8 Things You Might Not Have Known About South Georgia Island

Posted: January 20, 2012    Categories: Antarctica

I’m currently on the M/S Expedition just off the coast of South Georgia Island. This is one of the most incredible places I have ever visited and few people even know it exists. When incredible meets the unknown, it is time for another installment of “8 Things….”

1) It is a British Territory

South Georgia is part of “South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands” which is a British Overseas Territory and overseas territory of the European Union. It was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1775 who named it after King George III. It was primarily used as a whaling station between 1905 and 1966. There are no permanent inhabitants of South Georgia. There is a small scientific staff and a two museum staff at Grytviken who are semi-permanent residents. The commissioner of South Georgia is also the Governor of the Falkland Islands who operates out of Stanley. There are South Georgia stamps which are issued for collectors and tourists.

2) It is claimed by Argentina

Along with the Falkland Islands, Argentina has claimed South Georgia since 1927. They call the island “San Pedro”. Their primary claim is based on proximity to Argentina. They have never had any permanent outpost on the island and their claim is only recognized by a few neighboring countries in South America.

3) It was the site of the southernmost battle ever fought.

During the 1982 Falkland Islands War, Argentina sent troops to South Georgia. The opening battle of the war was Operation Paraquat, when the British sent troops to South Georgia to liberate the island. The naval battle which took place was the southernmost battle ever fought in military history. One Argentine sailor was killed in the operation and 2 British helicopters crashed. In the initial invasion of South Georgia, one British soldier was killed, 3 Argentine soldiers were killed and 9 were wounded.

4) It is the resting place of Sir Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton’s epic and aborted voyage to Antarctic end up with him and five other men traveling from Elephant Island to South Georgia island by lifeboat to get help for his crew in 1922. He arrived on the wrong side of South Georgia and had to to climb over the unexplored mountains of the interior to reach a whaling station to get help. After successfully rescuing his entire crew with no fatalities, they sailed into Grytviken where Shackleton died of a heart attack the next day. He is buried in the Grytviken graveyard where his tombstone can still be visited today. In November 2011 the ashes of his right hand man, Frank Worley, were interred at his side.

5) It has one of the largest populations of penguins and seals in the world

South Georgia is the most important penguin and seabird breeding area in the world. Millions of penguins can be found in colonies around the island. King and Gentoo penguins are especially populous. There are millions of other seabirds which inhabit the island as well including albatrosses, skuas, petrels, terns and gulls. There are also to endemic species: the South Georgia Pipit (the southernmost songbird in the world) and the South Georgia Pintail.

The fur seal population was almost wiped out by sealers in the early 20th Century, but they have come back with a vengeance. It is believed that the fur seal population is now almost fully recovered to its 19th Century levels.

6) It is considered part of the Antarctic

Event though South Georgia is not part of the Antarctic continent, it does lie below the Antarctic convergence which is the hydrologic boundary between the colder waters of the Antarctic and the warmer waters of the Atlantic. Hence, the climate is colder than what you could find at a similar latitude elsewhere in the world. The water forced through the Drake Passage forces the cold water north to surround South Georgia.

7) They get about 5,000 tourists per year

I was talking to the woman who manages the museum in Grytviken about number of visitors South Georgia gets each year. They currently get about 5,000 visitors per year, excluding military, shipping and science personnel. There is no landing strip on South Georgia so all visitors have to come by boat. Large cruise ships are not allowed, so the average number of passengers per ship is around 100, with the maximum being 250. This makes is one of the least visited territories on Earth.

8) They are killing off all the rats and reindeer

South Georgia has a large problem with invasive rats which hitched aboard early whaling vessels. The rats have spread to many points around the island and have all but wiped out many nesting sites for seabirds by eating their eggs. They are currently in the middle of what will be the world’s largest rat eradication program in the world. It involves spreading tons of pellets with rat poison around the island. They have tested it in several areas around Grytviken and so far it appears to have worked. No rats have been seen in two years and there are now signs of South Georgia Pintails in the area. It is estimated that 10,000,000 sea birds could return to the island once the rats are eradicated.

One other species which was introduced to the island are reindeer. They were originally brought from Norway as a source of food for the whalers. There are currently about 2,000 reindeer on the island. The reindeer are also scheduled for removal in 2013 as they would eat the same pellets as the rats and hamper the rat eradication efforts. A few will be moved to the Falkland islands to preserve their blood line.

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