South Georgia Newsletter, April 2012

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Cruise Ship Stranded At Grytviken For Weeks

“Plancius” at anchor in King Edward Cove. Photo Alastair Wilson.
“Plancius” at anchor in King Edward Cove. Photo Alastair Wilson.


The cruise ship “Plancius” was stranded in King Edward Cove for a fortnight after suffering the loss of her main engine. The ship was the last cruise ship of the season and made her scheduled visit to Grytviken on April 8th.


Shortly afterwards “Plancius” suffered engine problems that left her with auxiliary power only, and therefore very limited sailing capabilities making it unsafe to continue towards their next planned destination in the Cape Verde Islands. The vessel returned to anchor in King Edward Cove on the 10th whilst the ship’s engineers continued to try and mend the fault. The 36 year old ship was originally built as an oceanographic research vessel for the Royal Dutch Navy. It was bought by operators Ocean Expeditions in 2009 and refitted as a passenger vessel. Because of the ship’s limited propulsion it was decided it would be safest to tie it up alongside the jetty at KEP. Cruise ships are not normally allowed to tie up alongside for biosecurity reasons.


Meanwhile, Ocean Expeditions arranged for another cruise ship, “Ushuaia”, to sail to South Georgia to collect all 76 passengers and some crew members and expedition staff. GSGSSI has thanked Antarpply (the operator of the “Ushuaia”) for their assistance. During the long wait at KEP, passengers were kept busy with a programme of walks, Zodiac cruises and lectures, and the Post Office and Museum were opened daily for a few hours. A service was held on the Sunday in the Grytviken church. Ocean Expeditions said the spirit on board was “good given the circumstances.”


The relief ship “Ushuaia” arrived on the 18th and the passengers and others were quickly transferred. “Ushuaia” then sailed later the same day en route to Montevideo, Uruguay, for disembarkation and connecting travel arrangements on April 24th.


The Chilean tug “Otway” also arrived on the 18th to tow “Plancius” to Montevideo, but would not leave for a few days until there was hope of better weather for the passage. Permission to start the tow was given by the vessel insurers on the 21st and “Plancius” was assisted off the berth and then turned in the Cove by both the tug and the two GSGSSI harbour launches, which are fitted with ‘pushing bows’. “Plancius” was then able to sail out into Cumberland Bay where rigging of the tow was completed before both vessels departed. They made good progress and arrived safely. She is expected to go into dry dock in Buenos Aires for repairs.


“Plancius” is manoeuvred in the Cove with assistance from the tug “Otway” and harbour launches “Pipit” and “Prion”. Photo by Jo Cox.
“Plancius” is manoeuvred in the Cove with assistance from the tug “Otway” and harbour launches “Pipit” and “Prion”. Photo by Jo Cox.





Thirty Years On

April marked the 30th anniversary of the Liberation of South Georgia following invasion by Argentine forces in 1982. Whilst there has been much media coverage of the Falkland War in the international media, the events that took place on South Georgia are often overlooked despite the island being the place the war started.


April 25th, South Georgia’s Liberation Day, was marked by the locals with an outdoor reception and an over-flight from an RAF Hercules aircraft on patrol from the Falklands and en route to patrol the South Sandwich Island area.


Historian Bob Headland was a scientist working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) at KEP at the time of the invasion. He had kept a detailed diary of the days leading up to the invasion, and what happened afterwards, and spoke to the Cambridge News about those dramatic days: ‘The scientists and local people had been monitoring the Argentine advance and had taken pictures of troop movements. Mr Headland said that when the Argentine soldiers arrived, he and his colleagues hid the photos among their belongings so their captors would not see them. He said: "We used a Danish ‘art magazine’ to distract one of the guards so the photos could be smuggled out. We were all rounded up and given 20 minutes to pack a few things before being put aboard a ship. It wasn’t that we scientists were a threat, it’s perhaps because there were some Royal Marines with us, and we were all grouped together."


The captured scientists were taken to Argentina by ship and held in a prison camp there. Mr Headland, now in his 60s, said: "We weren’t badly treated. There was no gratuitous violence. We were locked up, however, and brought out and counted by the guards three times a day. I was the only one among us with a decent level of Spanish, so I acted as interpreter when I could. None of the guards spoke English, but a couple of the officers did, so I decided mostly to communicate with them. We tried to keep a sense of humour about it, but of course we were all anxious to know whether we would be released and allowed back home to Britain. Whenever we asked when this would happen, we were told "manana", tomorrow."


In the end, after two-and-a-half weeks under lock and key, the BAS workers were woken up at "an ungodly hour", Mr Headland said, and taken to an airstrip. "To our enormous relief, we were put on board a plane – and flown to RAF Brize Norton." he said.


Two years after the war, Mr Headland was awarded the Polar Medal, given to people for significant personal achievement in the Arctic or Antarctic regions.


The original Cambridge News article can be seen here.


For more memories of being on South Georgia during the invasion see the interview with Cindy Buxton below.





Fishing And Shipping News

A longliner coming into King Edward Cove for inspection and licensing. Photo Alastair Wilson.
A longliner coming into King Edward Cove for inspection and licensing. Photo Alastair Wilson.


At the beginning of April two longliners were fishing for toothfish in the South Sandwich Islands Fishery. Both vessels later moved up to join the South Georgia toothfish fishery which opened on April 16th. Two further longliners were inspected and licensed on April 14th and 24th. Toothfish catches at the beginning of the season have been good.


The disabled cruise ship “Plancius” was in the Cove for most of the month. Cruise ship “Ushuaia” and the tug “Otway” arrived to assist on April 18th (see above).


The BAS ship “RRS James Clark Ross” (“JCR”) arrived at KEP on April 20th for the end of season relief. The vessel would usually go alongside, enabling her to use her cranes to load and offload stores, but the disabled vessel “Plancius” was occupying the berth. Instead a cargo tender was used to carry stores from ship to shore, landing on the beach south of the jetty.


A cargo tender was used to transfer stores from the “JCR” to KEP. Photo Alastair Wilson.
A cargo tender was used to transfer stores from the “JCR” to KEP. Photo Alastair Wilson.





Wanderers’ Breeding Dates Wandering

A study has shown that there are changes in wandering albatross breeding dates on South Georgia; some of the birds are breeding earlier in the season compared with 30 years ago. Because some wanderers are now laying their eggs earlier, the laying date for the population is an average of 2.2 days earlier than before. Results of the study were released in the April edition of the online journal ‘Oikos’.


Photo Katie Brigden.
Photo Katie Brigden.


The researchers say the reasons for the change in breeding date are unclear. Lead author Dr Sue Lewis at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences said, “Our results are surprising. Every year we can determine when the birds return to the Island after migration, and the exact day they lay their egg. We knew that some birds were laying earlier – those who were older or had recently changed partner - but now we see that those which haven’t bred successfully in the past are also laying earlier, and these birds are effectively driving this trend in earlier laying”.


The researchers studied over 30 years of data from birds located near the BAS research station on Bird Island. Nest sites were monitored daily during the pre-laying, laying, hatching and fledging periods to document breeding patterns.


Numbers of wandering albatrosses on South Georgia have been steadily declining, largely due to interaction with less well-managed longline fisheries in other parts of their feeding range away from South Georgia. The birds swallow baited hooks on longlines set by fishing vessels and are dragged under and drown. Despite a recent increase in breeding success over the last 20 years, the number of birds at Bird Island has fallen by over 50% since the 1960s, from 1700 to only 800 breeding pairs. British Antarctic Survey bird ecologist Dr Richard Phillips, also an author on the paper said, “This work is important for understanding more about the behaviour of these charismatic and threatened birds. In the Indian Ocean, an increase in the intensity of westerly winds has resulted in a shift in feeding distribution of wandering albatrosses. It is possible that earlier breeding in some females at South Georgia is a consequence of environmental change, but at the moment we are not sure if this is related to weather, a change in oceanographic conditions, or food availability, to which only some birds are responding.”


http://www.antarctica.ac.uk




Shaken Up

A large earthquake in the Drake Passage area on April 14th led to KEP locals, and the stranded tourists and crew of the vessel “Plancius”, being mustered ready for evacuation in case it generated a tsunami event. The 6.2 quake’s epicentre was at 57.63° S ; 65.33°W, in the middle of the passage between the tip of South America and tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Fortunately information quickly followed that there was no risk, and everyone was stood down.


More earthquakes in excess of 5 on the Richter scale were reported from the very seismically active South Sandwich Islands region. On April 11th a 5.4 earthquake was centred at 56.847°S, 27.966°W, just 49km WSW of Visokoi Island. On April 14th the same island was closest (72km east) to an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale at 56.842°S, 25.304°W. Another large earthquake, measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale, occurred on April 17th but at some distance east of the South Sandwich Islands. The closest land was Bristol Island, 563 km to the west of the epicentre.


On April 23rd a smaller 4.9 earthquake was centred at 55.553°S, 27.707°W, 131 km NNW of Visokoi Island.


Visokoi Island is an active volcano. Photo Katie Brigden.
Visokoi Island is an active volcano. Photo Katie Brigden.





Filmmaker’s War Experiences Amidst The Penguins

In a televised interview on ITV’s Anglia News, Cindy Buxton remembers what it was like to be at St Andrew’s Bay thirty years ago. She and Annie Price were living there in a hut, on the edge of the vast king penguin colony, and were making a wildlife documentary as war broke out.


The interview tells how she was contacted by the notorious Argentinian Captain Alfredo Astiz who told her to “cut off contacts with the outside world” but Cindy refused. If they saw anything of interest like a passing ship, Cindy would radio the BAS Station at KEP and just mention the observation conversationally, knowing people on HMS Endurance were also listening and might find the information useful.


Cindy also tells how a Royal Marine, Tommy Scott, appeared at the hut door one day and showed them how to use a pistol, something she says she would have had “no hesitation” in using if she had been approached by Argentinian soldiers unbuckling their trousers!


Though they could hear the fighting the other side of the Barff Peninsula, they never saw any of the action. They took the precaution of burying the film they had taken to keep it safe. Four weeks later they were taken aboard HMS "Antelope". Arriving back in Britain the two girls were surprised to find there was huge media interest in them. They completed the documentary which won awards.


You can see the interview here.





Mouse Trap

By Dr Richard Cuthbert, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.


The mouse project team. L to R – Kalinka Rexer-Huber, Richard Cuthbert, Erica Sommer, Graham Parker and Andy Black.
The mouse project team. L to R – Kalinka Rexer-Huber, Richard Cuthbert, Erica Sommer, Graham Parker and Andy Black.


During March a team of five biologists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK) and the GSGSSI, spent a month on the remote and seldom visited southwest coast of South Georgia. The aim was to understand more about the distribution and ecology of house mice in order to assist the South Georgia Heritage Trust with the forthcoming eradication of mice and rats from the Island. The team spent two weeks at Cape Rosa, camping close to the site of Shackleton’s landing point, and two further weeks on the neighbouring Nuñez Peninsula.


Little is known about mice on South Georgia, which were only discovered on the Island in 1976 and the last mouse research on the Island was over 30 years ago. On other islands, most notably Gough Island (Tristan da Cunha), house mice are a major conservation threat as they predate chicks of albatrosses and burrowing petrels as well as impacting on invertebrate and vegetation communities: hence the desire to eradicate mice along with rats from South Georgia.


The team found very low numbers of mice at both sites, and they were mainly restricted to a narrow strip of tussac habitat close to the coast. Tests of baiting rates using non-toxic pellets indicated mice were eager to consume bait, which, combined with their low numbers and limited distribution, is encouraging for the prospects of a successful eradication.


The fieldwork was funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative programme as part of a larger project to increase knowledge of how to eradicate mice from islands within UK Overseas Territories. The team would like to thank Tony Martin and Martin Collins for assistance with shipping bait and equipment, the master and crew of the FPV “Pharos SG” for transport and support in the field, and the BAS team at KEP for their hospitality and support.


Checking mouse traps at Cape Rosa. Photo Kalinka Rexer-Huber.
Checking mouse traps at Cape Rosa. Photo Kalinka Rexer-Huber.






Life As A Scientific Observer Aboard A Toothfish Longliner

By Katie Brigden – Fisheries Biologist, British Antarctic Survey, KEP


March at King Edward Point sees the arrival of the first fishing vessels for the start of the toothfish longline season and, for me, is the time to pack my bags and head off to sea for a few weeks. South Georgia’s toothfish fishery offers a good example of a well-managed fishery, with scientific advice underpinning all aspects of management, from the quotas which are reassessed and set every year, to the comprehensive set of regulations that every licensed fishing vessel must adhere to. At the heart of the management measures is the role of the observer: Regulations state that each vessel must have an observer on board, registered with CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), whose job it is to verify catch information and facilitate greater scientific sampling and data collection which then feeds directly into the management of the fishery. As part of my role as Fisheries Biologist at KEP I spent 7 weeks as an observer in South Georgia waters (Area 48.3) last season and this year was sent out observing again, this time in Area 48.4 – the South Sandwich Islands (SSI).


Katie out on deck observing the hauling of the longline.
Katie out on deck observing the hauling of the longline.


The vessel I was assigned to – the “San Aspiring” – has been in the fishery for several years. The vessel has a good reputation and fishes well, able to work continuously, with two teams working in shifts. The job can be tough, with the crew working in cold weather, carrying out physical work – fish in SSI can be up to 1.8 metres in length, weighing 45 – 60 kg. Luckily for me, someone was always on hand to offer assistance, particularly with work in the factory where I could be dealing with fish that weighed more than I did! For the observer, fitting in the required tasks and finding time to eat and sleep can be a challenge at first - there are no days off and breaks in fishing are few, so time management is a skill to learn quickly. The key tasks for observers are observing the setting and hauling of the line, taking biological measurements and samples in the factory (on both toothfish and by-catch species) and tagging a certain number of toothfish and skate as part of a tag recapture programme which provides more data for management. Carrying out the work can involve early mornings, late nights, standing out on deck for up to an hour or more, and – just when you think you have finished for the day – all the information gathered then has to be entered into a database!


Yet, whilst the hours are long and the work can be physically tiring, there are also some great rewards to working as an observer: Sightings of whales become part of the norm as you stand on deck carrying out your line observations, and the wildlife seen can be spectacular – breaching humpbacks, pods of sperm whales around the vessel, orca following alongside as you move to new fishing grounds, fur seals porpoising next to the vessel and seabirds flying past. The opportunity to see places not often visited by others is well worth the hard work as well, for instance waking up and going to the wheelhouse to discuss the day’s fishing with the skipper and finding a view of South Sandwich’s Visokoi Island, with its crater smoking, or the sun just coming up over an island; and of course, getting the chance to see a commercial fishing boat in action and knowing the information you are collecting contributes to the management of a successful and well managed fishery.


My time aboard the “San Aspiring” was certainly busy but it was also a great experience. After my few weeks on board, the vessel left the waters of the SSI and returned to South Georgia, ready for the start of the season here. This marked the time for me to return to dry land, transferring with another observer who would take over for the rest of the season. Back at KEP, it’s now time for me to catch up on some sleep and get on with the task of analysing those samples obtained, with the data going towards informing management decisions for the future.


Watching whales from the deck is one of the great rewards of working as an observer in the fishery. Photo Katie Brigden.
Watching whales from the deck is one of the great rewards of working as an observer in the fishery. Photo Katie Brigden.





Fieldworkers Sunny Wedding


Two field researchers were married in an outdoor ceremony at Hope Point on March 3rd. The bride, Kalinka Rexer-Huber, had spent much of the summer at KEP taking part in various projects including combating invasive plants, rat trapping and surveying birds. The groom, Graham Parker, arrived for his first ever visit to the island on the “Pharos SG” on the day of the wedding. It was a busy day as the couple and three other scientists needed to sort out equipment and be ready to sail later that afternoon on the “Pharos SG” ready to be dropped off to start a new field project trapping mice (see above).



Everyone was invited to attend the wedding which took place at noon on a beautiful sunny calm day on the headland just above Shackleton’s Cross. Registrar Sarah Lurcock officiated. The bride and groom took their vows looking towards the fabulous backdrop of Mt Paget. The two witnesses were fellow field worker Andy Black, and Jude Brown. The bride carried a posy of hand-felted flowers made by various friends in the Falkland Islands where they live.


After the ceremony they were driven the short distance in the wedding car, a shaving foam, can and safety tape bedecked Land Rover, to a champagne reception on the base veranda. Later they were waved off from the jetty as they sailed off to start the mouse project.


Photos Alastair Wilson.
Photos Alastair Wilson.





Bird Island Diary

By Ruth Brown, Penguin Assistant at the BAS Research Station at Bird Island.


The beginning of April on Bird Island saw the successful completion of the building projects which were started last month. In particular, the rusty and decrepit old jetty was gradually replaced with a shiny and robust new one. The jetty re-build proved to be a little more challenging than the re-build of SSB, owing to the fact that it is almost completely submerged in water for a large proportion of the time, but it was nothing that our team of techs could not handle. Gaz and James worked tirelessly on the project, in all weathers and often spending long hours standing up to their chests in the icy cold water of the bay. The nature of the structure, and the fact that it had to be built using manpower alone, meant that it was not possible to simply tear down the old jetty and start from scratch. It had to be removed a small section at a time, and the framework for the new jetty inserted piece by piece. This gruelling process took several weeks to complete, but once it was done the task of laying the new wooden walkway and attaching handrails was fairly straightforward. The final task was to re-erect the jetty flagpole and run up the colours, thus safeguarding British interests in the Southern Ocean, or at least on Bird Island.


Out with the old…
Out with the old…


In with the new jetty.
In with the new jetty.



The jetty re-build was a complete success, but sadly there was one casualty. Due to limitations on building materials and health & safety issues, our beloved jetty bog (reputedly David Attenborough’s favourite toilet in the whole world) could not be restored to its rightful position. This decision caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the residents of Bird Island, however you can rest assured that the bog will be preserved for posterity and used for some other purpose, just as soon as we figure out what that purpose might be.


The new jetty was finished on April 14th; not a moment too soon as the next day the “JCR” arrived to start ‘last call’. The “JCR” was originally scheduled to call on the 21st, but due to favourable weather conditions decided to come in a bit earlier and collect all our heavy cargo. This resulted in a rather frantic 24 hours as we tried to finish packing up all the outgoing materials (including around 30 tonnes of scrap metal from the old jetty) and prepare all the associated paperwork. Luckily everything was done in time, and last call it went very smoothly. The “JCR” then disappeared for a few days and returned on the 19th to pick up all the outgoing summer personnel. Thus we sadly waved goodbye to Allan (Base Commander), Graham (Facilities Engineer) and Gaz, James and Nick (Tech Services). The population of BI has now been reduced to just four – myself, Jon (Seal Assistant), Jen (Albatross Assistant) and Rob (Tech Services), and we will not be seeing any other people until late September.


As well as a reduction in the human population, April also marks something of a pre-winter exodus for the wildlife. The fur seal puppies, which have been entertaining us since December, have now all gone to sea for the winter. By mid-April the macaroni penguins had also departed, after spending a month on land to moult, and will not return until October. The enormous macaroni penguin Big Mac is deserted, and the island now seems eerily quiet without their constant chatter. The black-browed and grey-headed albatross chicks are also preparing to leave. Most of the chicks now have their sleek adult plumage, and are ‘practicing’ for that all important maiden flight, which essentially means that they spend a lot of time standing on the edge of their nests flapping like maniacs.


A black-browed albatross chick takes some practice flaps.
A black-browed albatross chick takes some practice flaps.


This season’s giant petrel chicks are also looking sleek and grown-up in their new charcoal-grey feathers. The Northern giant petrel chicks have all fledged, but the Southern giant petrel chicks, which hatched about six weeks after the Northerns, are still here. This time next month they too will be gone.


A giant petrel chick is intrigued by its own reflection.
A giant petrel chick is intrigued by its own reflection.


But despite the disappearance of many of its summer residents, Bird Island is far from quiet. The wandering albatrosses will be with us all winter. Their chicks are now large enough to be left alone while both parents forage at sea and the island is covered with these little, grey, fluffy bundles, who sit patiently on their nests waiting for the next delivery of fresh squid and snap their beaks indignantly at any human that gets too close. The gentoo penguins also stay on the island throughout the winter. In recent weeks large numbers of gentoos have started gathering on the beach in front of the base in the evenings, emerging from the sea at around 5pm, staying overnight and then leaving again in the morning. There is no colony on this beach and they did not do this last winter, so speculation is rife on base as to what is causing this new behaviour: too many penguins on the other beaches? a new colony forming? the penguins are planning to invade the base and take over? Only time will tell. In the meantime, they might be visible on the Bird Island webcam to anyone who is interested – check it out from around 5pm onwards http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/images/webcams/bi/index.php


The gentoos have been trying out the new jetty.
The gentoos have been trying out the new jetty.






South Georgia Snippets

A fabulous satellite image of the Island was taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite on April 26th. Clouds swirling across the South Atlantic parted just enough to allow a clear view of the whole island and its icy, rugged landscape. It would also appear that glacial run off from the major glaciers is staining the sea all around the island.


The NASA image taken on the 24th. Photo Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC
The NASA image taken on the 24th. Photo Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC


Unusual wildlife sightings in the KEP area this month have included four orca (killer whales) in Cumberland Cove and two leopard seals just outside KE Cove. Excitingly two pipits were seen at Maiviken and another at KEP in the middle of the month. These are probably young birds spreading out to find their own territories. Hopes are that they are the vanguard of a breeding population that will soon develop in the rat-cleared Phase 1 area of the South Georgia Heritage Trust’s Habitat Restoration Project. The area was baited just over a year ago and no sign of surviving rats has been seen since.


Alastair Wilson caught this dramatic sunset over Mt Hodges in April.



As mentioned last month, a few of us were lucky enough to sail with the beautiful “Bark Europa” in March, see below to join us on board for a sail from Maiviken to Grytviken on a cold but beautiful morning.


Sailing on the "Bark Europa".







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