South Georgia Newsletter, December 2013

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

Grytviken Whalers’ Church Centenary

The centenary of the Church at Grytviken was celebrated with a number of special events. Two services, held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, were organised by the Oyas Venner party (ex-whalers and their family and friends) travelling on the cruise ship Fram. A temporary exhibition on the history of the Church was mounted at the back of the building by the South Georgia Museum and, as the centenary of the consecration of the Church fell on Christmas Day, SGHT’s Liz Adams had designed a special display of Christmas decorations.

Three church ministers were amongst those travelling with the Oyas Venner party, including: Richard Hines from Christ Church Cathedral Stanley (Falkland Islands) in whose parish the Grytviken Church is included, Stein Unneberg and Øyvind Nordin. Other special visitors were Dr Susan Barr of Norway’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Martin Collins, Chief Executive Officer of GSGSSI; and a representative of Sandefjord Whaling Museum.

The Church was built in Norway then shipped to Grytviken.
The Church was built in Norway then shipped to Grytviken.

The Church was built at the initiative of founder and first manager of Grytviken whaling station, Carl Anton Larsen. It was designed by his son-in-law, the architect Adalbert Kielland, and, though Larsen funded a large part of it and bought the two bells, the rest of the money was raised by public subscription. The wooden building was prefabricated by the Norwegian factory Strømmen Traevarefabrik then flat-packed and shipped to South Georgia. It was designed to seat 200 and also house the station library (which is still intact). The whalers erected the Church voluntarily in their free time, taking just 28 days to do so. The first pastor, Kristen Løken, had arrived in 1912 and officiated at the consecration on December 25th 1913. Three other pastors were employed in later years, the last of whom was Sverre Eika who was known as ‘the football pastor’. He was well-liked by the whalers and had previously played football for the Norwegian national team. At Grytviken he would sometimes leave a game so he could perform his service in the Church and then come back afterwards to continue the match!

The whalers rarely packed the Church unless it was Easter or Christmas and after a while the position of pastor was dropped. The Church was also used as a social centre for film shows, prize-giving events and concerts, and at one stage was even used to store potatoes. In 1922 it had to be cleared out especially for the funeral of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The modern use of the Church follows this tradition as it includes not only religious services lead by visiting priests and others, but also a venue for a ceilidh, civil wedding services and concerts.

After the whaling station closed in 1966, the Church started to deteriorate. Various attempts were made to keep it weathertight and in good order. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) personnel who occupied King Edward Point (KEP) from 1970 did some maintenance, as did the military when they were garrisoned at KEP from 1982, but by 1995 collapse of the building seemed imminent and consideration was given to letting the building go. Canon Stephen Palmer, then of Christ Church Cathedral, made successful representations that it should be preserved and funding for extensive restoration was sourced largely from Norway.

The Church has recently undergone various further refurbishment works undertaken by the GSGSSI building team, which included installing new electrics and replacing the lights using lampshades recovered from the old stores at Leith.

The centenary was further marked with the issue of a set of six stamps on December 24th. The stamps show: 30p, the Church under construction; 50p, Carl Anton Larsen; 65p, the consecration service in the Church in 1913; 75p, the Church today; £1, in 1995 the cross on the steeple was lifted off by a Royal Navy helicopter for refurbishment; £1.20, the Church at night with the Milky Way.

Honours And Awards

Dr Martin Collins, Chief Executive Officer for GSGSSI received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list. The list, which was published on the UK government website on December 30th, lists Dr Collins in the Diplomatic Service and Overseas section and says the award is for “services to science and conservation in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.”

Dr Collins, who comes from a science background, has worked in the South Atlantic area since graduating in Zoology from Reading University in 1989. He first worked as a Fishery Observer in the Falkland Islands, before carrying out a PhD on squid ecology at University College Cork. He then continued to carry out research on cephalopod ecology and deep-sea fish behaviour and ecology at Aberdeen University. He joined BAS as a marine ecologist in 2002 to work on the Scotia Sea ecosystem.

In May 2009 Dr Collins moved to the Falklands to take up a post as Director of Fisheries and Chief Executive Officer for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. In this role he is responsible for managing the Territory, including the valuable fisheries and has recently overseen the introduction of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Areas, and the first phase of the Reindeer eradication programme.

Martin Collins’ long association with South Georgia was further recognised recently when a small island off Hercules Point, in the north Busen region, was named Collins Island. The new name is one of many announced in the ‘Latest additions to the SGSSI gazetteer’ from the Antarctic Place-names Committee which states it is named after Dr Collins “for his leadership of the reindeer eradication programme in the Busen Region in 2013, as well as his contribution to South Georgia over many years.”

You can see all the latest place names for South Georgia on line:

Others with South Georgia connections who were honoured in the New Year’s Honours List are:

  • John Hall, Head of Operations with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and a member of the Steering Committee for the SGHT Rat Eradication, who was appointed MBE for services to British Antarctic science;
  • Mrs Philippa Lucy Foster Back, Chair of the UK Antarctic Place Names Committee and until recently Chair of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, who was appointed CBE for services to Antarctic heritage.
  • Mrs Anita Browning, Chef at Government House, who bakes an excellent Christmas cake for the KEP staff each year, was awarded a BEM (British Empire Medal) for services to the Falkland Islands.

Pipits Seen In Recently Rat Cleared Areas

South Georgia pipit seen at Hercules Bay. Photo Patrick Endres.
South Georgia pipit seen at Hercules Bay. Photo Patrick Endres.

The South Georgia Pipit, endemic to the island, is considered an indicator species for the success of removal of rats. This tiny lark-like bird, is the most Southerly songbird and cannot breed where rats are present. It has therefore been absent from vast areas of the rat infested main island. At the end of December tourists and staff from the cruise ship Ortelius spotted pipits both at Salisbury Plain and at Hercules Bay. These two places are 50km apart but were both within the Phase Two area of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project. The vast Phase Two area covered the north-western end of the island down to the Phase One area in the centre of the island which was baited two years before; the baiting in the Phase Two area was only completed seven months ago.

Only finding of a pipit nest will be the real proof that the birds have recolonized the Phase Two area, but the fact that one of the birds was singing (which is recognised to be territorial or breeding behaviour) is a hopeful indicator that at least some of these birds are at least trying to breed in the area already.

One of the pipits seen at Hercules Bay was filmed by tourist Mary Marshall from a zodiac just off shore.

Pipits at Hercules Bay

Fishing And Shipping News

Thirteen cruise ships visited Grytviken in December. Four arrived earlier in the month followed by a two week break before a very busy period from Christmas Eve to New Year with eleven ship visits in the eight day period. Two of the vessels, Hanseatic and Fram, made two visits to enable them to hold Christmas Eve services in the Church.

The largest cruise ship of the season, Seabourn Quest, visited on December 29th bringing 411 passengers. This is the largest number of passengers on one cruise ship to visit South Georgia for a number of years. The ship made two separate landings over a whole day, with half the passengers ashore in the morning and half in the afternoon. Those on board were able to see a presentation by the KEP science team about their work at King Edward Point.

Six yachts were also around the island in December.

Habitat Restoration: New Stamp Issue

A colourful set of six stamps marking the on-going SGHT Habitat Restoration Project was released on December 15th.

South Georgia’s seabirds have been severely depleted by invasive rats and mice which were introduced inadvertently from the ships of sealers and whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The island’s birds nest on the ground or in shallow burrows and they are defenceless against rodents which eat eggs and chicks. Petrel, pintail and prion populations have suffered the greatest damage from the invaders, and the endemic South Georgia pipit is threatened with extinction.

Since 2007 the Trustees of the SGHT, a small UK-based charity established in 2005, have been tackling the rodent problem on South Georgia by attempting to eradicate rats and mice from the island in a £7.5 million project, far larger than any rodent eradication attempted anywhere in the world. It has been suggested that the successful completion of the project could bring some 100 million seabirds back to the island.

The 5p stamp features the support vessel RRS Shackleton. Based on a photo by Paul Wilkinson.
The 5p stamp features the support vessel RRS Shackleton. Based on a photo by Paul Wilkinson.

The 5p stamp features the BAS vessel the RRS Ernest Shackleton which was used around the northern area for Phase Two of the project. The ship brought with it three helicopters, 200 tonnes of bait, 700 drums of helicopter fuel, 8 tonnes of food and three 20 foot container-loads of equipment. The helicopters flew the supplies from the ship to depots at 14 different sites along South Georgia’s coastline before the team disembarked in late February 2013.

The 30p stamp shows all three of the helicopters used in Phase Two of the project in the air together. Based on a photograph taken by Oli Prince.
The 30p stamp shows all three of the helicopters used in Phase Two of the project in the air together. Based on a photograph taken by Oli Prince.

The 65p stamp shows filling of the bait bucket from a forward operating base in wintery weather during Phase Two.
The 65p stamp shows filling of the bait bucket from a forward operating base in wintery weather during Phase Two.

The 65p stamp uses a photograph taken during Phase Two. During this phase the field team encountered severe weather conditions that stopped the helicopters from flying for days on end, but on May 18th the last pellet fell on South Georgia’s Paryadin Peninsula and Phase 2 was complete. Against the odds, and after almost five months of fieldwork, all the areas planned for 2013 had been baited and the field team could go home.

The 75p stamp shows a rat taking a piece of the specially designed bait.
The 75p stamp shows a rat taking a piece of the specially designed bait.

With two successful seasons under its belt, SGHT is confident that it will be possible to raise the further £3 million needed to complete the final phase of work in 2015. With one third of the infested area remaining to be cleared (approx. 30,000 hectares) the aim of this third phase is to complete the job. If SGHT is successful the island will once again become the safe haven for wildlife that it was when Captain Cook discovered it back in 1775.

The £1 and £1.20 stamps feature two endemic birds that are already benefitting from the removal of rats on South Georgia: the South Georgia pintail and the South Georgia pipit. These and other photos taken by SGHT Habitat Restoration Project Leader Tony Martin.
The £1 and £1.20 stamps feature two endemic birds that are already benefitting from the removal of rats on South Georgia: the South Georgia pintail and the South Georgia pipit. These and other photos taken by SGHT Habitat Restoration Project Leader Tony Martin.

The Trust is very grateful for the support received from the GSGSSI and from all of those who have given donations large and small to the project.

South Georgia stamps and First Day Covers can be bought from

Whaler’s Return

Odd Aspaas playing his trombone on Christmas Eve. Photo:
Odd Aspaas playing his trombone on Christmas Eve. Photo:

Odd Aspaas was just eighteen when he became a whaler. As he left the shores of Norway in 1956 to head to his workplace at Grytviken by ship, he left his sixteen year old girlfriend Ann-Mari behind. Ann-Mari expected to see Odd back nine months later at the end of the whaling season.

Odd worked as a warehouse clerk and lived in the large bunkhouse called the Nybrakka. Odd was a favourite with the other whalers because of his musical ability, he played the trombone and, with a keen interest in jazz, could provide music at a party, but he also played in the church for a whaler’s funeral and at Christmas time.

At the end of the season, when the men returned to Norway, Ann-Mari was waiting, but instead of the expected reunion with Odd she was handed a letter. The letter informed her that Odd had decided to stay on for the winter and another summer season and it would be another year before he was home.

Through the winter he worked in the Slop Chest (the whalers’ shop) and lived in the Managers Villa. In his time as a whaler he earned good money, and when he did finally get home he invested it in getting an education…oh, and a car!

Odd and Ann-Mari, now his wife, were amongst the large party of ex-whalers and their families that visited at Christmas to celebrate the Church Centenary. It was an emotional time; during the visit to Grytviken he was able to point out to his wife the room where he lived in the Nybrakka, (which is currently being refurbished) and both places where he had worked. Indeed he was escorted into the Main Store (one of only two of the major factory buildings that remain standing) to find his old office and in it he found the card index system he used to use and was able to find the handwritten entries he had made nearly sixty years before.

Odd had brought his trombone with him on his return and played several times as part of the Christmas Eve Centenary service. His time as a whaler was evidently a big part of his life, something he has often spoken about, and as Ann Mari said: “It is wonderful to finally see this place I’ve heard so much about”.

Several other visiting whalers had similar stories and were able to visit the places they had lived and worked. For others in the Oyas Venner party they were coming to see the graves of relatives who had worked here. The itinerary of the Fram not only allowed a two-day visit to Grytviken but also went to Leith and Stromness, where those with connections to people buried in the cemeteries were able to visit.

Bird Island Diary

By Robert Fry, Base Technician at the BAS Research Station, Bird Island.

December was a busy month for the team with the base’s new additions - Adam, Jess, Cian and Rob - getting happily settled into the Bird Island way of life.

Early December saw Jerry, the penguin Zoological Field Assistant (ZFA), heading home for a well-earned break. He will be returning to the island to carry on with his penguin work for the winter of 2014.

Our resident albatross ZFAs, Jess and Steph, had a busy month checking on all the albatross nests across the entire island, in addition to heading up to the Wanderer Ridge study colony every day to take measurements of all of the colony’s newly laid eggs. They are also keeping a close eye on the grey-headed and black-browed albatross colonies, where the hatching of new chicks is well underway.

Counting penguin chicks at Big Mac. Photo Stephanie Winnard.
Counting penguin chicks at Big Mac. Photo Stephanie Winnard.

The penguin breeding season is now in full swing so the scientists also spent a day counting new penguin chicks at Big Mac and Little Mac, two of the island’s macaroni penguin colonies. Skuas have also been under the spotlight this month – Adam , the Base Commander, conducted a skua census for the entire island and Steph and Jess surveyed the skua study area and took measurements of all eggs. The petrels have been busy as well – all of the northern giant petrels’ eggs have hatched and are already being left unguarded while the adults head off to find food.

Our resident seal ZFAs, Hannah and Cian, have been busy over at the Bird Island seal study beach, recording and monitoring the numbers of new seal pups and checking the numbers of breeding females. They have spent many afternoons on Freshwater Beach deploying transponders on some female seals, allowing them to track the animals’ locations and determine whether they are on the beach cuddling their pups or feeding out at sea.

On the technical side of things, Rob has been busy keeping on track with his day to day maintenance jobs and has also serviced the generators and boilers. Manos, our resident IT man, has been putting in some long hours doing maintenance on the base’s main server.

The BI Christmas cake. Photo by Jessica Walkup.
The BI Christmas cake. Photo by Jessica Walkup.

On Christmas morning we woke up to the smell of a full English breakfast cooked courtesy of Adam and squeezed in a traditional Christmas film before heading out for the day’s work. Some hours later we were all dressed in our finest and sitting down to a beautiful Christmas dinner. A great day had by all.

We hailed New Year with Auld Lang Syne sung at the end of the jetty, with an accompaniment laid on by the fur seals. All the best for 2014.

Grey-headed albatross chick. Photo Stephanie Winnard.
Grey-headed albatross chick. Photo Stephanie Winnard.

South Georgia Snippets

Wedding celebrated in the Church: A civil wedding followed by a religious blessing was held in the Grytviken Church directly after the Centenary church service on December 24th. The couple, Olav Orheim and Grethe Sofie Bratlie, were travelling on the cruise ship Fram on which Olav was working as a staff member. All those attending the former church service were invited to stay on for the wedding which was conducted by South Georgia Registrar Sarah Lurcock.

The ceremony started with the couple walking up the aisle whilst Odd Aspaas played the trombone. Olav read ‘Poem XIII from Chamber Music’ by James Joyce, and after the marriage the couple signed the register then Grethe Sofie sang ‘I folkviseton’ to her new husband.

The marriage was followed by a blessing by visiting minister Stein Unneberg.

The witnesses were Expedition Leader Karin Strand and Captain Arild Hårvik. A wedding party was held that night aboard the Fram.

Latest Habitat Restoration Newsletter: A new edition of the SGHT Habitat Restoration Newsletter was published in December. It is a great read and includes an update from Project Leader Tony Martin with news of the monitoring field party due to arrive on the island in March to assess the success so far in the Phase Two area, a year after it was baited. There is also a report from Fundraising Director Peter Taylor who writes: “Our fundraising activities have taken on a more international dimension with activity spreading from the UK and the USA across Europe and Scandinavia, and more recently the Far East, in particular Hong Kong.” Indeed support from abroad is such that the SGHT are considering holding fundraising events in Hong Kong and in the USA.

You can download the December Project News newsletter here.

Dates For Your Diary

South Georgia in the Wake of Whales: A talk by yachtsman and South Georgia enthusiast Thies Matzen will be held at Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut, USA on February 20th.

Blue Water medallists, Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson, stayed on South Georgia for 26 months – through two winters – living aboard their iconic nine-meter wooden sailing boat Wanderer III. Thies Matzen has been invited to give the talk as part of the museum’s ‘Adventure Series’ of talks. During the illustrated talk he will explore South Georgia and give detail of this island of superlatives described as: “…a glaciated Himalaya protruding from a storm-torn ocean and a Serengeti in Antarctic climes. Its coasts, in summer, hold the highest density of birds and mammals on this planet. It is one of the ultimate meeting points of bird and sea life on earth. Industrial whaling – this fateful interaction between our planet’s most intelligent and its largest inhabitant – started in South Georgia. Half a century later, its whaling stations are succumbing to the forces of nature. The island is now taking the lead in changing its legacy from exploitation to rehabilitation.”

The talk will be given twice, at 1.30 pm and 7.30 pm at the River Room at the Latitude 41° Restaurant & Tavern.

Member $15 /non-member $20 /students free admission

Purchase tickets online or call 860.572.5331 Full details here.

Wanderer III sailing in front of the dilapidated Leith whaling station. Photo: Kicki Ericson.
Wanderer III sailing in front of the dilapidated Leith whaling station. Photo: Kicki Ericson.

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  • © Copyright GSGSSI 2013.