South Georgia

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South Georgia

South Georgia and
the South Sandwich Islands

Thatcher-Peninsula.jpg
Central South Georgia: Cumberland Bay with Thatcher Pen.,
Allardyce Range with Mt. Paget
Location

South Georgia

Highest point: Mount Paget, 9,626 feet
Data
Population: 30

South Georgia is an island in the southern ocean, forming the greater part of the British overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. It has no permanent population but is constantly inhabited and managed by the British Antarctic Survey.

Geography

South Georgia lies in the South Atlantic Ocean, south of the Convergence and thus in the sub-Antarctic region. Most of the island is rugged and mountainous with little level coastal land. At higher elevations the island is permanently covered with ice and snow.

The northeast coast of the island is in the lee of the storms and is indented with many fjords, which have provided safe harbours and it is in such inlets that the whaling stations were built in former days. The largest natural harbour is on this coast: Cumberland Bay, divided into Cumberland East Bay and Cumberland West Bay.

The capital, King Edward Point, and the principal settlement, Grytviken, are found on the Thatcher Peninsula in the middle of Cumberland Bay, the peninsula being named in honour of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister at the time of the Falkland War.

The southwest coast is more hostile and no whaling stations were built here. In this coast, in King Haakon Bay is Peggotty Camp, where Shackleton and his five companions camped after the wreck of the James Caird and from where Shackleton, Crean and Worsley crossed the mountains to seek rescue.

The Allardyce Range of mountains forms the backbone of the middle part of the island, rising to their highest in Mount Paget, the highest point of the island and of the territory and indeed the highest point in any British territory outside the Antarctic claims. The south of the island, across the Br ögger Glacier and the Ross Glacier, and the Salvesen Range. The mountains are scarred with glaciers.

Birds, beasts and blooms

Southern Giant Petrel on South Georgia
120,000 King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) on Salisbury Plain
Wandering Albatross at South Georgia

The parts of the islands that are not permanently covered in snow or ice are part of the Scotia Sea Islands tundra ecoregion. Native vegetation on South Georgia is limited to grasses, mosses, lichens, ferns and a few other small flowering plants. A number of other introduced species have become naturalised; many of these were introduced by whalers in cattle fodder, and some are considered invasive.[1] There are no trees or shrubs.

South Georgia supports many sea birds, including albatross, a large colony of King Penguins and penguins of various other species, along with petrels, prions, shags, skuas, gulls and terns. There is one songbird which is unique to the archipelago, the South Georgia Pipit, and a duck, the South Georgia Pintail.

Seals are frequent on the islands, and whales may be seen in the surrounding waters. There are no native land mammals, though reindeer, brown rats and mice have been introduced through the activities of man. The latter have destroyed tens of millions of ground-nesting birds' eggs and chicks, and scientists plan to eradicate the rats over four years starting 2011. It will be by far the largest rodent eradication attempt in the world to date.[2][3][4]

Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia in 1911 by Norwegian whalers for meat and for sport hunting. In February 2011 the authorities announced that, due to the reindeer's detrimental effect on native species and the threat of their spreading to presently pristine areas, a complete cull would take place, leading to the eradication of reindeer from the island.[5]

The seas around South Georgia have a high level of biodiversity.In a recent study (2009–11), South Georgia has been discovered to contain one of the highest levels of biodiversity among all the ecosystems on Earth.[6] The marine inhabitants endemic to this ecosystem outnumber (in respect to species) and surpass well-known regions such as the Galápagos or Ecuador in respect to biodiversity.[7] This marine ecosystem is thought to be vulnerable because its low temperatures mean that it can only repair itself very slowly.[8]

Bases and settlements

The church at Grytviken

The island's capital is King Edward Point on the Thatcher Peninsula. The only other current permanent habitation is at nearby Grytviken, where a harbour and museum greet visitors. All of the island's inhabitants are temporary residents; generally employees and contractors of the British Antarctic Survey, members of the Administrator's staff or soldiers and sailors stationed there.

The only church on the island is at Grytviken, shipped from Norway by Carl Anton Larsen.

Throughout the 19th century, South Georgia was a base for hunting seals and whales, the latter beginning in the 20th century, until whaling ended in the 1960s. Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian, 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. Larsen was later granted naturalisation as a British subject in view of his permanent residence in South Georgia. Larsen's station at Grytviken remained in operation until 1965.

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

Historical and modern settlements of South Georgia
  • Prince Olav Harbour (from 1911–1916 factory ship and small land-based station 1917–1931)
  • Leith Harbour (1909–1965)
  • Stromness (from 1907 factory ship, land-based station 1913–1931, repair yard to 1960/1961)
  • Husvik (from 1907 factory ship, land-based station 1910–1960, not in operation 1930–1945)
  • Grytviken (1904–1964)
  • Godthul (1908–1929, only a rudimentary land base, main operations on factory ship)
  • Ocean Harbour (1909–1920)

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.

History

Discovery and possession

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. Captain James Cook circumnavigated the island in 1775 and made the first landing. He claimed the territory for 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 Letters Patent.

Throughout the 19th century, South Georgia was a base for hunting seals. Towards the end of the century, whale hunting became the island's staple industry.

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.

Whaling

In 1904, Carl Anton Larsen established Grytviken, the first land-based whaling station and first permanent habitation, the station operated through his Argentine Fishing Company. Others followed, and in these efforts, Norwegians played a leading role. Ultimately, seven settlements or stations were created in the sheltered harbours on the north coast of South Georgia, each under a lease granted by the Governor.

In 1909 an administrative centre and residence were established at King Edward Point on South Georgia, near the whaling station of Grytviken. A permanent local British administration and resident Magistrate exercised effective possession, enforcement of British law, and regulation of all economic, scientific and other activities in the territory, which was then governed as the Falkland Islands Dependencies.

In about 1912, what is according to some accounts the largest whale ever caught, a blue whale of 110 feet, was landed at Grytviken.[9][10]

Whaling from the island was ultimately destroyed by its own success. It began to decline as the numbers of whales in the Southern Ocean declined sharply and the last stations were closed in the 1960s, the buildings and facilities abandoned. Whaling is now banned British waters.

Shackleton

In April 1916, Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became stranded on Elephant Island, some 800 miles southwest of South Georgia in the South Shetland Islands. Shackleton and five companions set out in a small boat, the James Caird, to summon help. On 5 May, as they approached South Georgia, the boat was caught in a hurricane, but on 10 May, after an epic voyage of 800 miles, they landed at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia's south coast and made camp, a place they named Peggotty Camp.

The James Caird was determined to be unsafe to take to sea again. While three men stayed at the coast, Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley made an overland journey of 30 miles overland to reach help at Stromness whaling station. They became the first men to climb the mountains of South Georgia, a feat until then considered impossible. Shackleton's account of his arrival at Stromness and his meeting with the station's Manager, Thoralf Sørlle (who had entertained him on the outward voyage) is brisk and to the point, though other accounts say that on seeing the state of his friend, when he realised who he was, Sørlle turned away and wept.

The remaining 22 members of the expedition, who had stayed on Elephant Island, were subsequently rescued by a Chilean ship arranged by Shackleton.

In January 1922, during a later expedition, Shackleton died aboard ship off South Georgia. He is buried at Grytviken.

Later twentieth century

Argentina made a claim on South Georgia in 1927.[11]

During 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, Argentine forces attacked and occupied Grytviken, after a brisk resistance by the tiny Royal Marine detachment stationed there, who despite their numbers managed to bring a helicopter down and cripple the corvette Guerrico. The whole of the east coast of South Georgia was thus occupied, leaving just the base on Bird Island in British control. The island was recaptured by British forces on 25 April in Operation Paraquet.

After the war, the island had a sizable garrison, which after a few years was scaled down, leaving the British Antarctic Survey the main presence on South Georgia.

Outside links

References