Portrait of South Georgia: Abundance, Exploitation, Restoration

Sally Ponsett first came to South Georgia in 1977. Then, she said, the sub-Antarctic island was as beautiful as it is today: a backbone of mountains about 100 miles long defines the terrain; glaciers descend from the peaks, and green slopes rise to meet them; glistening beaches wrap around the coastline. But in those days, Ms. Ponce recalled, the island had a sense of emptiness. “You missed him,” she explained. “He wasn’t as alive as he knew he could be.”

No one knows South Georgia as much as Mrs. Ponsett. An independent terrain ecologist, she has researched or counted everything from grasses and albatrosses to elephant seals. Her second son was born here on a sailboat in 1979. Now, at the age of 69, she continues to work in the fields – just like 45 years ago.

South Georgia is part of a remote British overseas territory without a permanent population. It is located on the edge of the Southern Ocean, more than 900 miles northeast of the top of the Antarctic Peninsula and nearly 900 miles east of the Falkland Islands.

Its history reads like a list of crimes against nature, including commercial seals, commercial whaling, and the introduction of non-native species, including rats and reindeer.

Now that hunting is history and invasive mammals have been wiped out, Ms. Ponsett and her colleagues are witnessing a remarkable ecological recovery. The scientific literature provides a muted version, but in listening to scientists – who are driven by data and not prone to hyperbole – their joy and amazement come out. Among the terms they used to describe the rebirth of the island: “miraculous”, “spectacular”, “really emotional” and “lighthouse of hope”.

Of course, in the age of climate change, nothing is so simple. But the rebirth of this island is easily noticeable. All you have to do is listen.

The first man known to have explored the island – and hoisted a flag – was Captain James Cook in 1775. He called it “wild and terrible”, but also discovered millions of Antarctic sea seals located on the beaches, which led to to rush to collect their skins. The seals arrived in 1786; in the next century, millions of animals were killed, their fur turned into luxury items such as cylinders. As a result, the seal was almost destroyed.

At the same time, hunters killed southern elephant seals, including huge bulls that could reach 8,000 pounds. Their fat turns into oil and the hunt continued until the 60s of last century. As both species became extinct, so did their barking and roaring – and the beaches became quieter and quieter.

Whaling in South Georgia begins with Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian captain and businessman who founded a village called Grytviken in 1904. Mr. Larsen and his crew killed their first whale on Christmas Eve and by the end of this season they had caught 183 whales. , mostly humpback, without leaving the bay at all.

Over the next 60 years, a handful of coastal stations handled 175,250 whales, a figure that does not include pelagic factories – large ocean-going ships that can handle whole corpses entirely on board – that operate with impunity in the Southern Ocean. This huge harvest has left blue whales, the largest animal that has ever existed, critically endangered.

When whaling in South Georgia finally ended in 1965, it also left behind a largely Pacific Ocean.

The great human impacts continue on land. Mr. Larsen brought reindeer to South Georgia so whalers had something to hunt. While glaciers, which act as natural barriers, limit animals to two of South Georgia’s peninsulas, their population is still growing steadily, especially after the stations closed. In many places, reindeer trampled the fragile landscape.

Rats and mice also accompanied seals and whalers. In particular, rats have found many birds’ eggs and chickens to feed on, including those of two endemic species: a South Georgia tail, a small duck; and the horse from South Georgia, the only songbird on the island. These birds were literally swallowed up – and their songs also disappeared.

Moving from such conditions to, as Mrs Ponce said, ‘an island that returns to its own natural rhythm’ is, in a sense, very simple: Leave it alone.

Seal and whaling have ended largely for commercial reasons; practices were later banned. The only seal census on all islands was conducted in 1991, about 200 years after the peak of the seal era, and the estimate was 1.5 million animals. Today, that number is probably between three and six million and still growing. Southern elephant seals, last studied in the 1990s, are estimated to be stable at 400,000 animals. These populations return on their own; our role is to back down and let that happen, which includes protecting their food sources such as krill and squid.

One result of these changes is a sonic landscape full of creaking, barking, belching, groaning and growling.

“Seals are ringing everywhere,” Ms. Ponsett said. “It’s constant – absolutely constant noise.”

Counting whales and understanding their habits can be a difficult task, but Jen Jackson, a whale biologist at the British Antarctic Survey, is working on it. Dr. Jackson’s research methods include professional observers, biopsy arrows, fecal samples, whale breath droplets, acoustic detectors and satellite labels. Using historical catch data and new scientific data, her team concluded that backs were returning to their numbers before whaling; there are 24,500 of them in the Scotland Sea, which bypasses South Georgia.

Recovery of blue whales is much slower and the assessment of their unpublished population will be based on photo identification. But one of the best signs, Dr. Jackson said, comes from the sounds he hears underwater. “What you have now in the underwater environment is the blue whales, which cry almost constantly,” she said, noting that the whales are almost completely destroyed.

“It just makes my heart sing,” she added. “We’re watching the ocean amaze again.”

Freeing the island from invasive terrestrial mammals – deer, rats and mice – required a huge effort and over $ 13 million, but the wildlife gain is tremendous. In the summer of 2013, teams including both Sami reindeer herders and Norwegian shooters came to exterminate a population of 6,700 reindeer. The shooters returned in 2014; they were so effective that for every 10 animals killed, they used only 11 bullets. Until 2015, the island was free of reindeer.

Meanwhile, another effort has been made: the largest rat extermination project in history. Relying on ship support, helicopters and the experience of 39 crew members (from logisticians to camp cooks), these specialists sprinkled 333 tons of specially formulated poisonous pellets in every square inch of the rat habitat and then waited. During the Australian summer, they monitored the presence of rats using (among other things) peanut butter-painted sticks. The island was declared free of rats in 2018 – and the mice were also extinct.

The bones spilled out of rat-free areas so quickly that scientists did not have time to document their restoration. As these birds can lay four nests of between three and five eggs a year, their numbers increased instantly. Meanwhile, residents at the main station for British exploration in Antarctica turned out to be watching large rafts of duck tails in the harbor in the winter and rinsing bones and tails from tusac grass in the spring.

“It’s as if Gritviken has been chased by queues,” said Jamie Coleman, a biologist who has spent three years in South Georgia. “You could always hear them whistling in the buildings.

Not every species has experienced the same rebound. Populations of macaroni penguins are declining sharply, even as the number of king penguins increases – in part because the retreat of the glacier reveals more breeding grounds for king penguins to exploit.

Sean whales are still less common than before, and the light-mantle albatross, a magnificent tin bird whose call Mrs. Ponset calls “the soul of South Georgia,” is rapidly disappearing.

The impacts on these species, including climate change and related ocean changes, are much more difficult to deal with.

Back on the island, Ms. Ponsett said she sometimes goes out at night to listen to seabirds. This season she could hear white-bearded petrels and prions. “Their calls are coming back now on the night that used to be quiet,” she said, adding that reviving the birds was just the beginning of the island’s environmental changes. “Every year when I come back, I just think, wow, how lucky I can be to see it change from year to year.”

“We are able to do good things – we are,” she added. “And South Georgia is one of those examples.”

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