South Georgia Newsletter, January 2014

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

Discovery House Reopened

The extensive refurbishment of the historic Discovery House was completed on January 9th the completion was marked by a communal event. The work has turned it from an empty shell of a building into accommodation and offices for researchers visiting King Edward Point.

Discovery House was built in 1925 as an accommodation and laboratory for the Discovery Investigations. In recent years it had been stripped to an internal skeleton and used for storage. The extensive refurbishment took place over the past two summers with the work being undertaken by the GSGSSI building team and guided by the specialist heritage architect company Purcell. Whilst retaining its outward appearance, and much of the original layout, it now houses four twin bunkrooms with en-suite shower rooms, an office, a conference room, a lounge/dining room, a spacious well equipped kitchen, a laundry and the original small conservatory now a reading room.

The 87 year old building had been named after Captain Scott’s ship Discovery which was the Discovery Investigations first research ship. To mark the completion of the 14-month long project GSGSSI Chief Executive Officer Martin Collins hosted the building team and others to drinks in the new conference room. Several speeches were made; Martin Collins opened proceedings, telling the gathered crowd that the visiting science groups would be following in the footsteps of many well-known scientists who had lived and worked in the building in the days of the Discovery Expeditions. Indeed the first science group, studying springtails, was booked to move in shortly. Fittingly the first official visitor being accommodated at Discovery House was industrial archaeologist Bjᴓrn Basberg. He addressed the crowd saying that bringing old buildings back into a useful condition was the right way to preserve them. Building supervisor David Peck also spoke, saying his team had worked hard and were proud of the standard they had achieved, a sentiment that was backed up by all at the opening who gave them a good round of applause.

You can hear some of the speeches and have a bit of a look around the refurbished building in the video-link below.

The GSGSSI building team who worked on Discovery House this summer.
The GSGSSI building team who worked on Discovery House this summer.

Reindeer Project – Phase 2 Underway

The second phase of the GSGSSI project to remove introduced reindeer from South Georgia got underway in early January. A handful of reindeer were originally introduced to the island by the Norwegian whalers in the early 1900s. The animals were in two herds; one in the Busen area, one on the Barff Peninsula. They have since increased in numbers to several thousand. The animals have had a devastating impact on the island’s vegetation, with knock-on effects on native bird species.

Last summer the 2,000 strong Busen herd was successfully removed, and around 1,500 deer were also shot on the Barff Peninsula. The second phase, got underway on January 3rd when the six Norwegian hunters (SNO marksmen) were deployed to the Barff Peninsula to shoot the remaining reindeer.

The FPV Pharos SG is acting as support vessel, assisting in the deployment of the shooters and their gear around this large peninsula. The marksmen are primarily based in tented field camps though they will also use the field huts. They are walking long distances most days to track and seek out animals to try to ensure all the reindeer are found. The shooters are being picked up for a rest day on board the ship approximately every seventh day. Meat is being recovered from some of the animals for local consumption.

GSGSSI observers were posted in St Andrews Bay during shooting in the area to observe the effect of shooting on the king penguin colony and ensure there was no disturbance to the birds.

The second phase of the project will be finished in the first fortnight of February.

Four of the SNO marksmen with project doctor Sam Crimmin.
Four of the SNO marksmen with project doctor Sam Crimmin.

Wandering Albatross Numbers Encouraging

The number of nesting wandering albatross counted in the annual census on two islands in the Bay of Isles looks promising for the species survival. After years of dropping numbers, this year’s counts show higher numbers than for several years.

The annual census was undertaken between January 4th and 12th by Sally Poncet and Ken Passfield of South Georgia Surveys for GSGSSI.

Thirty seven birds on eggs were counted on Prion Island, the highest number in ten years. On Albatross Island 140 birds on eggs were counted - a substantial increase in comparison to recent years, and the highest number since 2008 (when it was 151).

The surveyors think the pattern of numbers of breeding birds on the two islands in recent years shows the population is stabilising (with fluctuations), and is no longer decreasing over the longer term. However, without a wider survey of the population on the neighbouring islands, there is a possibility that the increase on these two islands may be influenced by birds from other islands moving from depleted colonies to areas where there are more birds. It is likely this possibility will be further assessed next year as a wider survey is currently at an early stage of planning.

Asked why the changes were happening, Sally Poncet said, “I am not sure, but what we hear from other sub-Antarctic islands is that the wanderer numbers stopped decreasing some years ago. Increasing or stabilising wandering albatross populations are often linked to improvements in fishery practices, but increased food availability due to a change in ocean currents may also be a factor. The indications are that there is a stabilisation and even a slight increase in wanderer numbers elsewhere too.”

GSGSSI has renewed the contract with South Georgia Surveys for a further three years.

Ken Passfield and Sally Poncet of South Georgia Surveys during the wandering albatross census.
Ken Passfield and Sally Poncet of South Georgia Surveys during the wandering albatross census.

Overseas Territories Sustainability Report, Committee Disappointed

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is disappointed with the efforts of the UK Government to protect the environment in the UK Overseas Territories (OTs). The report summarises that the UK Government has failed to follow up on the United Nations policy on biodiversity protection, and has not ensured the accurate monitoring of biodiversity in the OTs. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is one of 14 such OTs.

In it’s environmental audit report published on January 8th the committee states that during the inquiry leading to the report, “…the UK Government expressed general but unspecified aspirations to ‘cherish’ the environment in the Overseas Territories, but it was unwilling to acknowledge or to address its responsibilities under United Nations treaties. This was disappointing, because the environment in the Overseas Territories is globally significant and comprises 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK Government has responsibility.”

They also say that the UK Government is, “unclear on what it is responsible for and why it is responsible for it. In environmental terms” and describes the 2012 Overseas Territories White Paper, which addressed the UK’s relationship with the OTs, as a “missed opportunity”.

You can read the full document on their website here.

Fishing and Shipping News

Silver Explorer in the mist in King Edward Cove.
Silver Explorer in the mist in King Edward Cove.

January was the busiest month of the 2013/14 tourist season, with 14 visits from cruise ships bringing around 2,000 passengers. The largest vessel was the Delphin which arrived on January 13th with 357 passengers. On three days there were two cruise ship visits in the one day. There were also four yachts around the island.

The icefish fishery was in operation towards the end of the month with two trawlers inspected and licensed, on the 28th and 30th, to fish for mackerel icefish.

Government Officer Simon Browning inspects a fishing net prior to licensing a trawler.
Government Officer Simon Browning inspects a fishing net prior to licensing a trawler.

The Royal Navy ice patrol vessel HMS Protector visited between the 9th and 13th January, and there were three research vessels in the area. On January 6th the South African Antarctic research vessel SA Agulhas II called into King Edward Cove to drop off several weather buoys. These are deployed for the South African weather service by GSGSSI vessel Pharos SG during the winter. The crew were given time to make a shore visit.

US research vessel Ronald H Brown was in the maritime zone (MZ) for a week at the end of the month carrying out oceanographic research survey work. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) vessel RRS Ernest Shackleton also passed through the MZ having called in at Bird Island.

Royal Navy Charting and Diving Off the South Sandwich Islands

The Royal Navy divers off the South Sandwich Islands.
The Royal Navy divers off the South Sandwich Islands.

HMS Protector has been working in the South Sandwich Island region. Using its multi beam echo sounder the ship gathered data along areas of the Douglas Straits between Southern Thule and Cook Island for the UK Hydrographic Office to fill in missing data in the Admiralty Charts.

At the same time a survey team were sent to Southern Thule Island – at the southern end of the volcanic island chain. The survey findings will be analysed to assess the scale of any clean-up work required as a result of previous human presence and whether it would cause unacceptable disruption for the resident penguin colonies – there are more than 60,000 penguins including the chinstrap, adelie and gentoo species - as well as many other varieties of wildlife.

Commanding Officer of HMS Protector Captain Rhett Hatcher said: “Part of our tasking in this austral summer takes us to some very inhospitable and challenging environments but my team are well trained, extremely keen and privileged to see some of these islands that few people ever get to visit.”

The on-board divers were also deployed, one task being to check the landing beach for any rocks or other underwater obstructions that may damage the landing boats. Leading Diver Hayes said: “Diving into such cold temperatures is always challenging but once in it is amazing to see all the wildlife and environment around and underwater – it is quite unlike anywhere else. We were watched the whole time by groups of penguins who seemed intrigued to know what we were doing.”

”We were watched the whole time by groups of penguins”. Photos Navy News.
”We were watched the whole time by groups of penguins”. Photos Navy News.

The last Royal Navy ship to reach Thule Island was HMS York in 2010 but their efforts to get ashore were hampered by the inhospitable environment and changeable weather.

After the visit to Southern Thule the ship battled her way through extensive ice and thick fog to South Georgia to conduct further hydrographic and diving operations. A team of ten from the ship’s crew did a beach clean-up in Moraine Fjord, mainly of wreckage from the two nearby shipwrecked fishing vessels.

Warrant Officer (2nd Class) Tony Tindale said: “It’s always nice to leave an area like this – beautiful and abundant with wildlife – cleaner than when you get there.”

GSGSSI was very grateful that the ship could at short notice, following the cancellation of another vessel’s visit, assist moving one person from KEP to Bird Island and take three others to the Falkland Islands.

Info: Navy News

Pastoral Visit

[[Image:8Jan14.jpg|thumb|center| 400px| Photo Anthony Smith.].]

Following a visit to a far flung corner of his parish for the celebration of the Grytviken church centenary, Rev. Dr Richard Hines wrote an article entitled “100 years old ‘with the help of the Lord’” for the prayer magazine of the UK-based Intercontinental Church Society. Below are some extracts from the article:

It was mid-morning on Christmas Eve when the sturdy Norwegian expedition ship MS Fram entered Cumberland Bay as gently as the snowfall which had greeted us earlier. As if by prior arrangement, just as Fram’s anchor splashed into the sparkling ice-blue water, the rusting remains of the old whaling station of Grytviken emerged from the mist.

Precisely on cue, warm bright sunlight broke through to bathe the small wooden church, presenting it resplendent for all to marvel at, ready for its 100th birthday.

The two church bells echoed around Grytviken harbour late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve and a congregation of over 200 from Oyas Venner, other passengers, crew, South Georgia Government Officers and British Antarctic Survey staff crammed themselves inside the historic building, specially decorated for the occasion. In traditional Lutheran style we sat to sing and stood to pray. On this occasion the Christmas carols were sung alternately in Norwegian and in English and the Gospel reading and a short sermon were given first in Norwegian by the archdeacon of Tonsberg and then by me as Rector of the Anglican parish which includes South Georgia within its large geographical area.

Following our Christmas worship, and after hearing a message and greetings sent from the King of Norway, hungry passengers returned to their ship to enjoy a fine Christmas Eve buffet meal of roast reindeer and other festive food and drink.

Our Christmas Day service was likewise joyful and bi-lingual and I spoke on that happy morning of God’s wonderful faithfulness. Preaching from a newly-dedicated Centenary Lectern, I noted how after Captain Larsen and his family had bidden farewell to Grytviken, he had written: ‘I trust that with the help of the Lord the little church which I have left might become a blessing to others.’ I rejoiced that despite extremes of wind, snow and ice, and thanks to the generous efforts of a wide variety of individuals and organisations, not least by Larsen’s own descendants, the building had been preserved for future use by all intrepid visitors. The Lord had graciously ensured that the Gospel of the Word who became flesh would be regularly proclaimed to those from many nations who pass through this gateway to the Antarctic.

Now, as we write, Jen and I are returning home the long way via Antarctica and Tierra del Fuego, ready for three further months of filming for the next series of BBC2’s ‘Island Parish’. We pray that footage from our recent unique Christmas events will survive the editor’s scissors to be seen and enjoyed by others in faraway places.

Richard and Jen Hines

Bird Island Diary

By Jess Walkup, Zoological Field Assistant at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

After seeing in the New Year at the end of the jetty, the first day of 2014 dawned bright and sunny. Adam, Cian, Hannah, Steph, and I decided to make the most of the sunshine and temperature high of 6 degrees with a walk up La Roche, Bird Island’s highest peak. On the summit we enjoyed mince pies and an enjoyable hour amongst the terns and watching a southern right whale feeding in the water 350 metres below us. From this high vantage point we also saw two large icebergs on the distant horizon, the first of the season.

Adam the Base Commander takes in the view over Bird Island, South Georgia mainland (left), and Willis Island from the summit of La Roche. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.
Adam the Base Commander takes in the view over Bird Island, South Georgia mainland (left), and Willis Island from the summit of La Roche. Photo by Stephanie Winnard.

The zoological field assistants have had a busy start to the year. The black-browed and grey-headed albatross chicks have hatched and grown quickly, so that by the end of the month the adults were leaving them alone to go out to sea foraging. While the parents were brooding the young chicks Steph and I collected nearly 100 faecal samples from black browed albatross for a study of dietary DNA being carried out by the Australian Antarctic Division. It is great to be able to help where we can with other international projects.

A grey-headed albatross chick sits alone in its nest while its parents are away foraging. With any luck a tasty meal will be arriving soon.
A grey-headed albatross chick sits alone in its nest while its parents are away foraging. With any luck a tasty meal will be arriving soon.

Some colourful faecal samples collected from the black-browed albatross for the Australian Antarctic Division.
Some colourful faecal samples collected from the black-browed albatross for the Australian Antarctic Division.

Now that many of the fur seals have gone back to sea or moved up into the tussac, the beaches are relatively clear which has given the newer arrivals a chance to explore areas of the island that were previously out of bounds. The first monthly fur seal puppy weighing was an activity that required all on base to assist. It was hard work catching 100 puppies to sex and weigh, but also a lot of fun. No one ever tires of the opportunity to get close to the fur seal puppies when they are at their cutest. Our hard work was repaid with a delicious cooked breakfast supplied by Hannah and Cian, the seal assistants.

An Antarctic fur seal puppy. Photos by Jess Walkup.
An Antarctic fur seal puppy. Photos by Jess Walkup.

We had a brief visit from HMS Protector to drop off Paul Cousens, the first of several people arriving to complete a project to install a new bulk fuelling system on the base.

Towards the end of the month the RRS Ernest Shackleton called in to Bird Island to return Jerry, the Penguin Assistant, and bring in Alun, Barry and Dale to work on the fuel system project. The visit of the Shackleton also meant a keenly awaited fresh food re-supply with more fruit and vegetables arriving than we have seen for several months. It is amazing how excited you can get over some lettuce when you haven’t had any salad for a long time!

To round up January, on the 31st we carried out the first whole-island wandering albatross census of this breeding season. Over 800 nests on the island were visited to check that they were each still active and to identify any adults who had not yet been recorded. The weather was in our favour, mild and calm, making for an enjoyable day.

South Georgia Snippets

Pipits sightings confirmed: Sighting of pipits in the SGHT Habitat Restoration Project Phase 2 area north-west of Cumberland West Bay have continued. Sightings reported last month at Hercules Bay and Salisbury Plain have been confirmed by further sightings, and the renowned ornithologist Frank Todd reported that he was confident there was a pipit nest nearby when he visited Salisbury Plain on January 16th. A pipit was also heard, but not seen, at Maiviken.

Nybrakka refurbishment: Work started last summer to refurbish the whalers’ barrack building at Grytviken, called the Nybrakka, continues. A major job, which had to be timed for a good weather period, was the removal and replacement of the roof on the three storey building. The old tin sheets were removed, the roof space sealed and weather proofed with hardboard and new tins put on. Some of the old tin will be reused to make sympathetic repairs to some of the smaller historic buildings at Grytviken. The Nybrakka will be used in the future as an emergency shelter and for storage.

Photos Patrick Lurcock.
Photos Patrick Lurcock.

Clipperton Expedition: The Clipperton Project will be running a science expedition to South Georgia in March using the charter yacht Hans Hansson as a platform. Research work, amoungst other things, will include surveys for microplastics, marine debris and invasive species in the intertidal and subtidal areas, also the impact of larger plastic debris on native wildlife. The aim of the expedition is to conduct new research and to enhance the way that varied, international practitioners approach both the issues under investigation and also each other. The team coming to South Georgia are from Australia, Mexico, Holland, Spain and Scotland and include a seabird ecologist, a teacher, a social historian, an ornithologist, a meteorologist, an artist/musician, an engineer/businessman, a sound recordist/photographer, a photographer/businessman, a contemporary artist and a marine scientist.

Fundraising for the expedition has included free concerts aiming to raise awareness of the plight of the wandering albatross.

The Clipperton Project is a Scottish not-for-profit company whose stated mission is, “to inspire, empower and engage members of the public, particularly young people, to positive global citizenry and social responsibility, in particular to regard themselves as stakeholders in their environment.

The Clipperton Project will be chartering the charter yacht Hans Hansson for their visit to South Georgia.
The Clipperton Project will be chartering the charter yacht Hans Hansson for their visit to South Georgia.

Wanderer broods giant petrel chick: A wandering albatross on Bird Island has surprised the scientists there. During a regular check on nests one bird was found to have a chick more than a month before the wanderer eggs usually hatch. After initial confusion and checking of dates the chick was inspected more closely and found to be a southern giant petrel chick!

Southern giant petrel chicks hatch throughout January, and have recently begun to be left alone on their nests while their parents forage on the beaches. It appears that after its own egg was broken or predated, the female wanderer moved to the giant petrel nest, a few meters away, and ‘adopted’ her neighbour’s chick. Cross-species adoption is rarely observed in the wild in birds. The female albatross brooding the chick was herself hatched in 2001 and has not been recorded on the island since then, and although a male albatross had been observed on the original wanderer nest, it has not been seen since the female began brooding the petrel chick. The scientists say she is very protective of her new ward, but it remains to be seen whether she will attempt to feed the chick, or the chicks’ rightful parents return to claim it.

This is the first case of inter-species adoption (or perhaps “chick-napping”?) that has been seen on Bird Island so they are monitoring its progress closely.

The wandering albatross broods the giant petrel chick that it has adopted or stolen. Photo by Jess Walkup.
The wandering albatross broods the giant petrel chick that it has adopted or stolen. Photo by Jess Walkup.

Edinburgh Zoo celebrates 100 years of penguins: Edinburgh Zoo is famous for its penguins. The first penguins arrived 100 years ago from South Georgia, just six months after the zoo had opened. The four king penguins, one gentoo and one macaroni penguin arrived on January 25th 1914. The penguins had been collected by Salveson employees on South Georgia when Salveson operated the whaling station at Leith. The birds were then transported the 7000 miles to the Scottish coast aboard the Salveson company vessel Coronda. Several other collections were made for the zoo by Salvesons in the following years.

The penguins at the zoo have been a highlight ever since. A few years later the zoo was on to be the first place in the northern hemisphere to successfully raise a king penguin, but it was 1935 before a macaroni chick hatched and two more years before they hatched a gentoo chick.

In 1951 the zoo started a tradition of the ‘penguin parade’ when the penguins walk around the zoo with a keeper. It is said to have started when their keeper inadvertently left their enclosure open and was followed by the birds, the waddling column delighting the zoo visitors. The ‘penguin parade’ is now a daily feature of the zoo schedule. Due to the early breeding success, a king penguin forms part of both Edinburgh Zoo’s logo and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s crest.

Dates For Your Diary

In what will be one of the first of many events to mark the coming centenaries of the Shackleton expeditions, a black tie dinner and other events will be held at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Plymouth on August 6th to the 8th to mark the centenary of the departure of the Endurance. This is the same hotel as used by Shackleton and his men when they stayed in in Plymouth before the departure. The weekend is being organised by the Devon and Cornwall Polar Society in collaboration with James Caird Society, Plymouth County Council, Plymouth University and the South Georgia Association.

As well as the dinner there will be: lectures by Michael Smith, Bob Burton, Wilson McOrist and Seb Coulthard (from the Shackleton EPIC expedition); music, films, display and plays; and a re-enactment of the Endurance’s departure by a tall ship.

On sailing from Plymouth, Thomas Orde Lees of the original Endurance expeditions wrote in his diary: “August 8th 1914…Very worst West country weather, blowing hard and drizzling rain. The ship was alongside Millbay wharf when we went on board and she left there sharp noon today with Sir Ernest on board. Just a very small crowd to see us off, but enthusiastic enough… Sir Ernest slept at the Duke of Cornwall’s Hotel, he offered me a bed very kindly but declined as I thought it best to get into the routine as quickly as possible.”

South Georgia Half Marathon

The South Georgia half marathon was run on January 12th. The course is worthy of an Iron Man Challenge with many ascents and descents over rough ground. This year eight runners took part in the 13 mile race. One of the brave runners, Base Commander Dickie Hall, gave the following insight on the event:

Most of us had not run it before but having done many practice runs it was a nervous start in the knowledge of what was to come. The first kilometre is easy, nice and flat around the cove to Grytviken, the next four kilometres after this though are solidly uphill to the top of Brown Mountain at 324 metres (most of this altitude is gained in the fifth km so that is definitely a walking section). From the summit it is a steep and sometimes hair-raising descent back to sea level on the return to KEP. And this isn’t even halfway. Once you are back to where you started just turn around and head back out. This leg is longer but not so steep and not so much height gain - a mere 200 metres this time. Up and over Lewis Pass down scree and through bog to Maiviken Hut, a circuit of the hut then back up and over the pass. Once you are back at the top it is a relief to know it is downhill all the way from here.

With a blistering pace of 1:53:24 Martin Collins took the trophy this year, but the exciting part of the race was yet to come with Micky Sutcliffe and Daniel Johnston racing neck and neck to the line. Micky took second place in 2:06:10 with Daniel just two seconds behind.

A great race and some very sore legs the next day!

The running competitors at the start of the half marathon.
The running competitors at the start of the half marathon.

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