Fate of Many Penguins Hinges on These Sub-Antarctic Islands

  • October 02, 2017
  • by Johnny Briggs

On a voyage to the sub-Antarctic, a Pew staffer finds an ecosystem in need of protection.

Pew Project: Global Penguin Conservation

Trust Magazine Fall 2017

Thousands of king penguins on the Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island. (© Johnny Briggs/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

On our third day at sea, I can tell from a look at the water that we are nearing land. As the 256-foot U.K. patrol vessel Pharos SG rolls over the blue expanse hundreds of miles southeast of the Falkland Islands, the sea begins to bubble with wildlife, and soon we are surrounded by a spectacle of fur seals and penguins—a sign that we’re close to our destination, South Georgia Island.

Remote and windswept, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which together are a U.K. sub-Antarctic territory, harbor biodiversity and a cultural history worthy of protection. I am representing the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project on a 12-day expedition to learn more about the history of the islands, information that could help with decisions on how to conserve them. Also on board are representatives from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF-UK, the BBC, the British Antarctic Survey, the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the Australian, Norwegian, and South Georgian governments.

The islands, in the South Atlantic Ocean east of Drake’s Passage between Antarctica and Argentina, are home to an amazing number of penguins and one of the world’s most populous and diverse seabird communities. In its heyday in the 1800s and early 1900s, the area was a major sealing and whaling center.

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Landfall, and glimpse into a brutal past

Our first stop on this February trip is King Edward Point on the east coast of South Georgia. It is a barren landscape, devoid of flora—but teeming with seals and penguins. A steep mountain towers above a huddle of red- and green-roofed buildings that serve as the King Edward Point Research Station, owned by the islands’ government and operated by the British Antarctic Survey. The government officials, survey staff, and visiting scientists working here manage the South Georgia fishing and tourism sectors, and support critical scientific research for ecosystem management.

The first recorded sighting of these islands was in 1675, from a merchant ship that had been blown off course while rounding Cape Horn. The first landing here occurred a century later, when British explorer Capt. James Cook took possession of South Georgia in the name of King George III.

The first sealer arrived on South Georgia in 1788, and by 1825 1.2 million fur seals had been killed for their pelts. The fur sealing industry ended in 1912 with the species almost abolished from the island.

In 1904, a Norwegian named C.A. Larsen set up the first Antarctic whaling station on the island at Grytviken with 60 men. Additional stations were established at Ocean Harbour, Husvik, Stromness, Leith Harbour, and Prince Olav Harbour. Whales were plentiful, and their oil was in high demand for use in lamp fuel, margarine, soap, fertilizer, and feed for livestock. Coincidentally, many similar products are made today from krill, a tiny crustacean that underpins the Southern Ocean food web, that itself is now under threat.

The unsustainability of whaling in South Georgia was apparent from the outset. In 1906 the governor of the Falkland Islands, which oversaw industry on South Georgia, attempted to manage the resource—with restrictions that forbid the killing of females with calves.

The advent of the pelagic factory ship, however, which allowed whalers to operate on the high seas, ultimately signaled the end of the industry. Catch skyrocketed, leading to an overproduction of oil and a price crash, which forced two of South Georgia’s whaling stations to close. Whaling limped along on South Georgia until 1965, when the animals’ population sunk too low for the industry to make a profit.

Most of South Georgia’s whaling stations have fallen into disrepair, but Grytviken remains. The clean-up of the site, done so that tourists can safely visit it, has left a stripped-back, sanitized version of the station, but the scale and efficiency of the bygone operation remain apparent.

Workers at Grytviken could process up to 25 60-foot whales a day. Today, huge rusting vats still drip whale oil, and a wooden pole in the ground shows the size of the largest blue whale ever recorded, which was processed on the site and measured 112 feet and weighed more than 100 tons. Between 1904 and 1965, South Georgia stations processed 175,250 whales.

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Baby elephant seals lie among crowds of king penguins on South Georgia Island. (© Ondrej Zaruba)

As some species rebound, new threats loom

Those visitors are also witnessing an ecosystem in recovery. It is estimated that the sealing industry decimated South Georgia’s Antarctic fur seal population to less than 100 animals, yet today the fur seals of South Georgia are the densest aggregation of marine mammals on Earth, totaling over 4 million. Whales are returning in significant numbers, and some bird and plant species are thriving in part due to programs to eradicate invasive reindeer and rats.

Despite these promising signs, the ecosystem faces increasing threats from climate change: Glaciers on the islands are retreating at a rate of up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) per day, and water temperatures and acidity levels in the Southern Ocean are increasing faster than anywhere else on the planet, imperiling numerous species.

The government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is implementing precautionary measures to protect the area’s remarkable biodiversity.

Inquisitive penguins

As I step from a rubber Zodiac onto the shore of Salisbury Plain, on South Georgia, hundreds of thousands of king penguins coo as they feed and mingle on this windswept island near the bottom of the Earth.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are home to one-quarter of the world’s penguins, as well as tens of millions of breeding pairs of other seabirds. Scientists say that climate change could affect the availability of food for many of these animals—for example, by forcing the migration of prey species—or could accelerate the evolution of new diseases that threaten native wildlife.

For now, the penguins are staying put. On shore, the muddy horde stretches the horizon, a black, white, and yellow mosaic broken only occasionally by skuas and petrels: seabirds hoping to scavenge a dead or weak juvenile penguin. The ones we encounter are inquisitive, circling our boat to check us out.

Next, we visit a colony of macaroni penguins on the steep slopes of Willis Island. South Georgia is home to an estimated 1 million pairs of these yellow head-dressed birds, their name inspired by the outlandish dress of highly fashionable “macaroni men” in 18th-century London. They are the most abundant penguin species on the island, although their numbers have fallen by half over the past 30 years.

Up close with rare birds

One of our final stops before returning to the Falklands is Bird Island, which is just shy of 2 miles long and lies off the northern tip of South Georgia. The islet holds some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world, with a bird or seal every 5 square feet on average. The British Antarctic Survey operates a research station here, where a staff of four tracks seabird and seal populations.

Two of those scientists guide us up a grassy bank to a wind-buffeted hilltop. We are serenaded by the song of the South Georgia pipit—the world’s most southerly songbird and a bird found only on South Georgia. As we crest the summit, we see a remarkable sight: wandering albatrosses on the nest.

The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird—up to 11 feet 6 inches—and can live for 50 years. Some circumnavigate the Southern Ocean three times a year, covering more than 75,000 miles.

South Georgia is a critical breeding site, home to 12 percent of the global breeding population of black-browed and wandering albatrosses and 40 percent of the global breeding population of grey-headed albatrosses. Yet since 2006, populations of those three species have fallen by 18, 19, and 43 percent, respectively. Researchers believe this is due to birds being caught on fishing lines far beyond South Georgia’s waters. On Bird Island, individual birds are tagged and monitored, but the fate of the species may ultimately hinge on fishing bycatch prevention measures thousands of miles away.

An uncertain future

For now, there is hope for this ecosystem and the species that depend on it. In 2012, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands established a marine protected area covering the entire maritime zone of the overseas territory, 413,129 square miles. Restrictions within the protected area ensure that the government is taking precautionary steps to manage the environment, and officials go to great lengths to sustainably manage tourism to South Georgia.

It is clear, however, that the enhanced management of tourism and fisheries over the coming years will be imperative if the U.K. is to keep South Georgia on the road to recovery. Krill, the crustacean which underpins the health of the entire ecosystem, is under stress from melting ice and warmer and more acidic waters.

The government is set to review the marine protected area in 2018 and has the opportunity to enhance conservation measures throughout the waters of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Doing so would offer this place its best chance for a thriving future—for the species that live here and the tourism industry that depends on them.

As we steam away from these wild and foreboding islands, I stare anew at the boisterous animals stirring up the water. The fate of these species, like so many others, ultimately hinges on how governments steward Earth’s natural resources. We have the data, we have the power, and these animals—knowingly or not—are counting on us.