Mapping the extraordinary habitats of South Georgia

Pop pop pop pop pop. That seems to be the noise that a shattered glacier makes as the tiny pieces of ice float out into the bay that it spills in to. It is a still day and this is the noise filling Royal Bay, the site we’re currently visiting. Like a million thousand year old ice cubes melting in a gin and tonic that is 8km wide.

Peters Glacier Cheapman Bay ©SAERI

Royal Bay is our twelfth location that we have visited as part of an ambitious joint project to map the habitats of South Georgia. All being well we have a good twenty locations to go.

We are here to record the variety and extent of animal and botanical land habitats around the frozen interior of the island. We are armed with some simple tools: a white 30cm ruler, a pocket camera, a clip board (importantly, with water proof cover), pencils (also waterproof) and a ‘GPS’ navigation gizmo. (Okay, GPS isn’t altogether simple.)

We have been tramping up and down hills, through waist-high swampy Tussac grass, across fragrant herbfields made of Burnet with its sticky burrs, and gingerly along beaches with perpetually angry Fur Seals and -mostly- placid Elephant Seals.

Several sets of major influences are causing South Georgia’s habitats to change. A changing climate is arguably the most systemic. However, introduced Reindeer used to graze large regions, and Norway rats and house mice, also introduced, have until recently preyed on birds, insects and eaten vegetation.

It is striking how much influence the presence of animals has on habitats here. Burrowing birds from the petrel family can transform a hillside into a highly fertile Tussac habitat with their faeces. So no rats may mean more birds, meaning more fertilisation, meaning recovering habitats.

Light Mantled Sooty Albatrosses in Tussac ©SAERI

A Darwin Plus funded project led by SAERI, in partnership with the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Oregon State University, Shallow Marine Survey Group, Falkland Islands Government and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee aims to build an island-wide coastal map that will allow the Government to see how the island is changing and therefore how to best work with that change.

Lush mossy habitats ©SAERI

For our small part of the project we are supported by the most excellent MV Pharos, a tough red and white ship with a hard working crew and an awesome galley. We’re lucky enough to be sharing the trip with an inspiring team from the South Georgia Heritage Trust, here to check if rats have finally been removed.

For the next four weeks we will be working our way up the east coast, visiting bay after bay, each one a natural wonder, many with glaciers whose size are hallucinatory and seem to emanate a deep luminous blue. Humpback Whales have started to appear, some doing turns in the air as they leap out of the water.

To say there are penguins here would be an understatement. Some beaches are impossible to find a path through as there are too many feathered parents raising noisy chicks crowding the place out.

It is uplifting to be able to visit and briefly work in a country whose natural heritage is not only in good shape, but is actually getting better and better. An example of visionary management.

Sacha Cleminson & Carlos Leiva

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