South Georgia Newsletter, December 2014

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Shape of Things to Come

The concept design for the new BAS ship. Image BAS.
The concept design for the new BAS ship. Image BAS.


A new polar research vessel is currently being designed for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The new vessel will be an ice-capable, multi-role polar research and logistics ship which will be used to conduct science and to resupply the BAS stations such as the two in South Georgia. A concept design for the new polar vessel, provided by Houlder Ltd naval architects, has been prepared. The ship’s features will include the ability to carry helicopters and a scientific moon pool. It is expected to be built and ready for operation in late 2019. The new ship will replace both of the current BAS vessels RRS James Clark Ross (JCR) and RRS Ernest Shackleton.



The new vessel was announced by BAS parent organisation the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in April 2014. They are now consulting with potential users to assist in the design phase to ensure that the vessel meets the current and future needs of the science community. Consulting is being conducted both online and at a meeting in London. NERC have invited the UK and international marine and polar science user community to submit comments on the vessel's design. The London meeting will be a on January 15th to engage with the wider scientific community and encourage further participation and input into the vessel's overall design concept and operability.


Funding of more than £200 million has been earmarked for the new ship and associated enabling works at the UK's Antarctic research stations. According to the NERC website, “The state-of-the-art polar research vessel should ensure that UK polar scientists remain at the forefront of environmental research in both the Antarctic and the Arctic.”


http://www.nerc.ac.uk




Yacht Sinks Off King George Island

Polonus leaving Plymouth, and wrecked off King George Island. Photo Antarctic Press.
Polonus leaving Plymouth, and wrecked off King George Island. Photo Antarctic Press.


The sailing yacht Polonus, which was due to arrive at Grytviken on January 4th, sank off King George Island on December 23rd. The Polish yacht, with a small crew was on the ‘Shackleton Expedition 2014’ which set out from Poland on July 7th 2014. The yacht had formed part of the ‘Shackleton 100’ celebrations in Plymouth, UK, when it accompanied a tall ship representing Endurance that sailed from Plymouth one hundred years after Shackleton’s Endurance had set sail south from the same wharf. (The yacht can be seen in the video attached to the August 2014 edition of this newsletter.)


Having sailed via South America and the Falkland Islands, Polonus headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. It was then meant to sail to the expedition’s main target, Grytviken, where it was due to arrive on January 5th; the anniversary of Shackleton’s death in the same cove. Whilst off the Antarctic Peninsula, on December 23rd, Polonus was pushed ashore on King George Island by a squall. A nearby Argentine patrol boat came to their rescue and were able to take off the uninjured crew, however the yacht was abandoned. The all Polish crew were then taken to the Polish research station Arctowski from where they were offered passage aboard the cruise ship Zaandam back to South America where they are due to disembark in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 11th.


One of the original intentions of the ‘Shackleton Expedition 2014’ had been to gather a flotilla of yachts to accompany the 44m “flagship” Polonus on its journey, but no other boats took up the challenge.




Darwin Award for SG Habitat Restoration Project: Final Phase

The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) has been awarded a quarter of a million pounds towards the final phase of the Habitat Restoration (rodent eradication) Project. The money is coming from the UK Government’s Darwin Plus Fund which is the Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. The grant will contribute towards personnel, travel, accommodation and operating costs of final phase of the project and for assessing the recovery of the South Georgia pipit. Project partners for the awarded funds are GSGSSI and the RSPB. The SGHT Habitat Restoration Project was started in 2011 and will cost around £7.5 million in total. The £249,783 awarded to SGHT was the second largest award made by the Darwin Plus Fund out of £1.5 million of awards announced for a range of projects in the Overseas Territories. See all the awards here.




Dragon Flies to Spot Reindeer

HMS Dragon at anchor off Hope Point.
HMS Dragon at anchor off Hope Point.


HMS Dragon made her first visit to South Georgia over Christmas. The Type 45 air defence destroyer had a Westland Lynx helicopter on board which was used to survey the Barff Peninsula for any remaining reindeer ahead of the arrival of the Norwegian SNO markmen. The two marksmen will arrive early next month to shoot the last few animals following a two season project to remove the two large reindeer herds that had established themselves on South Georgia, having been introduced nearly a century ago by the whalers.


GSGSSI Environment Officer Jennifer Lee went up in the aircraft to perform the aerial survey along with the pilot, an observer and three other members of the ship’s crew including HMS Dragon’s Captain Rex Cox. Twenty-one animals were seen towards the northern tip of the Barff and so the marksmen will be deployed there first. The aircraft was also used to depot some stores in a remote location on the Peninsula ready for marksmen.


HMS Dragon stayed at anchor in Cumberland Bay for three days, giving all the crew the opportunity to get off and stretch their legs, and even have a game of touch rugby, whilst the locals were invited aboard for a tour of the ship. The extraordinary anti-air warfare capabilities of the ship’s systems were explained. The Royal Navy describes the destroyers' mission as being "to shield the Fleet from air attack". HMS Dragon is equipped with a sophisticated air-defence system that is able to track over 2,000 targets and simultaneously control and coordinate multiple missiles in the air at once, allowing a large number of tracks to be intercepted and destroyed at any given time.




Shipping News

There were 24 harbour visits to Grytviken during December, the majority (18) from cruise ships and charter yachts which between them brought nearly 2000 passengers to visit the island. The period between Christmas and New Year was especially busy with 10 vessels visiting.


The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) ship RRS James Clark Ross tied up alongside at KEP on December 3rd to resupply the science base; all the supplies needed for the year ahead were offloaded in one extremely busy day.


Over Christmas there was also a port call from the Royal Navy vessel HMS Dragon (see above).


There was no fishing activity in South Georgia waters during December.




Aberrant King Penguin


At the end of December, a rare aberrant plumage king penguin arrived at KEP, probably to moult. The bird’s ear patches, which are bright yellow/orange in this species, were black, though there was some yellow on the top of its breast. The normally bright yellow lower bill plate was also unusually coloured. Compare the colours of the aberrant king to a normal bird in the photographs above.


Only one other report of a similarly aberrant plumage, described as symmetrical partial melanism, can be found; a bird sighted at Crozet Island in 1970. According to a scientific paper published in 2002, plumage colour aberrations are reputed to be extremely rare in king penguins. That said other odd individuals have been spotted on South Georgia amongst the hundreds of thousands of these birds that breed on the island. Other plumage anomalies that have been sighted at South Georgia include the birds below.



Other aberrant plumage king penguins. Photos Patrick Lurcock.
Other aberrant plumage king penguins. Photos Patrick Lurcock.





Where Did That Come From?

A huge iceberg off the north-west end of South Georgia surprised ships en route to and from the island. Many ships navigating these waters will consult the ice charts and will know of any large bergs being tracked in the area, but an anomaly means some large bergs slip through the surveillance. Only icebergs that have a side measuring at least 19km long are named and tracked by the U.S. National Ice Centre. That means that nearly round or square, but still large, icebergs (like the one that has appeared off the island) are not tracked.


A satellite camera, Landsat 8, acquired this image of the unnamed iceberg on December 3. Photo NASA Earth Observatory.
A satellite camera, Landsat 8, acquired this image of the unnamed iceberg on December 3. Photo NASA Earth Observatory.


The big berg was caught on a satellite camera on December 3rd when it was about 240 km west of South Georgia. It measured 165 square km (64 square miles). Scientists are unsure about where on Antarctica the iceberg originated. Icebergs can often be shed from the Antarctic Continent and then get caught up in local currents that sweep them a long way along the Antarctic coast, sometimes halfway round the continent, before they spin off to the north towards South Georgia.




Antarctic Wilderness. (Book Review)

By Birgit Lutz



‘Antarctic Wilderness’ by Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson has arrived. The couple have lived on the oceans, or rather on a sailboat, for 25 years. In 1999 they married on South Georgia. Recently they spent two years, including the cold and dark winters, living aboard their boat Wanderer III in the bays of South Georgia.


South Georgia is famous for huge bird colonies and enormous populations of penguins and seals that crowd the beaches before a backdrop of breath-taking mountains. It is not difficult to open the shutter to something so beautiful. However the photographs by Thies Matzen stand out among all the images that exist of South Georgia. Photographs such as these are not produced in a short visit. Something transpired here, between the human visitors and the animal inhabitants – they approached each other with time. One gets the impression that in the 26 months that Matzen and Ericson spent on the island, they positively melted into it. Hours, days, weeks Matzen sat with king penguin colonies, days he watched the courtship dances of albatrosses, and always also the sky, the clouds, the light, the wind that rushes off the mountains. “It is all wind and wilderness – and us within it” they write in one of their so sensitive captions.


Matzen has captured the rusty remains of the former whaling station at Grytviken in summer and winter light, in damp, mossy green, and brilliant snow covered white. Above all, the photos convey a deep contentment and harmony – with themselves and the world. First printed in German in ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’.


Antarctic Wilderness – South Georgia by Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson has been nominated for the German Photo Book Prize 2015. It is published by MareVerlag in German with an English language insert. 168 pages, 30x26.5cm, €58.


To obtain the book with its English insert visit http://www.mare.de/index.php?article_id=3945 and place your order at shop@mare.de.


Weddell seal mother and pup. Image from Antarctic Wilderness.
Weddell seal mother and pup. Image from Antarctic Wilderness.





Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. (Book Review)

by Robert Burton


Michael Smith's biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton is billed as the 'first comprehensive biography in a generation', in other words since Roland Huntford's ‘Shackleton’ published in 1985. It was after that date that 'Shackletonmania', as the New Yorker called the phenomenon, developed, focussed on the story of the ill-fated voyage of Endurance and the remarkable rescue of her complement. As an adventure story you can't beat it and it has been retold many times, often with little consideration for historical accuracy and more intent on perpetuating a legend.


As Smith writes: ‘Shackleton today is a cult figure who has assumed a mythical, almost saintly figure'. There is nowhere better to witness this than at Shackleton's grave at Grytviken, where thousands gather every year to 'Toast the Boss' and a few place offerings of artificial flowers, wreaths and plaques.


New biographies are welcome, particularly if new material has become available and there is good reason to reassess earlier generations' conclusions; and if the biographer is reliable. These criteria apply to the story of Shackleton. Smith is an experienced biographer and he has done his homework in consulting archives, experts, authorities and descendants.


The challenge he then faced was to work all this material into a coherent account of an interesting and varied life, and cut through the myth to find the 'real man' and make a balanced conclusion, all in a mere 170,000 words. Not surprisingly, many of the finer details that would interest me are missing!


From the South Georgia perspective, it is disappointing that less than three pages are devoted to the month the expedition spent at South Georgia in 1914 and little is said about what they did there. It was a very productive time for the scientists although, alas, their specimens were lost when Endurance sank. However, it has to be accepted that the stay at South Georgia, which was so enjoyable that many of the men were reluctant to leave, pales into insignificance when compared with the travails that awaited them in the Weddell Sea.


Smith repeats the canard that so many writers make much of: 'The whalers…had discouraging news of the Weddell Sea. The pack ice was further north than usual…' They never said that; they chased whales within sight of South Georgia and had hardly ever been as far south as the South Sandwich Islands. And no biographer has mentioned that Shackleton's original plan was to land the scientists and dogs on South Georgia and take Endurance south to reconnoitre the ice situation. It was quickly realised that this would not be particularly helpful.


It is also overlooked that the carpenter 'Chippy' McNish had to cover part of the deck to make extra coal bunkers and then they waited, unrequitedly, for news of the War before eventually setting off. All this took up time, so that it is possible that Endurance would have spent a month at South Georgia even if waiting for the ice to clear was not the sensible option. The well-known stories of the crossing of South Georgia and Shackleton's return aboard Quest and death receive more attention.


I am disappointed at the number of errors in the text. Most of these are trivial and inconsequential and do not affect the story. I could have done with more citations in the text to show the source of information. Such complaints are probably only a worry for anyone who would choose Shackleton as their specialist subject in 'Mastermind'.


After reading the book, I am left with the impression of a man who had no aptitude for planning and whose financial arrangements were so appalling that it would have been better if Churchill had cabled 'Do not proceed' before Endurance set sail. But that would have robbed us of a story that has been an inspiration for many (including me).


So I agree with Michael Smith's summary: 'Shackleton was a man of great paradox. Restive, impatient at home, he was measured, cautious inspirational on the ice. Money ran through his hands like water … He spent a life in the futile pursuit of riches, but left behind a trail of debts.' And as Shackleton, himself, wrote to his wife: 'I am just good as an explorer, and nothing else'. Read the book, make up your own mind.

Robert Burton


Shackleton. By Endurance We Conquer by Michael Smith was published in October. by Oneworld Publications. It has 433 pages and black and white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-7804-572-5.




Tagged Whale Heading Our Way

A whale tagged at Peninsula Valdés, Argentina, at beginning of November, has been tracked heading for South Georgia. The southern right whale was plotted heading past Shag Rocks six weeks after it was tagged.


Five southern right whales were tagged as part of a project looking at the causes of a major decline in population of the species following one of the largest great whale mortality events ever recorded. Researchers from several organisations hope the whales will lead them to unknown feeding grounds, expected to lie in the western South Atlantic, which they hope may provide insights into the mysterious mortality.


Peninsula Valdés is an important breeding ground for the whales, around a third of the world population of this species is thought to breed in the waters there, but, for reasons the scientist don’t yet understand, recently the whale calves have been dying in unprecedented numbers (more than 400 in the period 2003 to 2011). Some of the possible causes are thought to be disease, certain types of contaminant, or harassment and wounding by kelp gulls which frequently occurs to the whales in Peninsula Valdés. The five female and juvenile whales have been fitted with satellite tags so researchers can assess if there is a factor associated with getting to the feeding grounds, their food source, or if nutritional stress causing calf-loss by some mothers.


Early results show two of the five whales remained in the waters of Golfo Nuevo, while the other three left the bay. One headed for South Georgia, one has been spending its time over the continental shelf, and another moved into deep offshore waters but then returned to the continental shelf break. The movements have led researchers to some areas where the tagged animals are likely feeding, and further discoveries of feeding grounds for this population may be revealed as the team continues to track the tagged animals.


Dr. Martín Mendez, Assistant Director of WCS’s Latin America and the Caribbean Program, said: “Over the last several centuries, and as recent as the 1960s, southern right whales were hunted, at times close to the verge of extinction. But they have now managed to rebound in numbers thanks to protected refuges such as Peninsula Valdés. The recent increase in mortality is being caused by something that remains unsolved. Determining where the whales go to feed may offer clues to solving this complex question.”




Bird Island Diary

By Adam Bradley, Station Leader at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.


The first day of December was a memorable one for me: after nearly 3 long weeks of sailing the Southern Ocean on the JCR, I finally made it back to Bird Island to do a second summer stretch as the Station Leader. That morning I woke early and headed for the ship’s bridge-deck, eyes peeled for my first glimpse of the island. As it emerged from its habitual shroud of mist, it gradually revealed all of those familiar crags and slopes, until at last the base came into view, complete with one tiny orange-clad figure standing on the end of jetty waving at us across the sea.


Fur seal pup having a rest on a nice warm adult male.
Fur seal pup having a rest on a nice warm adult male.


The rest of the day passed in a whirlwind of activity. The team of us going in for the summer first clad ourselves in boat-suits and were whisked ashore by two of the JCR’s RIBs, to be welcomed ashore by the hardy winter team of four. We were also greeted by the wall of smell created by a beach full of fur-seals.


December is the busiest month for the seal research team. Every morning and evening they head to the seal study beach where they work on the programme of continuous monitoring of the seal numbers, using hair-dye to mark and track new arrivals. It is also traditional at this time of year for the humans to dye their hair blonde in an act of solidarity with the seals, a tradition which not even the Station Leader can avoid.


The albatross research team were also put to work immediately, keeping a regular eye on the island’s populations of wandering, black-browed, grey-headed and light-mantled sooty albatrosses. Already by the end of the month the first grey-headed chicks are appearing and the wanderers are doing their spectacular courtship displays on the meadows around the island. The more decisive amongst them also laid their huge eggs and are beginning the lonely vigils on the nest, waiting for their youngsters to emerge.


Big Mac, our largest macaroni penguin colony, is now jam-packed with adult birds and can be heard from across the island and smelt from even further away.


As Christmas approached a giant cake was cooked and decorated with models of some of the island’s animals, and has kept us well supplied ever since.


For New Year we assembled at the end of the jetty to welcome in 2015, surrounded by the night-time noises of the island. For those of us who were also there to see in 2014, we could scarcely believe that a whole year had passed. Time flies on Bird Island!


Photos by Adam Bradley.
Photos by Adam Bradley.





South Georgia Snippets

Big aggregations of humpback whales: Lots of humpback and other whales have been reported off South Georgia in recent weeks. In one case 37 whales were confirmed off the western end of the island. The cruise ship Ortelius encountered the 37 humpbacks over a two hour period, and then saw a further 16 humpbacks over another two hour period as they approached the Willis Islands the same day. The next day the vessel encountered between 6 and 10 humpbacks in Stromness Bay, and then on the next day, Christmas Eve, they saw a handful more humpbacks just off Hercules Bay and later six more adult whales with two calves.


A blue whale was also sighted on December 30th between Gold Harbour and Cooper Bay. The expedition Leader, Kara Weller, who made the report said that it was the first she had ever seen in South Georgia waters, and that it was “…only the second blue I have ever seen in the Southern Ocean and I have been down here 16 years now!”


Shockingly it was blue whales that made up the second greatest number of whales caught and processed at Grytviken whaling station in the sixty years the station operated.


What species is this bird? Photo Bert Verboog.
What species is this bird? Photo Bert Verboog.


Pipit: which pipit where?: On first sighting several people assumed the bird pictured above was a South Georgia pipit, but this bird was photographed on the deck of the Bark Europa on Nov 13th 2014. The tallship was at sea close to position 41° 05.6’ S 060°43.7’ W, which is south-east of Buenos Aires (see the map below). Either this is a very off-course South Georgia pipit, or is it perhaps a juvenile (and more local) pipit such as a Correndera Pipit Anthus Correndera? If you think you can positively identify this bird please get in touch.


Googlemap showing the mystery pipit’s position when photographed.
Googlemap showing the mystery pipit’s position when photographed.



Museum Shackleton tour: To mark the centenary of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition the South Georgia Museum has developed a new tour based on the activities of Shackleton and his men at Grytviken. The Endurance spent a month at South Georgia, mainly at Grytviken, before sailing for the Weddell Sea on December 5th 1914. The ship was trapped and later sunk in the ice of the Weddell Sea. The link between Grytviken and Shackleton is strong as King Edward Cove was also where his later ship Quest was moored when he suffered a heart attack and died, and was then buried in the cemetery at Grytviken. The new guided tour, which is offered alongside the regular whaling station and museum tours, was available from the end of December and was well received by visiting cruise ship passengers. The Museum plan to offer the ‘Shackleton at Grytviken’ tour next season as well.


In November a group of relatives of the original Endurance expedition members were travelling aboard Akademik Sergey Vavilov on a Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI)/Icetracks cruise. During their visit they held a service in Grytviken church at which several of the relatives read. See a short video of the service and following ceremony at Shackleton’s graveside.




A memorial ceremony for the leader and members of the Endurance expedition was held in Grytviken
church. Several relatives of the original expedition members took part in the service.


Fifteen more cameras on South Georgia for Penguin Lifelines: Penguin Lifelines, the research project that uses static cameras to monitor penguin colonies, has built up its monitoring in South Georgia so that 15 cameras are now in place. Further cameras are monitoring penguins in the Falkland Islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula.


The two-person field team, led by Tom Hart, travelled aboard charter yacht Hans Hansson, and later aboard cruise ships, to set up and then collect data from the cameras that overlook colonies of gentoo, king, and macaroni penguins as well as fur and elephant seal colonies. The researchers said in their blog: “We hope to better understand the annual cycle of each of these species from the cameras and how changes to the timing of the breeding phase is influenced by environmental variables.”


The pair also visited Shag Rocks, a small remote outcrop of rocks to the west-north-west of South Georgia, to count the thousands of blue-eyed shags that nest there.




Shackleton at South Georgia: An updated version of the SGHT publication ‘Shackleton at South Georgia’ has been published. Written by Robert Burton, a Shackleton and South Georgia historian, the new version of the popular pamphlet includes some of the latest findings about Shackleton and his exploits relating to the island and has an attractive new cover. It is available from the SGHT on-line shop here.


A skua taking a bath.
A skua taking a bath.


Skua bath: Although skuas nest in well separated territories, a single nest, often on a hilltop with a good look out over suitable feeding grounds, they can also gather in large numbers, especially around bodies of fresh water. Well over thirty birds were filmed bathing together in a lake in the hills above Carlita. More than sixty birds have been seen at other lakes.




More than thirty skuas bathing in a lake in the hills and drying off on shore..


The King Edward Cove residents at Christmas. Photo Matthew Phillips.
The King Edward Cove residents at Christmas. Photo Matthew Phillips.



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