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Desecrated a century ago a subantarctic island is now restored

My recent essay in the Wall Street Journal on South Georgia:

When you tell people that you’re going to South Georgia, some will ask if you’re changing planes in Atlanta. In fact, the name belongs to an island near Antarctica. It’s about the size of Rhode Island but with mountains rising to over 9,000 feet. It is a wilderness, uninhabited except for two small scientific stations and teeming with spectacular wildlife.

But don’t be fooled: The apparently pristine natural beauty of South Georgia is new. Like an old master painting that was badly damaged but has since been painstakingly restored, South Georgia was once utterly desecrated and is now gloriously refurbished.

The island was uninhabited when, on Jan. 17, 1775, HMS Resolution dropped anchor in what is now called Possession Bay, and Captain Cook claimed it on behalf of King George III. His men discharged their weapons “to the utter amazement of the seals and the penguins,” wrote the naturalist George Forster.

This Jan. 17, exactly 241 years later, as dusk was falling, the fishery protection vessel Pharos SG, carrying Princess Anne—a direct descendant of George III—entered Possession Bay flying the royal standard, and I had the good fortune to be on board. It was snowing gently, and the clouds hung low over the glaciers and black cliffs. Fur seals and penguins were once again the only audience.

A century ago, however, when the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his five companions landed here, after bringing a small boat through 800 miles of stormy seas following the sinking of their ship Endurance, there were no fur seals and few penguins to greet him. The reason Shackleton came to South Georgia for help was precisely because it wasn’t wilderness but was inhabited, indeed industrialized. He was heading for one of island’s four small towns, in which lived nearly 2,000 people, mostly Norwegians and Scots.

The people had come first for the fur seals (to make felt hats), but they soon took elephant seals for their blubber and penguin eggs for food. In the first half of the 20th century, it was the turn of the whales, which were all but wiped out in the surrounding ocean by 1960.


Yet today the island looks again much more like it was in Cook’s day than in Shackleton’s. The total human population is about 25 in summer (though some 8,000 tourists visit each summer on cruise ships and sleep on board). There are now some four million fur seals. They are everywhere, growling and moaning in crowds on the beaches, in the tussock grass and in the ruins of the towns. Elephant seals snooze and belch in heaps on every beach. King penguins abound: One colony has gone from 350 pairs in 1912 to 60,000 pairs today. Even the whales are back: Humpbacks and right whales were blowing regularly off the coast last month.

The plunder of South Georgia’s seas has also been halted. Fisheries regulation arrived with the declaration of a 200-mile limit around the island in 1993. In exchange for a hefty fee a handful of licensed vessels fish these waters for krill, ice fish and Patagonian toothfish (known on menus as Chilean sea bass). Each boat has a beacon transmitting an automatic identification system and carries an observer on board. No boat may fish in water shallower than 700 meters or in certain closed “boxes,” where the young toothfish live. Illegal fishing has almost entirely ceased.

In the 1990s, the long lines of baited hooks used to catch toothfish had begun catching albatrosses as well. Soon the populations of black-browed, gray-headed and wandering albatross were in free fall. Today simple devices for preventing albatrosses getting hooked have completely solved that problem locally. The toothfish fishery has won coveted accreditation as sustainable from the Marine Stewardship Council. Far from boycotting “Chilean sea bass” in restaurants, as some marine preservationists advocate, you should go for it, so long as it comes with MSC certification.

Today, the fishermen have a new problem: Orcas and sperm whales have learned to steal their catch. Orcas bite the toothfish off the hooks as they are retrieved. Sperm whales find the lines on the sea floor and strip them of fish, apparently not bothered that this leaves hooks pierced into their own skin. Devices that transmit deafening sounds to deter the orcas proved counterproductive: The whales soon realized that the unpleasant sound was a dinner bell.

Most remarkable of all, the island is now free of rats. Between 2011 and 2015, the South Georgia Heritage Trust raised and spent more than $10 million to buy helicopters and spread poisoned bait over all the rat-infested parts of the island. This was a unique logistical achievement on a large mountainous island, accessible only by ship through the world’s stormiest seas. Even a few years ago, many people thought it was a mad plan. But it worked, and petrels and pipits can breed freely again here.

Like the rats, the reindeer that were introduced here a century ago to provide food for the whalers have also been exterminated. The last one was tracked down while I was on the island. This will allow the native vegetation to recover, and scientists are now hard at work spraying the invasive plants that humankind has introduced.

A spectacular ecological restoration has occurred, a wilderness replenished—on a scale probably unmatched anywhere else in the world. Last month, as I sat at the dining table of Pat Lurcock (one of three government officers for the whole island) at King Edward Point, eating potted krill and watching the light fade on the glaciers, I surveyed a wondrous scene: Stormy petrels flitted up the bay to feed their young, fur seals porpoised through the water, king penguins cooled their feet on the snow, and plump elephant seal pups snoozed on the steps of the laboratory.

Of course, challenges remain for South Georgia’s ecology. Rats or other pests may yet escape from ships that dock here (one rat jumped ship last year, but it was soon spotted and dispatched). So all cargo is minutely inspected and all visitors must wear clean, preferably new, clothing and thoroughly clean out their backpacks. Gentoo penguins have failed to breed at all this year, for lack of krill nearby. This may or may not be a symptom of climate change, which is responsible for the retreat of many of South Georgia’s glaciers since the time of Cook and Shackleton.

But after centuries of foolish plunder, pause to reflect what an astonishing transformation has been achieved by wise management. We can now see what Captain Cook saw: an ice-capped island looming over verdant bays teeming with wildlife. There is a lesson here for the whole planet: With prosperity and technology and determination, we can restore wilderness.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  wall-street-journal