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   News and Events 

South Georgia Newsletter January 2005

Busy Summer

The year started with a quiet week at King Edward Point, but soon picked up impetus. The Fisheries Patrol vessel Dorada came in on the 8th and brought in both visitors and new residents. Steve Massam the taxidermist, who spent several productive weeks last year working on displays for the Museum, arrived, together with Sven Thatje who is carrying out research on King Crabs for BAS. Dorada also had on board two elephant seal researchers en route for their field camp at Husvik, and fisheries scientists Martin Collins and Mark Belchier, who spent the rest of the month on a science cruise on Dorada together with Sarah Clarke and Will Reid from the base.

The jetty saw a great deal of activity all month. As the whaling station clean-up neared completion, large amounts of equipment were transferred from Grytviken to King Edward Point in readiness for transferral to Bird Island and the new building project there.

On Friday 21st the BAS supply ship RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived to remove building materials and equipment, and take away the Morrisons men who were leaving for Bird Island. She also brought supplies for the Base, and more Morrisons personel to complete the building works at King Edward Point, particularly at Carse House. After a hard day’s work, the RRS Ernest Shackleton left for Bird Island in the evening, and the ship has remained unloading a large cargo of building supplies at Bird Island ever since.

Sarah Clark

On Sunday 30th Dorada returned from her science cruise, bringing back the four scientists. She left on the last day of the month with Suzi Hawkins and Rich Mitchell on board, completing the season’s changeover of personnel. Suzi and Rich had been at King Edward Point for over two years. Les Whittamore, King Edward Point Logistics Manager, who had been on base since the arrival of the Shackleton, left at the same time.

Dorada arrives at the jetty (click image to enlarge)  

Visitors from both yachts and cruise ships have made invaluable contributions this summer with observations on wildlife, particularly seals and penguins, and these have been very helpful in building up a picture of what is happening around South Georgia.


Persistent Bittercress

By the end of December a team of dedicated diggers had removed all visible signs of invading Wood Bittercress (Cardamine Flexuosa). A month later, warm moist weather conditions had germinated a fresh crop of seedlings on the site, which will have to be attacked with weedkiller. In the past, harsh weather conditions in South Georgia generally ensured that, with a few exceptions, accidentally introduced species failed to thrive and often disappeared of their own accord. No new sites have been found for this plant during January but if the mild, favourable weather conditions of the last few years persist, infestations of this kind have the potential to be an increasing problem, and the struggle against landcress will probably have to be maintained for some years to come.


Fishing Season Extended

In December the season for Mackerel Icefish started earlier than usual, but by the end of the month hardly any fish had been caught. As well as being unfortunate for the industry, this had implications for research on seabird bycatch mitigation measures, as they could not be effectively tested when the nets had no fish in them to attract the birds.

Consequently, the situation was reviewed at the beginning of January and the fishing season was extended until the end of February. Despite this, neither the fishing boats nor the Dorada had any success in finding icefish. It is too early to suggest reasons for this. The phenomenon may tie in with others observed recently, such as the poor season for krill and the large numbers of sick or dead fur seals seen in some areas around the island.


Buildings that Come and Go

The whaling station clean-up at Grytviken has now reached its final phase. No more buildings are scheduled to come down, and the builders are now concentrating on tidying up the site. The old hydro-electric station below the Gull Lake dam has been removed, leaving the machinery, and the big meat freezer was the very last to go. The machine shop and the main store remain in the centre of the site giving an idea of how some of the old buildings looked, and effectively frame the old whaler Petrel pulled up at the shore.


The Grytviken freezer store comes down (click image to enlarge)

Sarah Clark

On the other side of the bay Morrisons have been very busy. The roof on Discovery House has been finished, and the exterior of Carse House is complete. Inside plasterboard and insulation are in place and the plumbing and electrical fittings are nearly complete.


A Hard Time for Fur Seals

Sarah Clark Early in January the fur seal harems begin to disperse, and the clean-cut picture of family groups dissolves. Many male seals die of wounds and exhaustion and their corpses feed giant petrels and skuas, some with families of their own to maintain. Breeding females have been mated and concentrate on foraging for their pups, which mature far more slowly than the elephant seal young, which have disappeared from the beaches by mid-month. The fur seal pups at this stage become adventurous and roam up into the tussac as well as playing in the shallows, and the mothers locate them with a high piercing call.
A bloody-headed Giant petrel feasts on the corpse of a male Fur seal (click image to enlarge)  

On Bird Island where the population is at its most dense, an exceptionally large number of female seals as well as males have been dying. Frozen tissue samples, collected by seal researchers from the Bird Island base, are now on their way to the laboratory for analysis. On January 13 at Undine Harbour, a lot of dead pups were reported, and also pups suffering from eye disease, in some cases very severe. At Albatross Island albatross researcher Sally Poncet confirmed that there were unusually large numbers of dead pups there as well, and around King Edward Cove several pup corpses have been found and there have also been cases of eye disease.

Even the ‘Grytviken Track’ pup, still the only fur seal born on the island’s kilometre-long road, showed signs of eye problems for a while, but seems to have recovered quickly and continues to thrive, to everyone’s relief.


Cooper Bay Penguin Results

Results are due back shortly from the tissue samples of dead chinstrap penguins from the colony at Cooper Bay. Reports requested from yachts le Sourire and Pelagic show that although many pairs are rearing healthy chicks, numerous birds are still dying. Advice to tourists continues to be to stay away from the vicinity of the colony.


New Base at Bird Island

The start of construction work for the new base at Bird Island was scheduled for late January, in order to miss the peak of the fur seal breeding season. This has meant that timing for the build has to be very tight if the work is to be completed in April, and a great deal of preparation has taken place on site already. At the time of writing, the Ernest Shackleton continues to unload building materials for the new base. The cove in front of the base has no jetty and everything must be brought ashore by cargo tender from outside the cove, often in difficult conditions with wind and rain, but so far the tender has been able to work every day since arrival. The unloading of cargo should be complete in early February.

One of the most important concerns on Bird Island is keeping this extremely important sub-antarctic wildlife site rat-free, and every possible means have been taken to guarantee that all materials taken to the island are in rat-free condition and rats have not had access to the ship at any stage, with rat guards placed on mooring ropes. All vehicles have been cleaned of mud and deposits before being embarked on board ship to ensure that they do not import alien plant material. A repeat of the King Edward Point landcress episode is definitely to be avoided!


Stuffin’ Steve Comes Back to the Museum

A very welcome return visitor to South Georgia is versatile taxidermist Steve Massam, known locally as ‘Stuffin’ Steve’. Last year he impressed and enchanted museum visitors with his beautiful cast of a 5-foot toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) now on display in the natural history room, and smaller but no less exquisite casts of other fish. Also on display are four different types of seabird including a magnificent Grey-headed Albatross.

Sarah Clark

This year the South Georgia Museum Trust brought Steve back to work on producing prototype souvenirs, as he has already done very successfully for the Museum in Stanley. His taxidermy projects are financed by a very generous donation from Lindblad Expedition cruise ship passengers on the Endeavour. An impressive donation of $20,000 was also made last year by a private individual on Endeavour for Museum exhibits.

Steve Massam prepares a Wandering albatross chick for display (click image to enlarge)

Locals have been lucky enough to be able to watch Steve at work upstairs in the Museum. This year his displays include a certain amount of habitat. So far there is a young Wandering albatross on the nest and a South Georgia pipit’s nest in tussac with two adults in attendance. All the birds were found dead and preserved in the freezer for Steve’s arrival.


Norwegian Friends of South Georgia Celebrate Grytviken Centenary

The small Russian cruise ship Grigory Mikheev spent a full day at Grytviken on Sunday January 16, bringing the Norwegian group Oyas Venner, a society formed ‘in the interests of preserving Norwegian industrial cultural heritage on South Georgia’. The visit commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Grytviken Whaling Station. Several members of Oyas Venner are ex-whalers and the group included a British doctor who worked on the island in his youth. They had already visited cemeteries outside other South Georgia whaling stations. With the removal of asbestos from Grytviken last year this area now offers only the normal hazards associated with a building site, and Dave Peck, the Clerk of Works, generously agreed to give the group a guided tour, unfortunately in persistent rain.

Sarah Clark

Visitors from the Oyas Venner group examine an old whale boat at Grytviken (click image to enlarge)

Afterwards there was a church service in English and Norwegian. The historian Kjell Tokstad gave an account of how 30-40,000 Norwegian whalers worked between 1904 and 1965 either in South Georgia itself or in connection with South Georgia, for example on the factory ships. Other speakers honoured the many people who died on the island, read quotations from Cook and Shackleton, and gave readings from Norwegian and English prose and poetry. Richard Johnson of BAS played the harmonium, and representatives of the local community were presented with commemorative pins in the shape of South Georgia. In the evening, local residents were invited to a lively barbecue on board ship.

Sarah Clark

The Oyas Venner group included two experts on wooden buildings, Torolf Stenerson and Per Angell Hansen, who had permits to look at some old buildings on the island to evaluate their condition with a view to possible restoration. These were the manager’s house at Stromness, the manager’s house and radio shed at Husvik, and the ‘Nybrakka’ or barracks at Grytviken.


Dave Peck and Kjell Tokstad at the South Georgia Museum (click image to enlarge


Yachts and Shipping

First visitor of the year was the ever-welcome charter yacht ‘Le Sourire ‘ crewed by the Delignieres family, with their children Marilou and Theo, who manage to combine sailing with schooling. While they were here they more or less had the island to themselves and they left in the second week.

Yacht ‘Pelagic’ arrived with a climbing expedition on board of Skip Novak and three friends including Caradoc ‘Crag’ Jones, who was harbourmaster at King Edward Point more than ten years ago. The expedition landed at Larsen Harbour and ascended the Philippi Glacier, crossing the mountains to Moltke Harbour. They enjoyed very mixed weather conditions with some days of bad visibility and wind, and had to spend several days in a snow cave, completing their climb on the 27th. Dion Poncet skippered Pelagic during this period.

Charlie Porter returned for another season of glaciology in his yacht ‘Ocean Tramp’, and yacht ‘Paratii 2’ owned by Amyr Klink arrived on January 22nd, carrying Brazilian wildlife photographer Haraldo Palo jr. Haraldo is making a film about South Georgia wildlife which will highlight the plight of the Wandering Albatross.

Towards the end of the month the three yachts were joined by ‘Kotik 2’, another charter yacht, and the cove took on a very sociable aspect.

Sarah Clark
‘Braveheart’ in King Edward Cove (click image to enlarge)

The last yacht to visit was the motor boat ‘Braveheart’ from New Zealand, a substantial vessel and more of a workboat than a yacht. She carried a crew of 5 and no charterers as she was repositioning to Durban.

With larger ships as with yachts, a very quiet spell in the early part of the month gave way to an exceptionally busy period. At one time there were seven cruise ships distributed around the island, though only once did two of them share an evening in King Edward Cove, Grigory Mikheev and Professor Multanovsky on Sunday 16th. Both entertained locals for barbecues on board, and their Zodiacs made mutual visits during the evening. On Tuesday January 18th the Sergei Vavilov picked up albatross researchers Sally Poncet and Giselle Botha from Albatross Island. Sally remained on board to join the expedition staff, and Giselle transferred to climbers’ support yacht Pelagic, which came to King Edward Cove to fetch her.

An unusual visitor was the German research vessel Polarstern which arrived on January 9th. This big icebreaker had a huge 11 metre draught which meant that she had to stay well out in Cumberland Bay. She had just come from the Weddell sea where she had been working for some weeks tethered to an icefloe, with a multi-national collection of scientists on board engaged in a variety of ice-related studies. These visitors enjoyed their time ashore enormously, delighted to see dry land and amazed at the greenness of the vegetation. She left later in the day for Capetown.

The largest ship to visit was the Marco Polo with 403 passengers on January 20th which spent the whole day in Cumberland Bay sending boats ashore. The HMS Gloucester had arrived in the area but to avoid overcrowding did not enter the bay until the next day, though a camera crew on board to make a briefing video for South Georgia visitors, came in by helicopter to film a cruise ship landing, and also the Post Office, Government Officer and Museum in action. The same evening the Ernest Shackleton arrived at 9 p.m. Sarah Clark
  Marco Polo in Cumberland Bay (click image to enlarge)

The next day, with the Shackleton alongside loading cargo, personnel landing from the Gloucester avoided the King Edward Point area and landed at the Museum. An Army patrol provided more footage for the briefing video, and the camera crew and officers from the ship were entertained in the evening to drinks in the Government Officer’s flat.


Filming at Maiviken

Phil Tratham, BAS head of Conservation Biology, who was travelling to Bird Island, spent a day ashore when the Shackleton was at the jetty on Friday January 21st. With fisheries scientist Jamie Watts as a very willing guide he walked over to Maiviken to get some background video footage at the Gentoo rookery for a BBC programme on his work.

Phil explains his work: ‘Gentoo penguins (and Antarctic fur seals, as well as some other bird and mammal species breeding at Bird Island and South Georgia) show some years of poor breeding performance. This is generally associated with altered prey availability and abundance. These changes in the foodweb are potentially thought to be the result of climate fluctuations and climate variability.

A forthcoming TV programme that is currently being prepared focuses on some of the consequences of large scale climate variability in the Southern ocean. It looks at climate variability signals and at some of the wider consequences for both humans and wildlife.’


A New Crab

Sarah Clark

Sven Thatje, newly arrived fisheries scientist at King Edward Point, within days of his arrival while looking at larval developement confirmed a King Crab species still unknown to science in South Georgia waters. He writes about what makes the South Georgia king crab special:


Sven Thatje at work (click image to enlarge)

South Georgia King Crab (Crustacea: Decapoda: Lithodidae)

With about a dozen species known so far from waters of the Southern Ocean, the family Lithodidae, better known as stone or king crab, are the only crab species able to thrive under the harsh environmental conditions of Antarctic waters. King crabs are the only crabs that have managed to reconquer the Southern Ocean following the extinction of decapod crustaceans during the continuous process of Antarctic cooling until the middle Miocene, approximately 15 Million years ago. This outstanding feat is a result of ecophysiological temperature adaptation, in particular the larvae’s ability to develop without feeding, relying instead upon energy sources of maternal origin (lipid storage). Their tolerance to low temperatures typical of Antarctic seas is also important. Both adaptations are crucial for successful larval development under conditions of low polar temperatures and short periods of food availability during summer; factors, which in the course of Antarctic evolution have selected against many other species.
South Georgia is a hot spot in king crab diversity, with five known species. Most common are the stone crabs Paralomis formosa, P. spinosissima, P. anamerae, and the king crab Neolithodes diomedeae. South Georgia king crabs have long been targeted as alternative fishery resources, since they seem to be very abundant in South Georgia waters. However, in order to allow a sustainable management of the populations, which show a low ability to recover from overfishing, it is necessary to know more about their life history, such as reproduction, growth and mortality.

Sarah Clark
South Georgia King Crab (click image to enlarge)

The British Antarctic Survey and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands Government, with cooperation of commercial fisheries in the area, have launched a project on South Georgia king crabs to be undertaken by scientists at the King Edward Point research station and at the BAS headquarters in Cambridge, UK.


KEP Notes

Walking in South Georgia has never been so easy! The mountains around Cumberland Bay this year have probably not seen so little snow and ice in living memory. Glaciers are shrinking spectacularly and large lakes of meltwater forming at their foot. At Glacier Col, where keen skiers until very recently could find snow within a couple of hours’ walk from base, there is little left but dirty ice and piles of moraine.
People have been taking the opportunity for lots of overnight camping trips, including a ‘girls’ night out’ at Gull Lake (with rain).

Wildlife is not as thick on the ground as in December. Everyone misses the elly weaners, but there are much greater numbers of moulting King Penguins than usual and two (possibly now one) Kings at Penguin River incubating eggs.

Sarah Clark

On the penguin front, there have been the usual waifs and strays. Two Chinstrap penguins appeared outside the base on the 24th, and on the day the Shackleton came in and the jetty was at its busiest, an obstinate Macaroni, refusing to be intimidated, came up the slip apparently with the intention of taking up residence around the boatshed. Perhaps all the noise and activity reminded it of home!


Moulting King Penguins (click image to enlarge)

Visit of HMS Gloucester and RFA Gold Rover

HMS Gloucester visited South Georgia from 19 to 23 Jan. RFA Gold Rover visited only for two days. On board HMS Gloucester was a military patrol from the Queens Lancaster Regiment and a small film team making a series of DVDs for GSGSSI. The ship visited Stromness Bay and King Edward Cove. A planned visit to Drygalski Fjord and St Andrews Bay on the last day was curtailed due to deterioration in the weather to storm force 10.

HMS Gloucester (click image to enlarge)

Sarah Clark

The military patrolled through the Olsen valley and in the Grytviken area, enjoying three days of excellent weather. Personnel for the ship walked ashore in the Stromness Bay (Husvik) and Grytviken areas.

Sarah Clark

The film team from Project Atlantis with a camera man, Robin Fryatt, from the Falkland Islands, recorded footage of a large number of scenes for the three visitor briefing DVDs they are producing for visitors to South Georgia. The DVDs will illustrate the GSGSSI information for visitors to South Georgia. They are intended for cruise passengers, military personnel and operators (expeditions, yachts, scientists, contractors and others who may stay on the island).




Robin Fryatt and Steve Ellis (click image to enlarge)


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