South Georgia Newsletter, December 2012

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

Next Commissioner Announced

The next Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has been announced as Mr Colin Roberts CVO. Mr Roberts has previous experience of the British Overseas Territories in his recent role as Director of the Overseas Territories Directorate within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK. In that role he was Commissioner for both the British Antarctic Territory and the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Mr Roberts joined the Diplomatic Service in 1989 and has worked overseas in Japan, Europe and Lithuania. He is currently engaged as Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Mr Roberts, who is married and has two children, said of his coming appointment: “I’m delighted to be appointed as Governor of the Falkland Islands and HM Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. I am a great admirer of the achievements of the people of the Falkland Islands. I look forward to working with the community and their elected representatives for a secure and prosperous future.”

Mr Roberts lists his interests as mountain sports, natural history, tennis and reading. He will take up his new post in April 2014.


Invasion Of South Georgia - Thatcher’s Worst Moment

Thousands of pages of formerly secret documents have been released by the National Archives which shed new light on the decisions and feelings of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thirty years ago.

The documents, released on December 28th, are from an inquiry board in post-war testimony. In them she described how, after the Argentines had invaded South Georgia and looked set to do the same in the Falklands, she had to make some difficult decisions. She called it, simply the worst moment of her life. She was told that Britain might not be able to take the islands back, even if she took the risky decision to send a substantial taskforce to the South Atlantic. “You can imagine that turned a knife in my heart," Thatcher told the inquiry board.

The testimony in the records paints a vivid picture of Thatcher's feelings of helplessness and rage, and eventual resolve. Thatcher testified she had been terrified that by sending the seaborne force, which would take weeks to reach the Falklands, she would provoke even more aggressive action by the Argentines which she feared might make the military operation even more hazardous when they arrived. As history bore out, after her bold decisions, the task force were able to liberate both South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

The Thatcher Foundation plans to make the documents available online.

Shipping News

Super-yacht Arctic P
Super-yacht Arctic P

There were seven cruise ship visits during December; most of them in the latter half of the month when several made use of the church to hold Christmas celebrations. Cruise ship Bremen unusually visited twice, once to do a normal shore visit and avoid bad weather elsewhere on the island, then again the following day to use the church for a Christmas Eve ceremony.

Two private yachts and super-yacht Arctic P, with six passengers and 25 crew, also visited.

Two military vessels called in: RFA Gold Rover stopped in briefly and dropped off one visitor who would return via another vessel; and HMS Edinburgh visited between December 16th and 18th (see below).

Research ship RRS James Cook was carrying out scientific research near the South Sandwich Islands for much of December.

Worsley’s Almanac Returns To The Island

A beat up old book has joined the South Georgia Museum Collection and is now among its most precious artefacts. The navigational almanac is the one that was used by Captain Frank Worsley to navigate the lifeboat James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia in April 1916, to enable the rescue of the shipwrecked crew of the Endurance.

David James, son of the Endurance Scientist Reginald James, had long intended to visit South Georgia and present the almanac to the Museum himself, but with no opportunity presenting itself for him to get here, he took advantage of a cruise ship, the MV Hanseatic, to courier the historic almanac safely to the Island.

Plans for Hanseatic staff member Sylvia Stevens to collect the book went awry when she missed her flight (though she was luckily just able to join the ship before it sailed) and Captain Thilo Natke kindly filled in and made the rendezvous in a Cape Town hotel to collect the almanac.

During the voyage south, Captain Natke explained to his passengers about their precious cargo and how the modern almanac, that all ships are still required to have on the bridge, would probably look very similar, but they had to wait for Curatorial Intern Thomas Kennedy to carefully unwrap Worsley’s almanac to get their first sight of the historic book.

Captain Natke, Sylvia Stevens, Sarah Lurcock and Thomas Kennedy at the handing over of Worsley’s almanac.
Captain Natke, Sylvia Stevens, Sarah Lurcock and Thomas Kennedy at the handing over of Worsley’s almanac.

A crowd of passengers and locals filled the Museum entrance hall to see the handing over of the almanac. Captain Natke passed the carefully wrapped package to Thomas Kennedy and said a few words which Sylvia translated. Whilst it was unwrapped, Museum Director Sarah Lurcock used Worsley’s own words to explain why the book looks tired and torn, barely held together by the remaining section of binding. In his book ‘Shackleton’s Boat Journey’ Worsley wrote of a day during the journey in the lifeboat to South Georgia, “I had previously managed to keep the books from getting wet, but that day my navigating books and log were in a pitiable state--soaked through, stuck together, illegible….it took me all my time to open them without completely destroying all chance of navigating to land….the Navigational Almanac shed it pages so rapidly before the onslaught of the seas that it was a race whether or not the month of May would last to South Georgia. It just did, but April vanished completely.”

The remains of the historic document after it all but disintegrated during the voyage on the James Caird.
The remains of the historic document after it all but disintegrated during the voyage on the James Caird.

As a memento of the time Worsley had spent working on navigation with Reginald James whilst in the ice of the Weddell Sea, he presented the remains of the almanac to the young scientist when they were in Punta Arenas (Chile) after all were safely rescued. A note to this effect, written by Reginald James, accompanied the almanac.

Speaking after the event, SGHT Director for South Georgia, Sarah Lurcock, explained that, with its vital role in the rescue of the shipwrecked crew and the journey of the James Caird to South Georgia, the almanac was now one of the most precious objects in the South Georgia Museum Collection alongside a compass Shackleton used on the Nimrod expedition, splinters of the Endurance, and of the oars of James Caird (all the other items were presented to the Museum by Shackleton’s granddaughter Alexandra Shackleton.) Sarah said she especially loves the fact that the “beat up” nature of the almanac so graphically shows what it has been through.

The almanac will shortly be on show in the case with the other Shackleton artefacts.

Captain Natke hands over the historic almanac which is unwrapped so everyone can see this
important artefact from the famous Shackleton rescue adventure.

Far-flung Jurisdiction Visit

The Chief Justice of the Falkland Islands, the Honourable Christopher Gardner QC, came for a comprehensive familiarisation visit to South Georgia. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, as well as the British Antarctic Territory, and the British Indian Ocean Territory, also come under his jurisdiction.

He arrived aboard the RFA Gold Rover. During a five-day stay he toured the KEP Base and attended the weekly base meeting where he introduced himself to the community and explained his role within the Territory. He also met with various people in their working environments, visited Grytviken, and was taken by ship to view the Stromness Bay area. With a keen interest in Shackleton, he was reading Shackleton’s book ‘South’ during the visit so was pleased to be able to view, from the ship, the manager’s villa which marked the end of Shackleton and his mens incredible mission to reach civilisation and send a ship to rescue the remaining men stranded at Elephant Island.

There was also time for a walk to Maiviken, something he later said was one of the best things he had ever done. He described the walk as across…”shale, snow, tussac grass and, at the end of it, one of the world’s most stunning views looking down on a bay full of seals and listening to a cacophony of sound created by their breeding season calls.”

Before leaving on the FPV Pharos SG, which would also take him to the Bay of Isles area, Christopher Gardner described his visit as “extremely useful”.

Mountains - New Stamp Issue

A new set of six stamps celebrating the Mountains of South Georgia was released on December 11th, International Mountain Day. Three se-tenant pairs show mountains and the men they were named for. The description of the new set below is by experienced South Georgia mountaineer Caradoc Jones.

The topography of South Georgia can be described as a chain of alpine summits, amongst the highest mountains in the British Territories; the icy jewels in the crown with unclimbed peaks that have been unattainable for so long. There are mountains that might take a week to climb from the shore and sometimes rebuff much longer efforts with the foulest weather and fierce storms that can lend fear and despondency into the very soul of even the most determined mountaineers. Mountains that bear the names of men indelibly linked to heroic age of exploration and the height of the British Empire. The savage mountains that spared Shackleton in his heroic quest for salvation become even higher as you journey further south into the Allardyce and Salvesen ranges.

The £1 stamps feature the Allardyce Range. Sir William Lamond Allardyce (1861 – 1930) was a good-hearted man who bore his gubernatorial responsibilities with foresight and success. The peaks that bear his name witness a determined soul who resolutely ascended the career ladder of pan-global colonial administration. This began as an 18 year old with a twenty-five year apprenticeship in Fiji prior to becoming Governor of the Falkland Islands (1904 – 1915) and its ‘Dependencies’, which then included South Georgia. He was subsequently the Governor of the Bahamas (1915-1920), Tasmania (1920-1922) and finally Newfoundland (1922-1928). A career indeed upon which it may justifiably be said the sun never set. His period of office in the South Atlantic outposts included the crucial assertion of authority over South Georgia and a pivotal role during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in the First World War. His prescient understanding of the need for rational exploitation of natural resources and careful stewardship of the environment is now being enacted with the resources and management finally befitting a man who was ahead of his time.

The other £1 stamp features Mount Paget which, at 2934 metres, is the highest summit on the Island and stands head and shoulders above the three nearest contenders: Nordenskjold, Carse and Sugartop. This imperious peak is named after Sir Alfred Wyndham Paget, RN (1852 – 1918) who commanded the Squadron from which HMS Sappho was detached to visit South Georgia in 1906, under the command of Captain Hodges. Thus it was fitting a Royal Navy officer, Commander M.K. Burley, led the 1964/5 Joint Services expedition that succeeded on their second attempt to make the first ascent of the mountain.

Mount Carse (2331m) features on a 75p stamp and is the third highest summit of the Island. It is named after the explorer and broadcaster Duncan Carse (1913 – 2004). As an explorer Carse was both tenacious and indefatigable, characteristics which enabled him to succeed in the herculean task of mapping South Georgia. The superb map produced by his unofficial team served sailors, scientists, climbers and soldiers for nearly 50 years. With the glacial recession wrought by global climate change, only the advent of satellite technology allowed its replacement. Described in an obituary: ‘to those who knew him best, he was a man of great integrity, as well as a loyal, amusing but very tough-minded friend and expedition companion, whose endurance in the field few could match’. Despite ranging the length and breadth of the Island leading successive survey teams, his dedication to the task in hand never allowed him to attempt the peak named in his honour. The first ascent fell to Stephen Venables and Brian Davidson in a lightning dash from their cabin fevered snow-hole in 1990.

Stenhouse Peak (525m) is shown on a 65p stamp. Found a mile to the west of Maiviken on the edge of Cumberland Bay, it is named after another larger than life character, Joseph Russell Stenhouse (1887 – 1941). Stenhouse was in the other half of Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1916). Supported by the vessel Aurora, their role was to lay depots across the Ross Sea ice shelf in support of Shackleton’s anticipated traverse of the icy continent. Stenhouse unwittingly found himself in command of the Aurora when, with the vessel beset in the ice and the Captain ashore, the vessel was wrenched from its moorings. They drifted northwards through the Ross Sea for nine months still beset in the ice in a curious mirror image of Shackleton’s Endurance in the Weddell Sea on the opposite side of the continent. The two halves of the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition were destined never to meet. The Aurora, unlike the Endurance, did escape to open water and was nursed the 1000 miles back to New Zealand by Stenhouse. He then served with distinction in the First World War. Stenhouse later returned to Antarctic waters as Captain of Scott’s old ship, RRS Discovery, which was engaged in oceanographic and whaling research in the South Georgia based Discovery Expeditions. He entered active service for the second time with the outbreak of the Second World War, again serving with distinction until killed in the explosion and sinking of his ship in the Red Sea.

South Georgia stamps can be bought from

Bird Island Diary

By Jerry Gillham at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

Wandering albatross displaying.
Wandering albatross displaying.

The unseasonably warm and dry December has allowed plenty of long, enjoyable days outside for the new Field Assistants to try and learn all they can from the 2012 wintering team. The mountains of South Georgia have been visible more days than not and some days we’ve been sat in the sun looking at distant icebergs in the long, light evenings.

The breeding season is well under way here, with almost all the birds either on eggs or feeding hungry chicks. Wandering albatrosses have been dancing round, wings outstretched and heads raised, in courtship rituals while the gentoo penguin chicks are now large, fluffy and chasing their parents around, harassing them for still more food.

A gentoo chick gets a feed.
A gentoo chick gets a feed.

The fur seal puppies are gathering together at the edges of the beach, playing and fighting amongst themselves while waiting for their mothers to return from sea and feed them. Jon, Hannah and Jaume have been crazy-busy with the seals; keeping track of all the males, females and puppies twice a day at the Special Study Beach (SSB) and recording the movements of the increasingly mobile young ones on Freshwater Beach.

Jen and Steph have been visiting the albatross colonies daily, counting birds and recording the dates of the first eggs and chicks. The whole island has been covered twice in the last month – once in search of nesting brown skuas, and in the last week noting the location of every wandering albatross as they start to lay their eggs. Everyone’s been involved with these tasks. For some it’s been an excuse to explore or get to know new parts of the island, for the seal team it’s been a chance to grab a few hours away from SSB.

Ruth and Jerry have been out checking on the penguins, recording the nesting progress of the giant petrels, counting the blue-eyed shag colonies (another good excuse to explore the coast) and crawling around in the tussac grass in search of burrowing petrels and prions.

Tamsin has been back and forth all over the island in search of skuas, albatrosses, rat boxes and somehow fitting in time for all the Base Commander paperwork, while Craig has been getting to grips with the running of the buildings and worrying more than the rest of us about the lack of rain as he maintains the water tanks.

Of course all this work wasn’t going to stop us from celebrating Christmas, and with a shift system in the kitchen we made it a memorable one. Taking advantage of the great weather we headed over to meet the seal team on SSB with mince pies and mulled wine late on 24th. Then on Christmas Day we had a huge evening meal, five cake species, a raucous board game and an uninhibited dancing session.

South Georgia Snippets

HMS Edinburgh on Patrol; a Last Visit: HMS Edinburgh called into Cumberland Bay on December 16th for a two-day stay during a patrol around the SG Maritime Zone. The 141m vessel anchored off Hope Point and the KEP jet boats assisted getting members of the 280-strong crew ashore for a leg stretch. This will be the last ever visit of the type 42 warship, known as the ‘Fortress of the Sea’, as she will shortly be decommissioned from the Navy.

The ship’s helicopter assisted in lifting heavy cargo to the top of Brown Mountain for a science project that will help measure the movement of the earth’s crust. The operation was hampered by fog, but was achieved by waiting for windows where the fog cleared sufficiently for safe navigation. The helicopter was also used to take some aerial photographs.

Museum Whale Log Data Research: A paper using information from a whale sightings log held in the South Georgia Museum, and sightings of cetaceans from the science base at Bird Island, has been published. Sightings such as the southern right whale seen in Cumberland Bay in mid-December are logged. The logs contain information such as the position, heading and behaviour of any whales seen. The resulting paper is entitled ‘Changes in distribution, relative abundance, and species composition of large whales around South Georgia from opportunistic sightings: 1992 to 2011’. The 4 most reported species in both data sets were southern right, humpback, minke and orca (killer) whales, but the species composition of has changed over time; for instance southern right whales have become the most sighted species in both data sets, with a peak of reported sightings in the 2001 to 2005 period. Sightings in the bays around South Georgia have also increased over time. In an area such as the Antarctic, which poses many difficulties when conducting research, opportunistic data sources such as these, although not ideal, can be valuable, since such information would otherwise be unattainable.

The paper can be read at or downloaded at

South Georgia Featured on BBC4, Christmas Day: The SGHT Habitat Restoration (rat eradication) Project was one of three sections on environmental problems in the British Overseas Territories on the programme ‘Saving Species’, broadcast both on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Project Director Tony Martin was interviewed about the start of Phase Two of this massive eradication attempt. Also featured was a proposal for Marine Protected areas in the Antarctic.

The church decoration crew relax after the church is festively festooned. Several cruise ships held Christmas celebrations in the church.
The church decoration crew relax after the church is festively festooned. Several cruise ships held Christmas celebrations in the church.

Christmas celebrations at King Edward Point started with the traditional community decoration of the church on December 15th. The decorators were rewarded with mulled wine and mince pies and a BBQ was put on close by afterwards. Snow that night and throughout December gave an unseasonal twist to the events. There was also a Christmas Quiz, and a feast on Christmas Day evening.

Between Christmas and New Year the elephant seal pups that have been crowding the beaches around King Edward Cove disappear, but throughout December they have been playing in puddles, ponds and the shallows in the late evening and throughout the night. Some of this activity was caught on underwater camera in the video below which was shot in a shallow river on the Barff Peninsula in early December.

Elephant seal pups playing and underwater.

Huge Antarctic icebergs drifted into Cumberland Bay at the end of the month. A regular visitor on one of the cruise ships remarked that he had not seen such a display of icebergs here in many years. And the Captain of another vessel said the bergs stretch a long way all off the north coast, making navigating in the coastal waters a cautious and slow business.

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