Return to Title Description




On the winds of the Furious Fifties, an albatross echoes the spirit of a lonely windswept land.

South Georgia – an Antarctic island of great beauty – a mere dot in the great southern ocean. The only approach is by sea, and the island itself resists efforts to land there.

Yet for more than 300 years people have been sailing to South Georgia to exploit what they can.


Humans have plundered and profited, fought and died here. The remains of their conquest, have turned to rust.

These ruins were once the world’s greatest whaling empire.

Now – after in insatiable demand for whale oil has passed – they are testament to decades of greed, and unremitting slaughter.

A legacy of oily, rotting remains, left for the island’s legitimate owners.

The immigrant whalers brought alien cultures to a land which didn’t need them. Against formidable odds, determined people battled to build stable communities – much like those they had left at home.

A movie theatre may have promised a brief escape from a hard life – but reality was often short lived.

Life on this island was reliably unkind, and whaling full of occupational hazards.

Many adventurous souls would never again see their loved ones in Norway, Sweden, America or England.

Only a career adventurer would be content to remain here, in lonely exile forever.

By 1966 the southern ocean was deathly quiet. There was nothing left to hunt, and the “gold rush” days of whaling in South Georgia were over. A few hardy survivors were richer – but the world was poorer by nearly two hundred thousand whales.

South Georgia’s one hundred angular miles are enclosed by the waters of the Antarctic Convergance – a biological frontier where the warmer South Atlantic Ocean collides violently with the cold Antarctic sea, stirring up a natural marine soup.

This rich food source totally sustains the vast numbers of birds and animals that live around the island.

Isolation has proven to be no guarantee of safety.

Within easy reach of offshore fishing fleets, the super-abundance of food in these waters could well provide an easy answer for next century’s hungry world. To the detriment, once again, of South Georgia’s animals and birds. Fur seals and whale communities are only now recovering, from decades of slaughter.

Early scientific interest in the marine biology of South Georgia, was shown in 1911 by the “German International Polar Year Expedition”, who set up a small base here.

Not the least of their problems was a disastrous lack of finance, and a suitable ship. At least it seems they managed to drown their sorrows in style.

Eventually the Germans struggled through three visits, conducting surveys and making charts – all the while, continuing to drown their sorrows.

They carried out their research, existing in buildings which were less than substantial, yet they contributed some of the most useful information ever recorded about the island and its surrounding sea.

Eventually they gave up – they at least returned home – leaving South Georgia for other future scientists to discover.

At the end of this century, one still faces much the same difficulties and challenges.

Even with the advantages of space-age technology, clothing, and equipment – survival here is not to be taken for granted.

Thermal underwear must be coupled with personal resilience. To tackle South Georgia is to inevitably come to terms with both the land, and one’s inner self.

The land’s deep secrets are hidden within its rocks.

To the uninitiated, the rocks of South Georgia are a source of wonder – a kaleidoscope of texture, colour and form.

For scientists the interior hides tales of a relationship with an ancient super continent. An adventure novel of nature. Dramatic stories of upheavals, drownings, unbelievable forces and explosions.

By unlocking these tales of prehistoric animal life, ancient plants, and minerals, both the history and future possibilities are revealed.

Directly or indirectly, the sea feeds nearly every creature that lives and breeds on South Georgia.

Recent evidence suggests that commercial fishing is exploiting fish stocks above their sustainable yield. Yet humans continue misusing natural resources. If fishing continues to escalate without realistic controls, the existence of marine mammals will be threatened.

Again, people hold the island’s fate in their hands.

So many Antarctic creatures depend totally on shrimp like krill for food. Unfortunately humans have discovered they can eat krill too. Caught by the boat load, they are processed into something still fishy but completely different. Since 1960, we have harvested over three million tonnes. The impact on sea bird colonies, could be tragic.

There are moments of peace, and South Georgia shows her gentler side.

Spring can still be harsh – but there is a burst of life around the island.

Magic carpets of moss suddenly appear from under the snow – tiny perfect forests, in a completely treeless land.

The mosses sport whole plantations of miniature spore capsules, ready to fling their contents into the next burst of wind. And sea birds appear over land, seeking nest sites and mates.

Male Antarctic terns are the first to appear. They arrive early to claim their traditional resting place.

Eventually the hillside will house a colony of thirty to forty nests – just shallow scrapes in the ground.

This site is not far from the beach, as the terns are not long range feeders, and prefer to hunt for krill near the shore.

When the females finally arrive from sea, and mating begins, the terns’ behaviour becomes quite aggressive – till then this early bird calls in vain, there’s not a female in sight.

The in-shore bays are swarming with Cape pigeons – not true pigeons at all, but petrels.

Expert scavengers, they at least benefited from whaling. With plenty of scraps to pick through, their numbers increased dramatically.

Their larger cousins, the Giant Petrels have similar tastes but more questionable manners – gorging themselves into overload.

Perched precariously on tufts of tussock overhanging the sea, this small colony of Blue-eyed shags has reason to look nervous.

First described by explorers two hundred years ago, they were shot and eaten by the crews of sailing ships.

Then rats escaped from the whaling ships, quickly adapted to the harsh island life, and thrived – causing havoc among South Georgia’s ground nesting birds.

Many birds, once prolific breeders, were in trouble.

For the shags on this cliff face, the human legacy might well be extinction. Two seasons ago forty birds nested here – now only seven survive.

In true albatross fashion, the courtship rituals of the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross are prolonged and pleasurable. A lot of ceremony and togetherness between partners, who may have known each other for many years.

So far the rats have not made it this high, and the albatrosses nest-ledges remain safe.

Gentle and dignified, their cries seem to echo the very spirit – the heart and soul – of this land.

To be alone on a cliff face watching these beautiful birds, is a welcome step out of time – an escape into the magic of the Antarctic.

But reality is always just around the corner.

The Skua also has its distinctive place in the scheme of things.

Not always a scavenger, it is primarily the significant predator of penguin eggs and chicks. A creator of balance, and the janitor of the penguin colonies.

Penguins are the most significant – and visible – bird species on South Georgia.

Captain James Cook claimed this land for England in 1775. He noted in his journal that “the wild rocks raised their lofty summits till they were lost in the clouds, and the valleys laid buried in everlasting snow”.

The wildlife of these rocks and valleys thrives in this everlasting snow, and the penguins are perfectly adapted.

Aloof, regal – and endearingly vague – the King penguins built-in thermal vests were nearly their downfall.

In the 1800’s these trusting and curious birds had no defence against humans who clubbed them to death.

Their bodies had no commercial value except that their oily flesh burnt well. They were used simply as firewood – under the pots used to melt down the seal blubber.

These days' penguins are safe. On land they are large enough to avoid predators, and the elephant seal is no threat – he prefers fish.

The much smaller Gentoo penguins are quite a contrast. Of course penguins just missed out on being fish… they certainly swim like them.

In water they are superb – on land far less graceful – with ill-designed legs for an obstacle course.

While King penguins stay close to the beaches, the little Gentoos nest inland, and spend hours each day on a marathon trek for food.

Defenceless on land, but with no serious enemies, the Gentoos still choose to nest in the most difficult places.

A Gentoo rookery seems a haphazard affair, but each pair of birds has a territory surrounding their nest – a small private patch distinctively their own.

Although seemingly basic, their nests are organised collections of moss and stones. They are amazingly fussy about the size of their stones, and on frozen ground moss is in short supply.

As the demand well exceeds the supply, the answer is easy.

Theft. It has become an art form – the accepted way to maintain a nest. Everyone steals from everyone else, as often as they can.

Any nest left without a sitting penguin, becomes a sitting duck!

But soon these birds will be sitting on eggs, with more to worry about than a light-beaked neighbour.

It comes as a surprise to find deer on an Antarctic island – especially reindeer.

In their natural northern habitats they have been hunted and herded for centuries. The direct influence of humans on the northern hemisphere has made it difficult to study the animals in the wild.

The ancestor of these animals were first introduce to the island in 1911 by Norwegian whalers tired of eating whale meat, and keen for sport.

The two thousand reindeer on South Georgia form two quite separate herds – kept apart by glaciers and mountains.

Not only have these two herds become genetically distant from their northern hemisphere relations, but they are also genetically different from each other – to the delight of scientists who now have extremely interesting, wild, semi-captive herds to study.

The original animals liberated here adapted almost immediately, readily moving their body-clocks by six months to match the breeding seasons of their new home.

Adult females are in various stages of pregnancy and motherhood. Compared to the northern hemisphere, South Georgia is a blissful place to breed: enough food, no predators, and importantly – none of the parasites or biting insects that seriously plague the northern herds in summer. The reindeer here aren’t pining for the fiords of Norway.

The tussock growing on the lower parts of the island is quite resistant to grazing. Even so, some large areas have been destroyed, resulting in patches of serious erosion.

Tussock is the reindeer’s preferred food, although its abundance – or otherwise – is a major control of deer numbers on the island.

The tussock is a real benefit during winter – it remains green, is nutritious, and is seldom snowed under.

Lichens are the most diverse plant group – several were introduced on timber imported by the sealers and whalers. Along with a selection of mosses, they make up the rest of the reindeer’s rather limited diet.

A small amount of reindeer meat is taken each year by controlled shooting, but permission to hunt is subject to very strict licensing. Although the herds remain fully protected, there is a loud body of opinion that insists the reindeer are neither native, nor needed, and should go!

The Skua however, is vital to life on South Georgia.

A powerful and predatory bird, the Sea hawk of the Antarctic is both scavenger and pirate.

Nothing escapes the Skua’s attention, and everything ends up on the menu for their chicks – regurgitated seal carcass, penguins, rats, small petrels, other birds’ eggs, and refuse from passing ships.

For most of the year the Skuas cruise the southern ocean, returning to their tradition patch on the island to breed with their lifetime mate.

Although two chicks are hatched, the second smaller chick is really only insurance.

The Skuas, in common with other predatory birds, will care for both chicks until the larger one seems certain for survival. Eventually, the second chick will be left on its own to starve.

The same insurance policy doesn’t exist with penguins, and pairs of Gentoo chicks will be fed equally with both parents taking turns.

After insistent begging, each chick is fed on demand – a high protein, nicely oily, hot fish stew.

With luck, both chicks will survive – although not if the Skua has its way.

Highly skilled at finding weak spots in the penguins’ defences, the opportunist waits to take an egg or chick.

Bereaved parents can only try again – if there is time left in the season. The Skua has both the patience and the time.

Penguins are curious birds – and King penguins rather more curious than most.

It takes about sixteen months to rear a King penguin chick, so successful parents will raise only two chicks in three years.

This results in penguins many stages of dress – from the strictly formal, to the casually bizarre.

Describing a King penguin colony as impressive, is an understatement. To be surrounded by thousands of waist-high penguins, is truly astonishing.

While the parents hunt at sea, the chicks are left in the crèche.

From this great mass of birds, it's a wonder that parents an their offspring ever find one another. But they do, quite easily, and only orphaned chicks are neglected.

Even then, other adults will often feed a starving chick that begs enough.

There is an almost 24-hour production line of adults coming and going from the sea with food, and chicks being chaperoned in and out of day-care.

Taking advantage of anything that comes their way, Sheathbills keep the colony clean.

In one of the largest maternity wards in the world, expectant males and females take turns incubating their eggs

A cosy, but precarious system, that does away with the need for a nest – but not a territory.

A flipper length between neighbours seems to be the rule – but in crowded conditions it is easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Try keeping your feathers on while juggling a vulnerable egg!

Parents swap egg duty every two weeks, for sixty days. Being hobbled in practically one spot, leads to boredom and aggression. Incredibly, few eggs are lost, and serious injury is rare.

King penguins of all ages are curious birds – which – ever way you look at it.

They are seasoned spectators of the Antarctic, bearing themselves with an engaging sort of regal dignity – not so apparent with smaller breeds.

Elephant seals are often the centre of their attention – and these days there are no shortage of them on South Georgia.

This wasn't always the case. From the late 1700's until 1820 a million elephant seals were indiscriminately clubbed to death on South Georgia's beaches. During a second wave of slaughter from 1900 until 1964, a further half million animals were taken and rendered for their oil.

Human lust for wealth, and well-documented cruelty, almost permanently erased these animals from their island.

In 1964 sealing was suddenly no longer commercially viable. Since the killing stopped, numbers have gradually increased. A stable population of about three hundred thousand now breeds around the island each summer.

Every cove and bay has its own "beachmaster" – a dominant bull whose own lust encourages him to round up as many returning cows as he can.

Before mating, females give birth to pups they have carried during winter at sea. A seal colony is a dangerous place for a small fragile body, and many newborn pups are crushed as the beachmaster moves in to mate with his cows.

No colony would be complete without its own Sheathbills.

Tiny little birds with some rather unusual habits

Working in pairs they keep their self-appointed part of the colony spick and span, picking away at anything they find – regurgitated food, afterbirth, excrement – and their specialty – noses and teeth.

None of the fussy behaviour bothers the female seals in the least – they have larger problems to worry about

Like two hundred kilos of determined blubber – four times their size and weight.

For some – not old enough to wrestle with lust – life is just a luxuriant pool of putrid mud.

Toward the end of summer the females have left their pups to fend for themselves, they've been at sea feeding, and come ashore again to moult.

They've been fertilised by one of the beachmasters, but their new eggs will not develop for about four months, until they return to the sea for winter.

Left to entertain themselves, this season's young seals discover the sea.

This playtime will hopefully teach them all the skills they need, to survive the Antarctic sea on their own.

Although most of the females have left, and the beachmasters are satisfied, there are still young bulls whose hormones are egging them on.

Some will fight until exhausted or seriously injured.

Their individuals who fail to over through a beachmaster or obtain any females of their own

All to often though, this is the result of their frustration

This is a rape. Not at all uncommon among sea mammals

Denied access to adult females, a young bull simply takes advantage of the next best option – the unguarded pups.

There is no escape from such brute force.

Sadly it takes some time for the trusting pups to learn – after all, the bull is one of their own kind. The pups have no defences against the bull's instinctive determination to mate.

It takes almost a week for the pups to discover they are safer in water – during that time, thirty-seven have been savagely killed.

Life on this island can be basic, and raw, there are no guarantees of survival. Every animal is part of a food chain – some simply succumb sooner than others. Nature's legacy of lust, is food

Other survivors of the human legacy on South Georgia are the fur seals. A miracle, as by 1913 three million animals – every fur seal that could be found – had been killed.

This time, the bounty was fur, and in the 1800's the fashion-conscious of Europe would rather "be seen dead than be seen without a seal skin coat".

It's taken the better part of this century for the fur seal to slowly re-colonise South Georgia.

Although on the beaches fur seal and elephant seal colonies are recovering, the surrounding ocean remains depressingly silent – there are still very few whales.

On the land lie sad reminders – old and weathered and past caring – they are our legacy, monuments to creatures long gone.

In 1982, a different sort of lust rears its head on South Georgia, and humans arrive again.

This time, they exploit each other

Scrape metal merchants from Argentina refused to leave a whaling base. But South Georgia is British. Angry landlords in England stamped their feet and sent in the navy. Argentina did the same, and battle began. Incredibly, it was the desire of humans to salvage the decaying machinery – used to process the whales – which began the Falkland Island War.

The animals of the 1900's have no fear of man – and hopefully nothing to fear.

The war had little impact on the wildlife or landscape, although South Georgia is now under armed guard.

Of all the Antarctic regions, South Georgia has suffered the most. Yet there is a great resiliency within the natural environment. New balances have been obtained – however, humans persist. Attacking and depleting the lower end of the food chain – the fish and squid, and krill – could be the significant factor that determines the future for the wildlife here.

Although we could remove the grim leavings of inhumanity from this very beautiful place, they should remain. They are part of South Georgia's legacy – a legacy of a lust for a land that has never been ours to take.

Credits start

Credits finish

Return to Title Description