South Georgia Newsletter, September 2004
Albatross Island Closed to visitors
Albatross Island in the Bay of Isles will be closed to visitors this coming tourist season, though nearby Prion Island will remain open. The South Georgia Government took the decision to close Albatross Island following a recommendation by the South Georgia Environmental Baseline Survey (SGEBS).
|Both Albatross and Prion Island are high sensitivity visitor sites. Their combination of: breeding colonies of wandering albatross (an endangered species); being free of rats; extensive areas of fragile and diverse vegetation including tussac grass; breeding prions, petrels, and the endemic South Georgia pipit and breeding fur seals make them both vulnerable and attractive to visitors.
The number of nesting wanderers is in decline. Monitoring of the wanderers on Albatross and Prion Islands has seen nesting pairs drop from 231 in 1999, to 175 in 2003, reflecting the declining world population. It is accepted the decline in wanderers is due to commercial fisheries, especially entanglement in long lines. (It should be noted that though South Georgia has a commercial longline fishery for toothfish, official Government Observers are on every ship ensuring that mitigation measures to prevent seabird mortality are strictly adhered to by all the licensed vessels. Seabird deaths due to longlines are negligible in the SG Maritime Zone.) Cruise ships have been visiting the Islands since the early 1970s. As visits to the Islands increased, the need for special visitor management was recognised, and a code of conduct was introduced in 2001.
Visitor numbers to the two islands has continued to grow, from around 1600 in the 98/99 season to nearly 2500 last season. All cruise ships, which land in more visitor sites than just Grytviken, tend to apply to visit the two islands. Though higher numbers of visitors, moving up muddy access gullies to viewing areas near the nesting birds, have caused some damage to vegetation, there is little suggestion that growing visitor numbers are causing the decline in breeding wanderers. The real worry is that rats, or other invasive introduced animal or plant species, may one day accidentally reach these high sensitivity visitor sites. The South Georgia Land and Management Report, produced by SGEBS, suggested that where Albatross and Prion were concerned, "it was essential to apply the principle of not permitting activities there that can be equally well undertaken elsewhere". It was recommended that Albatross Island be closed to visitors, but Prion Island will remain open to visitors.
Prion would be easier to manage if there was an accidental introduction of an alien species, or in the event of other habitat modifications that may arise as a result of visitation. It is the smaller island of the two, had 30 wanderer nests last year, has
smaller areas of fragile vegetation, a smaller fur seal breeding population, shorter easier access routes to view the birds, and a sheltered landing beach.
The Land and Visitor Management report was published in September 2003, and the Governments responses to all the recommendations made in the report are published elsewhere on this website. The coming revision of the Environmental Management Plan for South Georgia will address other recommendations made in the report.
New base building for Bird Island
|Work will start in January on a new base building for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Research Station at Bird Island. The new building will have a laboratory, more spacious working and living areas, and five double bunk bedrooms. Up to 12 Morrison Falklands Ltd. contractors will construct the new facilities, which will include new generators and modern services.
The building, which is being supplied by Top Housing, will have a high level of insulation to reduce energy consumption. Work is scheduled to be completed in April 2005, weather conditions permitting.
Bird Island, a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), is just off the north west end of the mainland. Rat free and home to many important colonies of seabirds, 50% of the world population of wandering albatross, and prime fur seal breeding territory, it has attracted researchers since 1958. That was when the first building, a small shed, was erected in Jordan Cove. It became affectionately known as Bonner's Bothy, after biologist Nigel Bonner who was working on the fur seals on Bird Island at the time. The shed was demolished only in recent years.
Other buildings were put up as more research was conducted on the island's bird and seal populations. BAS has had a team working there year round since 1982, when the current research station was built. Designed to accommodate eight, it has often had to do for ten in the busy summer research period, though only four stay on through the winter. This building, and all but one of the several smaller buildings there now, will be demolished after the new research station is constructed.
Ozone Hole makes itself felt
The ozone hole moved over South Georgia in the latter part of September.
A warning was received, from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) meteorologist Jonathan Shanklin, that ozone levels above the island might drop to full ozone hole levels (where ozone is reduced by more than 20%) around the 23rd of the month. Shanklin was instrumental in the discovery of the ozone hole in the '80s. Ozone depletion in the stratosphere, between about 14 and 20 km altitude, allows higher levels of harmful Ultra Violet radiation to reach ground level. For residents, risk of sunburn increases as ozone levels above the Island decrease. Higher exposure to UV radiation can have long term health risks
When the ozone depletion is greatest above South Georgia, late winter and early spring, ozone level prediction charts arrive daily by email so residents can see when they need to be extra careful. Sun hats, factor thirty sun cream (minimum!) and good sunglasses should be used in low ozone periods. It is all too easy, on a deceptively dull and overcast day, to set off for a ski without sufficient protection, bad sunburn can result. Shanklin said that at one point the models were suggesting the ozone hole might split, but this now seems less likely. When the ozone hole has split in previous years, it has disappeared again earlier than normal. For now the area of the hole appears to be remaining steady at around 19 million square kilometres, which is a little below the average for 1994 - 2003. Predictions suggest South Georgia will stay at the margin of the ozone hole for a few more days, before the hole pulls south again on October 2nd
The NASA EP/TOMS satellite image above shows low ozone levels over South Georgia on September 27th, lower levels were experienced a few days before.
HMS Leeds Castle visits the Island
|The Royal Navy ship HMS Leeds Castle was on patrol around South Georgia this month. The visit was blessed with good weather for most of the ship's time around the Island. It spent two days alongside at King Edward Point, giving the crew and the handful of visitors aboard plenty of time to stretch their legs, whilst an infantry patrol took place.
The ship also bought the GSGSSI Assistant Operations Manager Richard McKee on an official visit. Residents were pleased to see some new faces after the winter. Several were able to take up offers of day trips to St Andrews Bay, site of a vast king penguin colony, and to Stromness Bay via the impressive Neumayer Glacier.
||The opportunity was also taken to drop in an emergency cache of food and equipment at the hut at St Andrews, and drop off four locals having a few days holiday on the Barff Peninsula. The enjoyable visit was a good way to say goodbye to a ship that has patrolled the Island several times in recent years as she may never return.
The ship paid for the good weather they had on the Island with a very rough crossing back to the Falklands
New house will be called Carse House
The new house to be built on King Edward Point this summer will be called Carse House in memory of one of the Island's heroes, Duncan Carse, who died earlier this year. Outside South Georgia he was better known as a broadcaster, and especially as the voice of Dick Barton Special Agent. Carse's association with the Island started in 1933 when he first passed through on the Discovery 2 expeditions. Later he led four private expeditions, the South Georgia Surveys, between 1951 and 1957, during which he and the other expedition members studied the geology and surveyed the Island's largely unexplored interior.
The maps published in 1958 as a result of this work still form the basis of maps used on the Island today. During various expeditions on the Island he suffered problems through accident and illness to expedition members, and severe weather that often prevented them working. The worst calamity came when he attempted a personal experiment in living alone. In 1961 he choose the remote spot of Undine South Harbour on the wild South West coast to erect a small prefabricated hut. After three months living there a freak wave hit the hut whilst he slept in it. Carse managed to salvage some of his kit and had to stay for another 116 days before he could contact a ship to get away. Despite the Island not always treating him kindly, he never lost his enthusiasm for South Georgia.
Work on the three bedroomed Carse House, an accommodation for the Government Officer, starts in November and should be completed in March 2005. Carse, who was ninety when he died, has a more enduring memorial in Mt Carse, a 2331 metre mountain, one of the thirteen mountains on the Island over 2000 metres Carse's interesting and varied career was documented in an obituary printed May 7th in the Daily Telegraph, and on this website
Assistant Government Officer recruited.
A Government Officer and an Assistant Government Officer will be employed to work on South Georgia. The current position of Marine Officer will become Government Officer. For the past few years the Marine Officer has been employed by the Falkland Island Fisheries Department, who were under contract to GSGSSI. In recent months the Marine Officer Patrick Lurcock has been employed directly by GSGSSI whilst final details of the new Government Officer contract are ironed out. A new position, Assistant Government Officer, is being created, and > the Government will advertise the job soon. The Government hope the new contracts will allow both Officers to build up experience in South Georgia. The jobs are very varied but will largely deal with the important commercial fishery, and tourism. Both new positions will be on three-year contracts. Post holders will live and work approximately eight months on South Georgia, with four months leave. The Officers will overlap during the busy winter fishing season.
Attempt to be made to eradicate introduced plant
Decision taken to attempt eradication of an invasive introduced plant An introduced plant, known locally as landcress, has been spreading on King Edward Point. The plant, which has deep green leaves that look a little like those of watercress, and small white flowers, was first noted three or four years ago in a patch alongside the track. The plant has not been recorded on South Georgia before. The plant produces small seedpods that fling seeds out explosively when ripe. The seeds can also stick like a burr to animals and human clothing. Recently a single plant was found well away from the main affected area, highlighting its ability to spread further. It was judged that this was a new and containable threat, so the Government has taken the decision to attempt eradication before the plant spreads further.
The plant is probably Cardamine hirsuta (Hairy bittercress), but firm identification can not take place until the late winter snows melt and reveal the plant. Photographs of the plant and its small white flowers will be sent to two experienced South Georgia botanists for final identification, and samples of the plant will be collected for a herbarium.
A DNA voucher may be used to try and work out the origin of the introduction. Over the years many plants have been introduced to the island, many in animal feeds bought in for livestock at the whaling stations.
Some germinate and survive only a few years before dying out, others, like the dandelion and mouse-eared chickweed have spread over large areas of the mainland. This is probably the first time eradication of an introduced plant has been attempted on South Georgia. A selective herbicide will be sprayed on the main affected areas, with first year plants outside the main affected are being dug up before they can seed. As the chosen herbicide does not have a germination inhibitor, it will be necessary to be vigilant for newly germinated plants and to re-spray the main affected area for the next couple of years. The herbicide will not affect the tussac grass and is unlikely to affect local wildlife. This summer vehicles, equipment and outdoor footwear etc moving from KEP to Bird Island for the building programme will undergo thorough cleaning to minimise risk of introducing any alien species to the SSSI. The environmentally aware locals are keen to see the eradication attempt succeed, but will miss the landcress in their salads.
Overview of the 2003/2004 tourist season
42 cruise ships visited South Georgia last year, about the same number as the previous season and as are expected to visit in the coming season. Figures, taken from the cruise ship statistics produced by the Government last month, show the popularity of the various visitor sites. All ships are required to visit Grytviken at some point in their cruise to complete customs formalities. The next most popular site is Salisbury Plain with its huge king penguin colony, followed by Gold Harbour with penguin colonies, seals and a stunning backdrop of a hanging glacier.
Cruise staff have to provide the Government with information about each landing and activity undertaken during their cruise. The information is used to assess the levels of visitation to each visitor site, and helps to identify the need for specific tourism management in some more vulnerable areas. Most visits ashore are between three and five hours long. Gold Harbour shows its popularity again as the average visit there per person was 5.3hrs compared to 2.9 hrs at another stunning wildlife spot, Cooper Bay.
In recent years extended walks (any walk above 1 Km) have increasingly become part of the cruise ship's schedules. The most popular by far is last part of the route walked by Sir Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley at the end of their epic journey of survival when their ship was crushed in the ice of the Antarctic. Thirteen ships dropped a total of 336 passengers at Fortuna Bay, to walk up over a mountain
pass, then down beside the Shackleton waterfall to Stromness. 50% of the 3600 cruise ship passengers who visited in the 2003/04 season, are from the USA, 20 % British, 10% German, and 5% each are Swiss and Australian. The remaining 10% are made up of 33 other nationalities.
There are almost as many crew and staff as there are passengers, bringing the total number visiting the Island on cruise ships to > 6,700. 50% of the ship crews are from the Philippines, and 20% from the Russian Federation.
The majority of the tour staff are either from the USA or UK, though a significant number are German, Australian and Canadian.
Limited Search and Rescue facility tested
Two Limited Search and Rescue (LSAR) practices have taken place in Cumberland East Bay, South Georgia, testing kit and planning in the event of a real injury occurring to anyone here. In the first LSAR the injured party had supposedly fallen from the roof of the church at Grytviken. A party of rescuers went over by boat with a pulk (sledge), stretcher and the emergency medical bag. The deep snow made the walk to the church heavy going, but was an asset when it came to pulling the casualty back to the boat on the stretcher that was now in the pulk. The main aim of this LSAR was to show the stretcher would both fit in the pulk and could be safely harnessed across the sponsons of the boat for the trip back across the cove. With the good news that the British Antarctic Survey personnel are now allowed to take their winter trips on the Barff peninsula, it was felt necessary also to test the base's ability to bring a casualty back from this more remote location. On this occasion the supposed injured
person had a badly twisted ankle at St Andrews Bay.
The injury was reported the night before, so there was plenty of time to plan and get kit ready for a start at first light. Six rescuers were in the boats and on their way by 6am on a foggy morning, leaving two at KEP to cover communications. Five were dropped off on the Barff peninsula and set off on skis with a pulk and rescue gear towards Hound Bay, the sixth remained with the boats. St Andrews is a 12km ski or walk from the drop off at Sorling Valley. The low cloud and poor visibility meant using GPS and compasses to navigate. With both the rescue party and the party with the supposed injured person setting out early, they met up above Hound Bay around midday. The injured person was strapped into the pulk for the ride back. The return journey was a bit faster, visibility improved, ski conditions were good, and more of it was downhill.
|Despite sub-zero air temperatures, one of the rescue party was so hot by the time he reached the coast he stripped off and went for a swim in the ice strewn sea! Everyone was recovered to KEP with an hour of daylight in hand, tired but happy, after a successful and useful exercise.
The Weather gods have been kind to us and sent lots of late season snow. Indeed one fall was so heavy and deep it gave us the first real avalanche risk of the winter. For two days the track to Grytviken was
closed as much of the steep slope above spawned avalanches. After a disappointing winter for snow, some of the best skiing of the season has been in the past few days. Now spring is here. It arrived with the first skuas on the 6th of the month. Within two days a pair of skuas had taken up residence on the
Point. More and more elephant seal bulls have hauled out, with up to nine ranging around the Point, and even a couple of minor battles for the best spots.
|Two of the BAS lads, spending part of their winter holidays doing up the walled-in cave at Maiviken, saw two leopard seals hauled out on two ice floes in the small bay. The cave renovations included fitting a window and moving the door to improve access and allow more light in.
Another sign of spring has been the arrival of the two Museum Assistants, bringing the population of the Point up to 12. With the opening up of the BAS travel area to include areas on the Barff Peninsula, most of those taking their winter trips have elected to go there. There are several huts on the Peninsula, with caches of food and camping gear in some, and there are lots of choices of places to explore. The real jewel though has to be the king penguin colony at St Andrews. Weather and avalanche risk prevented the first two trippers reaching this prize, but a later group, dropped into St Andrews directly by HMS Leeds Castle, were there in time to see the first elephant seal pups of the season. By later spring maybe 8000 seals will haul out on the two miles of beach there to give birth and
mate. It was interesting to discover that the first pups in this prime location are born about the same time as the first ones in the King Edward Cove area.
|The first two local pups were born at Susa Point on
the 19th, when 14 females were up in the harem. Ten days later the harem had grown to 49 females and at least 15 pups. Now we are all waiting impatiently for the first pups to be born here on the Point,
we should not be more than a few days to wait now.
News from Norway
Fortuna's 1904 sailing remembered
|On September 21, 1904, Carl Anton Larsen left Sandefjord for South Georgia with his new built whale catcher "Fortuna", "Louise" and "Rolf" to establish the first shore based whaling station in Grytviken.
Yesterday a group of interested people gathered on the jetty at Framnæs Mek, Southern Norway. Mr. Ivar Otto Myhre gave a short presentation of the early days in the whaling activity at South Georgia. The local band "Nordre skur og ballast" included three songs sung regularly by the early South Georgia whalers in the programme of music.
Friends of the Island
|The Norwegian association "The friends of the island" (Oyas Venner) opened an exhibition at the library in Sandefjord. One of the librarians, Michael Peters, had built a model in Lego bricks of the old whaling station in Grytviken.