Penguin paradise in South Georgia
Christine Gordon describes her visit to South Georgia, on an expedition ship, where she discovers a troublesome history, an incredible diversity of wildlife and highly proactive conservation efforts.
South Georgia may not be a holiday destination chosen by most travellers; it is remote, taking two to three days to reach from the Falkland Islands and has a challenging climate and geology. The whole island is mountainous, with the highest peak Mount Paget rising to 2,935m, and the weather is windy and wet with precipitation, on average, for more than 300 days of the year. Despite, or maybe because of this, South Georgia is a magical place that never fails to inspire.
Sighted first in 1675 by the British merchant, Antione de la Roche, it was another 100 years before Captain Cook landed on the island at a place he named Possession Bay. Inspired by reports that South Georgia was populated by a vast number of fur seals, sealers began to arrive in South Georgia in 1786 and, by 1825, approximately 1,200,000 seals had been slaughtered leading to the virtual extinction of fur seals in South Georgia.
This was followed by an equally devastating whaling industry. The first whaling station, established in December 1904 by Carl Larsen at Grytviken, was followed by other whaling stations on the island and the invention of the pelagic factory ship which allowed whalers to pull whales straight from the sea for processing. At its height over 40,000 whales were caught per year leading to a depletion of the whale population with their virtual extinction by the time the last whaling station, in Grytviken, closed in 1965.
While the sealing and whaling industries were intentional acts, a less intentional, but equally disastrous outcome of man’s exploitation of South Georgia, was the introduction of brown rats and mice which flourished on the island. As there are no trees, all wildlife on the island are ground nesting. Inevitably this led to the depletion of several endemic birds, particularly the island’s only song bird, the South Georgia pipit, whose numbers declined by approximately 70%.
Native flora and fauna were also threatened by both the introduction of non-native animals, particularly the reindeer, and by alien plant species imported from various parts of the world.
I have mentioned the important part that Grytviken played in the whaling industry. One of its other claims to fame is that it is both the burial place of Sir Ernest Shackleton and from where his ship Endurance set sail on an ill-fated attempt to make the first crossing of Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. There are a plethora of books detailing how Endurance was trapped in ice and of the journey made by the crew first to Elephant Island and then, by Shackleton and five of the crew, on a 23ft long boat, the James Caird, across 800 miles of the stormiest waters of the world to reach South Georgia. The final part of the journey was made by Shackleton and two companions, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, across the interior of South Georgia to the whaling station at Stromness. The museum at Grytviken provides information about this journey and of the whaling industry. It is also possible to walk to the hill above Grytviken to view the town below.
Walking the final part of the Shackleton Walk from Fortuna Bay to Stromness was offered on the itinerary of the expedition. This involves a 5.5km walk from the shores of Fortuna Bay over a col and down to Stromness. Health and safety issues are more restrictive than in Shackleton’s day and the walk is dependent on being able to land passengers at Fortuna Bay and collecting them from Stromness. Given that this is a very windy and tempestuous part of the island and that the zodiacs used to transport people from ship to shore can only operate in light winds and a small sea swell, the possibility of undertaking the walk is not guaranteed. Sadly it was not possible to do it on my trip to South Georgia.
I became attracted to South Georgia after a recent trip to Antarctica. Several passengers talked about the beauty of the island and this, along with the idea of following in the footsteps of ancient explorers, the romance of the ‘Shackleton story’ and the lure of South Georgia’s penguin and bird populations, meant that I signed up for a two-week voyage on the Vavilov operated by a Canadian company One Ocean.
Leaving from Stanley in the Falkland Islands we had a two-day sail to reach our destination. Far from being a means to an end the ‘on ship’ days were part of the experience. Sunset on the first night was an astounding sight and we were soon being followed by a vast array of bird life. The albatross is, perhaps, the bird most associated with South Georgia and Antarctica and it was magnificent to see these majestic birds swooping and diving over the ship. Wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any bird and, along with the black-browed albatross, were the most prevalent of the albatrosses we saw as we made our way to South Georgia. Petrels were another common sight from the bridge and bow of the ship. My favourite is the Cape petrel, but other passengers preferred the giant and snow petrels. Smaller birds include several species of prion. It was fantastic to have several ornithologists on board to identify the various bird species and subspecies we saw and we were frequently called to the bridge to witness not only the birds but also the penguins and whales that accompanied us on our journey.
On arrival at South Georgia we were immediately greeted by the challenges the island has for the traveller. Landing was impossible due to high winds and sea swell. Despite the slight disappointment this caused, a wonderful time was had standing on the bow watching the king penguins who porpoised through the water seemingly beckoning us to visit them, which we managed to do the following day.
Penguins are probably the animals most associated with the Antarctic region and South Georgia is home to four main breeding species: King, Macaroni, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. Macaroni Penguins were the most abundant species on South Georgia until recently when their numbers have been in decline. On the other hand, King Penguin numbers have increased and it was the King Penguin colonies that we saw most of. This included visiting St Andrew’s Bay which boasts the largest King Penguin colony (250,000 breeding pairs), Salisbury Plain (60,000 pairs) and Gold Harbour (25,000 pairs). It is impossible to describe the feeling of landing on these shores to be confronted with penguins as far as the eye can see. It is certainly an experience, witnessed by very few people, that will live with me for the rest of my life.
We also had the opportunity to visit colonies of the other three endemic species and saw several colonies where two species of penguin cohabited in relative harmony. It was fantastic to witness the majestic King Penguins walking slowly along the beach while the more active Gentoo played with and chased each other unconcerned about the visiting tourists. Penguins have a natural curiosity and will approach visitors who are prepared to sit still and wait; indeed, one adventurous penguin pecked at my gum boot as I sat, camera in hand!
The landscape of South Georgia is also awe-inspiring. Mountains compete with glaciers (the largest is called Fortuna) for attention. On their own they would inspire the visitor. When seen alongside the penguins and other wildlife they are breathtakingly beautiful. Zodiac cruising as well as landing on the island allows you to take in the beauty of the island and its residents.
Days can be long on a trip to South Georgia. Being awoken at 4:45am to land and witness sunrise can extend to evenings spent on shore to take advantage of prevailing conditions. This is not a trip to be taken by anyone who likes to relax! When not on shore, or zodiac cruising, we were offered opportunities to attend talks by the various experts on board; historians, geologists and photographers, as well as wildlife experts, were keen to share their knowledge with guests.
South Georgia is a British Overseas Territory with a permanent population of approximately 14 people that expands to 30 during the summer. Grytviken is the only whaling station that it is possible to visit (now that the asbestos has been removed) and Grytviken also houses the island’s only shop, a museum and a post office. It also has the only used church and we were fortunate to be invited to a wedding in the church when we visited.
I began this article talking about the destruction of the wildlife and plant life in South Georgia that took place during the sealing and whaling periods and whose impact continued long after the departure of the sealers and whalers. The South Georgia Government has, in recent years, taken great steps to promote and protect South Georgia’s natural resources. As you approach the island you are invited to attend a ‘vacuum party’ to ensure that your clothes and equipment are free from any seeds that could invade and compete with South Georgia’s fragile fauna and flora and you must sanitise your clothing and footwear each time you leave and return to the ship.
The fur seal population has had a remarkable recovery since the end of the sealing period and whales are beginning to return to South Georgia. Indeed, the fur seals can be a little bit of a ‘menace’ to visitors. The babies are extremely cute and cuddly looking, but the adult males can be aggressive and have been known to bite unwary visitors. It is thought that the abundance of krill, the major food source of food for both seals and whales, has contributed to the return of the seals who do not currently have to compete for these food sources with the whales. The whales are taking longer to return but this may be related to their longer lifespans.
Elephant seals are also evident in South Georgia. These huge seals arrive on the island to moult and spend the bulk of their time on shore asleep, occasionally yawning and stretching. Elephant seals have a ‘harem policy’ and, during the moulting period, you can see some of the younger males practising the battle techniques they will use during the mating season to attempt to gain supremacy over the female population.
More actively, the South Georgia Heritage Trust (based in Dundee in Scotland) has engaged in a major project to rid the island of rats. Started in 2010 in the Thatcher Peninsula, it has been extended to the whole of South Georgia with remarkable success, meaning that the threatened South Georgia pipit is now returning to its former habitats. More controversially perhaps, it was also necessary to cull the reindeer population to support the return of South Georgia’s ground breeding birds. This policy also allowed the native flora and fauna to begin to flourish. As there are no trees in South Georgia birds nest in the tussocks; the reindeer trampling the breeding grounds added to the depletion of the bird population.
Although visitors see little evidence fishing is the major industry in South Georgia, accounting for approximately 70% of South Georgia’s income. However, unlike in the past, fishing is now done in a way that protects the marine life. The establishment of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 1982 means that sustainable fishing quotas can be monitored. This is supported by the South Georgia Government who, in 1993, established a 200 nautical mile Maritime Zone which enabled it to regulate fishing around the island within the framework of the CCAMLR ‘ecosystem approach’ to fisheries management. South Georgia is a remarkable place and the work undertaken by the South Georgia Government and the South Georgia Heritage Trust to bring it back to its former glory is testimony to what human beings can do both for good and bad. If the rest of the world could look to the example of the work done in South Georgia, who knows what we could achieve in protecting and restoring the planet we live on.
Christine Gordon is a keen hillwalker and has, with a few exceptions, climbed all the hills in Scotland, England and Wales. She is now making her way round the Irish hills and has done all the Munros, Munro tops, Furths and Corbetts.View Articles by Christine Gordon