South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic may have no permanent human settlements, but the wildlife population is booming. The islands, part of the United Kingdom’s overseas territory, were once home to a thriving fishing industry, a fur trade and one of the world’s largest whaling operations. Now only fishing and tourism are left – fur-seal hunting stopped after 1912 and the last whale was caught in 1965. The islands’ government in 2012 created a 386,000-square-mile (1 million square km) marine protected area (MPA), permitting only sustainable fisheries to operate within its boundaries. A year later, the government banned fishing in zones that extend 14 miles (22km) from the islands’ shores, an area totaling 7,900 square miles (20,430 square km). Now, seals, penguins and whales are returning, says Johnny Briggs, an officer with the Pew Charitable Trust’s Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.
In February, Briggs visited the islands as part of an expedition to learn about their history and ecosystem before a review of the MPA scheduled for 2018. Pew is encouraging the U.K. to designate more marine reserves, and Briggs returned to the U.K. with photos, videos and knowledge of the islands, which he featured in a series of blog posts on Pew’s website.
Oceans Deeply recently spoke with Briggs about his trip, the history of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and how they are now threatened by climate change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Oceans Deeply: What is so unique about the ecosystem of the islands?
Johnny Briggs: It’s crazy – I’m from a place called Bradford in Yorkshire, so you don’t get too much wildlife [there]. In the U.K., if you’ve got an interest in nature, you’re brought up watching David Attenborough visiting all these amazing places and surrounded by all these animals, and this was my David Attenborough moment.
On the vessel for the first couple of days it’s quiet. You’ve got albatrosses flying around the ship – and they’re not even flapping their wings. You can just watch them for hours; it’s crazy how they do it. And then, as you get closer, you suddenly start to spot seals everywhere, penguins everywhere, returning from feeding.
And then once you get there, it’s fascinating because there’s no permanent population there. There’s a base that is run by the British Antarctic Survey, which has about 10–20 [people], depending on the time of year, called King Edward’s Point. So that’s got scientists there, it’s got the guys from the British Antarctic Survey who run the vessels – the little ships that move the scientists around. It’s got government officials who manage tourism and the fisheries. Right by this base, maybe a kilometer away, you’ve got one of the old whaling stations, called Grytviken.
So, when you stop by you’ve got this ghost town whaling station where you’ve got all of the evidence of this industry that killed 175,000 whales. You’ve got tanks that still have whale oil in them.
We spent a couple of days there learning about cultural heritage and whaling and getting to know people. Then we took the boat around the island to specific sites where you just have these unbelievable concentrations of wildlife. The two largest king penguin colonies in the world are on South Georgia – we went to one called Salisbury Plain, which are in some of my photographs. You’ve definitely got hundreds of thousands of king penguins there. And then you’ve got seals all over the place. Fur seals are supposed to have been decimated to a handful, maybe fewer than a hundred. But now there’s supposed to be about 5 million fur seals on this one island. So, it’s a great story, really, of an ecosystem that has rebounded as well.
We saw sei whales, we saw fin whales, and these whales are really just starting to return after being almost completely decimated during the whaling industry’s time there. It’s amazing. You see this wildlife bouncing back, and you also see wildlife in concentrations that you can never see anywhere else. You can also get so close; there are rules that you can only get within five meters of the wildlife, but that’s impossible because king penguins come to you. They circle around you, they want to see you, they want to see what’s going on. The baby fur seals try to nip at your feet all the time. There are birds that come and peck at your buckles and your bags. Literally, if you stand still for a moment you get surrounded. And that is just so different from any experience or interaction with wildlife that you’d have anywhere else, where the wildlife is generally wary of human beings, whereas these creatures are just delighted to say hello, really.’
Oceans Deeply: One of the things that’s so interesting about these blog posts is that they do go back and forth between talking about how these whales have been hunted, and how they have recovered.
Briggs: They’re making a slow recovery, a lot slower than the fur seals, but at least they are coming back. You know, if you look at a map of South Georgia, there’s a bay called Cumberland Bay. In the grand scheme of things, it’s tiny, but the whaling profession didn’t need to leave that bay for the first few years because they could just take every whale they needed from right by the shore. You could say that it’s sad that the concentrations are nowhere near what they used to be, but they are making a comeback. So, as a glass-half-full kind of person, I’d say that the story is positive in general. But as things are picking up, there are new threats. I really learned on this trip that the impacts of climate change are already noticeable around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and that is something to be wary of.
Oceans Deeply: Can you talk more about the impact of climate change on these islands?
Briggs: You go visit glaciers, and some of these glaciers are retreating at a rate of 1 meter [3.2ft] per day due to warming temperatures. That can directly impact the ecosystem around the islands because you’re pumping a lot more freshwater into the coastal [saltwater] environment, which can impact the dynamic there.
There also was a very successful eradication program on South Georgia a few years ago of rats. I think about $7 million was spent, and these rats were killing a lot of seabirds.
They were able to carry out the eradication using helicopters because the rats were concentrated in areas crisscrossed with glaciers and the rats couldn’t cross the ice. They were able to eradicate rats in these specific areas and now there are no rats in South Georgia. But if rats are reintroduced, they could spread across the whole island because the glaciers have retreated so much that there are not those barriers there that there used to be. So, there’s an increased threat that if invasive species do get on the island, they could be all over it in a quick time period.
But when you look at a marine environment – people call that a wasp-waist ecosystem because you’ve got a lot of different species below it and then you’ve got lots of different predators above it, all the penguins, seals, etc., but you’ve just got this one species in the middle, krill, which so many different species are dependent on. And that’s under threat because krill for hundreds of thousands of years have lived in pretty stable temperatures. But already at the poles we’re seeing larger increases in temperatures than anywhere on the planet, so that could really interfere with the metabolism of the krill.
The oceans have increased in acidity by 30 percent since the industrial revolution, and that is more pronounced at the poles, and it is likely to also impact these species. And finally, and maybe most importantly, krill depend upon ice – that’s where krill hatch. That is where the early life stages of their development occur, and you do have less and less ice. Around the [islands] you have 90 fewer ice days in the winter in the past 30 years, so it’s decreased by three days a year. The worry is that you’re going to have less and less krill even arriving at South Georgia in the future, which the whales depend upon, which the penguins depend upon, and how that is going to impact the ecosystem is a really big unknown right now.