South Georgia – The beginning

Half a million penguins and a bone saw.

After working in Antarctica on the MV Spirit of Adventure in 2009  I was left with an itch to get back south – those of you who know me best will be aware of that. After years of trying I was eventually offered a job working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) as a boating officer on the Island of South Georgia. While South Georgia isn’t the ‘real’ Antarctic it’s still south of the convergence and  at 110 miles long as well as being surrounded by incredibly rich waters it’s home to millions of penguins and seals, dozens of mountains and glaciers, the occasional iceberg and a handful of humans.

It’s an island famous for two things – being the first territory invaded by the Argentineans in the 1982 Falklands conflict and the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton who finished his epic ‘Endurance’ survival story (If you don’t know the story buy one of the many books about it, you won’t regret it.) on the island and where he was buried after his death on a later expedition.

A picture tells a thousand words, so they say. I’ll try to keep the writing to a minimum and let the photos tell the story, having said that this post will be quite heavy in both pictures and words as I’ll try to set the scene for future posts and make up for lost time!

It began in mid November with a Military flight from RAF Brize Norton airbase in the the UK to the Falkland Islands before joining the BAS research ship James Clark Ross (JCR).


The JCR departing Stanley in the Falklands, the last time I’d see civilisation in 13 months.


Heading east. There’s 700 miles between the Falklands and South Georgia, a trip that would take 3 days.


Between games of chess, darts and movies I’d try to get in to the gym (a room with a rowing and cycling machine) walk the decks or take some photos. The wake of the JCR would attract birds looking for food churned up in the water. Plenty of black browed Albatross, not as big as  Wandering Albatross but still a wingspan of about 2 meters.


A week after leaving the UK the JCR pulls into Cumberland Bay, South Georgia. The new team (left to right) Myself, Julie (Doctor), James (Fisheries scientist), Tim (boatman), Dickie (Base Commander) and Matt (mechanic). Two of the previous winters would be staying for a second year – Joe (electrician) and Daniel (marine biologist).


Our new home! King Edward Point (KEP). Buildings (left to right) The boat shed and mechanical workshops, food store, the nearly refurbished Discovery House, Carse House, Cook laboratories and offices (then a small veranda), Everson house with Shackleton Villa on the end and Larsen House at the very end.


The current team wait on the wharf to help with the JCR’s lines. Elephant seals everywhere!


Day one and the sun is out! The JCR alongside getting ready for ‘first call’ = to offload a year’s supply of food! Mt Hodges the obvious peak with Grytviken whaling station and museum below.


The food store. Everything in the blue boxes is for the dry store, which takes up about 1/2 of the food store, the other half is split between a cold store and a freezer.


The boat shed, minus the boats. Anything that wasn’t food was put in here to be sorted by the appropriate person. The white boxes towards the back right are ‘p-boxes’ – personal belongings, that were too heavy, big, hazardous etc for the flight, boxed up in the UK and sent down on the JCR.


The JCR departs a couple of days later. This left the previous team with 3 weeks to show us the ropes, so to speak, before they departed on the fisheries patrol ship ‘Pharos’.


Luna in front of the Harker glacier. There were duller parts to my handover and the weather isn’t always this good!


November – January is Fur seal pup season. A family stay close together. The mothers are protective for the first 100 days or so and then leave the pups to fend for themselves.


Once the mothers go back to sea you can get a little closer or let them come to you.  A lot of the pups have an aggression that massively outweighs their size/weight, this one seemed to like human company and was quite happy to come over and then snooze next to me.


Wildlife photography is synonymous with big camera lenses, as most wildlife will disappear at the first sight of humans in most places of the world. Not so on South Georgia, if you stay in one place for a few minutes something will come and have a look for its self. Dickie changing his telephoto lens for a smaller one. Blue Eyed Shags are as inquisitive as they are fearless – dumb might be a better adjective.


The clouds close in on the Allerdyce Mountains. Winds circle the southern ocean, constantly moving east, uninterrupted by any great land mass – South Georgia is isolated and in the middle of its path, often steam rolled by any weather system that passes through the Drake Passage.


A Tern taking off in search of food. Hard to capture as they are so fast, even the fastest shutter speed is too slow to get a crisp shot a lot of the time.


Coming back to land with some food, probably fish larva.


One of the jet boats crossing Cumberland Bay East. We have 2 jet boats and 2 RIB’s (Rigid Inflatable Boat) at our disposal. The RIB’s are often used to land on beaches when dropping staff off on holidays. The jet boats are used to take the SG Government Officers (GO’s) to cruise ships and fishing ships for environmental, do’s and don’ts talks and inspections, respectively.


The Pharos coming into King Edward Cove. As well as patrolling the fishing area the Pharos helps with personel movements, bringing our mail and fresh fruit and veg every 6 weeks or so. Some King Penguins on the beach in front of base and Mt Paget (2,934m) behind – the highest point in the British overseas territories.


The old team departing on the Pharos. Looking happy – must be looking forward to traffic jams, supermarkets, electricity bills, public transport, fast food restaurants, roadworks etc.


The base Christmas photo, this was sent to all Antarctic bases, as they all do in return. New faces – Hugh the postman back left, Daniel in the purple jacket, husband and wife Simon (GO) and Sarah in front, ‘Cuz’ our facilities engineer in the blue jacket and Joe on the far right.


Christmas lunch BBQ with the builders. The builders are mainly from the Falklands and live in Larsen house during the summer. This year was mainly spent refurbishing Discovery House, which can sleep 8 people, which will help attract more science projects to SG.


Everson dining room getting ready for Christmas dinner. All BAS staff live in Everson House which has a large kitchen, walk in freezer, laundry room and a bar/livingroom.


Opening presents in the bar/livingroom. Anthony from the museum is the new face here. Some great Christmas jumpers on display. To get to the dining room, Kitchen and boot room from the bed (AKA ‘pit’) rooms you have to walk through the bar…….


Like most children, James was more interested in the wrapping paper/bubble wrap than his presents.


On the way to Mt Hodges a few base members take a rest. Mt Sugartop (2,323m) behind.


The view from the top of Mt Hodges into King Edward Cove with Grytviken whaling station below, KEP on the left hand side, Cumberland Bay East and the Barff Peninsula beyond.


Taking in a second peak (Petrel) for the day. Dickie and Daniel on the summit as I take the picture from it’s twin peak. A shot I’d like to retake in winter!


New Years eve in the bar. BAS, GO’s and builders all enjoying (sensibly) a few drinks. One of the visiting cruise ships invited us on for dinner and drinks before the bells. That should have meant a choice between base or ship for the bells. Luckily the ship was still on Ushuia time (Tip of South America) which is 2 hrs behind. This meant we could have the bells on the ship (10pm our time) and then get back to the base bar for 11pm – a win/win situation.


Three of the builders up to no good behind the bar. The bar is run by whoever is behind it and all drinks are paid for on a tick sheet, which is then deducted from our monthly salary. Handling hard cash will be odd on my return.


The 2014 South Georgia 1/2 Marathon line up. Micky (builder) Dickie, Bjorn (visiting scientist and oldest entrant at 68), James, Simon, myself, Daniel and Martin (SG CEO) the nearly undisputed king of the race. When living in Hong Kong I would run up to 4 mountain 1/2 marathons a year, usually they take into account the height gain and sacrifice some distance to make it feel more like a 1/2 – not the case on SG. the course is 13.1 (that’s if you don’t get lost) miles and easily the most difficult marathon terrain I’ve covered. Martin won at a saunter in 1hr 52min. I was a good 40 min behind but on hearing that he has done the London marathon the last few years in under 3hrs I wasn’t too upset.


James standing proud with the Nordenskjold Glacier and Allerdyce Mountains behind. BAS staff are allowed four boat supported holidays a year, James and I took our first holiday to the Barff Peninsula in search of peaks and penguins.


The view from the top of Ellerbeck looking north west up Cumberland Bay East.


James about to reach the summit.


The boats dropped us at Sorling hut which we used as base for a few days. Not far from the hut a stream drops down and offers a brave person a chance for a ‘invigorating’ bath! No photographic evidence for decency’s sake.


James emptying his welly after crossing the river at St Andrews. The walk from Sorling to St Andrews Bay is 16k and takes a good 5 hours. There is a hut at St Andrews as well, but that’s not the attraction….St Andrews is home to nearly half a million king penguins…..


Looking down on the colony (about 1/3 of it actually) During the day the noise is incredible, it gets quieter at night – the smell stays.


Wall to wall penguins! Many have eggs which means you can’t get too close. But as with all SG wildlife you just need to stand still and something will come looking before long.


James cooking up a storm in the hut. All you need to bring is food, everything else is there.


The next day we walked back to Sorling as the weather was due to turn, so we played it safe and got back to our pick up spot.


Back to KEP with a day to spare, James and I decided to do some climbing. There isn’t much good rock (actually there’s none) on SG for climbing as it’s flakey and tends to come apart in your hands.


This year saw the final year of the Reindeer eradication project. Part of the Government’s plan to return SG to it’s original state. As well as the reindeer project there is a rat eradication project – the biggest one ever. The rats eat nesting birds and have decimated their numbers over the years. Luckily the meat from the reindeer isn’t wasted and we all had lessons in butchery from one of the seven Norwegian shooters. By the end of the project we had two chest freezers filled with over 250 kg’s of reindeer venison.


A Skua hoping to get some scraps from the butchery container. They aren’t as aggressive as the ones I’ve met on Scotland’s west coast, that’s replaced by cheeky opportunism here.


A menacing character, wielding a bone saw, lurking in the shadows of the butchery container.


Another sunny day and another peak. James letting fly with a snowball. The last one went in Dickie’s direction – to my right.


Snowball mid flight……..


Direct hit! I thought he’d go for Dickie again. Lesson learnt – never trust an Irishman.


Crosses near KEP from 3 army servicemen. The military ran KEP after the Falklands conflict until 2000, when BAS took over. The nights now closing in as winter approaches.


Fur seal pups taking swimming lessons. Puppy Lake near Maiviken comes alive mid/late summer with pups learning to to what they do best.


The path from Grytviken to KEP showing signs of whats to come.


Elephant seal pups pile up on the KEP slip way. They move a meter or so before slumping down (exhausted) for a few minutes rest – launching a boat can take some time.


Myself, Dickie and James on top of Mt Hodges early morning. I do have a couple of sensible photos but we got bored.


The view into Cumberland Bay East from the summit. Given some of the weather that hits SG it’s amazing how often the bay is flat calm. Gull lake near the middle of the shot provides the water for the hydroelectric plant.


Le Boreal in KEC, one of 50 or so cruise ships that visit during the tourist season (Dec – March). 5m ‘zodiacs’ do the taxi-ing for the passengers, who are easy to spot in red jackets. Here they are being dropped off by the graveyard so they can visit Shackleton’s grave. The lone building is the hydroelectric plant, we are one of (if not thee) greenest Antarctic base.


The ‘Bark Europa’ is one of the more traditional ships to visit. Passengers are expected to do some work while on board, climbing the rigging to stow sails etc- the way to visit the Antarctic for the adventurous person.


Tea, coffee and cakes afternoon put on by the museum staff during a quiet period. From left – Pat (GO), Julie, Josie (museum staff), Daniel and Sarah.


That gave Dickie and I the chance to try on some of the merchandise in the shop, not sure it’s a good look for me. Years from now this might be identified as the beginning of my decent into becoming a full blown loonie.


Early morning sunrise over Cumberland Bay East. I’d learnt a lesson the week before when doing a time-lapse shot from similar position – the sun comes up and then goes left, not right as it does in the northern hemisphere!


Mid March – The Sir Ernest Shackleton passing behind ‘Shack’s’ cross on Hope Point. The cross was erected by his men after he died on his way south. The Shack is BAS’s support ship and was in for ‘last call’ – bringing in a few last minute things and to take out the old team’s p-boxes etc for the journey north. The builders, museum staff, ‘Cuz’, Martin and Hugh would follow the week or so after. Her arrival was a sign that winter was nearly here…..



This entry was posted in South Georgia and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Jon(athan) Barker March 30, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    Love your photos Matthew – hope you will do more – are you going back to SG? I haven’t worked out if you were with BAS or ? I was lucky enough to be with BAS as Radio Op/Engineer from 1972-74 (2 summers, 1 winter) at KEP and loved SG – was back there v recently aboard MV Ushuaia with the BAMT South 2015 lot on 1st March and we had a great (but short) day at KEP/Grytviken visiting the museum and base. We checked the overwintering FID photos on your bar? wall and my year was only a copy of a photo but you can see me, fairly tall with beard, 6th from right – looking slimmer and fitter in those happy days! 🙂 Best pics for me (although all good) are my favourite views from top of Mt Hodges – (I have similar) of KE Cove and East Cumberland Bay with Barff in background and the one of the climb up with Sugertop behind. Fond memories! I spent my winter jolly on the Barff at Soerling and Hound Bay huts. All the best… Jon

    • Matthew April 1, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

      Hi Jon, thanks for the kind comments. I’m still here! I possibly saw you in the dining room when you were looking at the photos from your winter! I was having a cup of tea when the second groups passed through (late afternoon). I’m one of the boating officers (glorified taxi driver) with BAS, I have a few months left and will leave in July or August after being here over 20 months! If I get my way I’ll be back at ‘first call’ in November time for another 12 or 8 months. We have a new hut at Hound bay now, I was over there a few months ago and was one of the first visitors – it lacks the character of the older huts like Sorling, Greene, Harpon etc but is a good 1/2 point between Sorling and St Andrews Bay, if you’re walking over. There are a few pictures in Novembers blog post if you’re interested – South Georgia – peaks penguins and friends of old (link to it near the top of the page on the right hand side) Cheers, Matthew.