples and PIT tag every pup born.

New faces arriving on the “RRS James Clark Ross” were the new 2011 wintering staff Ruth Brown (Penguin Field Assistant) and Paul Craske who will be taking over from me as tech. We also have a few faces for the summer only, including 3 visiting scientists.

With 11 on base it's certainly a tight squeeze.

“RRS James Clark Ross” in the bay.
“RRS James Clark Ross” in the bay.

Stacey and Ruth have had a few long evenings waiting over at Natural Arch to deploy and retrieve some tracking devices on to some lucky gentoo penguins. They have also been kept busy at Big and Little Mac with the returning macaroni penguins upping their workload.

The first pup born on Fresh Water Beach was a blonde.
The first pup born on Fresh Water Beach was a blonde.

The wandering albatross chicks that hatched at the start of the year were beginning to take their first flights in November. Some of the adults also started returning to pair up ready for breeding.

It has also been busy for tech services. I am due to leave at the start of January so have been showing Paul the ropes. Together we have worked on the boilers and water system, spring-cleaned the tech store and workshop, replaced a generator, replaced all the doors and done all the general maintenance...its all been a bit mad, but very productive.

Replacing one of the lab doors on Prince House.
Replacing one of the lab doors on Prince House.

South Georgia Snippets

GSGSSI has just published the 'Financial Statement and Annual Statistics for 2009'. The report shows that GSGSSI generated a unexpectedly high surplus of £755,000 for 2009; they had budgeted for a cash surplus of £476,000. The general Revenue Balance at the end of December 2009 was nearly £4 million. Overall revenue was £310,000 above the estimated revenue for 2009 of just over £5 million. The higher revenue was mainly due to additional fishing licence revenue, landing charges and unexpected sub-charter fees received.

More than 75.9% of revenue to GSGSSI is generated through sale of Fishing licences, and 15.8% from landing charges.

Fisheries management accounts for the major expenditure at 70.6%, with the next largest expenditure being KEP running costs at 12.9%.

The SGSSI 2009 Financial Statements for the year ending 31st December 2009 can be downloaded here [pdf, 2.18mb].

Pie charts showing the proportion of revenue and expenditure accounted for by the various activities of GSGSSI.
Pie charts showing the proportion of revenue and expenditure accounted for by the various activities of GSGSSI.

The five-person GSGSSI building team completed works renovating the Little Villa at Grytviken and the Gaol at KEP. The Little Villa now has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, one en suite, with a large kitchen/dining/living area and a sizeable utility room. Four members of the Museum team have now moved into their comfortable quarters. The building team and several of the BAS team who have wintered for one and two years, then left the Island in time to get home for Christmas.

Turbulent times: There was a larger earthquake in the South Sandwich Islands on Wednesday 8th. There are regular earthquakes in the area of up to and around magnitude 5, for example the one on December 10th 100 km NNW of Visokoi Island, but this one, at geographic coordinates (latitude/longitude): -56.4397, -25.8664 was much larger at magnitude 6.5 and a depth of 17.3km .

The Chinstrap colony at Cooper Bay is once again closed to visitors after a visiting yacht reported a large number of dead and dying penguins. All the Cooper Bay landing sites have now been closed by GSGSSI, with the exception of the macaroni penguin rookery, in case the penguins are suffering from an infectious disease. There was an outbreak of avian cholera in the same colony a few years ago. The carcass of one affected penguin was delivered to KEP and will be going to the Falkland Islands for analysis to hopefully find the cause of the die-off.

Thunder and lightening is a very rare event at Grytviken. Every few years a single lightening bolt may be witnessed from KEP, so the storm that rumbled from mid-afternoon well into the night of the December 10th was very unusual.

Nichola and Rob Granger visited KEP for a few days at the end of the month. The couple were on a work and familiarisation visit. Nicola is the Falkland Island and GSGSSI Chief Accountant and Rob the Government Internal Auditor.

Nicola and Rob Granger
Nicola and Rob Granger

The Falkland Islands newspaper 'Penguin News' brought out a South Georgia Special Edition on December 24th. The 16 page partially colour supplement costs £2 and covers the visit of journalist Tony Curran to South Georgia aboard RN ship “HMS Gloucester”. There is diary style coverage of the visit as well as sections on members of the ship's crew and those working at the Island.

Richy Inman has smashed the record for the quickest climb of Mt Hodges. In so doing Richy has proved what his running partner said about him in last month's newsletter...he has the ability to be a very good fell runner. On December 8th he took on the 'Hodges Challenge', a race set up by Royal Marine Mountain Leader and fell runner Sgt. Col Herne. The course starts from the museum and goes via the front face to the top of Mt Hodges and back. The previous fastest time on the route was also held by a Marine Mountain Leader. Despite a blustery start to the day, various route marshals set out ahead of Richy to take up station. Those following his progress through binoculars from KEP could see Richy's progress almost the entire route up the face and shoulder of the mountain. Initially observers didn't think he could be going fast enough, he seemed to go up at a fast walk, his tall frame hunched into the mountain, but on the return journey he was flying....making the descent is less than fifteen minutes, arms flailing like a gentoo penguin, and with incredibly deft footwork on the punishing loose scree and only one slip the entire route. He reached the museum in 46 minutes 15 seconds, taking more than three minutes off the previous record!

A humpback whale was found stranded in a creek at St Andrews Bay on December 13th. The yacht “Golden Fleece” towed the animal back into deeper water where she appeared to swim happily enough for some hours, but then she beached again in the entrance to one of the glacial rivers and died. Blubber and meat samples were taken for biological analysis and the local scavengers, like giant petrels and skuas, were quick to try to get a meal off the carcass. Whale carcasses are renowned for going off very quickly, and within two days anyone downwind of the animal was very aware of her presence, giving an idea of the stench endured by whalers years ago. Despite wave action quickly building up banks of gravel around the whale, which diverted the outflow of the river, a cruise ship visiting the site about a week later could no longer find any evidence of the whale.

The humpback whale stranded and died at St Andrews Bay
The humpback whale stranded and died at St Andrews Bay

A freshly dead humpback whale at St Andrews Bay attracts scavenging birds which dodge the breaking surf in pursuit of a meal.

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