South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

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South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

(British Overseas Territory)

Flag of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands Arms of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
'"Leo Terram Propriam Protegat"
"May the Lion protect his own"
South Georgia Photo by Sascha Grabow.jpg
South Georgia glacier and penguin colony
Area: 1,507 square miles
Population: 30  (2006)
Capital: King Edward Point (Grytviken)
Time zone: GMT -2
Dialling code: +500

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is a British overseas territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. 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 105 miles long and covers 1,0507 square miles; by far the largest island in the territory. The South Sandwich Islands lie about 325 miles southeast of South Georgia. The total land area of the territory is 1,507 square miles.

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.

Great Britain claimed South Georgia in 1775 when Captain Cook landed and took possession, and in 1908 the South Sandwich Islands were annexed also, the whole becoming part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. The territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands was formed in 1985.

Argentina raised a territorial claim for South Georgia in 1927 and for 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.


CIA map of the Islands

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are a collection of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most of the islands, rising steeply from the sea, are rugged and mountainous. At higher elevations the islands are permanently covered with ice and snow.

Giant icebergs from the Antarctic frequently reach the seas around South Georgia and around the South Sandwich islands, grounding in the shallow water and gouging the seabed.

South Georgia Group

The South Georgia Group lies about 870 miles east-southeast of the Falkland Islands, at 54°–55°S, 36°–38°W. It comprises South Georgia itself (by far the largest island in the territory), and the islands that immediately surround it and some remote and isolated islets to the west and east-southeast. It has a total land area of 1,450 square miles, including satellite islands (but excluding the South Sandwich Islands which form a separate island group).

Islands in the South Georgia Group

South Georgia lies at 54°15′S 36°45′W and has an area of 1,362 square miles. It is mountainous and largely barren. Eleven peaks rise to over 6,562 feet high, their slopes furrowed with deep gorges filled with glaciers; the largest is Fortuna Glacier. The highest peak is Mount Paget in the Allardyce Range at 9,626 feet.

Geologically, the island consists of gneiss and argillaceous schists, with no trace of fossils, showing that the island is, like the Falkland Islands, a surviving fragment of some greater land-mass now vanished, most probably indicating a former extension of the Andean system.

Smaller islands and islets off the coast of South Georgia include:

View of Grytviken

The following remote rocks are also considered part of the South Georgia group:

  • Shag Rocks 115 miles west-northwest of South Georgia
  • Black Rock 105 miles west-northwest of South Georgia and 10 miles southeast of the Shag Rocks
  • Clerke Rocks 35 miles east-southeast of South Georgia

South Sandwich Islands

Main article: South Sandwich Islands

NASA satellite photograph of Montagu Island

The South Sandwich Islands comprise 11 mostly volcanic islands together with small satellite islands and offshore rocks, with some active volcanoes. They form an island arc running north-south in the region 56°18'–59°27'S, 26°23'–28°08'W, between about 350 miles and 500 miles southeast of South Georgia.

The northernmost of the South Sandwich Islands form the Traversay Islands and Candlemas Islands groups, while the southernmost make up Southern Thule. The three largest islands – Saunders, Montagu and Bristol – lie between the two. The Islands' highest point is Mount Belinda (4,495 feet) on Montagu Island.

The South Sandwich Islands are uninhabited. There are automatic weather stations on Thule Island and Zavodovski Island. To the northwest of Zavodovski Island is the Protector Shoal, a submarine volcano.


NASA satellite image of South Georgia covered with snow
The South Sandwich Islands conspire with air currents to make wave patterns in clouds

The permanently cold sea maintains a cold maritime climate on the islands, and the weather is highly variable and harsh. Typical daily maximum temperatures in South Georgia at sea level are around 0 °C in winter (August) and 8 °C in summer (January). Winter minimum temperatures are typically about −5 °C and rarely dip below −10 °C}. Annual precipitation in South Georgia is about 59 inches, much of which falls as sleet or snow, which is possible in any month. Inland, the snow line in summer is at an altitude of about 1,000 feet.

Westerly winds blow throughout the year interspersed with periods of calm, and the mean wind speed of around 8 knots is around half of that of the Falkland Islands. This gives the leeward (eastern) side of South Georgia a more pleasant climate than the exposed western side. The prevailing weather conditions generally make the islands difficult to approach by ship, though the north coast of South Georgia has several large bays which provide good anchorage.

Sunshine, as with many South Atlantic Islands, is low, at just 21.5% of possible, translating into around 1,000 hours annually, however, a large part of this is due to the local topography. A study around 1960[1] showed sunshine recording instruments were obscured entirely during June, and significantly in other months. It was estimated theoretical sunshine exposure minus obstructions would be around 14% at Bird Island, and 35% at King Edward point - or in hourly terms ranging from around 650 hours in the West to 1500 hours in the East, illustrating the effect the Allardyce range has in breaking up cloud cover.

During mountain wind conditions, the winds blow straight up the western side and straight down the eastern side of the mountains and become much warmer and drier; this produces the most pleasant conditions when temperatures can occasionally rise over 20 °C on summer days. The highest recorded temperature was 23.5 °C at Grytviken.[2] and 26.3 °C at nearby King Edward Point, both on the sheltered eastern side of the island. Conversely, the highest recorded temperature at Bird Island on the windward Western side is a mere 14.5 °C. As one might expect, the sheltered eastern side can also record lower winter temperatures and the absolute minimum for Grytviken is -19.4 °C, King Edward Point -18.9 °C, but Bird Island just -11.4 °C.

The seas surrounding South Georgia are cold throughout the year due to the proximity of the Antarctic Current. They usually remain free of pack ice in winter, though thin ice may form in sheltered bays, and icebergs are common.[3] Sea temperatures drop to 0 °C in late August and rise to around 4 °C only in early April.

The South Sandwich Islands are much colder than South Georgia, being further south and more exposed to cold outbreaks from the Antarctic continent. They are also surrounded by sea ice from the middle of May to late November (even longer at their southern end).[4]. Recorded temperature extremes at South Thule Island have ranged from -29.8 °C to 17.7 °C.


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, made the first landing and claimed the territory for Great Britain, naming it "the Isle of Georgia" in honour of King George III.

Cook also discovered the southern eight islands of the South Sandwich Islands in 1775, naming them "Sandwich Land" after the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. He effected no landing and was uncertain whether he had discovered one island or a group of them, as was later found to be the case. The word "South" was later added to distinguish the islands from the "Sandwich Islands", now known as Hawaii.

In 1819, an expedition by the Russian Imperial Navy under Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen visited these waters. Bellinghausen discovered the northern three islands and also ascertained that Cook's Sandwich Islands were with his own discoveries a group of eleven islands. Bellinghausen mapped the islands extensively and named those left unnamed by Cook, hence the Russian names born by many of the islands.

British arrangements for the government of South Georgia were first established under the 1843 Letters Patent. The South Sandwich Islands were added in 1908 as part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies.

Throughout the 19th century, South Georgia was a base for hunting seals and whales, the later 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.

Larsen also landed on Zavodovski Island, intending to extend operations to the South Sandwich islands, though he at once realised the impossibility of a base there given the suffocating fumes from the volcano and bird droppings.

Whaling stations operated on South Georgia under leases granted by the Governor of the Falkland Islands. Seven stations in all, all on the north-eastern coast were established:

  • 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.

The church at Grytviken
A wide view of South Georgia; taken by Frank Hurley during the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

From 1905, the Argentine Meteorological Office cooperated in maintaining a meteorological observatory at Grytviken under the British lease requirements of the whaling station until these changed in 1949.

In 1908 the United Kingdom issued a further Letters Patent to establish constitutional arrangements for its possessions in the South Atlantic. The Letters Patent covered South Georgia, the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetland Islands, the South Sandwich Islands, and Graham Land. The claim was extended in 1917 to include a sector of Antarctica reaching to the South Pole.

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.

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 forces attacked and occupied Grytviken. The island was recaptured by British forces on 25 April 1982 in Operation Paraquet. In the same year the Argentine base established on Thule Island was closed down by the Royal Navy.

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.

South Sandwich Islands

Captain James Cook discovered the southern eight islands of the Sandwich Islands Group in 1775, although he lumped the southernmost three together, and their status as separate islands was not established until 1820 by Bellingshausen.[5] The northern three islands were discovered by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen in 1819. The islands were tentatively named "Sandwich Land" by Cook, although he also commented that they might be a group of islands rather than a single body of land. The name was chosen in honour of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, teh First Lord of the Admiralty. The word "South" was later added to distinguish them from the "Sandwich Islands", now known as Hawaii.

The United Kingdom formally annexed the South Sandwich Islands through the 1908 Letters Patent, grouping them with other British-held territory in Antarctica as the Falkland Islands Dependencies.

Argentina challenged British sovereignty in the Islands on several occasions. From 25 January 1955, through mid-1956 Argentina maintained the summer station Teniente Esquivel at Ferguson Bay on the south-eastern coast of Thule Island. Argentina maintained a naval base (Corbeta Uruguay) from 1976 to 1982, in the lee (southern east coast) of the same island. Although the British discovered the presence of the Argentine base in 1978, protested and tried to resolve the issue by diplomatic means, no effort was made to remove them by force until after the Falklands War. The base was removed on 20 June 1982 and demolished by gunfire in the next year when it appeared that a flag party had been back.

On 10 February 2008, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake had its epicentre 128 miles SSE of Bristol Island. On 30 June 2008 at 06:17:53 UTC, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the region. Its epicentre was at 58.160S 21.893W, 17 miles ENE (bearing 73 degrees) of Bristol Island.


Executive power is vested in The Queen and is exercised by the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, a post always held by the Governor of the Falkland Islands. Senior Executive Officer deals with policy matters and is Director of SGSSI Fisheries, responsible for the allocation of fishing licences. An Executive Officer deals with administrative matters relating to the territory. There is also an Environmental Officer. The Financial Secretary and Attorney General of the territory are appointed ex officio similar appointments in the Falkland Islands' Government.

As there are no permanent inhabitants on the islands, there is no legislative council and no democratic participation in government. Since 1982 the territory celebrates Liberation Day on 14 June.

The constitution of the territory (adopted 3 October 1985), the manner in which its government is directed, and the availability of judicial review were discussed in a series of litigations in 2001 to 2005; see in particular Regina v. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Appellant) ex parte Quark Fishing Limited [2005] UKHL 57.[6] Although its government is entirely directed by the UK Foreign Office, it was held that its decisions under that direction could not be challenged as if they were in law decisions of a UK government department; thus the European Convention on Human Rights did not apply.


As there are no native inhabitants, economic activity in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is limited. The territory has revenues of £3.9 million, 90% of which is derived from fishing licences (2002 figures).[7] Other sources of revenue are the sale of postage stamps and coins, tourism and customs and harbour dues.


Fishing takes place around South Georgia and in adjacent waters in some months of the year, with fishing licences sold by the territory for Patagonian toothfish, cod icefish and krill. Fishing licences bring in millions of pounds a year, most of which is spent on fishery protection and research. All fisheries are regulated and managed in accordance with the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) system.

In 2001 the South Georgia government was cited by the Marine Stewardship Council for its sustainable Patagonian toothfish fishery, certifying that South Georgia met the MSC's environmental standards. The certificate places limits on the timing and quantity of Patagonian toothfish that may be caught.[8]


Tourism has become a larger source of income in recent years, with many cruise ships and sailing yachts visiting the area (the only way to visit South Georgia is by sea, since no airstrips presently exist on the Islands). The territory gains income from landing charges and the sale of souvenirs. Cruise ships often combine a Grytviken visit with a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Charter yacht visits usually begin in the Falkland Islands, last between four and six weeks, and enable guests to visit remote harbours of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Sailing vessels are now required to anchor out and can no longer tie up to the old whaling piers on shore. One exception to this is the recently upgraded/repaired yacht berth at Grytviken. All other jetties at former whaling stations lie inside a 200 m exclusion zone; and berthing, or putting ropes ashore, at these, is forbidden. When visiting South Georgia, yachts are normally expected to report to the Government Officer at King Edward Point in the first instance, before moving round the island.

Postage stamps

A large source of income from abroad also comes from the issue of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands postage stamps which are produced in the UK.

A reasonable issue policy (few sets of stamps are issued each year) along with attractive subject matter (especially whales) makes them popular with topical stamp collectors.

There are only four genuine first day cover sets from 16 March 1982 in existence. They were stamped at the South Georgia Post Office; all those in circulation were stamped elsewhere and sent out, but the only genuine ones were kept at the Post Office on South Georgia. These four sets were removed by a member of staff of the British Antarctic Survey in the few moments the Argentinians allowed them to gather their belongings. Everything else was burnt, but these four sets were saved and brought to the UK by Robert Headland, BAS.


The pound sterling is the official currency of the islands, and the same notes and coins are used as in the United Kingdom. Since 2001, commemorative local coins have been issued for numismatists.[9]


HMS Endurance docked at Portsmouth

After the Falklands War in 1982, a full-time British military presence was maintained at King Edward Point on South Georgia. This was scaled down during the 1990s, and the last detachment left South Georgia in March 2001, when the new station was built and occupied by the British Antarctic Survey.

The main British military facility in the region is at RAF Mount Pleasant and the adjacent Mare Harbour naval base on East Falkland. Other than that, a handful of British naval vessels patrol the region. They visit South Georgia a few times each year, sometimes deploying small patrols of infantry. Flights by RAF C-130 Hercules and Vickers VC10 aircraft occasionally patrol the territory.

A Royal Navy destroyer or frigate and a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel carry out the Atlantic Patrol Task (South) mission in the surrounding area.

HMS Endurance, the British Royal Navy ice patrol ship, operated in the South Georgia area during part of most southern summer seasons until her near loss in 2008. She carried out hydrological and mapping work as well as assisting with scientific fieldwork for the British Antarctic Survey, film and photographic units, and youth expedition group BSES Expeditions. It has been announced that Endurance is to be written off and a replacement vessel procured, an icebreaker to be named HMS Protector.[10]

Outside links



  • George Forster, A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution Commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the Years 1772, 3, 4 and 5 (2 vols.) , London, 1777.
  • R.K. Headland, The Island of South Georgia, Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 0 521 25274 1
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
South Georgia: Annenkov IslandBird IslandClerke RocksCooper IslandGrass IslandKupriyanov IslandsPickersgill IslandsSaddle IslandShag RocksSouth GeorgiaWelcome IslandsWillis IslandsTrinity IslandGrassholmBlack RocksBlack Rock
South Sandwich Islands: