A Citizen Explorer’s First Impressions of South Georgia
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By John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of Vancouver Aquarium.
We’ve arrived at our first significant destination – the mythical South Georgia Island. Why is it mythical? Several reasons come to mind, including its remoteness (it is certainly hard to get to), breathtaking beauty, amazing wildlife, history – you name it.
South Georgia is a crescent-shaped island about 170 km long and nearly 40 km wide at its widest point, with lots of smaller islands along its coastline. Two mountain ranges that reach 3,000 meters high form the spine of the island. At 53 to 54 degrees South Latitude, South Georgia is at the same latitude as England, or Labrador in Canada. The differences in climate for those three vastly different places is entirely due to ocean influences.
Over half of South Georgia is covered by glaciers and snow. The mountains, coming straight out of the sea to just about 3,000 meters, combined with the glaciers, makes for an amazing and beautiful sight. There are over 12 mountains that exceed 2,000 meters in height. There are no trees, but there are green alluvial fans which look like lawns from a distance. The almost unreal green “lawns,” made up of the Tussock Grass clumps that provide vital nesting areas for both the fur seals and the King Penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), are beautiful in their own right.
While the island had been sighted by explorers as early as 1675, the first human to set foot on South Georgia was Captain James Cook in 1775. Captain Cook was not impressed: “Lands doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness; never to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays; whose horrible and savage aspect I have not words to describe” – those are his words. He did recognize the abundance of seals, sea lions and sea birds of all sorts. This observation was prophetic because for the next 150 years, harvesting all sorts of wildlife became the central economic activity, and made both American and British companies a lot of money.
Almost immediately following Captain Cook’s visit, sealers (vessels catching and rendering seals and sea lions) began to work the waters around South Georgia. Then came Norway’s Captain Larsen who set up the first of what would be at least seven whaling stations on South Georgia in 1911. We visited what remains of the largest one, at Grytviken – the one Larson set up. By some counts, over 150,000 whales were taken out of waters around South Georgia from the start of whaling in 1911 until the Grytviken Station closed down in the mid-1960’s. That is a lot of whales, and the populations of many species, such as the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus), have not recovered and are still quite rare.
Walking through Grytviken, or along the other beaches we have landed on, we find ourselves surrounded by King Penguins. A colony of a half-million pairs is an amazing sight, as is a lone bird standing on the beach. They are about a meter tall, and with their black and white colouring augmented by the yellow-orange on their heads, they are striking birds. Add in the Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelispapua), and all of the sea birds – it is literally a bird bonanza. As we walked along, almost anywhere we often had to dodge Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella). There are thousands of them, on many beaches, and they climb well inland too. Where the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) is declining in the North Pacific (the subject of ongoing research at the Aquarium), the Antarctic Fur Seal populations are expanding.
The trick in not being bitten while walking among the fur seals is not to run when one comes after you – they are most often just defending its territory. We give even the young pups a wide berth – at least five meters is the guideline. Still, because the fur seals approach us no matter what we do, we had to learn to stand our ground and “bluff” them – stand tall, spread our arms or clap our hands – look big. So far, no one has been bitten, but they seem to have a lot of very sharp teeth.
Overall, the combination of amazing mountains, many with glaciers, the green Tussock Grass “lawns,” and the thousands of penguins and fur seals, South Georgia is truly an amazing place.
John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, is currently on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica with a group of explorers. He is providing regular updates during the journey.