South Georgia Newsletter, February 2011

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

Habitat Restoration Takes Off

left:  The red helicopter takes off from the “Marina Svetaeva” watched by all the tourists.     right: A helicopter coming in to land on the specially prepared platform in Grytviken.
left: The red helicopter takes off from the “Marina Svetaeva” watched by all the tourists. right: A helicopter coming in to land on the specially prepared platform in Grytviken.

It was an exciting day on February 13th when the two South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) Habitat Restoration Project (HR) helicopters arrived. The aircraft had been carried from the Falklands to the Island in the hangar aboard cruise ship “Marina Svetaeva”. Also aboard were several members of the HR team including Project Director Professor Tony Martin, Chief Pilot Bob Brett and helicopter engineer Graham Charman.

The rest of the team arrived on two other ships in the following days and were immediately at work getting cargo ashore, biosecured, and moved to storage sites at King Edward Point (KEP) and Grytviken. Seven container-loads of specially designed bait have been donated by Bell Laboratories - three of these were moved around KE Cove for storage close to the helicopter landing platform in the old whaling station.

Six containers loads of bait were unloaded from the “Pharos SG”.
Six containers loads of bait were unloaded from the “Pharos SG”.

The equipment was checked and bait-dispensing hoppers calibrated, these will be under-slung from the helicopters during baiting.

Once the second pilot, Peter Garden, arrived, flying could start in earnest. The first flight was used to lift a radio repeater station to the top of Mount Hodges to ensure good radio coverage of the area to be baited in 'Phase 1'. This phase alone, covering the Greene, Thatcher and Mercer peninsulas, is several times larger than any area previously attempted worldwide.

Bob the pilot gets to work on the aircraft in the old whaling station building being used as a hanger. Photo Sam Crimmin..
Bob the pilot gets to work on the aircraft in the old whaling station building being used as a hanger. Photo Sam Crimmin..

The month ended with two Search and Rescue exercises, one using the second helicopter to locate the beacon from the first, and the other using the boats from KEP to extract a supposed casualty.

Baiting of the Greene Peninsula starts on March 1st.

You can follow the action daily on a special Facebook page.

The SGHT have published two newsletter available as pdf downloads here.

Reindeer To Go Too

Following stakeholder consultation, GSGSSI has announced it will undertake a full eradication of reindeer from South Georgia due to their detrimental impact on native species and the threat of glacial retreat.

No timetable has been set for the eradication, but it is necessary to clear reindeer from the Barff and Stromness areas before rat eradication can take place in the later phases of the Habitat Restoration Project. If deer were present during baiting they could consume the cereal-based rat bait, so denying it to the target rodents, and potentially suffering poisoning as a result.

As a part of its commitment to safeguarding and restoring the native species, habitats and landscape features of South Georgia, GSGSSI have identified key invasive species whose removal can realistically be achieved, these include rats, mice, reindeer, bittercress and pearlwort. They also state that they will be “ensuring that the removal of invasive mammals is carried out in as humane a manner as possible”.

Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia in 1909 by Norwegian whalers, and now occupy two large peninsulas on the north coast of the Island where they continue to degrade the native vegetation. The area of South Georgia available to reindeer to graze is limited due to the presence of glaciers, which act as barriers to their further spread. Over the past 50 years as a direct result of climate change, coastal glaciers on South Georgia have been retreating at an accelerating rate, with the most rapid retreat occurring in the past decade. Studies of the rates of advance or retreat of over 100 coastal glaciers on South Georgia, from the 1950s to the present time, show that 97% of these glaciers have retreated over the period, some by over 4km. In the near future, the glaciers that at present are so effectively stopping the reindeer from spreading will retreat to the extent that they no longer present a barrier. Reindeer will then be able to access previously ungrazed areas, and the abundance of food will result in a significant increase in population, putting huge pressure on native species and causing great damage to the remaining pristine areas.

In 2010, GSGSSI carried out a stakeholder consultation based around a review of all published scientific literature pertaining to reindeer on South Georgia. Ninety-five percent of respondents were in agreement that GSGSSI needs to act to manage the reindeer. A stakeholder meeting was held in September 2010 at which a summary of the key issues was presented, followed by a summary of results from the consultation. General consensus was that the reindeer should be entirely removed from South Georgia, that advisory groups be established to ascertain what methodology is most appropriate for the removal, and to identify what scientific research should be carried out before, during and after eradication operations. GSGSSI is currently establishing these advisory groups, the deliberations of which will inform a timetable for the management program.

The Commissioner, Nigel Haywood, was interviewed about the eradication of reindeer on Radio 4's 'Today' programme on February 21st following the announcement.

You can download the original press release here [pdf, 1mb].

Cruise Ship Passenger Infringement

GSGSSI has recently investigated an incident involving inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour by a cruise ship passenger in the immediate proximity of wildlife. The incident took place in November 2010 and an investigation has been undertaken by the vessel operator with a report submitted to GSGSSI. The report included recommendations to prevent any re-occurrence. GSGSSI treats all breaches of visit permit terms and conditions seriously. The vessel was subsequently required to embark a Government Observer for their next visit, forfeiting the dispensation not to have to make a first landing at Grytviken. GSGSSI has been working closely with the vessel operator to address this issue and the Government remains committed to ensuring close co-operation between the GSGSSI and the cruise ship industry to identify and address any areas of concern as swiftly as possible.

Rare Visit To The South Sandwich Islands

“Golden Fleece” in the South Sandwich Islands. Photo Andy Black
“Golden Fleece” in the South Sandwich Islands. Photo Andy Black

Biologist have managed to update the knowledge of breeding birds and mammals in the South Sandwich Islands when they accepted an offer to fill spare berths on a charter yacht visiting the remote islands. The arc of eleven main islands are about 300nm east-south-east of South Georgia and difficult to land on due to the extreme weather of the region and uninviting coasts. Discovered by Cpt Cook in 1775, the first major survey on these actively volcanic islands was made eighty years ago by the 'Discovery Expeditions. Current seabird population figures for them are based on data gathered fourteen years ago.

Charter yacht “Golden Fleece” was sailing there in January and GSGSSI were offered the opportunity to take part in the expedition. Andy Black was one of three biologist who went along with the aim of updating the breeding seabird and marine mammal population figures. They set sail from Stanley on January 1st, via South Georgia, arriving at Zavodovski on the 9th in mist and winds gusting up to 50 knots. Andy writes: “The heavy swell breaking on the near vertical cliffs was not very inviting and prudence precluded a landing on the first day. By the second morning the weather had moderated slightly and a landing was made. Although swells were breaking all around, the skipper of the “Golden Fleece”, Jérôme Poncet, knew just the spot where a Zodiac, ably driven by his son Dion, could drop us on the rocks from where a short scramble had us ashore.”

A difficult landing on Zavodovski Island. Photo Cathy Colle.
A difficult landing on Zavodovski Island. Photo Cathy Colle.

“Once the initial adrenalin rush and excitement of finally getting ashore had passed, the enormity of the task ahead of us began to dawn.” Andy said, “Zavodovski is known for its huge chinstrap penguin population and probably holds two of the largest penguin colonies in the world. With an island population that probably exceeds a million pairs, where do you start?”

Though it was a “daunting task” they spent the next few days mapping the edges of the colonies, using hand-held GPS units, and assessing nesting density. Andy writes that: “None of the other islands visited posed the same problems in terms of the number of breeding birds”, but they all posed their own challenges.

A huge chinstrap colonies on  Zavodovski Island. Photo Andy Black.
A huge chinstrap colonies on Zavodovski Island. Photo Andy Black.

Remarkably, landings were possible on 15 of the 18 days they were in the area and they managed to land on all ten of the major islands. They found each to be quite different in character. Candlemas Island hosts the largest southern giant petrel population in the South Sandwich group. Of Saunders Island, Andy writes that the landscape is “unlike that encountered anywhere else during the voyage. The loose volcanic ash has eroded to form a series of deep scars across the hill side. Along with the ubiquitous chinstraps, the first notable colonies of adelie penguins were encountered here.”

Though the largest island is Montagu (also the last to erupt, in 2005), it did not take long to survey as the majority of the surface is covered by ice, leaving only a tiny area suitable for breeding penguins.

Chinstrap penguins on Montagu Island. Photo Andy Black.
Chinstrap penguins on Montagu Island. Photo Andy Black.

Though the weather deteriorated as the surveys continued, hey managed a short landing on Bristol Island before moving on to ice-free Bellingshausen. “On arrival, we were immediately struck by the number of fumaroles, ‘smoking’ vents, on the eastern flank and crater of the island.” Andy writes, “A closer inspection revealed a higher than expected number of adelie penguins.”

They travelled on to Cook Island, which Andy described as “another steep sided ice covered mass that supports very few penguins but is good habitat for the cliff nesting Antarctic fulmar”, and Thule, before starting the long sail back to the Falkland Islands.

The biologists will now use high resolution satellite images to fill in some of the gaps in their on-shore surveys. Post-survey analysis is under way and the overall population figures will be updated later this year.

The full article by Andy Black can be read here.

South Georgia Groundfish Survey 2011

By GSGSSI Fishery Scientist Jude Brown

The main source of fishery-independent data on mackerel icefish and toothfish is the 'South Georgia Groundfish Survey', which has been undertaken approximately every two years since the late 1980s, but annually basis since 2006. The surveys provide an estimate of the standing stock and age structure of the mackerel icefish population, which is used directly in the stock assessment. The surveys also provide information on the abundance of pre-recruit toothfish, the abundance of non-target species and provide samples for a range of other fish related projects.

The fifteenth fishery biomass survey of the South Georgia Maritime Zone (SGMZ) was carried out on board the trawler “FV Sil” scientists from the GSGSSI and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and took place between January 27thand February 6th. Eighty-seven random hauls were completed across the shelf of South Georgia and Shag Rocks at depths to 300m.

Locations where random hauls were conducted.
Locations where random hauls were conducted.

The six scientists on board analysed the catch and noted that whilst larger (age 3+) icefish dominated in the Shag Rocks area, younger fish were found nearer to the main island. The survey results show the estimation of biomass for mackerel icefish is slightly lower than that calculated for 2010, but higher than for 2009.


With three benthic specialists on board, they took advantage of the opportunity to collect samples of all the different benthic species found in the different depths and areas around South Georgia. These samples will be analysed back at KEP later in the year and will help to gain a better understanding of the benthic biodiversity around the Island.

GSGSSI would like to thank 'Polar Seaview', and the captain, officers and crew of the “FV Sil” for their hospitality, hard work and assistance during the survey.

The Groundfish Survey team. Photos Jude Brown.
The Groundfish Survey team. Photos Jude Brown.

Fishing And Shipping News

On completion of the ' South Georgia Groundfish Survey' trawler “Sil” called into Cumberland Bay on February 7th to drop two scientists before commencing commercial fishing for icefish in the SGMZ. The vessel left the area a few days later.

A reefer also anchored in the Bay for a day.

Nine cruise ships and six yachts visited Grytviken during February. Most of the yachts were private vessels but two were supporting film crews and one, “Alaska Eagle”, was a sail training vessel with 11 on board on a month-long voyage from South America to South Georgia and back. The 65-foot yacht is the sail training vessel for the 'Orange Coast College' in the USA.

Yacht “Australis” is on charter to a film crew. Photo Sam Crimmin
Yacht “Australis” is on charter to a film crew. Photo Sam Crimmin

Pets: New Stamp Issue

A new stamp issue featuring pets associated with Island was released on February 15th. Since the 1990s pets have not been allowed at South Georgia, so the set of six stamps and First Day Cover is based on old photographs showing people and their pets from before that time.

The following text is by historian Robert Burton.

During the operation of whaling stations between 1904 and 1965, a variety of animals were brought to South Georgia. Two, the brown rat and house mouse, were introduced accidentally. Most were brought to the Island to provide fresh food. These included reindeer, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, geese and even pigeons. Some were allowed to roam free but only reindeer have thrived in the wild. A few horses were used for haulage and there was an attempt at Grytviken to breed fur foxes for their pelts. At Prince Olav Harbour, carrier pigeons conveyed messages from whale-catcher boats about their arrival with whales for processing in the factory.

As well as these useful animals, others were kept as pets purely for entertainment and company. Pets have ranged from cats and dogs to parrots and canaries.

The 45p stamp features a vervet monkey from Africa. It may have been brought to South Georgia on a ship coming from Cape Town. It was a pet of the doctor at the Husvik whaling station in 1914. It wore a harness and was taken for walks on a lead.

The 60p stamp shows Anne-Marie Sørlle, daughter of the manager of the Stromness whaling station, with a litter of puppies. She was allowed to keep one as a pet because there were no other children on South Georgia for her to play with.

The 70p stamp is a photograph of two whalers showing off their pets in their room at Grytviken around 1925. One animal is a fox, a unique record of a fox being kept as a pet on the Island. It is probably a grey fox or grey zorro, which could have been acquired in a South American port.

The 80p stamp features Nan Brown who ran a 'penguin rehabilitation centre' at KEP to rescue birds fouled with heavy fuel oil. After cleaning they were kept in a pen to recover. One of the gentoo penguins became a pet when it refused to leave after being released. Stugie (an anagram of Gutsie) had a damaged wing and could not fend for itself. It accompanied Nan around the settlement and visited the house daily but, not being house-trained, it was not allowed to stay inside for long. It would follow her to the jetty where she caught fish to feed its prodigious appetite.

The £1.15 stamp, based on a photograph by Frank Hurley, is of the inappropriately named Mrs Chippy, the most famous of Antarctic cats. He was the pet of 'Chippy' McNish, the carpenter on Shackleton's “Endurance” expedition, and perished on the ice after the ship had been crushed.

Semi-wild cats were common at the whaling stations. They were mostly dependent on human habitation, especially in winter, and were useful in helping keep down the rats that infested the buildings. Cats died out at the whaling stations soon after they were abandoned in the 1960s but some survived at KEP until 1980.

The £1.20 stamp has Sir Ernest Shackleton bathing Query aboard “Quest” on the way to South Georgia in 1922. The German shepherd pup had been presented to him as a mascot when the ship visited Plymouth. Query was lost overboard during the expedition. Dogs, including sledge dogs left by passing expeditions, were a common sight around the whaling stations. Most were under the control of their owners but a few lived and bred wild. The last dog on South Georgia died in 1974.

The First Day Cover (£6.00) shows Doris Scott with baby Ann in a pram, accompanied by Ring the collie. Ring lived at the administrative settlement on KEP. He belonged to no one but there was always someone who would become a 'foster owner' and look after him. Another dog, Pluto, would visit Ring from Grytviken whaling station.

South Georgia stamps can be bought from

Eggcellent News

There have been some great things to see on the South Georgia webcams this month; on 'Webcam 2' the arrival of the helicopters on cruise ship “Marina Svetaeva” - even catching their first flight, cruise ships at anchor in the Cove, also moulting fur seal pups snoozing amidst the tussac or playing at the waters edge and yacht “Alaska Eagle” sailing in at a good tilt.

'Webcam 1's view may not have been so diverse but it has featured fishing ships and cruise ships on the Hope Point anchorage and moulting and displaying king penguins and occasional snoozy fur seals. But now one or two king penguins in particular are going to have a lot of fans; almost unbelievably they have chosen to lay an egg in the perfect spot for webcam watchers to monitor their progress. The egg was first spotted on February 19th, though it is usually well covered by the bird's brood flap. This is the first record of a penguin laying at KEP. King penguins usually breed in colonies so the chances of these, probably inexperienced, birds successfully raising a chick on their own are slim, but we can hope. An egg would normally hatch after about seven weeks of brooding. Keep watching!

The king penguins have laid in a prime spot to be seen on “Webcam 1”  which is housed behind that window. Photo with egg, Alastair Wilson.
The king penguins have laid in a prime spot to be seen on “Webcam 1” which is housed behind that window. Photo with egg, Alastair Wilson.

Run For It

Photo montage by Ruth Fraser.
Photo montage by Ruth Fraser.

The annual South Georgia Half Marathon, one of the toughest half marathon courses in the world, was was run on February 10th. The weather was kind for the participating 4 runners, 2 runklers (a kind of halfway house between walking and running) and 5 walkers. The walkers set off at 9am into a fair and calm day. Marshals positioned on top of Brown Mountain and at Maiviken Hut basked in the sun until sweating, and sometimes shirtless, competitors came through. The runners and runklers set off two hours later.

Lee running at Maiviken.
Lee running at Maiviken.

There were all the normal hazards to avoid: streams and boggy ground; boulders and loose scree; growling fur seals and the all too easy mistake of taking the wrong route.

The winner, experienced runner Hugh Marsden, beat his time last year by a minute and a half coming in in 1hr 38m 15s, just 17 seconds short of the course record. Second place was taken by single-handed yachtsman and experienced marathon runner Lee Han of the yacht “Girafa” in 1hr 56m 21s. Third went to Thies Matzen (2hrs 9m 17s) who had not run for many years.

Winner Hugh Marsden at the prize-giving ceremony.
Winner Hugh Marsden at the prize-giving ceremony.

Of the walkers Tony and Julia came in first in 4hr 8m 49s, with the other three walkers showing solidarity by all arriving together about 45 minutes later.

Tony and Julia were the fastest walkers.
Tony and Julia were the fastest walkers.

South Georgia Snippets

British Geological Survey staff Tony Swan and Chris Turbitt arrived at KEP on February 17th to complete the installation of the new magnetic observatory (See January newsletter).

They spent 10 days finishing the installation of the observatory and installing all cabling, instruments and communications required. We hope to bring you more on this next month.

Internet search engine Google decided to mark what would have been Shackleton's 137th birthday on February 15th by having a special homepage banner featuring the great man, with links to various Shackleton websites.

The Google Shackleton banner.
The Google Shackleton banner.

The South Georgia Heritage Trust have a new-look website. The homepage features their new logo and a 'latest news' section and throughout the site there is lots of information illustrated by beautiful photographs. Find the website here.

Matt Kenney, Boating Officer and Coxswain at KEP, was a volunteer crew member with the Hamble Lifeboat in the UK before he took up his job at South Georgia. On February 18th he was delighted when others at KEP were so enthusiastic to join him showing support for this and other independent lifeboats by 'Going Orange'.

The 'Go Orange for Indies' event is designed to raise awareness of the 60 or so 'independent' Lifeboats around the UK. These Lifeboat Services provide a critical augmentation to the UK's Maritime Search and Rescue capability. The crews are unpaid, and receive no expenses for their dedication to the safety of lives at sea. Many of these lifeboats operate on call 24 hours a day 365 days per year and respond to hundreds of emergency calls each year. The Hamble lifeboat, where Matt volunteered, is one of the busiest lifeboat services in the UK, responding to hundreds of distress calls each year, and saving many hundreds of lives since its foundation in 1968.

Matt said: “It was a great privilege to serve with the Hamble Lifeboat, and the service is still very important to me, so for my colleagues here at KEP to join me in showing support for the Independent Lifeboats was truly fantastic. We all had great fun dressing up and we all had lots of laughs in the process.” Orange attire included an orange survival bag worn as a cape, and Ashley dyed her hair orange.

With three film crews and a photographer working on the Island this month, keen local photographers have been seen picking up tips from the professionals. The advice must be working if this shot, taken on a calm early morning in KE Cove by Sam Cimmin, is anything to go by...

Dates for your diary:

The National Maritime Museum at Falmouth, Cornwall in England has a new exhibition entitled 'On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration'. It focuses on the historic and modern-day achievements of polar pioneers, using photography, artefacts, equipment and personal ephemera and will be on for six months. The exhibition was developed in association with the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, and includes Scott and Shackleton alongside modern-day equipment belonging to Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Pen Hadow. For children there is 'Base Camp', an interactive play zone with hands-on, jump-on, climb-in exhibits.

'On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration' runs from April 8th October 9th 2011.

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