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   News and Events 

South Georgia Newsletter, December 2004

This Month’s Changing Faces

It’s now the height of summer and as the month opened with notably dry and snow-free conditions, yet more new faces arrived to stay at King Edward Point as old ones disappeared.

On December 1st Ken Passfield and Ann Prior arrived on the cruise ship Academik Ioffe in order to take over from Pat and Sarah Lurcock, who left the island seven days’ later on Explorer 2 for a much-deserved four-month holiday. Ken takes up the post of Government Officer, and on Pat’s return in April will be Assistant Government Officer during the busy winter Toothfish season. Ann takes over the Post Office until March and will also keep up Sarah’s contributions to the website and attacks on the alien ‘landcress’! Ken and Ann were at King Edward Point last year in a similar capacity.

Other departures were Jenny Corser and Vicki Auld, who finally left on the Ernest Shackleton on December 8th. Their new home, Bird Island, will present them with exceptional challenges this season as the building of the new base gets under way in the hands of Morrison’s workforce with a temporary doubling of the human population. Jenny and Vicki have been replaced by Jennifer Keys (doctor) and Alison Dean (Base Commander).

Sarah Clark

Dr Katherine Ross, Chief Scientist for the last two years, left on the Sigma on December 15th, the first of her scientific team of three to go. She is replaced by Sarah Clarke.


Sarah Clarke (click image to enlarge)


Cress Crisis

Locals continued to watch anxiously for signs that the introduced bittercress, Cardamine Flexuosa, was succumbing to herbicide sprayed in November. Unfortunately though the plants showed some stunting and discoloration, they also continued to flower vigorously and by the end of the month were setting seed. A decision was taken to dig out as many plants as possible before the seeds ripened, and after consultation with David Walton of BAS and with SGGSSI it was agreed that a stronger herbicide should be tried. Some herbicide will arrive from the Falklands in January for trialling, but a large-scale repeat application will be needed as early as possible in the next growing season.

Ann Prior Digging
  Ann Prior Digging up Wood Bittercress (click image to enlarge)

When the plants came out seedlings were found in places forming an understorey to the native Acaena, and large healthy plants were growing tucked into the side of tussac stools, where it was difficult for spray to reach them. As plants created mats with their roots mixed with other plants, the diggers had to remove the turf completely, which hopefully will also remove many seeds lying dormant in the soil. Digging provides an interesting new healthy alternative to running or the multi-gym!


Shackleton Brings New Jet-Drive Boats

On Monday December 6 the BAS supply ship Ernest Shackleton brought two new boats for King Edward Point. The most frequent use for these is to put the Government Officer on board fishing vessels. Two boats are required to provide back-up in the changeable, potentially difficult and dangerous weather conditions year-round in Cumberland Bay.

New boats ‘Pipit’ and ‘Prion’ arrive on the Ernest Shackleton (click image to enlarge)

New boats arrive

The boats, named ‘Pipit’ and ‘Prion’, are 10.5m solid-collar harbour launches, with twin 320hp inboard diesel engines with water-jets, manufactured by Mustang Marine. They are self-righting and have a top speed of 30 knots. Inside they have seats for 6 plus 2 crew, though they may take up to 1 ton of extra passengers. The seats have shock-absorbers and safety harnesses for bad weather and there is a flying bridge for precise manoevring. Instruments include radar, a sea-map GPS with an electric chart, depth sounder, and radio direction finder.


Grytviken Centenary Stamps

A new set of 4 postage stamps and a first day cover came out on December 10 to commemorate the Grytviken centenary.

The 24p stamp portrays Carl Anton Larsen, the founder of Grytviken whaling station and its first manager for the new whaling company PESCA. In 1905 he brought his wife, seven children and a maid to live there – the first women and children to live in South Georgia. The Manager’s villa is now the South Georgia Museum.

The 42p stamp (postcard rate) has a view of the early whaling station from Mount Hodges, with several ships waiting offshore. Larsen selected his site well, in the most sheltered bay of any size on the island.

The 50p (letter rate) stamp shows the whale catcher Fortuna, which harpooned PESCA’s first whale, a humpback, on 27 November 1904, in Cumberland Bay itself. In that first season whales were so plentiful in the bay that catchers had no need to leave it.

The £1 stamp has a figure on skis in mid-flight using the ski jump that was put up on the steep slope behind the manager’s house, with the rooftops and chimneys of Grytviken showing below its feet.

The First Day Cover has a map of South Georgia on it showing the site of Grytviken and contains a card with information on the history.

Stamps are available from
Falkland Islands Philatelic Bureau
Post Office
Ross Road
Falkland Islands FIQQ IZZ
Website: www.falklands.gov.fk/pb
E-mail: philatelicbureau@townhall.gov.fk


Sigma Collects Chinstrap Corpses

Acting on a report from Dr. Gary Millar of cruise ship Polar Pioneer, fisheries patrol vessel Sigma went to Cooper Bay on December 5th to investigate large-scale mortality of Chinstrap penguins in the colony there and collect sample corpses for laboratory analysis. Tim Carr of South Georgia Museum went along as guide to identify the landing beach and locate the chinstrap colony on Cooper Island.

Tim Carr and John Adams, Fisheries Officer on board Sigma, came back with photographic records, frozen corpses of 10 penguins and 1 Giant petrel, and a horrifying estimate of 1500-2000 carcasses in total, with birds continuing to die. There was no sign of unusual mortality in other penguin species in the area, and the colony on Cooper Island also appeared, from a Zodiac-based inspection, to be unaffected. Huge numbers of Giant petrels and skuas were feeding on corpses, stripping them in minutes, but, apart from the individual collected by Tim, did not appear to be showing ill effects. The area continues to be closed to visitors. Results from tests on the corpses may appear in January.


Home Alone – Fur Seal Pups

Grytviken Fur seal pup

On Monday December 13th a solitary fur seal pup was born on the half-mile track from Grytviken to King Edward Point. This is the first time in anecdotal memory a fur seal has bred on South Georgia’s only road. As the track is used daily by museum and Morrison’s personnel and by all the inhabitants of King Edward Point out for a walk or run, this is now the community’s most popular baby.


Grytviken Fur seal pup examines its reflection (click image to enlarge)

Fur seal mothers leave their offspring at about 5 days old and go for an initial foraging trip which may last a week, in order to recoup their own energy as well as produce milk for the pup, and this one was no exception. Tension grew over the days as the pup patrolled the beach alone, bleating hopefully, sniffing at fellow-seals and steadily getting slimmer until its mother returned on Christmas Eve, at which point everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Since then it has been fattening up very nicely, has become playful and inquisitive, and was observed taking a swim on the 27th.

Cumberland Bay so far has a low number of breeding fur seals, though counts are increasing and at the end of the month there were at least 23 living pups between Grytviken and Horse Head on the other side of the bay from King Edward Point, compared with approximately 14 last year.

The mother of our pup was small, probably 3-4 years old, and this would have been her first offspring. Fur seals usually haul out in the breeding season extremely close to where they are born and scientists are interested to find out how the population spreads. Non-breeding animals are more likely to roam than breeding ones, visiting new areas like King Edward Cove. Young animals themselves born on beaches with saturated populations, as on Bird Island, may be the first to move elsewhere to breed but this is not known, as at present Bird Island is the only place on South Georgia where they are studied. There, pups are tagged but they lose their tags in the first few years and females do not pup until they are 3-4, often continuing to breed until they are over 20. Males do not hold territory until the age of 8-9, occasionally 7, and then usually die exhausted after no more than 3 years.

Ian Staniland, Bird Island veteran and occasional Newsletter contributor, stayed at King Edward Point ‘between ships’ in early December. He tells us that at Bird Island 95% of fur seal pups are born between 5th and 15th December, and in Cumberland Bay timing appears to be broadly similar. Ian, who specialises in the analysis of seal faeces, took the rare opportunity to collect scats from the King Edward Cove area to compare diets with those from the Bird Island population.

At Bird Island BAS scientists are trying to find out what is special about fur seals that has made them able to recover from virtual extinction in less than a century. Surprisingly, studies have shown them to be quite genetically diverse, which suggests that more populations, however small, may have survived than previously thought. Alternatively they may have interbred with South American or Sub-Antarctic fur seals. At present no method of counting has been developed to the stage at which it can be satisfactorily used on the whole South Georgia population, though Jaume Forcada on Bird Island is working out a census methodology there using sample transects.

No real records exist of early numbers. The sealers who cleared the beaches from the end of the eighteenth through the first half of the nineteenth century were relentlessly secretive and their accounts, where they exist, highly unreliable.


Start of the Icefish Season

In an attempt to avoid seabird mortality, the 2004-2005 fishing season for Mackerel Icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) began earlier than usual with the first boat starting on December 1, though most did not begin until nearly three weeks later. It will close on January 14. Seabirds are most likely to be caught from mid-January onwards when they are foraging for their chicks. Vessels are permitted a maximum catch of 20 seabirds and once this limit is reached they must stop fishing.

Icefish are midwater predators feeding mainly on krill and living up to about 10 years. They are a good-quality firm-fleshed white fish, and are fished for with a midwater trawl net towed behind the ship.

Before being permitted to begin, the seven vessels issued licences for this year’s fishery had to report for inspection by the Government Officer at King Edward Point. They had to show compliance with SGGSSI and CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) regulations on such things as net mesh size, net attachments, and waste management, with an adequate incinerator and waste storage facilities.

Fishing nets

Because of the 20-seabird bycatch limit, ships also need to show some sort of mitigation plan, eg. bird scarer lines, water jets, or weights to make the cod end sink quickly, as most birds are caught when the nets are first set.

Ken Passfield inspects mesh sizes on fishing nets (click image to enlarge)

The Government Officer inspects the flag state safety certificate, ensuring that safety measures are in place such as a sufficient number of in-date life-rafts and life-jackets for the whole crew.

A ship must also have a de-ratting certificate, so that if it runs aground or is wrecked on a rat-free island rats cannot be accidentally introduced. Shipwrecks historically have been a major cause of rat infestation on previously pristine sub-antarctic islands which are crucial breeding grounds for burrow-nesting petrels and prions, and even more importantly for rare endemic passerines such as the South Georgia Pipit, local populations of which can be wiped out by rats.
Signing papers
Signing papers with the skipper (click image to enlarge)

New Roof for Museum

Grytviken Museum At Grytviken Morrison’s are nearing the end of their work. Their last jobs on site will be dismantling their own camp and the freezer store next to it. Meanwhile this month they have removed some small buildings including the hydro-electric generator house, and the bakery near the Museum. They have also re-roofed the Museum and Curators’ house, put in a new underground electricity cable to the Church and landscaped the areas in front of the historic sealing vessels Albatros and Dias and at the cemetery end of Grytviken.

Finishing touches on the Museum roof (click image to enlarge)


At King Edward Point they have installed the roof, cladding, doors and windows at Carse House and are starting on a new roof for Discovery House.


Busy Boxing Day at the Jetty

The first half of December was busy as usual with cruise ships including one new to South Georgia, the Shokalskiy. Fishery Patrol ship Sigma and BAS supply ship Ernest Shackleton both came alongside and crews and passengers enjoyed time ashore and reciprocal hospitality with the base, as did two fisheries observers from the fishing boat Betanzos which had to wait in Cumberland Bay for its flag state licence to be faxed from Chile.

First yacht of the month at King Edward Point was the familiar ‘Golden Fleece’ with Dion Poncet as skipper and 8 tourists of mixed nationality on board. They arrived on 17th but left in the early hours of 18th on a tight schedule. On 20th Eric Barde and’ Philos’ came in with a group of 4 Swiss who explored the area thoroughly before leaving on the 23rd. The Christmas period which started very quiet livened considerably when the Russian yacht ‘Apostol Andrey’ with a crew of 6 appeared at 7.30 a.m. on Christmas Eve and tied up at the jetty, treating the Government Officer to several vodka toasts before allowing him ashore after the completion of formalities.

Apostol Andrey 8-year-old ‘Apostol Andrey’, a 16.2m steel ketch of 25 tons, was the first yacht to complete the North-East Passage, which formed part of her Eastern Hemisphere circumnavigation in 1996-99. In 2001-2 she sailed around the Western Hemisphere and through the North-West Passage. This season her skipper, Nikolai Litau, hopes to circumnavigate Antarctica below 60 degrees, visiting the Russian research station Bellingshausen en route. Nikolai has been awarded the Seamanship Medal of the Royal Cruising Club of Great Britain and the Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America for his achievements.
Apostol Andrey’ leaving King Edward Cove (click image to enlarge)

On Boxing Day another old friend, yacht ‘Le Sourire’, arived at KEP with Marie-Paul and Hughes Delignieres, their two children and 8 charter passengers. They came into the jetty alongside’ Apostol Andrey’ to take on water, while the cruise ship Bremen anchored in King Edward Cove with lines ashore, avoiding the icebergs of Cumberland Bay. The passengers of the Bremen visited the church for a Christmas service.

Nigel’s fourth Carol Service at Grytviken

As there were no ships in at Christmas the midnight candle-lit carol service in the church at Christmas Eve was attended by locals only, apart from the crew of the Apostol Andrey. For the fourth time Nigel Blenkharn of Morrison’s took responsibility for organising the programme. Richard Johnson, the new BAS boatman, is a professional organ restorer and was able to mend the harmonium’s broken bellows and provide a rousing accompaniment to some very enthusiastic singing. ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ impressed the Russian guests and the service finished with a saxaphone solo by Museum assistant Nick Atkinson.

This year everyone at King Edward Point and Grytviken was invited for Christmas dinner at Morrison’s. Twenty-eight people sat down in the dining room for a six-course meal, including salmon with a crisp spinach crust, lemon sorbet, and turkey with all the trimmings, provided by Andy Petersen, Morrison’s chef. The following week the Base reciprocated and Morrison’s were entertained to a New Year’s Eve curry buffet at Everson House. Andy and Nigel
Andy and Nigel serve the fish course (click image to enlarge)

KEP Notes


Weaners on the track to Grytviken (click image to enlarge)

By the end of December there were still large numbers of elephant seal weaners playing in the surf along the beaches of King Edward Cove, but more conspicuous were the big groups of moulting adults and ‘teenagers’ lying in groups up in the tussac after some weeks feeding up at sea. There are plenty of non-breeding fur seals everywhere, the immature males being particularly lively so that a walk up to Hope Point becomes something of an adventure. A cold, snowy spell struck mid-month after the warmth and sunshine at the beginning, and the moulting penguin group that stands around outside the base at this time of the year brightened up considerably, eating quantities of snow and preening busily.

Mail from UK was very slow to arrive this month, partly because of problems at the ‘home’ end and partly because there were unusually few ships before Christmas. It always seems to happen when everyone is waiting for their Christmas parcels! One bag, known to have been put on board the Shackleton in Stanley, was finally run to earth without its label in the mail for Halley Base. Bad weather en route had caused a general shake-up in the hold. More seasonal mail is still to come.

While Ian Staniland was staying at the Base he gave us a fascinating slide show on his seal work in Heard Island and Bird Island. The photos of Heard Island were not only an interesting record of a place none of us is ever likely to visit but also showed very clearly the impact of global warming on the glaciology of the island which is now almost completely split in two by a large new lake of glacial meltwater. It was also interesting to hear of the very stringent regulations applied there by the Australians in order to ensure that no alien fauna or flora can be introduced; for example, all the personnel were issued with entirely new sets of clothing and forbidden to bring in any of their own, to avoid any possible contamination. Even the use of Velcro was prohibited.

You might suspect that the Lurcocks have a secret list of ‘Unusual places to Drink Gin and Tonic.‘ Before Pat and Sarah left on the 7th the locals managed to christen the bare floors of Carse House despite light sleet and a roofless building, and it was only few hours before they were due to depart that ‘Prion’ was at last ready for a run in the bay with passengers, and the new boats could be toasted at sea.


German TV Coy (ZDF) visits South Georgia

A German TV company (ZDF) visited South Georgia in December on Golden Fleece to make a programme about the island, its wildlife and historical heritage. The programme is due to be broadcast in Europe on both French and German in April 2005. The team included an adviser, Stig-Tore Lunde from Norway. He has been working for the past two years on behalf of Institute Minos to secure some specific sites of important Norwegian Heritage. see below). The TV team visited the whaling stations and other wildlife sites. Special permission was required for the team to enter within 200m of the former Whaling Stations in Stromness Bay, due to the hazards which exist. Individuals were required to wear approved protective clothing and equipment.

Golden Fleece alongside the KEP jetty with large iceberg approaching! (click image to enlarge)

Golden Fleece

Specialist briefings were also necessary before individuals were given permission to proceed. They also recorded what is left at the site of the first scientific station to be built on South Georgia at Royal Bay. This station was built for the German International Polar Year Expedition in 1882-3. The programme is likely to be a documentary about South Georgia in general.

royal baystn
(click image to enlarge)






Norwegian Heritage Team due to visit

A Norwegian expert from Sandefjord is due to visit South Georgia in January to assess what work would be required to preserve the Managers Villa at Husvik, the New Barracks at Grytviken and the Stromness Villa. A special permit has been necessary for the visit to the Stromness Villa due the dangerous state of the structure and the hazards posed by airborne asbestos. The expert and his assistant first had to submit a proposal detailing the protective measures which will be in place. They will also receive a specialist briefing before entering the site. His report and recommendations will then be considered by GSGSSI and the local Sandefjord Norwegian authorities with a view to a Norwegian team visiting South Georgia next season to undertake some preservation works.

New Barracks

Stromness Villa

New Barracks (click image to enlarge)
Stromness Villa (click image to enlarge)


South Georgia Heritage Trust

Wanderer Prion Ssland.

The first meeting of Trustees of the South Georgia Heritage Trust are due to meet at Discovery Point, Dundee on 12 January and then to have dinner on board RRS DISCOVERY. The Trust with a branch in Norway and one the US has as its objects to raise funds in order to:

(a) to promote for the public benefit, the conservation and protection of the physical and natural environment of the island of South Georgia: and

(b) to advance the education of the public in the historical heritage of the island of South Georgia.

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