South Georgia Newsletter, February – March 2020

This newsletter is not produced by GSGSSI; it does not necessarily reflect their views.
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GSGSSI – COVID-19 Update

South Georgia remains free from Covid-19. GSGSSI have implemented strict procedures to minimise the risk of exposure to staff at South Georgia, and work continues in as normal a fashion as possible on the island. The tourist season is now complete and Grytviken will remain closed to visitors until at least August 2020. The wharf development continues with works entering the final phase, and preparations for the upcoming fishing season are continuing.

Staff based in the UK and the Falkland Islands are following the advice given by those countries. Therefore all office staff are now working from home, and traveling only when essential.

We wish all our partners, stakeholders, colleagues, friends and family the very best at this difficult and worrying time. If there are things you think we can do right now to further reduce anxiety or concern please let us know. We are still here to talk if you need us, but our work numbers are not being routinely manned. Please email us if you are struggling to contact us by other means.

Work will continue as best it can but it may be that you will get a slower response than you might have come to expect. We ask for your understanding as we adapt to the current global situation.


Precautionary Measures at Grytviken

In response to the fast evolving global pandemic of COVID-19 the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands has decided to suspend visits to King Edward Point and Grytviken until the end of this tourist season. This means that the Museum and Post Office operations at Grytviken are closed.

We are sorry to disappoint any visitors who had hoped to visit Grytviken. The remainder of the landing sites around South Georgia remain open for visitors to enjoy. Operators who have a permit to visit South Georgia this season have been contacted individually by the Government Officers.

We will continue to review the suspension of visits in response to advice from WHO, PHE or the FCO.

Blue Whale Comeback At South Georgia!

BAS biologist Dr Jennifer Jackson shares exciting updates from the wild water whales expedition.

The BAS wild water whales team have spent 25 days surveying whales in South Georgia waters. This season the team have circled the island of South Georgia twice on their hunt for the elusive southern right whales, with observers stationed high up on deck and also using acoustics to listen for their calls underwater. This has been a very interesting season at South Georgia. Usually seen quite regularly, southern right whales (which often feed in South Georgia waters during January) were rarely seen by scientists or visitors this month, and we can only assume they found better places to feed elsewhere. The team searched all around the island, and in the end they encountered southern right whales on 11 occasions (13 animals seen). This map shows where the team have surveyed and the whale species that they have seen.

Sighting survey effort between 10-30 January 2020 in South Georgia waters. Coloured dots show whale sightings. Lines show the 500m contours.


The exciting news this season is the large number of blue whales seen on the voyage! Antarctic blue whales used to be very common in South Georgia waters at the start of the 1900s, but intense commercial whaling in these waters killed over 42,000 of them, mostly to the north of the island. On this voyage Antarctic blue whales were very regularly detected with our acoustic equipment, and were sighted on 36 occasions (an estimated 55 animals seen), particularly off the south coast. Indeed, they were the second most frequently sighted species! This is a very positive sign as it suggests Antarctic blue whales may be starting to return regularly to feed in a place that was really important for them a century ago, after three decades of protection from commercial whaling. We were fortunate to have Antarctic blue whale expert Paula Olson on the voyage; she has compiled a catalogue of photo-IDs for this species which spans decades. She was able to collect a number of new photo-IDs on this voyage. Good quality photo-IDs can be used to identify individuals and therefore learn more about blue whale movement patterns and estimate population abundance.


A South Georgia blue whale. Photo: Martin Collins.


The team were able to collect ten skin samples from blue whales via biopsy dart. These samples will be able to tell us about the population identity of blue whales using South Georgia waters, how strongly they are connected to blue whales seen elsewhere in the Antarctic, and to assess their genetic diversity following intense exploitation. These skin samples will also be able to tell us what the blue whales are feeding on; we will study the isotope chemistry of these samples and match the chemical patterns with those of candidate prey species also collected from South Georgia.

Team member Professor Scott Baker has been interested in this topic for a long time and recently supervised a PhD student Dr Angie Sremba studying the historical diversity of blue whales using bones collected from around the abandoned whaling stations at South Georgia. After a few years studying these bones, he was really pleased to see so many blue whales returning and to have the chance to study the modern population up close!

Continue reading the full blog at the British Antarctic Survey here.

King Edward Point – Project Blog

25 February, 2020 King Edward Point

Joe Corner, BAS Islands Project Manager, is currently overseeing the redevelopment of King Edward Point wharf on South Georgia Island in the Sub-Antarctic. The project will enable the new UK polar ship, the RRS Sir David Attenborough to berth at King Edward Point Research Station and support world-class science for the next generation. Here Joe discusses the first stages of building the wharf, including some challenges of constructing in one of the most remote areas of the world.

After 18 months plus of design, planning, procurement and biosecurity inspections, the King Edward Point Wharf construction team finally arrived on station in early January. After initial inductions, we all sat back to watch our logistics ship, the MV Billesborg, turn the corner around Hope Point and slowly edge its way into King Edward Cove in South Georgia. After some careful maneuvering the ship finally berthed alongside the existing wharf and was secured.


The Billesborg at KEP


The first major task was unloading 3500 tonnes of sheet piles, plant, equipment and general materials. Within two days, the crane was erected and materials were swiftly being moved about to make way for the next loads. Onboard the ship, Anna Malaos (BAS Environmental Manager) and Neil Goulding (BAM Environment Lead), were inspecting all of the kit to ensure it met the strict biosecurity requirements of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Government.


The team next to the MV Billesborg


After five days of cargo operations we were ready to really kick the project into gear. Within a few days the first ‘Spud Piles’ were driven, these allow the team to install, what are commonly referred to as ‘Christmas trees’, although they look nothing like them! These are used to support ‘piling gates’ which act as a jig to lift the 24m long piles into and help us ensure they are driven vertically into the seabed in the right place. Will Jones, our engineer (also the youngest on the team project team at the ripe old age of 24) set out the piles with the precision of an weathered site engineer with 50 years’ experience!


Will Jones setting out the piles locations


Continue reading the full blog at the British Antarctic Survey here.

South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands In The News

Remarkable Numbers of Antarctic Blue Whales Sighted in South Georgia

“Dr Jennifer Jackson, a whale ecologist at BAS, says: ‘After three years of surveys, we are thrilled to see so many whales visiting South Georgia to feed again. This is a place where both whaling and sealing were carried out extensively. It is clear that protection from whaling has worked, with humpback whales now seen at densities similar to those a century earlier, when whaling first began at South Georgia.'”



South Georgia readying the wharf to support “Sir David Attenborough”


The moment Sir Ernest Shackleton set off in a rowing boat to save his men: Photo capturing adventurer’s last-ditch bid to save his crew on 1915 Antarctic mission is among set now up for sale for £40,000


Modern, habitat restored South Georgia recalls Possession Day and James Cook in 1775

“Some 245 years and a month ago, James Cook, after 3 years at sea, took possession of South Georgia and claimed the land for His Britannic Majesty, King George the Third. On what must have been a routine summer’s day (January 17th) in the South-West Atlantic, the explorer described what he had discovered as a ‘land doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness’.”


‘You are the only passenger’: How I returned to an empty world

“When the world screeched to a halt, I didn’t notice. I was off the grid near Antarctica, lost in the cacophony of some 200,000 penguins. Elsewhere, highways were emptying, planes parking, and businesses shuttering as COVID-19 gained ground. But the order for social distancing hadn’t yet stretched to this corner of the planet.”

Latest Videos And Photos

The dog that’s protecting the South Georgia Islandss

South Sandwich Islands

Photo: Ruth Peacey