Banner Image: An incubating wandering albatross, South Georgia Copyright: Derren Fox

South Georgia lies 1300 km SE of the Falkland Islands, and the South Sandwich Islands (SSI) a further 760 km SE, both between latitudes 53’ 58’ – 54’ 53’ S and longitudes 35’ 47’ – 38’ 01’ W. The territory comprise approximately 805 islands.

The main island of South Georgia is mountainous with many glaciers - permanent ice covers almost half of its total land-area of 3755km2.

King penguin colony, on NE coast below glacier. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski
King penguin colony, on NE coast of South Georgia below a glacier. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Once the largest ship-yard in the southern hemisphere due to whaling, the island is now uninhabited except for officials and researchers, although some of its government workers are stationed in Stanley, Falkland Islands. Additionally, two research stations staffed year-round at Bird Island and King Edward Point (run by the British Antarctic Survey) undertake a diverse scientific research programme. South Georgia is home to one of the longest and most detailed scientific datasets in the Southern Ocean, with over 30 years of population data on seabirds and marine mammals at Bird Island. The economy is based on commercial fishing for which licences are issued, tourism and the sale of stamps. Licensed commercial fishing for toothfish, icefish and krill takes places in the surrounding seas of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI). South Georgia is the final resting place of the famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

South Georgia is surrounded by over 70 islands, islets, stacks and rocks. With a backbone of steeply uplifted mountain ranges (Allardyce and Salvesen Ranges) and at least 20 peaks over 2,000 m altitude culminating at 2,965 m on the island’s summit, Mt Paget, South Georgia is the highest of all sub-Antarctic islands. Much of the land is over 1,000 m altitude and at least half is covered in permanent ice and snow, with over 160 glaciers, many of which intersect a heavily indented coastline. Extensive ice-free peninsulas bounded by glaciers are typical of the north-east coast, where the permanent snow line starts at 400 - 600 m altitude. The south-west coast is predominantly rock and ice, with a narrow coastal fringe of mainly tussac grassland and permanent snow and ice.

At low altitude, mostly in the coastal lowlands up to around 200m altitude, there is a sparse covering of herbaceous vegetation, predominately in different grassland communities and in mire and bog, mossbank and fellfield. There are 25 species of vascular plants (18 flowering plants, 6 ferns, 1 clubmoss) native to South Georgia, largely co-existing with over 50 introduced vascular species, which mostly occur around the old whaling stations, and about 125 species of native mosses, 85 of liverworts and 200 of lichens. Woody species are unable to withstand the island’s severe weather conditions. 

South Georgia has huge seabird colonies whose total breeding population probably exceeds 50 million pairs. A total of 31 bird species have been recorded breeding, of which 27 are seabirds. Of these, there are six species of penguin, four species of albatrosses and 13 species of smaller petrels and related species. Endemic bird species include: the terrestrial South Georgia pipit, pintail and cormorantconfined to the island group, and the Antarctic tern seabirdAdditionally, 45 species of migrants have been recorded from the island and its inshore waters, including a number of waders.

Pair of endemic South Georgia pintail subspecies, Grytviken. South Georgia Heritage Trusts eradication of introduced rodent initiative means that ducklings (and young of other species) are now surviving again in this and other restored areas. Copyrig
Pair of endemic South Georgia pintail subspecies, Grytviken. South Georgia Heritage Trust's successful initiative to eradicate introduced rodent means that ducklings (and young of other species) are now surviving again in this and other restored areas. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The most numerous bird is the macaroni penguin, with more than two million breeding pairs. South Georgia is also a globally important nesting site for the largest seabird in the world, the wandering albatross. During the summer months, the beaches and tussac mounds are occupied by 4.5 million fur seals and 0.5 million elephant seals. There are further large seabird colonies in the South Sandwich Islands, with nearly half of the world’s chinstrap penguin population (1.3 million breeding pairs), more than 100,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, and several thousand breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins.

Wandering albatrosses display as another lands on breeding grounds in Bay of Isles. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski
Wandering albatrosses display as another lands on breeding grounds in Bay of Isles. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

South Georgia's marine ecosystem is recognised globally as a biodiversity hotspot. Approximately 100 species of fish have been recorded in the territory’s waters, including 13 species of Antarctic cods, 20 species of lantern fish and 6 species of grenadiers. The marine algal flora is very diverse, with over 100 species recorded. At least 12 species of cetacean are regularly seen around South Georgia. Historically, it was once the centre of modern whaling in the Southern Hemisphere (1904-1965), with over 176,000 whales (mainly fin, blue and humpback) killed in its coastal waters. South Georgia’s remote beaches are still littered with whale bones and the remains of whaling paraphernalia. Indeed, part of the old whaling station at Grytviken has been converted into the South Georgia Museum. Today, southern right whales are the most commonly seen whale in South Georgia waters, an area which is thought to be one of their primary feeding grounds. Fur seals also were killed during the whaling times for their oil, resulting in a population crash to almost zero. Since the whaling stations were abandoned in the 1960s, the fur seals have had a massive recovery.

Elephant seals, Grytviken. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski
Elephant seals, Grytviken. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

In 2012, the Government of SGSSI created one of the world’s largest, sustainably managed Marine Protected Areas (MPA) that encompasses the entire SGSSI Maritime Zone north of 60 °S. It has been designed with the aim of ensuring the protection and conservation of the regions’ rich and diverse marine life, while permitting sustainable and carefully regulated fisheries. This includes a ban on all bottom-trawling and bottom-fishing at certain depths, resulting in 92% of the seafloor being protected from fishing activity. There are also a series of no-take zones around the islands, and the closure of the krill fishery November to March, when krill-eating birds and marine mammals are breeding. The Marine Protected Area Plan can be viewed here.

Rodents, inadvertently brought to the island by sealers and whalers from the late 1700s onwards, as well as reindeer, which were deliberately introduced in the early 1900s, have had a significant impact on the island’s ecosystem, in particular on ground-nesting birds and the vegetation. In 2010, conservationists, led by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, commenced a seven-year project (the world’s largest) to eradicate rats, by spreading a rodenticide in pellets by helicopter. To enable more effective restoration of habitat, non-native reindeer were also removed with the help of marksmen from the Norwegian conservation authority, in a project of the Government of SGSSI following wide consultation. In 2015, a nest of the endemic pipit, was sighted in an area where rats had been removed and, even earlier, pintails were seen successfully rearing young, previously almost unknown in rodent-infested areas. There are also control programmes in place to manage or eradicate a number of the introduced plants. The Government of SGSSI now manages South Georgia with strict biosecurity protocols and monitoring of visitors. The effects of climate change are also being monitored, with studies estimating that 97% of South Georgia’s glaciers have retreated in the past 50 years. The National Biodiversity Action Plan for SGSSI 2016-2020 can be viewed here.

In contrast to South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands are rarely visited, and information on the terrestrial and marine flora and fauna is sparse. The archipelago is the only arc of active volcanoes in the Southern Ocean and its waters probably contain unique deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems and seamounts. As part of the MPA, there have been calls to reclassify the waters around the South Sandwich Islands as a fully-protected marine sanctuary as the marine area is near-pristine with only limited commercial fishing effort. The biggest threats to these islands are considered to be largely natural, arising from climate change (noting that this is almost certainly human-induced), volcanic eruption and ice scour on the sea bed.

A virtual tour for SGSSI, outlining its historical and cultural importance is currently under development and will shortly be available here.