South Georgia Newsletter, May 2013

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

Baited Breath

It was down-to-the-wire if aerial baiting to eradicate rodents would be finished before winter set in.
It was down-to-the-wire if aerial baiting to eradicate rodents would be finished before winter set in.

For those following the rat eradication programme progress, May was a worrying month. As it had done for the past few months, the weather continued to give infrequent patches of flyable conditions so there were only rare short spells of suitable weather for the aerial baiting. The field team spent most of the first two weeks of May in the forward operating bases (FOB) just waiting and hoping for a better weather break.

This season’s fieldwork targeted all the rodent infested coastal areas around the northern end of the Island north of the Thatcher Peninsula, a total area of 58,000 hectares. By the end of April only one section remained to be baited - at the far northern tip of the Island - but it was also the largest in the northern zone. With winter setting in there was shortening daylight for flying, and more regular snow flurries, which, if they accumulated, could lead at any time to the cessation of baiting. The team also needed to factor in enough time to move the remaining field workers, camp, equipment and three aircraft back to King Edward Point (KEP) to be ready to ship out in early June. The usual weather for the northern tip of the Island, low cloud and katabatic wind, seemed unrelenting. Many were really fearful the section would not be completed. The financial impact of that alone would have been several hundred thousand pounds and would have made the logistics of completing the project in a following season much more complicated. So it was a huge relief when it was learnt that on May 18th the last pellet had been dropped over Hope Valley and the last section was fully baited.

A wintery FOB.
A wintery FOB.

Writing in ‘Project News’ about the last day of baiting, Project Leader of the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) Habitat Restoration Project, Tony Martin, said; “Right up to that very morning it seemed that we were going to be thwarted just one day short of our target. Our time was up. Most of ‘Team Rat’ had already left the Island on their way home, leaving just 11 people to do whatever could be managed in the few days remaining, and then pack up. The weather forecast for the 18th was good, unusually, but we woke to deep powdery snow – snow that could easily cause a disorientating white-out as a helicopter hovered over the loadsite. The pilots were clearly very worried, and we took off at first light in the expectation of having to abandon the season so tantalisingly close to complete success. But as we flew over the saddle into the appropriately named Hope Valley, where the last bait and fuel had been sited, we were overjoyed to discover that here the wind had scoured away the snow. I quickly checked with everyone that they were happy to work in these conditions. Nods all round – it was safe, albeit well below freezing. Go!”

Ice on the baiting buckets caused problems throughout the day and ice had to be smashed off the lids of the bait pods which had stood out in the depots for almost three months. Defeat hovered close all day. Tony explains; “At one point all three aircraft were on the ground requiring attention…..We were losing the race against time…. it was now touch-and-go as to whether the last pods could be emptied before nightfall. Four pods to go, and the light was visibly fading. At this point, pilot Tony Michelle reported dangerous icing conditions and he had to abandon his current flight line. Were we to be brought to a standstill so agonisingly close to our goal? A reprieve – the thin cloud causing the icing moved away. Three pods to go, then two, then one.”

Ice had to smashed off the top of the bait pods before opening them up.
Ice had to smashed off the top of the bait pods before opening them up.

Writing afterwards Tony said; “The Island had not given up without a fight. We were all delighted to finish baiting of course,” he said, “but in my case the overwhelming sensation was one of relief.”

The work was not over when baiting was complete though. Project gear was spread between various camps but time was short so in the next three days any suitable flying weather saw the helicopters scurrying around whilst the team packed up the camps, moved fuel drums and set to cleaning and storing equipment at Grytviken. The aircraft were then dismantled and with centimetre-accurate manipulation, packed into five shipping containers to be shipped to the UK for major servicing.

Some of the team then left the Island by ship at the end of May, with the remainder due to follow soon.

This season’s fieldwork means that 70% of the rodent-infested area of the Island has now been baited, leaving 30,000 hectares (300 square kilometres) left to do at the southern end of the Island. Two million pounds must now be raised to allow ‘Team Rat’ to return in two-years’ time, 2015, to finish the whole project.

The final Project newsletter came out in mid-May and can be downloaded from the website here.

Tsunami Risk Evacuation

King Edward Point was evacuated in the early hours of May 23rd following a tsunami warning. The warning was received by telephone at 5am following an earthquake in the South Atlantic at position 55.48S, 14.01W at a depth of 10km. The earthquake was about 500 nautical miles east of the South Sandwich Islands and was originally reported to have measured 7.0 on the Richter scale (later downgraded to 6.6).

Due to the risk of a tsunami having been generated by the undersea earthquake, with a wave which could be expected to arrive at South Georgia just before 6am, both King Edward Point and Bird Island stations were evacuated. The 23 people stationed at KEP took warm clothing and other equipment and climbed to the high ground at Hope Point. There was insufficient time to evacuate safely via Grytviken to higher ground. At Bird Island science station the evacuated personnel also climbed a nearby hill where they sat in the snow to wait for the risk to pass. Both parties had mobile satellite communications with them.

People from KEP evacuated to Hope Point when the tsunami alert was raised.
People from KEP evacuated to Hope Point when the tsunami alert was raised.

At 7.30 am the tsunami risk was judged to have passed and everyone returned to the bases. Fortunately the weather that night was calm, if cold, so the evacuated personnel were not too uncomfortable.

Speaking later of the experience at Bird Island, Stephanie Winnard described it as having been, “a scary few minutes when we were getting ready to leave the base.”

After the event the National Oceanography Centre analysed information from the KEP tide gauge, and though there were some “noisy bits” in the graph (below) no large changes in the sea level were recorded.

NOC analysed the information from the KEP tide gauge, but no sea level rise was recorded on the night of the tsunami evacuation
NOC analysed the information from the KEP tide gauge, but no sea level rise was recorded on the night of the tsunami evacuation

Argentine Research Survey

The Argentinian research vessel Dr Eduardo L. Holmberg undertook a research survey in South Georgia waters during May. The research, which was notified under CCAMLR Conservation Measure 24-01 and was permitted by GSGSSI under the Wildlife & Protected Areas Ordinance, focused on the distribution and ecology of mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) and will be reported to CCAMLR in due course. Two UK-designated CCAMLR inspectors from GSGSSI, undertook a CCAMLR Inspection of the vessel during the survey. The inspectors were on board the RRS James Clark Ross, which was in the area undertaking research on benthic biodiversity and some supplementary patrolling of the South Georgia Maritime Zone. The RRS James Clark Ross also provided a platform for a CCAMLR Inspection of one of the licensed longliners operating in the Maritime Zone.

Star Trails – New Stamp release

A stunning new set of stamps featuring star trails in the night skies over South Georgia will be released on June 4th.

South Georgia is an ideal location for astrophotography as there is very little light pollution. On a clear winter’s night the quantity of stars that can be seen with the naked eye is simply breath-taking. Unfortunately a cloudless South Georgian night is a rarity. A former doctor at the KEP station, Sam Crimmin, created the star trail images by taking long exposure photographs of the night sky. As the earth turns the stars appear to move, creating streaks of light across the image. These lines of light appear as circles around the celestial poles, the points in the sky that correspond with the South or North Pole, and about which the earth spins on its axis.

In the North the celestial pole is easily identifiable as the Pole Star. In the Southern hemisphere the closest star to the celestial pole is the constellation of Sigma Octanis. As this constellation cannot be easily seen, the celestial pole is located from the brighter Southern Cross (Crux) and its two "pointer" stars α Centauri and β Centauri.

The star trail images used on the new set of four stamps were created by pointing the camera towards the South celestial pole and taking long exposure photographs which were collected over a six-month period.

The 65p stamp shows star trails over the Harker Glacier.
The 65p stamp shows star trails over the Harker Glacier.

The Harker Glacier, named after the British geologist Alfred Harker, lies next to the Hamberg Glacier at the end of Moraine Fjord. This deep Fjord separates the Thatcher Peninsula, home to Grytviken and King Edward Point, and the Greene Peninsula. The image is compiled from a series of 30 second exposures (total exposure time 1hr 28m) taken on a cold bright moonlit June night.

The 75p stamp shows star trails over Maiviken Hut.
The 75p stamp shows star trails over Maiviken Hut.

Maiviken is about 6km away from the settlement of King Edward Point. The area is home to a large number of fur seals and gentoo penguins, which are regularly monitored by BAS scientists. The hut at Maiviken was built in the 1970s and is used as a refuge in which scientists can stay overnight or simply stop for a cup of tea. Over the years the hut has been repaired many times. The image was taken nearing midnight in late August. Once again 30 second exposures were compiled into one long exposure of 2hrs 2m. There was still deep snow so the skis resting on the outside of the hut were used to get there.

The £1 stamp features star trails over Albatros and Dias.
The £1 stamp features star trails over Albatros and Dias.

The wrecks of the old whaling ships, Albatros and Dias, sit on the shore at Grytviken. Albatros was built in 1921 in Norway as part of a plan to modernise Grytviken. She was larger, more powerful and had a greater speed and range than her predecessors. She worked around South Georgia and for a couple of years in the Weddell Sea. In 1935 she became a full-time sealer until Grytviken closed in 1964. She later sank at her moorings alongside Dias.

Built in Hull in 1906 and originally called Viola, Dias started life as a steam trawler in the North Sea. In WW1 she patrolled in the North Sea and helped to sink two U-boats. After the war she was sold to Norwegian owners and, after initially being used as a trawler, was converted to a whale catcher. She arrived in Grytviken in 1927, where she was employed as a sealer and boat for towing whale carcasses until 1964. The image was compiled from exposures covering 2hrs 22m around midnight in early December. As the photo was taken in the Antarctic summer there is much more light on the horizon than in the previous images.

The £1.20 stamp shows star trails behind Hope Point.
The £1.20 stamp shows star trails behind Hope Point.

The memorial cross at Hope Point was erected by the officers and crew of the Quest in 1922 in memory of Sir Ernest Shackleton after he died on board the Quest in Cumberland Bay. Hope Point is a small hill that was chosen for its position looking out on Cumberland Bay and Grytviken - places that Shackleton regarded as the “gateway to the Antarctic”. The Hope Point image was taken in early October approaching midnight. The compiled exposure covers 1hr 36m. It was taken on a very windy bright moonlight night. Despite the camera being mounted on a tripod that was well planted and weighted down with snow, close inspection reveals wobbles in the star trails!

Technical photographic details for each of the four images are available in the First Day Cover insert which can be read in full on the website. The stamps can also be bought from the same website.

Fishing and Shipping News

The entire fleet of six licenced toothfish longline fishing vessels have been fishing throughout May in the SG Fishing Zone and catches remained good throughout.

The British Antarctic Survey research vessel James Clark Ross arrived in King Edward Cove on May 6th. Some staff from KEP joined the vessel before it left to conduct a fishery patrol and science cruise around the Island. Three scientists who had been working on the vessel disembarked at KEP to carry out terrestrial and intertidal science in the local area.

Cry Argentina: Review

By Damien Sanders

Cry Argentina is a work of ‘Faction’, fiction with a strong factual base. However, faction is a form of literature which this reviewer is often uncomfortable with. It is one thing to set a novel in an historical period and to refer to real individuals and events which/who do not form part of the plot. All novelists take real events, chop them around and present them as part of new stories. In these circumstances it is still possible for the reader to suspend reality and immerse themselves in a fictional world, albeit one given the context of a real time and place. It is quite another thing, however, to write a novel such as ‘Cry Argentina’ which contains real events and named individuals, described (often inaccurately) with an eyewitness level of detail (the author has clearly interviewed a number of people who were there). In a properly referenced work conflicting accounts can be resolved or at least referred to. In ‘faction’, accuracy and referencing can be neatly dispensed with by conveniently referring to such issues or errors as ‘fiction’. This novel switches between a near non-fiction style, to one interspersed with fictional characters and entirely fictional events, some of which are undertaken by real people. In these circumstances it is impossible to distinguish where reality ends and fiction begins. This can be particularly disconcerting when a character in the story is oneself; albeit in the reviewer’s case with two spelling mistakes (or is DamiAn SaUnders meant to be entirely fictional? If so why are some of his/my actions in 'Cry Argentina' factual or semi factual?).

The book and its story would have benefitted from better editing, better factual and geographical research and a more thorough fictionalisation of the story. A few examples will serve:  The Montenero urban guerillas who employed kidnapping and terrorism amongst their tactics are referred throughout as Montanero, and Bahia Paraiso’s Captain Trombetta is referred to as Tombetta. Royal Marines refer to themselves as ‘booties’ and would be insulted to be referred to as ‘squaddies’, a term the Marine characters use for themselves in the book. The history of the dirty war is confused and Alfredo Astiz (referred to in the postscript as both Astiz and Asdiz) is described as having been involved the early unrest in 1973, when in real life he was still a teenager. Astiz only became involved after the military took power in 1976, most famously ‘turning’ a captured Montenero to pose as his sister in order to infiltrate the organisation, ‘Mothers of the Playa de Mayo’ who were demanding to know what had happened to their children. This story, and that of the two French nuns and others whom Astiz ‘disappeared’, is also mangled.

On different pages both Trefor Edwards and Damian Saunders or Ian Barker and Damian are said to have climbed Mount Hodges. Even in a novel, the story should be consistent. In fact it was Ian and Damien who observed the Argentines on the base at King Edward Point, climbing Mount Hodges would have made no sense. We observed the Argentines from the much lower col between Mount Hodges and Orca Peak.

In the preface the novel is declared to describe real events. There is a significant ‘aftermath’ and postscript, which are accurate and inaccurate in almost equal measure. As the book more confounds history than elucidates it, in the reviewer’s opinion, the only safe way to approach Cry Argentina is to treat ALL the events and characters as entirely fictional. This is however a hard thing to do when many of the characters and events are in the history books. This is where ‘Faction” becomes insidious, even pernicious, because reality is never fully suspended by the reader and imagined events become remembered as fact. For these reasons, despite being readable and a fascinating story, ‘Cry Argentina’ fails as a novel and as a factual account of the South Georgia part of the Falklands War and the events surrounding it. 

In the reviewer’s opinion (but then ‘he would say that wouldn’t he?’) the real story of what happened on South Georgia outstrips anything which could be dreamt up for a novel. Perhaps this book has made the case for all of those involved to combine to write an accurate but personalised account, before memories fade further, notes get lost and the list of obituaries lengthens.

Bird Island Diary

By Steph Winnard at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.

May has been an exciting month on Bird Island. As well as the tsunami warning and evacuation of base (see above), we have had sightings of southern right whales. It is apparently fairly late in the year to still be seeing them before they head towards Argentina for the winter months. We have been attempting to take photographs which are going to be sent to a scientist working on them in Argentina. She may be able to identify them from our images, and find out if they are the same individuals they see there.

Southern right whales. Photo Jerry Gillham.
Southern right whales. Photo Jerry Gillham.

Jerry spotted a bird of prey being pursued by a skua which was most likely a cassini peregrine falcon. We all watched it for a few minutes diving away from the skua before it disappeared.

At the start of the month Hannah began her daily leopard seal rounds. They only visit Bird Island during the winter season as they prefer cold weather. Every seal spotted is photographed, and their behaviour is recorded. They can be identified from their unique pattern of spots (I guess that is how they got their name!).

The first seal, now known to be Max, was spotted on May 9th lying asleep on Main Bay. We were all very excited to see this massive predator up close. It had flipper tags, so we knew it had visited the island previously, and it had a geolocator tag attached to one of the tags. This was extremely exciting as only three other tags have been retrieved in the last 10 years, out of 50 deployed. Hannah managed to get the tag back when Max was sleeping, and the data has been sent back to Cambridge for analysis. Not much is known about where these seals spend the rest of the year, so every tag retrieved provides valuable data. Max has been sighted on 12 occasions during May, sometimes sleeping on the beach and other times feeding off shore, usually on young fur seals. It’s an impressive sight to behold but can be quite gruesome.

It is shaping up to be a good leopard seal season, with 25 sightings in May. Individual seals included Stephanie, Paddy Boy, and Pearce. Paddy Boy was fitted with a GLS tag, so hopefully next year we may get some more data.

Leopard seal Max being annoyed by a Sheathbill.
Leopard seal Max being annoyed by a Sheathbill.

The last black-browed albatross chick fledged from the study colonies on May 11th. The colonies look so empty now after being occupied since October.

Black-browed albatross chick ready to fledge.
Black-browed albatross chick ready to fledge.

The grey-headed albatross chicks started fledging this month with the first chick leaving on May 14th. There are still quite a lot of chicks in the colonies, around a third, so I will be continuing my daily checks until the last one goes - which could be as late as the June 17th. The mortality rate seems to be higher than that of the black-browed albatross chicks, and recently I have been finding dead chicks which, when weighed only a few days previously, seemed healthy. A possible explanation is that giant petrels and/or skuas are killing chicks, as there is very little food around for them. To try to prove our theory Jerry has been setting up time lapse cameras in the colonies to attempt to capture the fatal peck. So far we haven’t seen anything definitive, but we have had a fair bit of snow which makes it difficult to get good images.

Grey-headed albatross chick stretching his wings.
Grey-headed albatross chick stretching his wings.

On May 10th we did the light-mantled sooty albatross chick survival survey. It was dire news though, not one chick was found still alive out of an initial 75 nests.

The wanderer chicks are quickly growing up and each week when I visit Wanderer Ridge they seem visibly bigger, though they still have a few months to go before they will be large enough to ring.

For a bit of fun, every Saturday evening we have been doing a “Come Dine with me” night (like the television series). Each week one of us has to cook a three course meal for the others and provide entertainment. The event is filmed and we all give a score for the evening. Eventually we hope to edit the footage to make a short film and find out who the winner is!

Wandering Albatross family. All photos Stephanie Winnard.
Wandering Albatross family. All photos Stephanie Winnard.

South Georgia Snippets

Mrs Thatcher’s Gamble: A new book, regarded as probably the most accurate record of the 1982 war in South Georgia, was published in electronic format on May 12th. The book, ‘Mrs Thatcher’s Gamble’ was written by author David J Kennedy who is best known for his book on the Falkland War ‘2 Para’s Battle for Darwin Hill and Goose Green’.

Several key people involved in the South Georgia war are known to have collaborated with the author, including the Argentine commander of the submarine Santa Fe, Horacio Bicain.

The author has followed Margaret Thatcher’s career for 40 years and according to him there is drama in the events of 1982 on South Georgia “that could have bought Margaret Thatcher down…and the narrative describes Thatcher's rise from the depths of her Priministership to a place in modern history.”

An early reviewer says of the book: “The incident on South Georgia was a perfect example of very good men going about the business for which they had been trained and overcoming the indifference and sloth of their seniors while enduring some of the world's worst weather. That match of extraordinary competence from persons never to be celebrated in history who overcame political incompetence is an old and sad story, isn't it? That is what "Mrs. Thatcher's Gamble" is all about.”

‘Mrs Thatcher’s Gamble’ is published by Oak Square Press inc. (ISBN 0-9660717-2-7) and can be downloaded from A printed copy is expected soon. The first two chapters of the book can also be read on the Amazon website here.

This newsletter will publish a full review of the book once the printed version is available.

Penguin Lifelines: Time-lapse cameras placed at penguin colony sites on South Georgia and other parts of the Antarctic are helping researchers gather more scientific data than could be collected by more traditional methods of observation. The cameras are placed at the colonies at the beginning of the season when the birds return to their colonies to breed. Photographs are automatically taken every hour and the accumulated images are then downloaded at the end of the season. The general public are helping to analyse the results through the website where you can find more information about the project.

See the resulting time-lapse film from an Antarctic gentoo penguin colony, and the King Penguin
colony at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia. In the latter you can see the development of the chick
crèches as the season advances.

Venison Steak and Kidney Pudding: Following Phase 1 of the removal of reindeer from South Georgia, a ‘Reindeer Preparation and Cooking’ booklet has been produced in collaboration with well-known chef Gerard Baker. Gerard, who worked with the SGHT Habitat Restoration team during this summer’s rat eradication programme, had the chance to cook plenty of reindeer from the deer cull and said, “The reindeer meat from South Georgia is some of the best meat I have ever cooked and eaten. The flavour is delicate and not at all gamey in the way venison is back in the UK, even with the larger male animals. On South Georgia, we have had the opportunity to work with the meat over a few months now and continue to enjoy it cooked in a variety of ways.”

As well as delicious recipes, the booklet gives the background to this important conservation project.

Venison Steak and Kidney Pudding , Serves 4

Ingredients -

For the suet pastry:

375g self-raising flour

1 scant tsp salt

130g suet, grated

250ml cold water

For the filling:

2 tbsp dripping or sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing

130g lamb, beef or reindeer kidney, diced

600g reindeer shoulder meat, cut into 2cm dice or a mixture of heart and steak, perhaps ⅓ heart to ⅔ meat, whatever you like. You can make it with pure heart.

1 onion, peeled and finely sliced

½ tbsp plain flour

1 heaped tsp thyme leaves

1 large bay leaf

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp mushroom ketchup

50ml port

80ml red wine

130ml jellied beef stock

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. In a large bowl, mix the flour, suet and salt. Add ⅔ of the water and use your fingertips to bring the dough together. Add more water as necessary until everything is evenly mixed and there are no dry lumps of flour. Bring the mixture together into a smooth, supple lump and leave it to rest for 10 minutes. Roll two-thirds for lining the pudding basin and the remainder to make the lid. Set these on a plate, cover with cling film and chill until needed. Grease the pudding basin and set aside.

2. Heat half the fat in a frying pan over a high heat and add the kidney. Brown it all over, then remove it from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining fat to the pan, then the steak and 1 tsp salt.

3. Brown the steak well, then add the onion, reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Sprinkle over the flour and add the thyme, bay leaf, Worcestershire sauce, mushroom ketchup and ½ tsp black pepper. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, ensuring the flour is well blended in. Return the kidney to the pan and add the port, wine and stock, then check the seasoning and remove from the heat.

4. Once the filling is cold, line a pudding basin with the suet pastry and pour the filling into the lined basin. If the filling is warm at this point it will melt the pastry and cause it to be tough. Dampen the edge of the pastry with a little water and place the pastry lid on top, crimping the edges well.

5. Pleat a large piece of greaseproof paper down the centre to allow room for expansion during steaming. Cover the top of the pudding with the pleated paper, then a pleated layer of foil, and secure with kitchen string around the edge of the basin, leaving some extra string to make a handle for lifting.

6. Set a pastry cutter or muffin ring in the base of a 4-litre saucepan and place the pudding basin on top. Pour boiling water around the pudding basin to a depth of 15cm. Cover with a lid and bring the water to a simmer, then reduce the heat and simmer for 4 hours, topping up with boiling water as necessary. Once cooked, invert the pudding onto a warmed serving dish and serve with steamed vegetables.

The full booklet can be downloaded from this website here [pdf, 2.4mb]

Dates for Your Diary:

Exploring Antarctica; The Final Expeditions of Scott and Shackleton: This exhibition is being held in Chatham Historic Dockyard until August 30th. In conjunction with the Royal Geographic Society, the exhibition centres on the ultimate expeditions of both Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton - charted through the words, photographs and artefacts of those involved. The exhibition includes artefacts from the Scott Polar Research Institute and Royal Museums Greenwich. The photography of Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting is prominent. For families there are interactive family activities and a dress-up area. 
You can find more information here.

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