Expedition and Wilderness Medicine Director visits South Georgia

Black and White view of South Georgia

Black and White view of South Georgia

In March of this year Mark Hannaford was lucky enough to get a fantastic photographic project down to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands with the Scott Polar Research Institute (http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk ) and the South Georgia Heritage Trust (http://www.sght.org ).

Mark tells us about this project, SPRI and the amazing history behind these islands. “Prior to landing I asked a colleague, well known naturalist Dr Peter Cary, if it was realistic to compare South Georgia with the Galapagos Islands and his reply ‘only if you want to downplay South Georgia’. Which surprised me but the islands lived up to and exceeded any expectations that I had.

https://expeditionmedicine.wordpress.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifFirstly however where is South Georgia? Lying about three days sailing to the east of the Falkland Islands the territory is a collection of remote and inhospitable islands, consisting of the largest island of South Georgia which measures approximately 106 miles by 18 miles and a chain of smaller islands known as the South Sandwich Islands lying about 400 miles to the south-east. The island was first sighted in 1675 by a London merchant called Anthony de la Roché and later by Captain James Cook during his remarkable journey who circumnavigated the island and then landed to claim for the crown naming it ‘the Isle of Georgia’ in honor of King George III.

Commercially the islands came to prominence in the early 1900’s when a number of large whaling stations where constructed by Norwegian companies to exploit the extremely rich waters, the stations where extremely successful and at one stage over 40,000 whales where being killed in the Southern Ocean, a large proportion being processed at South Georgia’s whaling stations. It is remarkable that the whale population has been able to survive at all with this rate of slaughter and a testament to how rich these oceans can potentially be in marine life if whaling is banned completely.

South Georgia is also closely associated with Sir Ernest Shackleton and his remarkable feat of leadership. After his ship the Endurance was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea on October 1915 he led his 28 crew members in three small boats to the remote Elephant Island where they set up an extremely inhospitable base camp. Then Shackleton and five companions, including New Zealander Captain Frank Worsley the master of the Endurance, set sail in one of the small boats, the James Caird, on one of history’s epic journey to get help from Norwegians on South Georgia. In a miraculous feat of seamanship Worsley navigated the James Caird across the stormiest seas in the world under the constant threat of capsizing and hardly a clear view of the storm clad skies with which to get a sextant fix. Arriving at the glacier ridden cliffs of South Georgia fifteen days later they were forced to stand offshore for a further frustrating day whilst they waited for hurricane force winds to batter the island. The next day the storm, which had sunk a 500 ton steamer nearby, had abated and they were able to land on the uninhabited south shore. Rather than risk another sea journey Shackleton decided to cross the island on foot without a map or any local knowledge of the terrain, travelling with just Worsley and fellow Irishman Thomas Crean he trekked across glaciers and mountains to stagger a day and half later in the whaling station of Stromness. British explorer Duncan Carse retracing their footsteps in 1955 wrote ‘I do not know how they did it, except that they had to, three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them, and a carpenter’s adze’. In 1922 Shackleton returned to South Georgia on his last expedition where he suffered a massive heart attack and died on the 5th of January.

In honor of him his crew erected a memorial on King Edward Point near Grytviken and then set sail for England with his body onboard. However, upon reaching Montevideo, Leonard Hussey a veteran from the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition received a telex from Emily Shackleton, the ‘bosses’ wife requesting that they return to South Georgia and bury her husband there. Shackleton is buried in the graveyard at Grytviken. Shackleton’s doctor wrote ‘think this is as “the Boss” would have had it himself, standing lonely in an island far from civilization, surrounded by stormy tempestuous seas, and in the vicinity of one of his greatest exploits.’ The islands most recently came to the worlds notice during the Falklands conflict when a group of Argentineans, posing as scrap metal merchants, occupied the abandoned whaling station at Leith Harbor on South Georgia. On 3rd April the Argentine troops attacked and occupied Grytviken. The islands where recaptured on the 25th April as a result of Operation Paraquet.

The work for the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) revolved around getting some high quality images of Grytviken and its natural surroundings and for the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) some imagery of their remarkable museum located in the former whaling manager house at Grytviken for a new brochure (http://sgmuseum.gs/mediawiki/index.php/South_Georgia_Museum ). Whilst past the main breeding period the beaches of the island where covered with the massive belching stinky bulk of Elephant Seals and frustratingly aggressive Fur Seal pups attempting to already assert the mastery of their particular stretch of beach. A peek out of my window at King Edward Point I was able to watch a colony of King Penguins move towards the sea and Antarctic Terns fishing offshore all highlighted by the backdrop of the dramatic glacial clad peaks of the Allardyce Range and Mount Paget. There are few places that are quite as stunningly sublimely beautiful as South Georgia, mans hold on the island is tenuous at best reliant upon regular boat resupplies from Port Stanley but nature hold is remarkable by in tenacity and abundance.

With six days to complete the task and the weather not always working with me the hospitality and assistance of the staff at the British Antarctic Survey base at King Edward Point helped me capture what I think isn’t too bad a collection – visit the Across the Divide blog to judge for yourself (http://mark1066.wordpress.com/ ).

Help support SPRI. Across the Divide has been connected with SPRI for a number of years running an annual charity dog sledding adventures in the Arctic which helps raise invaluable funds for the Institute – if you would like to help and even just journey in the High Arctic with a dog team for company then why not sign up for next years dogsledding challenge here http://www.acrossthedivide.com/openEvents/charityopen.asp

Thanks to:

MV Discovery operated by Voyages of Discovery (http://www.voyagesofdiscovery.com ) for giving me a lift down to South Georgia.

The British Antarctic Survery (http://www.antarctica.ac.uk ) who accommodated Mark, at their base at Grytviken where his project was based.

Linblad Expeditions (http://www.expeditions.com ), based in New York, who picked me up by their new flagship expedition ship the National Geographic Explorer and given a lift in to Cape Town. The whole trip relied on a great deal of help from other people and organisations for which I am very grateful.

Expedition and Wilderness Medicine Staff.

Polar Medical Training Courses.

Relics of a whaling industry - looking out over Cumberland Bay
Relics of a whaling industry – looking out over Cumberland Bay

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