South Georgia

"South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands" is a British overseas territory. It is a remote and inhospitable collection of islands, consisting of South Georgia and a chain of smaller islands, known as the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is 104 mi long and 0.9 to 23.0 miles wide and is by far the largest island in the territory. The South Sandwich Islands lie about 320 mi southeast of South Georgia. There is no native population on the islands; the present inhabitants are the British Government Officer, Deputy Postmaster, scientists, and support staff from the British Antarctic Survey who maintain scientific bases at Bird Island and at the capital, King Edward Point, as well as museum staff at nearby Grytviken.

The United Kingdom claimed sovereignty over South Georgia in 1775 and the South Sandwich Islands in 1908. In 1908 the United Kingdom annexed both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The territory of "South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands" was formed in 1985; previously it had been governed as part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. Argentina claimed South Georgia in 1927 and claimed the South Sandwich Islands in 1938.

Argentina maintained a naval station, Corbeta Uruguay on Thule Island in the South Sandwich Islands, from 1976 until 1982 when it was closed by the Royal Navy. The Argentine claim over South Georgia contributed to the 1982 Falklands War, during which Argentine forces briefly occupied the island. Argentina continues to claim sovereignty over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The Island of South Georgia is said to have been first sighted in 1675 by Anthony de la Roché, a London merchant, and was named Roche Island on a number of early maps. It was sighted by a commercial Spanish ship named León operating out of Saint-Malo on 28 June or 29 June 1756. Captain James Cook circumnavigated the island in 1775 and made the first landing. He claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Great Britain, and named it "the Isle of Georgia" in honour of King George III. British arrangements for the government of South Georgia were first established under the 1843 British Letters Patent.

In 1882–1883, a German expedition for the First International Polar Year was stationed at Royal Bay on the southeast side of the island. The scientists of this group observed the transit of Venus and recorded waves produced by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

Throughout the 19th century, South Georgia was a sealers' base as well as a whalers' base beginning in the 20th century, until whaling ended in the 1960s. A Norwegian, Carl Anton Larsen, established the first land-based whaling station and first permanent habitation at Grytviken in 1904. It operated through his Argentine Fishing Company, which settled in Grytviken. The station remained in operation until 1965.

Whaling stations operated under leases granted by the (British) Governor of the Falkland Islands. The seven stations, all on the north coast with its sheltered harbours were, starting from the west:

The whaling stations tryworks were unpleasant and dangerous places to work. One was called "a charnel house boiling wholesale in vaseline" by an early 20th-century visitor. Its "putrid vapours [resembled] the pong of bad fish, manure, and a tanning works mixed together," wrote Tim Flannery, who noted one bizarre peril: "A rotting whale could fill with gas to bursting, ejecting a fetus the size of a motor vehicle with sufficient force to kill a man."

With the end of the whaling industry, the stations were abandoned. Apart from a few preserved buildings such as the museum and church at Grytviken, only their decaying remains survive.

In April 1916, Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became stranded on Elephant Island, some 800 miles (1,300 km) southwest of South Georgia. Shackleton and five companions set out in a small boat to summon help, and on 10 May, after an epic voyage, they landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia's south coast. While three stayed at the coast, Shackleton and the two others, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, went on to cover 22 miles overland to reach help at Stromness whaling station. The remaining 22 members of the expedition, who had stayed on Elephant Island, were subsequently rescued. In January 1922, during a later expedition, Shackleton died on board ship while moored in King Edward Cove, South Georgia. He is buried at Grytviken. The ashes of another noted Antarctic explorer, Frank Wild, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.

During the Second World War, the Royal Navy deployed an armed merchant vessel to patrol South Georgian and Antarctic waters against German raiders, along with two four-inch shore guns (still present) protecting Cumberland Bay and Stromness Bay, manned by volunteers from among the Norwegian whalers. The base at King Edward Point was expanded as a research facility in 1949/1950 by the British Antarctic Survey, which until 1962 was called the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey.

The Falklands War was precipitated on 19 March 1982 when a group of Argentinians, posing as scrap metal merchants, occupied the abandoned whaling station at Leith Harbour on South Georgia. On 3 April the Argentine troops attacked and occupied Grytviken. Among the commanding officers of the Argentine Garrison was Alfredo Astiz, a Captain in the Argentine Navy who, years later, was convicted of felonies committed during the Dirty War in Argentina.

The island was recaptured by British forces on 25 April in Operation Paraquet. In 1985 South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands ceased to be administered as a Falkland Islands Dependency and became a separate territory. The King Edward Point base, which had become a small military garrison after the Falklands war, returned to civilian use in 2001 and is now operated by the British Antarctic Survey.

We had a number of stops along the coast, but eventually ended up stormbound in a sheltered bay for over a day till the storm had passed. Well off South Georgia we passed Shag Rock in the gloom. Shag Rock is 150 miles west of South Georgia at 53°33′S, 42°02′W . Shag Rock, as it says on the can, is a nesting ground for South Georgia Shags. It is a very old, eroded, volcano, part of a string of islands that run all the way down to Antarctica, and and offers a valuable fishing ground.

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Shag Rock, home to thousands of seabirds and a valuable fishing ground

Salisbury Plain is a broad coastal plain found with the Bay of Isles on the north coast of South Georgia. It lies between the mouths of Grace and Lucas glaciers. Its beaches are covered with elephant seals and southern fur seals.But it is best known as the breeding site for around 250,000 King Penguins. This only makes it only the second largest colony on the island, St Andrews Bay being larger. There are some 4 million Kings Penguins in the world, so one can see that South Georgia is very much home to them.

They have an usual reproductive cycle where they raise 1 chick every 2 years, or at most 2 chicks every 3 years. Because of the long breeding cycle, colonies are continuously occupied. The number of birds, the sound and the distinct smell of penguin guano makes this place unforgettable. It is difficult for the camera to portray not only sea to a sky expanse full of king penguins, but also the noise and the smell. The penguins themselves are curious birds, unafraid of man, who will happily wander up to you and stand staring at you with their hooded eyes.

As with everywhere in South Georgia, we had a "bio-security check" before going ashore. This entails inspecting clothing for any extraneous seeds, and disinfecting boots. All part of regulations to ensure that no foreign plants are brought into the island

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Prion Island is a short distance from Salisbury Plain, and is still in the Bay of Isles. It was charted in 1912-13 by Robert Cushman Murphy, American naturalist aboard the brig Daisy, and so named because, would you believe, he observed prions on the island.

The island has been designated as a Specially Protected Area by the South Georgia Government, due to its rat-free status and breeding Wandering Albatrosses. Access is by permit, in that the island must be specifically named on the visit application and permit. A boardwalk with two viewing platforms was built in February/March 2008 to prevent erosion of the access gully and trampling of prion burrows. Wandering Albatross population counts are conducted annually. Because it is rat-free it is a breeding area for South Georgia Pipits and burrowing petrels. It was an grey South Georgia day when we went ashore, but was not cold

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We move on for a brief stop at Hercules Bay and a zodiac cruise round the bay. Hercules is a small bay 1 km wide, which lies 2 km west-northwest of Cape Saunders along the north coast of South Georgia. It was named by Norwegian whalers after the Hercules (or Herkules), a whale catcher which had visited the bay. It has a small cobblestone beach with mountains rising high above us, a waterfall dropping spectacularly onto the beach, and assorted penguins and seals lounging around

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St Andrews Bay is 2 miles wide. Probably first sighted by the British expedition under Cook which explored the north coast of South Georgia in 1775. It is home to the largest of South Georgia's King Penguin colonies at around 300,000 birds. The wide glacial plain behind the beach is ringed to the west by the Cook, Buxton and Heaney Glaciers. The retreat of the Cook Glacier has left a large lagoon at its snout, fringed by the original St. Andrews beach coastline which forms a long low sand bar breached by a deep, fast-flowing river. This is the river we had to wade to get to the King Penguin colony. Heaney and Buxton Glaciers also have melt water rivers whose course changes seasonally. The north end of the beach is sheltered by Clark Point and a shallow kelp-covered reef, which is where we landed. .

The Elephant Seals are not as aggressive as they look, and completely ignored the presence of the invasion of red coated tourists. Beyond the beach we waded, with some difficulty, the river in order to reach the colony. There are still the remnants of the introduced reindeer here - these are currently being eradicated (i.e. shot) in order to return the island to its original fauna, and to stop the erosion caused by the reindeer's grazing

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Some of our fellow travellers got close up and personal with penguins, and the penguins in turn were quite baffled by dog (some passengers were also baffled by dog)

Gold Harbour is a small bay 5 miles south-southwest of Cape Charlotte, with Bertrab Glacier at its head. The name appears to have taken root through common usage by sealers and whalers. It is believed to be so called because the sun's rays make the cliffs yellow with their light in the morning and evening. The bay and adjacent beaches and flatlands are a breeding ground for a number of king penguins. The sizes of the colonies are impressive, well more than impressive actually.

Gold Harbour has a sweeping crescent shaped beach, with snow capped mountains behind. The beach gave us our first close-up of Elephant seals - the males weigh 3 tons, and lord it over a harem of female concubines. Aggressive fur seals also live in large colonies on the beach. Fur seals were the only really aggressive animals we came across in South Georgia, they are completely unafraid and attack people without a thought. And completely bullied some of our passengers on occasions, as they picked their way along the beach..

King and Gentoo penguins carefully waddle their way past the seals to their own colonies beyond. Skuas, Petrels and Sheathbills watched patiently for any signs of vulnerability that might become dinner. On the higher ground lightly mantled Sooty Albatross were nesting and burrowing. A white chinned petrel colony could be found on the bluff.

Every animal has its place.

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We then had an ashore at the old whaling station at Godthul. The name Godthul (Norwegian for "Good Hollow") dates back to the period 1905–12, and was probably applied by Norwegian sealers and whalers working in the area. It operated as a whaling station between 1908–1929, and was only a rudimentary land base, with the main operations being off shore on a factory ship. It did not operate between 1917–22 partly due to World War I. It is the most intact example of a shore station for a ship-based factory. A cache of explosives that had been in one of the tanks since the station closed in the 1920s was discovered in 2005, and destroyed. The EOD team from the Falklands that carried out this task were able to do it without damaging any of the historic aspect of the site, or disturbing wildlife.

Reindeer were introduced by the whalers as a source of fresh meat. As new genetic material has not been introduced, there is a lot of inbreeding. One result is the antlers on the reindeer here - some animals have been seen with 30 points on the rack. However the cull has started and the reindeer will be all exterminated by 2015. On landing, we began a steep hike up through tussock grass, in which were hidden hundreds of fur seals. Eventually we cleared the tussock grass and emerged onto a plateau with a mountain lake.

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The boys had a full day here, fitting in Afternoon Tea, with cake and sandwiches, and an explore ashore with Steffan, our Expedition Leader (he looks bemused by them)

Grytviken (Swedish for "The Pot Cove") is the only settlement on South Georgia. It was named in 1902 by the Swedish surveyor Johan Gunnar Andersson who found old English try pots used to render seal oil at the site. It is the best harbour on the island, consisting of a bay (King Edward Cove) within a bay (Cumberland East Bay). The settlement at Grytviken was established on 16 November 1904, by the Norwegian sea captain Carl Anton Larsen as a whaling station. He lived here with his family, and several of the senior managers brought their families to live here. The only inhabitants of South Georgia today, and they only temporary, are the scientists at King Edward Point.

Larsen organised the construction of Grytviken with a team of sixty Norwegians, in a remarkably short period of time, between their arrival on 16 November and commencement of production at the newly built whale-oil factory on 24 December 1904. It was commercially very successful, with 195 whales taken in the first season alone.The whale population in the seas around the island were exploited by the whalers over the next sixty years until the station closed in December 1966, when there were so few whales left in the area that the whaling station became unviable. Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region 1,432,862 animals were taken between 1904 and 1978, when hunting of the larger species ceased. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was taken at South Georgia, it was a blue whale processed at Grytviken in about 1912, with a length of 33.58 meters. Today the shore around Grytviken is littered with whale bones and the rusting remains of whale oil processing plants and abandoned whaling ships.

Today Grytviken is probably best known for it's association with Sir Ernest Shackleton, and is also where Shackelton is buried, although he did not die here. Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, became trapped in Antarctic ice and eventually, on 27 October 1915, sank. The 28 crew members managed to get to Elephant Island, off Antarctica, bringing three small boats with them. All of them survived after Shackleton and five other men managed to reach the southern coast of South Georgia in the James Caird. They arrived at Cave Cove on the "wrong side" of the island and trekked to Stromness on the northeast coast. From Grytviken, Shackleton organised a rescue operation to bring home the remaining men. He again returned to Grytviken, but posthumously, in 1922. He had died unexpectedly from a heart attack at sea at the beginning of another Antarctic expedition, and his widow chose South Georgia as his final resting place. His grave is located south of Grytviken, alongside those of the whalers who died on the island. On 27 November 2011, the ashes of Frank Wild, Shackleton's 'right-hand man', were interred on the right-hand side of Shackleton's grave-site. The writer Angie Butler discovered the ashes in the vault of Braamfontein Cemetery, Johannesburg, while researching her book The Quest For Frank Wild. She said "His ashes will now be where they were always supposed to be. It just took them a long time getting there"

During the Falklands War, Grytviken was captured by Argentine forces in early April 1982 following a brief battle with British Royal Marines stationed there. Supported by the corvette ARA Guerrico on 3 April 1982, the ARA Bahía Paraíso landed a party of Argentine marines who attacked the platoon of 22 Royal Marines deployed at Grytviken. The two-hour battle resulted in the ARA Guerrico being damaged and an Argentine Puma helicopter shot down. The Argentine forces sustained 3 men killed and a similar number of wounded, with one wounded on the British side. The British commanding officer Lieutenant Keith Mills was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for the defence of South Georgia. On 25 April, the Royal Navy damaged and captured the Argentine submarine ARA Santa Fe at South Georgia. The Argentine garrison in Grytviken then surrendered without returning fire. The following day the detachment in Leith Harbour commanded by Captain Alfredo Astiz also surrendered. Finally, the Argentine personnel were removed from the South Sandwich Islands by HMS Endurance on 20 June.

The Grytviken Whaling Station deteriorated as a result of the extremes of the climate, leaving unsafe structures and hazardous contaminants, especially asbestos and PCBs. It was cleaned up for a sum of £6 million. A 50 man team removed dangerous structures, 300 cubic metres of oil and over 3,000 cubic metres of asbestos from the station plus decontaminating and refloating three former whaling vessels which were submerged alongside the jetty, namely the Albatross, Dias and Petrel. Works were  completed over three austral summer seasons.

The South Georgia Museum is housed in the manager's house of the former whaling station, and is open during the summer tourist season. The station's church is the only building which retains its original purpose. The church was built in Norway by Strommen Trevarefabrikk for C.A.Larsen with its two bells cast in Tonsberg. Larsen provided the church in order that the whalers might have a focus away from more "sinful" diversions. The whalers however, appear to have remained secular. It is still used occasionally for services. There have been several marriages in Grytviken, the first being registered on 24 February 1932, between A.G.N. Jones and Vera Riches, and the most recent on 19 February 2006, between Peter W. Damisch (who was one of the lecturers on our ship, and Lesley J. Friedsam (who was on the ship with us as well).

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Given there was a permanent community there for many years, lots of photographs of Grytviken exist showing the whaling station in its hey day.

By late afternoon on our day in Grytviken we knew that there was a bad storm brewing, and this turned out to be our last day ashore before getting to Capetown 10 days later. The ship sailed back north to the Bay of Isles where we sheltered for a couple of days, before heading east for Tristan de Cunha 

On to Tristan da Cunha

Silversea Explorer Voyage

Shipboard Life