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South Georgia Newsletter, February 2006

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Pipits Return to Grass Island by Sally Poncet

Grass Island Pipit. Photo by Tony Martin

The most exciting find this year was that of a South Georgia pipit observed several times on 17th December carrying food in its bill. Although a search for the nest in dense tussac was unsuccessful, the bird is thought to have been either carrying food to young in the nest, or it may have been a male carrying food to its partner (male pipits are known to feed their mates during incubation, either at or near the nest). A second bird was seen in a display flight above precisely the same location as a single bird seen on 9th December. On that earlier visit, two pairs of pipits were seen on the tussac slopes south of the island’s ponds. It is possible that one pair had a nest in the vicinity.

The closest traditional pipit breeding sites to Grass Island are the Guides which are a small group of rat-free tussac islands lying about 15 km west of Stromness Bay, and to the east, the larger rat-free tussac island at Right Whale Rocks situated at the eastern entrance to Cumberland Bay, about 20 km distant. The occasional non-breeding bird has been seen on the coastlines between these two sites. It would thus seem that this species is able relatively quickly to locate and re-colonise suitable rat-free sites within four to five years.

Grass Island (30 hectares) in Stromness Bay was the site of a rat eradication feasibility trial conducted in November 2000. The trial was commissioned by the Government of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), and coordinated by Sally Poncet in collaboration with Andy Cox and Ian McFadden from Department of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand. Confirmation of the success of the operation came in April 2002 and in December 2003, two breeding seasons after baiting, when a thorough inspection of the island revealed no signs of the Norwegian brown rat. In December 2003 the first South Georgia pipit was recorded on the island. Although no birds were observed during a brief inspection in January 2005, a fresh dropping was found and a pipit had been reported on nearby Tonsberg Point opposite Grass Island 10 days previously.

This year’s visit to Grass Island took place on 9th December 1880-1930 hours GTM and on 17th December 1400-1600 hours during the South Georgia ACAP Petrel Survey. Cross-sections of coastal and inland habitats were inspected for rat signs while surveying giant petrels and white-chinned petrels. It was noted that breeding fur seals continue to occupy most of the island’s coastline and are now estimated to number many thousands of animals, making access to the island’s interior difficult in December and January.

No old or fresh rat signs of any description, eg gnawings, droppings, tracks, burrows, were recorded during the two visits. Oil-soaked gnawsticks put in place in 2005 were examined.


First South Georgia Guide Published

South Georgia Visitor's Guide

Sally Poncet and Kim Crosbie have published the first visitors guide to South Georgia. It is an excellent production with 180 pages of full colour with wonderful imagery. All of the 25 visitor sites are mapped and described. Environmental and historical heritage are covered, essential tips for visitors are also included. All wildlife is covered and there is a checklist for all fauna and flora.


Visitors Briefing DVD Now Available

Visitors Briefing DVD cover by Project Atlantis

Project Atlantis has produced a family of briefing DVDs for GSGSSI. There are three versions: visitors, expeditions and the military. The production lasts about 30 minutes and makes use of some amazing BBC footage recorded by Alastair Fothergill and his team. The DVDs are a companion to the GSGSSI notes for visitors to South Georgia.


Blue Whales Sighted Near Shag Rocks

David McGonigal, expedition leader on the cruise ship, Akademik Ioffe described what he experienced as “One of the most remarkable days of my life”. We just had a great encounter with a blue whale. It was around the ship for about 30 minutes. It was even doing partial breaches so we saw its head a lot and its fluke a couple of times. Every passenger had time to study it as it lay on top of the water virtually right alongside the ship. We estimate its length at 65 to 70 feet. The coordinates for where we found it – and it seemed to be circling in this one area – were 53º09’S and 45º48’W.”


During that afternoon he reports seeing 12 to 18 more blue whales, 6 fin whales, 10 sei whales, a minke whale, 4 humpback whales and an unidentified beaked whale. A group of southern right whales with a pod of hourglass dolphins in their midst were also seen.

The blows of whales were all around them and large numbers of albatross and petrels were on the surface. It is fairly certain that there was a large concentration of krill in the area. The ship did not use its sonar to avoid disturbing the whales.

The cruise ship, Bremen had a similar experience in the same area near Shag rocks. During a one and a half hour period they saw 150 fin whales; 25 to 30 killer whales; 8 southern right whales; 7 sei whales; 6 humpbacks, two sightings of southern bottle-nosed whales (one of a cow with calf) and pods of hourglass dolphins and thousands of birds.


Brazilian Group Monitors Humpback Whales


In January a Brazilian group surveying humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) visited King Edward Cove. They arrived from Mar del Plata in Argentina on the yacht Kotic II owned and captained by Oleg Bely. He is a veteran of ten South Georgia visits. The aim of the survey, led by Enrico Marcovaldi who is also a photographer and film director, is to discover the main feeding areas of the humpbacks that migrate every year to the waters of Praia Do Forte bay in Brazil to breed and nurse their calves between July and November.

Brazilian group at KEP. Photo Javier Fernandez.    

The team studied the whales feeding in the Weddell Sea and along their migratory routes in the South Atlantic over a period of 45 days. Whale biologist Márcia Engel also from Brazil, using genetic analysis, demonstrated that the Brazilian population of humpbacks does not feed around the Antarctic Peninsula as previously thought, but in the Weddell Sea and around South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

The results of the research will contribute to strategies for conservation of large cetaceans and to support a Brazilian proposal to make all of the South Atlantic a whale sanctuary. The law around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands of course already protects whales.

Toothfish and Icefish Survey by William Reid

In January two members of the King Edward Point science team Jamie Watts and William Reid joined the FPV Dorada for the annual South Georgia groundfish survey. The aims of the survey were to assess the standing stock of Mackerel Icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari); refine methods for estimating icefish biomass using acoustics; examine the strength of the juvenile Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) year classes that will become part of the fishery in the coming years; and to tag juvenile toothfish at Shag Rocks.

    James & Crag tagging toothfish at Shag Rocks. Photo by James

In January two members of the King Edward Point science team Jamie Watts and William Reid joined the FPV Dorada for the annual South Georgia groundfish survey. The aims of the survey were to assess the standing stock of Mackerel Icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari); refine methods for estimating icefish biomass using acoustics; examine the strength of the juvenile Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) year classes that will become part of the fishery in the coming years; and to tag juvenile toothfish at Shag Rocks.

The survey started well, and in the first haul of the day we caught just as much icefish as caught during the whole of last year’s survey. This was followed by a bumper catch that evening, totalling just over ten tons. In some years icefish seem to disappear entirely from the fishery and this was the case in 2005. Where they go no one knows but they do not all die off – as fish of all year classes can be found again in subsequent years. This year’s catches covered the majority of year classes, with icefish ranging from 15 to 52 cm in length. The majority of these were in the 24 to 30 cm bracket.

Icefish were caught all around South Georgia and the Shag Rocks, the latter a group of tooth shaped pinnacles that rise almost eerily from the sea 150 miles from any other land. We spent a number of days trawling in this area and lucky for me the weather was good and I finally got to see them, a truly spectacular sight

We finished our work at Shag Rocks with two short trawls to tag juvenile toothfish. The toothfish were brought on board, delicately removed from the net and lowered in baskets into the fishpond. They are then transferred into a holding tank containing seawater to keep them alive. Those that were lively and in good condition were selected for tagging. The total length and weight of the fish were measured before two numbered tags, one on either of the dorsal fin that runs down its back, are attached to the fish. We now know the size and weight of the fish caught at a certain location on a certain day. The fish are then released down a chute into the water, ideally, away from any hungry birds. There is always someone keeping watch out on deck to make a note of how many don’t make it. We only lost one fish to the birds surrounding the boat. This was a 40 cm fish that a wandering albatross swallowed whole! When the surviving fish are caught again in the future we will know how much it has grown over a given time and if it has moved from its original catch location. This is important information needed to manage the toothfish fishery around South Georgia.

From the Shag Rocks we moved back to South Georgia and began to make our way down the south side of the island. The coastline on the south side is more rugged than the north, with more snow on the mountains and glacier after glacier running into the ocean. You could definitely feel a bit more of a chill in the air Having seen this side of the island my respect for the kayakers who circum-navigated South Georgia last year has increased as well as my respect for anyone who dares take their yacht round there. Although the scenery is amazing the ground for fishing is very rough so we moved quickly on.

It was on the south side that I saw my only whale of the trip. This was a great disappointment as there are definitely whales around. In mid summer a large number of whales were sighted near the Shag Rocks including 12 to 18 blue whales, 6 fin whales, some minke, 10 sei and a few humpback whales. (see report above – Blue Whales sighted near Shag Rocks). Maybe we were too busy working in the fish factory and did not have time to see what was around us.

All in all the survey was successful. We got out biomass estimates and the majority of weather was good. Which just leaves me to say a big thanks to the crew of FPV Dorada for all their help and hard work over the survey.


Norwegians Restore the Husvik Villa

Husvik Villa before restoration.

Husvik Villa after restoration.

A group of Norwegian craftsmen arrived on Friday 10th February with the fishery patrol Sigma. They were: Torolf Stenersen, Torfinn Myhrem, Svein Erik Moe, Henrik Kulms, Knut Evensen, Thomas Blix, AsbjØrn GrØdem, Espen Andeassen, and Hans Kristian Røkenes. During the voyage with Sigma they also saw lots of whales. One group close to Shag Rock numbered 20 or more. The number of sighting would suggest Shag Rocks has been a popular feeding ground for whales this year.

The group reported that the service and welcome onboard the Sigma was excellent - thanks go to Byron Marine. When the group arrived in Husvik the wind was 50-60 m/sec. They continued to experience high winds, which did disrupt work at times, particularly on the roof.

They have renewed the cladding on the walls and the roof; windows are being refurbished and the buildings (Villa and Radio Shack) repainted. Mr. Sternersen reported that there was a lot of rotten wood – beneath the outer cladding. When the works are complete the building will once more be available for use by visiting scientists and expeditions.

The project has been made possible through funding from the South Georgia Heritage Trust that had been donated by the Norwegian county of Vestfold and the Sandefjord municipality. Local companies in Norway also gave much generous support to the project. Logistic support was provided by the Norwegian OVDS ship “NordNorge” and the British Royal Navy ship “HMS Endurance”.


Norwegian Husvik Team.


When the Norwegian group finish their work, they are going to mount a plaque in the entrance of the building bearing the following text:
“A team of Norwegian craftsmen from Sandefjord restored the Husvik Manager’s Villa and Radio Shack in February 2006 on behalf of the south Georgia Heritage Trust. Funds for the Villa’s restoration were donated by Vestfold County, Norway. Materials and paint were donated by Norwegian businesses in the Sandefjord area. HMS ENDURANCE transported the materials from Portmouth and delivered them to Husvik in December 2005.”

In addition to the work at Husvik, Torolf Stenersen, the team leader did a survey of the building that Sir Ernest Shackleton stayed in at Stromness. The South Georgia Heritage Trust and the Government will consider the results of the survey. The building assumed to be where Shackleton, Worsley and Crean spent there first comfortable night after their epic adventures was in fact at Ocean Harbour at that time. (See Archive October 2005 edition – Wrong Villa). New research in Norway has shown which building in Stromness was the Manager’s Villa and it was this one that Mr Stenersen inspected. Due to the risk from asbestos, the Government could only give him permission to enter Stromness Whaling station to do this work as he was trained and used protective clothing.


Commissioner Visits South Georgia


The Commissioner, Howard Pearce, his wife Caroline and their five-month-old daughter Suzanna visited South Georgia. The party travelled to the island on the cruise ship Explorer II and during the voyage they too were lucky to see a large number of whales including blue whales. The Commissioner gave lectures aboard both on South Georgia and also the Falkland Islands where of course he is also the Governor.


His Excellency the Commissioner and the Governor Officer at King Edward Point.

The main purpose of his visit, apart from a duty visit to the island, was to open the new BAS base on Bird Island. Professor Paul Rodhouse, Head of the Life Sciences Division of the Antarctic Survey, accompanied him for this opening. The Commissioner and his family have also undertaken a number of other tasks while on the island and next month’s news letter will report more fully on them.
Ex-Whaling Station Dentist visits

Ian Cumming at KEP Research Station.


After some 42 years, Ian Cumming, the whaling station dentist from 1961 to 1964, visited Grytviken. He arrived on Akademik Ioffe. Ian was impressed by the changes in the place, and was particularly interested to visit the research facilities at King Edward Point. He noted the number of fur seals in the area and said that in the 1960s there had been virtually none. Now retired from dentistry, he returned as part of a specialist bird watching group on the cruise ship. He has an inexhaustible supply of amusing tales of his life with the whalers with which he amused the group.

Half Marathon 2006 by Jamie Watts

It didn’t look promising, a grey sky and a strong breeze greeted us early risers on the morning of the race. I felt justified as billing this as “probably the toughest half marathon on earth” – the terrain is intimidating with loose screen, slippery grass, soft peat bog and lots of uneven rock, not to mention 45 degree slopes.

The field of seventeen was varied with several Antarctic Survey base members, the Government Officer, museum assistants, Stewart from Morrison Construction, some visiting “yachties” and even a couple from the BAS “head office”. First off were the walkers and notable in this strong field was Marissa Le Lec, at ten years old by far the youngest ever to attempt this gruelling course. Marissa walked with her mum, and her dad was in the runner’s class – and so we had the first family entry in the long and distinguished history of the race. The Le Lecs were visiting South Georgia on their yacht Tevakenui.

Then it was the runner’s turn. With two top runners Andy (the Morrison Construction Chef) and Javier (the Postal Officer) both injured we were really looking at a two horse race – Martin ’ever –so-slightly-competitive’ Collins (senior BAS scientist from HQ) versus South Georgia Museum’s answer to Sean Connery – Asty Taylor.

Out around the cove and the weather slowly brightened as we climbed up, up, then up some more, sometimes on all fours, up Brown Mountain Ridge. Martin and Asty soon pulled ahead, both looking very strong. The rocky terrain along the top of brown mountain was a relief after the climb, so we all got to look strong going past the first marshalling point, but the steep descent down the gulley on the far side soon slowed our momentum.

Asty running to Maiviken.

The route then passes Shackleton’s grave through Grytviken and back around to King Edward Point to the halfway stage. The runners reckoned that the best way to pass fur seals unscathed was to run fast. By the time they noticed, you have already passed them! From KEP it is back to Grytviken, past the church and up Bore Valley to the aptly named Dead Man’s cairn before dropping down to Maiviken Hut. From there it is back up to Dead Man’s cairn back down to the church and around to the finish at KEP.
Martin Collins was leading at half way with Asty Taylor a close second. This continued until the end with Martin a strong winner. He made his unofficial course record official, at an amazing one hour 48 minutes. Asty was close behind, but just never managed to close the gap, and Adrian looked very strong in third place. Notable was Marissa’s performance, well ahead of several larger folks with much longer legs.

All in all a superb day, and many thanks to all involved – Dave, Andy, John Davis and Nigel for marshalling, big Al for the photos and encouragement, Rick for coordinating and Ali and Christine for doing most of the organisation while I was swanning around at sea.


Taxidermist and Photographer Visit

Steve Massam the taxidermist is back for his third work period in South Georgia paid for by donations from cruise ship passengers. He is currently making a copy of the squid beak and club end of a tentacle from the 5 metres long giant squid (correctly called colossal squid – Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) caught off South Georgia last winter. Next, he will be preparing a 20 years old male wandering albatross that died of natural causes on Bird Island. Then he plans to wire up the skeleton of a standing King Penguin, and a fur seal in a diving pose. He then hopes to complete three fish models from last season.

The photojournalist Paul Sutherland is documenting the fishery science at King Edward Point for National Geographic as part of his project to develop a story about the Patagonian Toothfish. Last Tuesday 28th February Paul was very lucky when photographing the science team from KEP. They caught three large toothfish in the deep waters of Cumberland Bay during scientific fishing.


Wedding at Grytviken


On 19th February there was a beautiful wedding at the Grytviken cemetery. Lesley Friedsam and Peter Damisch had first met at Shackleton’s grave on Christmas Eve 2003 when romance blossomed. They decided to return there to marry. The rest of the passengers on Bremen accompanied the ceremony, which Pauline Carr conducted. Also on board were some of the team who made the Shackleton IMAX film in 1999-2000. The producer George Butler, the author of the “The Endurance” Caroline Alexander, Reinhold Messner and Conrad Anker together with Stephen Venables, were there. The latter three had retraced Shackleton’s Route for the film.


The happy couple: Lesley Friedsam and Peter Damish. Photo by J.Fernandez.

Mount Belinda Volcano on Montagu in South Sandwich Islands

Ashes from Mount Belinda on Montagu Island. Photo by Leiv Poncet
Ashes from the Volcano. Photo Leiv Poncet
Lava and iceberg on the coast. Photo by Leiv Poncet.
Lava running down into the sea. Photo by Leiv Poncet

The latest news from satellite images indicate continued eruptions of Mount Belinda volcano (1370 mts). Hotspots were observed on 1st, 24th, 27th and 30th January. Last report from Leiv Poncet (yacht Golden Fleece) said there was lots of activity going on. Here some images.


Web Camera Popular

The number of visitors to this website has more than doubled with the arrival of the web camera. The web camera was installed in December as a trial to see what sort of reaction it might create. Its popularity would indicate that this small window on South Georgia is something that could be developed in the future.

At the start of February the Norwegian team of 9 going to Husvik to restore the manager's villa decided to send a visual message to friend in Norway who is terminally ill with cancer. With permission from the Government Officer they placed the Norwegian flag in tribute to their friend, as you may be able to see in this image from the webcam.

Norwegian Husvik Team. Photo by SG webcam.


Whale Sightings (update: 13/3/06)

Ian Cumming, on his return to St Andrews, has provided images of the blue and other whales he saw from Akadmic Ioffe. He has generously let us have copies so that we can publish them on the website.

As there is a high level of interest in this subject we thought it best to show you now these exciting images.

Whales Sited by Ian Cumming from Akademic Ioffe on 10 February 2006:

- Vessel Position: 53º 17 ‘ South and 45º 11’ West
- Over Scotia Ridge on Polar Front
- Sea Temperature 5º C
- Sightings over a 2 hour period:
- 12 Hourglass Dolphins
- 2 Southern Right Whales
- 1 Antarctic Minke Whale
- 10 Sei Whales
- 6 Fin Whales
- 5 Humpback Whales
- 1 Arnoux’s Beaked Whale
- 12 to 15 Blue Whales

Blue and other whales by Ian Cumming. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge - the photo name is on the title bar.


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