South Georgia Newsletter, December 2011

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

Visit Of The “HMS Montrose”

HMS Montrose with helicopter and harbour launch. Photo Sam Crimmin.
HMS Montrose with helicopter and harbour launch. Photo Sam Crimmin.

“HMS Montrose”, a type 23 Frigate with a crew of 185, was on patrol in SGSSI waters in December. The ship is fulfilling the role of Atlantic Patrol Task (South) ship, and had previously visited some of the other British South Atlantic Islands.

The vessel called in to Grytviken on December 16th, landing personnel for an afternoon to explore the area. They also landed a group from JSEOD to dispose of recent ordnance finds in the area, including a two-inch mortar and a rifle grenade. Whilst dealing with the grenade the EOD spotted and dealt with another partially discharged rifle grenade in the same area on the lower slopes of Mt Hodges.

The ship sailed for the South Sandwich Islands the next day, patrolling down the remote island chain until prevented from going further south by ice conditions.

After the successful mission the vessel returned via South Georgia en-route to the Falkland Islands, calling in briefly to collect mail and allow a few more to get ashore before sailing to Mare Harbour (FI) in time for Christmas.

Rat Catching And Bird Surveys

by ACAP Coordinator Anton Wolfaardt

Brown rats and house mice probably arrived at South Georgia with the first sealing vessels in the late 1700s, and have since spread to many parts of the island. Rats are presently distributed along the entire north coast of the island, and mice have been recorded at Cape Rosa and Nunez Peninsula, which are both rat-free. Rats have had a significant impact on the biodiversity of South Georgia. Through predation of eggs and chicks they have effectively excluded the endemic South Georgia pipit from large parts of the island. They also negatively impact burrowing seabird species and South Georgia pintail ducks. In order to deal with the threat posed by these invasive rodents, the South Georgia Heritage Trust has begun an island-wide rodent eradication programme. The first phase of this programme was completed in March 2011 and involved aerial baiting of the Greene, Thatcher and Mercer Peninsulas, and Saddle Island.

At the same time, the South Georgia Government (GSGSSI) initiated a project to determine the genetic structure of rat populations in the various ‘baiting zones’ (each zone being separated by glaciers which are believed to be a barrier to rat dispersal), and to collect baseline information on selected bird species. The genetic analysis will be used to determine the genetic structure of each sub-population, and thus indicate whether each baiting zone does indeed contain distinct populations. In the long-term, the genetic data will be useful should rats be found during post-eradication monitoring. A comparison of the genetic signatures of these animals with those captured prior to baiting will help to determine whether the rats are descendants of animals that survived the eradication or animals that have been introduced since the eradication. Bird surveys (to be carried out before and after baiting operations) focus on those species that may be a risk from secondary poisoning and those that will benefit directly from the eradication of rodents.

With funding from the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), and following some initial work carried out earlier in 2011, GSGSSI formally initiated the pre-eradication monitoring project in November 2011. Three two-person teams undertook trapping and bird surveys in baiting zones along the north coast. For the first phase of the programme the teams comprised Sally Poncet and Darren Peters (Team 1), Anton Wolfaardt and Leigh-Anne Wolfaardt (Team 2), and Andy Black and Tom Hart (Team 3). The FPV “Pharos SG” provided the logistical support.

The initial focus of our efforts in November was on the Barff and Busen Peninsulas with work done at Sorling Valley, St Andrews Bay, Sandebugten, Corral Bay, Rookery Bay, Godthul, Carlita Bay, Husvik Harbour, Stromness Harbour and Fortuna Bay. Two of the teams were then moved south to Gold Harbour and Bjornstadt Bay. Armed with 100 traps each, the task of catching 50 rats initially seemed fairly straightforward. However, trapping proved to be less productive than anticipated, and at some sites, notably Sorling and Carlita, we hardly caught a rat. We suspected that their numbers were severely reduced following the winter months, and that as summer progresses our task would become easier as rat numbers increase. Interestingly, catch rates were highest at Gold Harbour, where there was an abundance of fresh sign, and clearly many rats. This is likely due to a number of factors, including the absence of reindeer, which remove much of the tussac and burnet, and the presence of a large king penguin colony that likely provides a valuable source of food for rats throughout the year, but especially in winter. What has become clear from our trapping and observations is that the density of rats is not uniform across the island. In order to make up the shortfall of samples from the Busen and Barff Peninsulas, we later returned to Corral Bay and Jason Harbour, and with the benefit of increased numbers compared to the early part of the project, were able to trap sufficient rats for the genetic analysis.

Another objective of the project was to look for signs of mice in all of the baiting zones, and to deploy purpose-built mouse traps. Happily, so far, no mice have been caught or observed.

The teams, with a couple of new members (Mark Tasker and Kalinka Rexer-Huber), will be deployed again in early January to conduct trapping and bird survey work in baiting zones at the north-west end of the island, based in field camps at Prince Olav Harbour, Sea Leopard Fjord, Elsehul and Wilson Harbour.

The OTEP team. Photo Alasdair Wilson.
The OTEP team. Photo Alasdair Wilson.

Fishing And Shipping News

Thirteen cruise ships visited in December including new vessel “L'Austral” which, in line with usual practice, was joined by a Government Observer to look at the ship's operation, passenger management and biosecurity procedures.

The new cruise ship “L'Austral”. Photo Patrick Lurcock
The new cruise ship “L'Austral”. Photo Patrick Lurcock

One vessel “Plancius” was acting as support vessel for two groups attempting the Shackleton Crossing (see below).

Several ships visiting around Christmas time held services in the old church at Grytviken. One vessel “Fram”, which had 200 passengers on board, included a small group of Chinese tourists as they have on several past cruises. Next season they have plans for a complete Chinese charter of the 200+ passenger vessel.

“HMS Montrose” was on patrol in the area in December (See above).

Unusually for the summer season, after charter yacht “Pelagic Australis” left at the beginning of the month, there were no yachts around the Island.

Sail training ship “Bark Europa” in King Edward Cove. Photo Alasdair Wilson.
Sail training ship “Bark Europa” in King Edward Cove. Photo Alasdair Wilson.

There's An App For That

An 'Island of South Georgia' App has been released - initially for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch mobile devices.

Developed by the Centre for Remote Environments, a research group within the University of Dundee, it gives users a taste of South Georgia with stunning 360 degree high definition panoramas by Alasdair Wilson, a selection of photographs by Elaine Shemilt and David Nichols and a database of general South Georgia knowledge.

It's downloadable free of charge from Apple's App Store.

Shifting Climate States Of The Polar Regions

Four Norwegian scientists arrived in late December to continue a project started in 2008, sampling mud from the bottom of lakes to assess climate change. A major challenge of modelling past climate change and predicting the possible future patterns of the current climate warming is the lack of good data on past climate changes in the polar regions. New datasets are needed to provide a firmer basis for modelling and to help understanding of the interactions between things like polar ice, atmospheric circulation patterns, sea-surface temperatures and sea-ice; and for predicting potential consequences of regional climate change. The SHIFTS team are looking at glacier variability throughout the last 10,000 years in various polar regions such as Spitsbergen and Arctic Norway in the north and South Georgia and Kerguelen in the south.

Alpine glaciers, like those found in South Georgia, are particular sensitive to climate change. Studies of these glaciers will help when assessing past shifts and trends in the major polar atmospheric circulation systems, as these are intimately linked to the physical activity of alpine glaciers. Changes in glacial activity depend on the balance between summer melting and winter accumulation and glacial activity can be detected and quantified by studying sediment changes in glacier-fed lakes. Under the leadership of Dr Jostein Bakke the scientists are using a small raft to get onto the water to take sediment-cores from the bottom of the glacier fed lakes such as those found near Carlita Bay and in Reindeer Valley. They will also core sediments in King Edward Cove. Analysis of the lake cores from South Georgia and elsewhere will give much improved data on past climate change.

Results from their previous work have been used to chart past changes in some of South Georgia's glaciers. For instance they have modelled the changes in the now extinct Hodges Glacier from when it used to nearly reach Gull Lake through a series of retreats.

The glacier only disappeared altogether in the last few years.

The team will be here until January 8th.

The SHIFTS team.
The SHIFTS team.

Bird Island Diary

By Allan Thomson, Base Commander at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Research Station, Bird Island.

As always with Bird Island, nature changes constantly between the various species, and, the weather tends to stay the same! It can go from snow to sun through hail and rain in the space of half an hour.

Over the last couple of months, Jenny James, under the expert guidance of Andy Wood, has been building her knowledge of the wandering, grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses, and the routines and procedures which are associated with the long-term monitoring and survey of these species. One of the high points was the colony counts for the black-browed albatross, which involved everyone on base. Andy Wood left on the “RRS James Clark Ross” (JCR) during Second Call, just before Christmas, and so Jenny picked up the full responsibility for albatrosses. Soon we will conduct the all-island census of the wandering albatrosses which, once again, will involve everyone on base.

Grey-headed albatross and chick.
Grey-headed albatross and chick.

Mick Mackey, Jon Ashburner and Jaume Forcada have been kept busy with the fur seals at the Special Study Beach (SSB), monitoring the arrival of the territorial males, the pregnant females and the birth of nearly 550 new black (and two blonde) puppies. It is the first time in 10 years that a blonde pup has been born on SSB, so this was a cause for celebration for the “Seal Boys”.

A cute blonde.
A cute blonde.

This year, due to the storm which destroyed a substantial part of the seal gantry, they have had to work with a shortened platform, which made their routine tasks even more difficult, and meant them having to find new ways of working. Through their hard work and dedication, they managed to overcome the limitations of the gantry and maintain the integrity of this unique, long-term dataset. The peak of the fur seal season has now passed and the territorial males are returning to sea after their arduous mating period and, although some have been replaced by younger males, the beaches are now mostly populated with mothers and their pups, most of whom have moved inland to the tussac. As a newcomer to Bird Island, the fur seal season was a high point for me. I was unprepared for the volume of seals which surrounded the base itself. Two out of three exits to the base were blocked by males and their harems, and getting in and out of the generator shed and the vegetable store was also sometimes a little interesting! Just getting down to the jetty required a major operation in itself! Thankfully getting around the base is much easier, although we still have to negotiate the "moving black carpet" of pups, who have taken up residence on all the walkways and bark and growl at us before hurrying away tripping over their flippers.

There are lots of fur seal pups. Photos Mick Mackey.
There are lots of fur seal pups. Photos Mick Mackey.

Ruth Brown has continued her work on the long term monitoring and survey of macaroni penguins and giant petrels and has been heavily involved in the penguin weighbridge at "Little Mac" as well as helping track macaroni penguins using miniature GPS devices and retrieving logging devices from blue petrels, common diving petrels and Antarctic prions. Technician Robert Lord has continued to give sterling service maintaining vital services around the base. He tends to spend a lot of time working to maintain our water supply, cleaning the water filters and dealing with a few emergencies, for which luckily there are no call-out charges!

The “JCR” returned for Second Call on December 21st when we said farewell to Andy Wood and Jaume Forcada and we welcomed Richard Phillips from BAS and Hannah Froy from Edinburgh University. We also received an eagerly awaited consignment of Christmas mail from our families and friends, and rather furry "fresh” vegetables for our Christmas dinner. As the birds and mammals here do not stop for the Christmas period, neither did our work activities except for a sumptuous feast on Christmas Day and an excellent ceilidh for Hogmany.

Happy New Year from all of us at Bird Island and all the best for 2012.

George Brown – KEP Radio Officer

George Brown was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on December 17th 1927. He moved to Edinburgh at an early age and was educated at Holy Cross Academy after which he joined the British Royal Merchant Navy aged 16. He travelled the world working as a ships radio officer. In the Second World War, aged 17, he was a radio officer on landing crafts at Normandy, France.

He met his wife, Nan Brown (nee Stirling), in 1953 when working as a radio officer on a ship to South Africa. They married in Melbourne.

George took a job at the government radio station at South Georgia. Nan wrote a book “Antarctic Housewife” about their two and a half years living and working at King Edward Point. In it she described a rugged yet fascinating time living amongst the whalers, scientists and other government workers and their families.

George then worked as director of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in Alice Springs, Australia. From 1957 to the early 70's he served the people of the outback with effective two way communication providing health support to many people living on cattle stations and remote communities. George’s broad Scottish accent over the radio at the Flying Doctor Base gave many outback people much amusement and his sense of humour and attention to detail was widely respected.

George and Nan began a travel agency and later set up Codan Communications, later known as XL Com.

After Nan died George decided to divide his time between Edinburgh, Liverpool where his sister lived, Adelaide and Alice Springs. He returned to South Georgia in 1996/7 as part of the Church restoration team.

George and Nan had two daughters, Fiona, and Catriona. After Catriona died of ovarian cancer George started to raise funds for research into the disease. He became well known on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh where, dressed in a kilt and wearing his medals, he would play his bagpipes and, between tunes, hand out leaflets raising awareness of ovarian cancer - the hidden killer.

In the last year George wrote a book - stories of his escapades around the globe, which his family plan to have published.

Having travelled to Australia to visit family, George died, aged 83, on December 16th 2011. His humour, sense of fairness, story-telling and “live life to the fullest’’ attitude will be sadly missed by those who have had the pleasure of knowing him.

South Georgia Snippets

Large earthquake in the South Sandwich Islands: A large earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale was recorded 104 miles north of Visokoi Island in the South Sandwich Islands on December 11th at position 55.980S, 28.238W.

Shackleton Crossing: Two separate parties were dropped from support vessel “Plancius” to attempt the Shackleton Crossing in early December. The two teams (a total of 24 people) were put ashore at King Haakon Bay on December 6th.

After experiencing strong winds in the early section, they reached the Trident where there is a steep descent requiring lowering of people and equipment on ropes. With little snow and slow progress and deteriorating weather the majority of the expeditions altered route to drop down to Possession Bay where the ship could pick them up. Five who had already descended the Trident continued to complete the planned route to Fortuna Bay and Stromness.

Setting up the GPS equipment. Photo Sam Crimmin.
Setting up the GPS equipment. Photo Sam Crimmin.

Mapping project: Adrian Fox of the BAS MAGIC mapping and GIS unit has been doing fieldwork in preparation for making improved maps of the Barff Peninsula and Busen Peninsula areas. The maps, which will be based on aerial photographs, need fixed known points on the ground so he took a series of accurate GPS positions on easily identifiable features which will be matched up with the photographs. Government Officer Keiron Fraser accompanied him in the field and, having learned how to set up the GPS equipment, will continue the work once Adrian has gone.

Packing up helicopters: The two Habitat Restoration Project helicopters were dismantled and packed into three containers to be transported to the Falkland Islands. Helicopter engineer Graham Charman arrived on a cruise ship and had just a week to dismantle both aircraft and pack them securely to be shipped out to the Falkland Islands where it will be easier to conduct the regular checks needed to maintain their flying license. Quart into a pint pot came to mind as the two tail sections were lifted into a container already half full with rotors. There was not even an inch to spare manoeuvring the delicate sections in. The Habitat Restoration Project will recommence baiting to eradicate rats on South Georgia in late summer 2013.

Dismantling one of the Habitat Restoration helicopters. Photo Patrick Lurcock.
Dismantling one of the Habitat Restoration helicopters. Photo Patrick Lurcock.

Whaling station tours: Several cruise ships have taken up the offer of whaling station tours during their visit to Grytviken. The offer of station tours is new this season and they are led by South Georgia Museum Curatorial Intern Katie Murray.

New book, 'South Solo: Kayaking to Save the Albatross': Kayaker Haley Shephard has written a book about her experiences attempting to solo kayak around South Georgia two summers ago. Talking of the book Hayley said “It begins with my first experience ever seeing and landing on South Georgia, the day the dream was born to see its entirety by kayak.” She then goes back to when she was three and afraid of water and the following chapters follow the course of her life that shaped her into the person she is now, “the teacher, conservationist, the traveller and adventurer and how I became someone who could take on a kayak expedition such as this one.” she explained. “The book includes a chapter on the history of South Georgia, the albatross and the threats which are effecting the albatross, and of course I go into details of the planning and preparing for the expedition.” The last section of the book is about her expedition here.

'South Solo: Kayaking to Save the Albatross' is published by Bayeux Arts Inc. in paperback, has 164 pages and costs US$19.95. It can be ordered from

The Frank Wild story on the BBC: Following the interment of polar explorer Frank Wild in the Grytviken Cemetery last month there have been various articles about the event and the man. The BBC had both an article on their website and a radio programme which you can listen to as a podcast.

More than three kings on Christmas Eve.
More than three kings on Christmas Eve.

White Christmas: In a reversal of what might be expected, South Georgia experienced a white Christmas. We woke to snow on the beaches on Christmas Eve which lay for the next three days. Meanwhile those phoning home to the UK were hearing of temperatures of plus 12 degrees.

The KEP BAS team at Christmas
The KEP BAS team at Christmas

Happy New Year from the least populated time zone on the planet:

South Georgia is in the least populated time zone on the globe according to journalist Robert Krulwich. He wrote an amusing article comparing the most populated time zone, unsurprisingly one crossing China, with the least. He reckons 1.5 billion people will greet 2012 at the very same moment in the Chinese time zone compared to just 24 in the time zone that includes South Georgia. The South Georgia time zone, two zones west of the Greenwich meridian, is mostly empty ocean. So if you fancy a peaceful new year, join us down here at South Georgia.

See the original article here.

Only 24 people live in this time zone? Image NPR
Only 24 people live in this time zone? Image NPR

King chicks fledging at Penguin River: Three king penguin chicks will make it to adulthood this season. Over the years we have watched this new colony as it finds a toehold on a gravel island in the middle of Penguin River, round the bay from KEP. The first chicks, which hatched 12 years ago, did not make it but the parent birds have got more successful as the years have gone on and three fledged chicks is a record for the new colony. At least five adult birds were on eggs when the photo below was taken, so we can expect more chicks soon.

Three king penguins chicks will fledge this year at Penguin River.

Dates for Your Diary:

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography is at The Queen's Gallery, SW1 ( until April 15, 2012. The exhibition is of historical photographs presented to King George V by official photographers Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley, together with artefacts including the flag given to Scott by Queen Alexandra. Open daily (except December 25-26), 10am-5.30pm; admission £7.50 (concesssions available).

More info here.

A review of the exhibition by Brian Sewell in the London Standard can be seen here.

Vital Mental Medicine – The story of Shackleton's Banjo. BBC radio producer Julian May tells the story of Leonard Hussey's banjo and claims it saved lives on Shackleton's Endurance expedition. Using audio archives of members of Shackleton’s crew, including Leonard Hussey playing the banjo, Julian makes this presentation at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall on January 25th 6.30pm. Find out why Shackleton said "We must have that banjo. It's vital mental medicine." Lecture £8, with two-course buffet £18

More details here.

Also at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall there will be a luchtime lecture on February 6th recreating Leonard Hussey's own lecture about his experiences on the Endurance Expedition. Geoff Selley recreates the lecture from Dr Hussey’s original notes, as if he were Dr Hussey himself. The talk is accompanied by slides reproduced from the original ‘magic-lantern’ slides of the expedition taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition photographer.

Lunch and lecture £14.50

Photo SPRI
Photo SPRI

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