At last, it’s time for leg five of my journey - the four-day, 1,553 km sea voyage to South Georgia.
The MV Pharos SG at Stanley dock. Credit: Claire Goodwin
At last, it’s time for leg five of my journey - the four-day, 1,553 km sea voyage to South Georgia. The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands is supporting the expedition by making their ship the M.V. Pharos S.G. available. The primary role of the Pharos is undertaking fisheries patrols in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands maritime zone. It also provides logistic and scientific support to the research stations on South Georgia. But we will be taking it over for the next month for our research expedition. In preparation, the crew have lowered three containers onto the fore deck of the ship. One will be our lab and the other two are for storage for dive gear, compressors for filling dive cylinders, and sampling kit. We’ve been dashing around Stanley gathering supplies for the past few days but now its finally time to set sail.
We board the boat and load our personal gear into our cabins. I’m pleasantly surprised by mine, it has a comfortable bunk, desk, bathroom and even a small sofa. Then it’s time for a tour of the ship. On the lower floor is the crew’s accommodation and, very importantly, the galley, and the mess where we will be eating our meals. This floor is where we access our lab from too, heading onto the foredeck via a heavy metal door. And there is a drying room for hanging our drysuits after a dive. Next floor up are our cabins. Another floor up is the ‘Commissionaire’s lounge’ where we can gather to work and review dive data. Finally, at the top of the ship, is the bridge where the ship is navigated from. Despite the tour, I manage to get lost several times in my first few days at sea and helpful crew members redirect me – the corridors all look the same to me.
When heading out to sea it’s important to be prepared in case of emergency. The Captain, Gerry, shows us the points to muster if we hear the ship’s alarms. In our cabin there is a locker with a smoke hood (which we can put on to filter air if there is a fire), a life jacket and an immersion suit. If the captain gave the order to abandon ship, we proceed to the muster point and don the suit and lifejacket before boarding one of the six life rafts. Later the alarms sound and we do a practice emergency drill. I struggle into my immersion suit – it’s definitely big enough! With limited sizes available I have the same size suit as Steve and Rob who are at least half a foot taller than me. Doom and gloom talks done, we gather on deck to watch from deck as the Pharos slips her lines and heads out of Stanley narrows. Next stop South Georgia!
Steve, Rob and Claire practice donning their immersion suits. Credit: Juliet Brodie
The science team of ‘Operation Himantothallus’ gather on deck as the Pharos leaves Stanley. Credit: Juliet Brodie.
Another task to complete en-route is biosecurity. Invasive species are a big problem for the native flora and fauna of South Georgia. Sealers and whalers brought many of these in, including rats and mice, over 250 years ago. Many of the native birds nest on the ground or in burrows, making their eggs easy prey for these alien predators. A decade long operation from 2006 to 2016, supported by the South Georgia Heritage Trust who fundraised over 10 million pounds for the effort, has successfully eradicated both reindeer, introduced by the whalers for food, and rats from the island. Helicopters dopped poisoned bait to kill the rodents. For the two years after this operation, three specially trained rodent detecting dogs and their handlers combed the island searching for rats. They walked over 1550 km, often in extreme weather. Only when they had done this was the island declared rat free in May 2018. Rats aren’t the only problem though, plants like bittercress are causing issues in some areas. Earwigs have invaded the Falklands and are a major pest there – but have not yet made it to South Georgia. We diligently hoover our all pockets, pick fluff from Velcro on jackets and boots, and scrub our footwear to remove any seeds or insects that could be lurking. We must clean our shoes and boots with special disinfectant each time we come on and off ship. This will avoid spreading any invasive species between different areas of the island.
Shag rocks in the fog. Credit: Claire Goodwin
As we head south, we settle into the ship’s routine which largely rotates around meals and ‘smoko’ or the morning and afternoon tea breaks. After a bit of a bumpy first night, when I wedge myself into my bed with my sofa cushion, the seas calm. Birds soar around the deck; the numbers of albatross steadily increase as we head further south. We pass the jagged pinnacles of Shag rocks, 250 km north-west of South Georgia, looming out of the mist. That night we are below the Antarctic polar front. This a circular zone 32 to 48 km wide which surrounds Antarctica. It lies about 350 km north of South Georgia. Here cold Anatarctic waters meet the warmer sub-Antarctic waters. When crossing this zone there is a sudden drop in seawater temperature, from around 5.6oC to below 2oC. And with that comes the risk of icebergs. At night I look out from the bridge to see the ice light shining out in front of us, to help the watch keeper spot any icebergs that happen to float into our path.
The ice light shines ahead of the Pharos as she heads into polar waters.
On day four of our trip and we finally approach South Georgia’s coastal shelf. Most of us are up well before breakfast as the chances of spotting whales are high here. Upwelling onto the shelf increases the amount of food available for them. A group of humpbacks circle the Pharos, backs arching into the water, a flick of tail as they dive. At last, we spy South Georgia's mountainous coast. Just after breakfast we arrive at Bird Island. We’re dropping stores for the British Antarctic Survey base here. Then we head along South Georgia’s north coast and, in the afternoon, reach King Edward Point in Cumberland Bay.
A humpback Whale off the coast of South Georgia. Credit: Claire Goodwin
The Pharos alongside KEP wharf
It’s snowing when we venture ashore that evening. Government officer Vicki has briefed us on not approaching wildlife closer than 5 metres, biosecurity, and the dangers of fur seals. Fur seals were thought to have been hunted to extinction by sealers, but a small population remained on Bird Island. From these their numbers have steadily increased and they are now abundant on South Georgia’s beaches. It is now breeding season and males each have their own territory on the beach which they defend from intruders. If bitten by a fur seal’s bacteria heavy mouth, the risk of wound infection is high. The treatment of scrubbing out the wound with a toothbrush and disinfectant and a toothbrush, followed by antibiotic injections, doesn’t sound pleasant.
The whalers church with pressure cookers, used for boiling blubber to extract oil, in foreground. Credit: Karin Gérard
We are tied up at King Edward Point wharf, near to the British Antarctic Survey base and government offices. In the lightly falling snow we head around the curve of the bay to the old whaling station of Grytviken. Heeding Vicki’s warning, we cautiously weave our way through the fur seals on the beach. They make some rather alarming whines and groans. I constantly scan from side to side in case of ambush. Steve and Stevie have a lot of experience on South Georgia and guide us around them. Soon we reach Grytviken the giant blubber vats and rusting remnants of steam boilers that powered the whale processing machinery tower above us. We stand on the platform where the whalers hauled the whales onto shore to process them. When the station was active, the water in front of us would have been red with whale blood. South Georgia’s whaling industry operated between 1904 to 1965 and removed a total of 175,000 whales from the surrounding waters. The whales were used to produce whale oil and guano (meat and bone meal). At one time over 300 men lived at Grytviken. Not much is now left of the bunkhouses where the whalers stayed, but you can still visit their small, white church. Steve points out the remains of the football field, and a ski jump on the mountainside above us (in this remote spot they had to make their own entertainment). The hull of an old whaler, the Petrel, lies on the shore. Eventually the whaling industry depleted numbers so much that it became unprofitable, and the stations were abandoned. It’s starting to get dark now, so we head back to the Pharos. Tomorrow we will be starting diving and shore sampling for 'Operation Himantothallus'.
Male fur seals on the shore. Credit: Karin Gérard