South Georgia Island – Ice & Isolation

Steeped in Shackleton and whaling lore, covered mostly in glaciers, South Georgia explodes with life: king, gentoo, and macaroni penguins, enormous elephant seals and a thriving fur seal population. In South Georgia, you can observe one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles: tens of thousands of stately king penguins on a single beach.

Tourism is a major source of income in recent years. Many cruise ships and yachts visit the area (the only way to visit South Georgia is by sea; there are no airstrips 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 upgraded/repaired yacht berth at Grytviken. All other jetties at former whaling stations lie inside a 200-metre exclusion zone; and berthing, or putting ropes ashore, at these is forbidden. Yachts visiting South Georgia are normally expected to report to the Government Officer at King Edward Point before moving around the island.

The history of South Georgia too deserves to be given some importance.

Isolated from the civilised world and trapped in the most ruthless of climates, South Georgia Island was destined for discovery. From its first recorded sightings more than 300 years ago until the 20th century, this icy land has attracted explorers, merchants and governments.

London-born merchant Antoine de la Roche may have been the first person to sight South Georgia Island or any of its Sub-Antarctic counterparts. In April 1675, as he was sailing from Lima to England, his ship was blown south as it rounded Cape Horn. He and his crew reported seeing ice-covered mountains.

Argentina’s supporters claim de la Roche was wrong, and that he had in fact sighted Beauchene Island, 800 miles further west. This is unlikely, as Beauchene Island does not possess the high mountains or bays referred to in Roche’s account.

Captain James Cook was the first voyager known to set foot on the island. In 1775, Captain Cook and his crew landed at three places around Possession Bay and partly charted the coastline. An officer of the Royal Navy, Cook named it The Isle of Georgia in honour of King George III. He could not have imagined that two centuries later, it would become the stage for the most southerly battle in all naval and military history.

Cook’s accounts of fur seals in the region, however, stimulate the interest of sealers from the USA and Britain at a time when seal numbers were dropping in the Northern Hemisphere. The next few decades saw many such commercial voyages heading south to the area.

In 1902, some Swedish scientists visited Cumberland East Bay and made a mapping and geological survey. Commanding their ship was a Norwegian, Captain Carl Anton Larsen, a man experienced with whaling in Arctic waters. By 1904, the first land-based whaling station at South Georgia was set up in Grytviken. In about 1912, according to some accounts, the largest whale ever caught, a blue whale of 110 ft (34 m), was landed at Grytviken.

Whaling became a major activity on the island — from 1904 to 1965 when whaling was ended, about 175,250 whales were processed there. Explorer Ernest Shackleton also stayed for a month at Grytviken before making the final leg of the journey in December 1914.

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, who had been Shackleton’s second-in-command on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, were interred next to Shackleton in 2011.

In 1920, the British Colonial Office, aware that whale stocks needed to be conserved, imposed a tax on whale oil. In 1943, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) began as a wartime naval operation. It was transferred to the British Colonial Office in 1945 and called the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey until 1962.

In 1949-50, the organization established a new base at King Edward Point on South Georgia’s northeastern coast. This station assumed responsibility for meteorological observations. Today, BAS is responsible for the British government’s scientific research in South Georgia.

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