South Georgia Newsletter, August 2014

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Plymouth Shackleton 100

Phoenix and Polonus set sail from Millbay Dock, Plymouth.
Phoenix and Polonus set sail from Millbay Dock, Plymouth.


A tall ship sailed from Clyde Quay in Plymouth’s Millbay dock (UK) as part of the first major event marking the centenaries of Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic (Endurance) Expedition. Endurance sailed from Plymouth on August 8th 1914 on the journey south via South Georgia to the Weddell Sea.


A three-day event, ‘Plymouth Shackleton 100’ was centred on the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Plymouth where Shackleton had stayed prior to Endurance’s departure. More than 140 people attended the events, which were organised by the Devon and Cornwall Polar Society.


The first evening at The Duke of Cornwall Hotel included unveiling a plaque commemorating the stay of Shackleton and his men at the hotel. With the Lord Mayor of Plymouth in attendance, Shackleton’s granddaughter, the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, unveiled the plaque. Also present were several other descendants of Shackleton and descendants of other members of the expedition.


The programme continued through the next two days with several interesting talks and performances. Talks included a preview of the first new biography of Shackleton in 20 years, written by Michael Smith, and an investigation by Robert Burton of how the expedition may have fared if Endurance had not been crushed in the ice and they had been able to attempt the crossing of the Antarctic continent.


The Antarctic Adventurers, John Reid and Mick Parker, wore costumes copied from those of the expedition and displayed a sledge and various equipment and rations reflecting those carried on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.


More than 140 people attended the Plymouth Shackleton 100 events.
More than 140 people attended the Plymouth Shackleton 100 events.


The very successful meeting ended with a re-enactment of Endurance sailing from Millbay Dock. The tall ship Phoenix represented Endurance, and the crowd on the dock watching the ship set sail was probably considerably larger than it was 100 years before. On the day Endurance sailed the weather had been bad enough to discourage many sightseers. Although Shackleton had been aboard when Endurance sailed he later returned ashore to continue fundraising and then re-joined the ship at Buenos Aires in Argentina.


Rare photographs of Endurance sailing from Plymouth were unearthed shortly before the re-enactment. They showed that her hull was white, and she was painted black (as seen in Hurley’s photographs) in Buenos Aires, probably so that she would show up better in the snow and ice of the Antarctic. Some historians have said that Shackleton did not plan to visit South Georgia on his way south but a map of the proposed route published before the expedition started, and shown at Plymouth, clearly shows South Georgia on the ship’s proposed track.


Phoenix was accompanied out by the Polish yacht S/Y Polonus which is en route to South Georgia on an expedition in the wake of Endurance. Other yachts are invited to join a flotilla that will aim to arrive at Grytviken in time to visit Shackleton's grave on January 5th, 2015 - the anniversary of his death.


A replica of the James Caird gave Shackleton enthusiasts a chance to experience the cramped conditions on board.
A replica of the James Caird gave Shackleton enthusiasts a chance to experience the cramped conditions on board.


Also on the dock during the re-enactment was a replica of the James Caird, called the Alexandra Shackleton, which had been used on the recent Shackleton Epic expedition. This was an opportunity for many of the Shackleton enthusiasts present to get a real feel for the extremely cramped conditions on board the tiny craft.


Another plaque marking the departure point of Endurance was unveiled by Alexandra Shackleton at Millbay Dock. The plan is for the plaque to be mounted on Clyde Quay after redevelopment of the area into the place where passengers will land from cruise ships visiting Plymouth.


The Hon. Alexandra Shackleton (in hat) with other relatives of Shackleton and crew members of the Endurance after unveiling the Millbay Dock plaque.
The Hon. Alexandra Shackleton (in hat) with other relatives of Shackleton and crew members of the Endurance after unveiling the Millbay Dock plaque.




The plaque unveiling and sailing of Phoenix, representing Endurance setting sail for the south
from Millbay Dock, Plymouth, one hundred years before.




Fishing And Shipping News

The toothfish fishing season closed at the end of August. Four longliners were still fishing at the start of the month, but one completed its quota and left in the first week. Despite some poor weather, catches for the remaining three vessels were good, having increased after the usual drop in catch rates in July. One longliner left the fishery to make repairs and the two remaining longliners completed their quotas before the end of season and sailed to Stanley, Falkland Islands, for catch verification.


A trawler transhipping to a reefer. Photo Patrick Lurcock.
A trawler transhipping to a reefer. Photo Patrick Lurcock.


Krill meal in a ship’s hold. Photo Simon Browning.
Krill meal in a ship’s hold. Photo Simon Browning.



Six trawlers have been targeting krill throughout August. Catches remained good despite the weather conditions. These improved in the third week to very good, averaging 219 tonnes per vessel/day. One vessel suffered a winch failure, which forced it to stop fishing. Catches towards the end of the month were falling off to an average of 140 tonnes per vessel/day. With the krill fleet making regular transhipments to four different reefer vessels, and a tanker coming in to deliver fuel to the fishing vessels, there was a total of 23 harbour movements in Cumberland Bay during August.


A rare winter tourism visit was made by expedition yacht Pelagic Australis, which arrived alongside at King Edward Point (KEP) on August 29th; the vessel is supporting a mountaineering expedition. The expedition group abandoned its original plans to do the Shackleton Traverse (King Haakon Bay to Stromness) and other plans for mountaineering in the south-eastern end of the island from Larsen Harbour, as on both attempts they experienced very bad weather. The expedition members are now hoping it will be third time lucky as they plan to head up to the Kohl-Larsen Plateau from Possession Bay.


Yacht Pelagic Australis alongside at KEP. Photo Jo Cox.
Yacht Pelagic Australis alongside at KEP. Photo Jo Cox.





A Whale Biologist’s Perspective Of A Whaling Station

By Fannie Shabangu, PhD student at the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit, University of Pretoria, South Africa.


The Antarctic pelagic whaling industry operated by Norwegian and British companies was based on the shores of the island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic, predominantly at Grytviken Whaling Station as the first Antarctic whaling station to be built. Antarctic whaling was founded in 1904 by the Norwegian sea captain, Carl Anton Larsen. Land-based whaling at South Georgia continued until the mid-1960s. Numerous Antarctic whale species were harvested by the whaling industry to produce different materials; mainly oil from these animals’ blubber. Whales were chased down in the open seas, shot with harpoons, towed to port and lifted onto shore for processing at the whaling station. Due to its gigantic size, the Antarctic blue whale was one of the whale species that was heavily targeted by the Antarctic whaling industry; thus thousands of this species were processed at the Grytviken Whaling Station. The Antarctic blue whale among others was depleted to very low numbers and we are unsure how well their numbers have since recovered.


The 35-metre long steel-hulled whaling ship Petrel, built in 1928, is ‘anchored’ on the shore at Grytviken with a harpoon gun mounted on the bow.
The 35-metre long steel-hulled whaling ship Petrel, built in 1928, is ‘anchored’ on the shore at Grytviken with a harpoon gun mounted on the bow.


I visited the island on January 6th 2014 as part of the South African National Antarctic Expedition. The main aim of our expedition to South Georgia was to visually estimate the abundance and distribution of Antarctic blue and other whales and to deploy an acoustic hydrophone to record whales’ sounds for a year on the Maud Rise (65°00’S; 002°30’E) in water depths of 1200m. Whales use sound to communicate with each other, search for food and look for sexual partners; recording sounds from these whales enables us to estimate their numbers, seasonal movements and behaviour. We further used active scientific echo sounders to estimate the abundance and distribution of Antarctic krill in association with those of whales on our survey tracks. The above operations are the core research areas of the South African Blue Whale Project - an initiative by the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit, based at the University of Pretoria. The detailed report of our survey is available from the International Whaling Commission’s website. You can download a pdf of the 33-page paper by pressing here.


On arriving at South Georgia I was taken by the natural beauty of the island but the old and rusted overhead conveyor on the Grytviken jetty near to where we anchored immediately showed the industrial scale of whale product transhipment that had taken place from this whaling station. Further on were the flensing plan, blubber cookery, meat cookery, bone cookery, separator plant, meal plant, old ships, villa, offices and stores, accommodation, the Whalers’ Church, workshops, freezer plant, livestock buildings, power plant; and finally the cemetery with the grave of the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The soccer field on the southern side of the church shows that whalers somehow lived an active lifestyle despite having to work long hours at the processing plants. The great magnitude of tanks around processing plants is presumably in relation to the amount of oil produced from the whaling activities.


Overview image of the remains of South Georgia’s Grytviken Whaling Station showing the whale processing instruments, workshops and accommodation. The arrow points to the South Georgia Museum, originally the house of the whaling station manager.
Overview image of the remains of South Georgia’s Grytviken Whaling Station showing the whale processing instruments, workshops and accommodation. The arrow points to the South Georgia Museum, originally the house of the whaling station manager.


The small information boards throughout the whaling station provided us with useful and detailed historical information about the mechanisms and equipment used to perform certain whale-processing activities. After seeing the remaining bones and ancient whaling equipment used to catch and process whales, I, as a whale biologist, was engulfed by sadness at the thought of the large numbers of whales caught during the whaling decades and processed at this whaling station. However these remains (bones, buildings and equipment) provide invaluable insight to the scale and intensity of whaling industry operations that cannot be found in a whaling museum or anywhere else.


Whale bones and whaling equipment in front of the South Georgia Museum.
Whale bones and whaling equipment in front of the South Georgia Museum.


Elephant seals were lazing around on the beaches after their mating season, and easily irritated testosterone-pumped fur seal bulls chased my fellow researchers around. Seabirds, including albatrosses and penguins, make this island a unique and important key element of the Antarctic ecosystem. The island is in a sensitive ecological state, and island management plans are in place to improve and preserve it.


I will remember and cherish this trip to Grytviken for a lifetime because this former whaling station provides marine biologists like me with an understanding of whaling history that can’t be found anywhere else, I feel privileged to have set foot on this former whaling station. As researchers we also really appreciated the friendliness and keenness of those we met who were working at South Georgia to share their knowledge and experiences of the island with us.




Wandering Albatross Still Dying From Fishing Rubbish

The recent loss of a wandering albatross chick on Bird Island to discarded fishing gear highlights the continued risk from poorly managed fishing practices. Around 850 pairs of wandering albatross currently nest each year at Bird Island. The species is listed as ‘vulnerable’, with a decreasing population trend, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of threatened species.


Dr Andy Wood, Marine Predator Ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) sent a report recently to ACAP (Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels) telling of the harrowing experience of Jess Walkup, who is maintaining the long-term monitoring of wanderers on Bird Island:


“During the monthly census in August, one wandering albatross chick was observed several metres from its nest, looking weak and uncharacteristically ruffled. Closer inspection revealed that it had more than two metres of monofilament fishing line emerging from its beak. The line was wrapped tightly around the chick’s body and wings and had almost severed one leg. It must have ingested the hook and line embedded in discarded bait obtained by its parent while scavenging behind a fishing vessel. Indeed, a study published in 2010 suggested that 1300-2050 items of fishing gear are inadvertently consumed each year by wandering albatrosses at South Georgia. The team cut the bird free from the line, but had to leave the hook embedded within the bird’s digestive system. It was found dead a few days later.”


Attempts were made to free the chick from the hook and line. Photo Cian Luck.
Attempts were made to free the chick from the hook and line. Photo Cian Luck.


The local South Georgia fishery is well managed and a ban on discarding hooks is enforced by on-board observers. During the breeding season, however, wandering albatrosses range thousands of kilometres from the colony, and overlap with fisheries managed by many different regulatory regimes. The discarded fishing gear reported here is most likely to have come from a fishery that is much farther afield, where discarding of gear is not as well regulated. This emphasises the international nature of the problems that fisheries pose for this and other threatened ACAP species.”




Bird Island Diary

By Jerry Gillham, Zoological Field Assistant (penguins and petrels) & Winter Base Commander at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.


North Valley and La Roche in the snow. Photo Jerry Gillham.
North Valley and La Roche in the snow. Photo Jerry Gillham.


August was by far the coldest month of the winter, with the temperature almost always below zero and dropping to near -10°C. The wind has seemed relentless at times, and yet it’s been an amazing time to be outside. We’ve had pancake ice in the bay and frozen streams and ponds all over the island, making the watery meadows much easier to walk across, while unexpectedly waist-deep snow drifts make areas of tussac grass much harder. One of the highlights of this was the appearance of a couple of snow petrels in the bay. Normally these pristine white birds are only glimpsed flashing past the peaks and cliffs, so it was a real treat to see them spend some time feeding in the slush beside the jetty.


Snow Petrel (Jerry Gillham).
Snow Petrel (Jerry Gillham).


The big freeze led to that rarest of events on rain-swept Bird Island; a water shortage. So while Rob got out the hoses and primed the pump I smashed a hole in the ice where we could hear water running underneath. I then smashed another hole when we found there was a limit to the hose length!


Not far for Cian to go to photograph this Leopard Seal ‘Gil’ in front of base. Photos Jerry Gillham.
Not far for Cian to go to photograph this Leopard Seal ‘Gil’ in front of base. Photos Jerry Gillham.


While Cian has been kept busy photographing leopard seals on his daily rounds I have been helping Jess ringing the wandering albatross chicks. It’s about six months since they hatched and they’ve spent the vast majority of that time sitting alone in their turret-like nests watching the winter pass, interrupted by weekly feeding visits from their parents. They can stand up to about waist height now and, although it’ll be another three months at least before they start to fledge, they will soon start to get bored and explore away from their nests. Before that happens we’ll put a unique identification ring on every one of the 600+ chicks. This will enable us to identify any individual subsequently nesting or picked up elsewhere in the Southern Ocean and will help to build up a picture of their survival rates, dispersion and life history.


August marks the start of the new breeding season and despite the cold weather there have been signs of activity: pintail ducks chasing each other around, sheathbills collecting nesting material, giant petrels pair-bonding and, most pleasingly of all, South Georgia pipits singing. Soon we’ll be out every day checking on giant petrels, black-browed and grey-headed albatross. To prepare, nest-marking stakes have been cut and painted, and marker tags have been cleaned and sorted.


New spreadsheets and notebooks have been drawn up and we’re all raring to go.




South Georgia Snippets

Film making at Bird Island. Photo Jess Walkup.
Film making at Bird Island. Photo Jess Walkup.


Bird Island for the Oscars?: The creative side of the folks at Bird Island and KEP were let loose to come up with this year’s entries to the Antarctic 48hr Film Festival. This annual competition is to make a five minute-long film using five set elements. This year the set elements were: the sound of a squealing pig; a swing; a swim suit; the Kiwi cartoon character Wal Footrot, and the line of dialogue "It'll be dark soon and they mostly come at night, mostly”.


The set elements are only told to the bases late on Friday and by Sunday night the films have to be uploaded to a website. Judging then follows with all the bases downloading all the films and voting. With many entries from all around the south polar world and often low levels of bandwidth, this process can take a while.


Bird Island’s entry “Lord of the Rings - the missing scenes” was judged second best film overall, with a first for Best Acting, and third in Cinematography,.


Jerry from BI said that the 48hr Film Festival had been eagerly anticipated there: “After recreating Star Wars last year we decided to go for a similar parody of/tribute to Lord Of The Rings. The fog that hung over the island all Saturday caused a few filming problems but added a slightly mystic atmosphere. Three of us headed up to the mountain cave to record a tense moment with Frodo and Sam and brief but brave attempts were made to recreate the Hobbit’s barefoot style. After returning to base to warm up, Cian and I got our chance to play at being Hobbits, meeting up with Gandalf, before we headed up the valley to run around with swords and cloaks, living out every geek’s dream of being Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. We concluded with a monumental battle on the beach against an army of orcs (though with extras a little hard to come by it may look like one orc over and over again). We even managed to sneak in a cameo from some of the island’s winter wildlife.”


Of Bird Island’s success Jerry said “A tremendous amount of skill and enthusiasm had gone into some really great films, so we were amazed and flattered (and a little bemused) to have been picked as best actors and second best film overall.”


Best Film was won by the Australians at Davis Station for “Wal’s TV”.


The folks at KEP also had a lot of fun making their entry “The Making of” but did not win any prizes, which only goes to indicate the high standard of entries this year as it is well worth watching.


You can see the BI entry “Lord of the Rings - the missing scenes” here, but be warned, it does contain some bad language.


You can see the KEP entry “The Making of” here.


All the films, including those in the Open Category, can be seen here.



Matt gets an icy drenching.
Matt gets an icy drenching.



Now that’s what I call an ice bucket: The worldwide fundraising craze, the Ice Bucket Challenge, has reached South Georgia. Instead of a small ice bucket though, Matthew Phillips and Julie Hunt had a JCB bucket of icy sea water cascaded over them! The Ice Bucket Challenge started as an activity involving dumping a bucket of ice water on someone's head to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and encourage donations to research. Over $60 million has been raised for the ALS Association so far but other charities have been benefitting.


Photo Patrick Lurcock.
Photo Patrick Lurcock.


Big boys back: The first big male elephant seal hauled out at KEP on August 26th since when several more have joined him. These early elephant seal bulls are hoping to bag a good bit of breeding beach in time for the return of the females in a few weeks’ time. As ever this is a welcome sign of spring.


Where rats go: Henry Wyatt spent the southern winter of 1965 working as a medical locum in the Falkland Islands and at South Georgia - three months in each place. He was accompanied by his wife Barbara and young son Angus. The family lived at KEP, and in the afternoons Angus would sleep snuggled in a down bag on a sledge outside. Henry, a keen climber, made the best of the opportunity to explore the island, and one event has stuck in his mind. He recounts it here:


Henry Wyatt’s son Angus in his sledge-pram at KEP 1956.
Henry Wyatt’s son Angus in his sledge-pram at KEP 1956.


“We often walked round to Grytviken and Hestesletten where the beaches were like tarmac, we supposed because the sand had been for so long bonded together by oils from the whaling plan. The path took us past the cemetery at Grytviken where many markers were of young men who had died from injuries. Amongst them is the grave marker for Shackleton.


One of the meteorologists, Dave, was like me interested in mountains and in climbing. He had every second day off. Since the people for whom I was an emergency help were all healthy I had time on my hands. Every second day we would put on our skis at KEP and wander off amongst the hills behind Grytviken, scouting the approaches to Mount Sugartop or crossing the point to look down its north-western side. The skis would not come off until we reached home. One day we were on our way home a few miles out. We were on fresh, clean snow. We crossed a first small col. To our surprise we came across a few rat tracks coming together at the col and heading in the same direction. More tracks appeared as we crossed the depression to the next col. And as we crossed that col more and more tracks appeared. We began to challenge each other by guessing where the tracks would end. So we followed the tracks of what must by now have been an army of rats as we followed the valley to the whaling station. We expected the tracks to lead us to one of the buildings or to the plan. But that’s not where the tracks took us. We followed them to the graveyard where they disappeared among the many memorial stones.”




Dates For Your Diary

August marked the start of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition 100 years ago and so most of the events highlighted in this section relate to Shackleton Centenary events. Shackleton had strong links to South Georgia and is buried at Grytviken.


Enchanted Island: In Shackleton's Steps Across South Georgia: Stephen Venables will be speaking at four locations across Scotland as part of a series of talks arranged by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He will be telling how he followed Shackleton’s route across South Georgia with outstanding fellow climbers, Conrad Anker and Reinhold Messner. Retracing Shackleton’s steps and seeing first-hand the wild landscape he had crossed, the three modern mountaineers were astounded at what Shackleton had achieved in 1916.


The 2-hour long presentation ‘In Shackleton's Steps Across South Georgia’ will start at 7.30pm at all four locations:

September 29th Aberdeen

September 30th Dundee

October 1st Dunfermline

October 2nd Edinburgh

For more information about the talk series and talk locations, download the pdf here.


Shackleton Epic: On Thursday October 16th Tim Jarvis, the leader of the recent Shackleton Epic Expedition, will be talking about the challenges of sailing the replica lifeboat Alexandra Shackleton from Elephant Island to South Georgia and the crossing of the island in Shackleton’s footsteps. The talk will be at the October 16th meeting of the Devon and Cornwall Polar Society at the Royal Plymouth Corinthian Yacht Club, Madeira Road, Plymouth Hoe, Plymouth, Devon, UK. The meeting starts at 7.30pm. Tickets £5 for DCPS members and £8 for non-members. More information here.


Sir Ernest Shackleton - a hero for our times: A commemoration of the centenary of Shackleton's Endurance Expedition will be made in Leeds, UK, on October 18th. The presentation by Tom Spickett will feature the words of Shackleton and Worsley spoken by Roger Watkins and Glaive Byrne, and music of the period by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton will add to the flavour. A full size sailing boat made by Roger will be used to demonstrate how the James Caird was prepared for its legendary voyage. It is intended that the whole event will give a gritty, true to life, enactment of just what happened on the Endurance Expedition.


The evening will end with ‘themed’ refreshments (reminiscent of the expedition), including bannocks and crystalized fruits, and a question and answer session. Heather Lane, representing the Scott Polar Research Institute, will speak about a relic of the ship which is housed at SPRI. The event is open to the public and entrance is free. A retiring collection will go to the Shackleton Foundation.


‘Sir Ernest Shackleton - a hero for our times’ starts at 7pm October 18th at the School of Philosophy, 64 Woodland Lane, Chapel Allerton, Leeds LS7 4 PD




Shackleton - an Epic Adventure: A talk on the Shackleton Epic Expedition by Barry Gray in Plymouth, UK, on October 30th will be raising money for the Poppy Appeal and the Royal Marine Charitable Trust Fund.


The crew of six British and Australian adventurers who were on the Shackleton Epic Expedition in 2013 claim to be the first to authentically re-enact one of the most remarkable survival stories ever. Barry Gray was part of that team and will tell you the story of their perilous journey over 800 miles of the roughest ocean on the planet in a replica 7m whaler lifeboat, followed by the dangerous crossing of the interior mountain range of South Georgia.


There will also be music from the Cadet Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines and speakers from both the Royal British Legion and the Royal Marines. Attendees are welcomed to use the Sergeant's Mess of Royal Marine Barracks before and after the presentation which will be from 7pm -9pm in The Globe Theatre, Royal Marine Barracks, Stonehouse, Plymouth.


Tickets cost £10. More information here.


Shackleton’s Legacy: A one-day joint meeting of the South Georgia Association and Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) will explore ‘Shackleton’s Legacy’ in a series of talks and presentations. ‘Shackleton’s Legacy’ will be held at SPRI in Cambridge on November 8th. The programme of events is designed to go beyond the retelling the story of the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition by examining, instead, the achievements of Shackleton and his men, and demonstrating the subsequent development in leadership skills, Antarctic science and expedition techniques.


The event is open to the general public but seating is limited to 120 so book early. Admission £25.00 (includes morning coffee, buffet lunch and afternoon tea).


To see the full programme and to book click here.







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