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South Georgia and South Sandwich

South Georgia and South Sandwich is overseas territory of the UK, also claimed by Argentina; administered from the Falkland Islands by a commissioner, who is concurrently governor of the Falkland Islands, representing the British monarch.

Argentina has maintained a claim to the sovereignty of South Georgia since 1927 and to the South Sandwich Islands since 1948. Argentina, which claims the islands in its constitution and briefly occupied them by force in 1982, agreed in 1995 to no longer seek settlement by force.

There are no permanent residents in the Territory but the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) operates two bases on South Georgia. The base at King Edward Point (KEP) is operated under contract to GSGSSI and the FCO and is staffed by eight BAS personnel, plus two GSGSSI Officers and their spouses. Bird Island has a year round complement of four BAS personnel who undertake long-term monitoring of seabirds and marine mammals. The South Sandwich Islands are uninhabited, though an originally undetected, and subsequently allowed, manned Argentinean research station was located on Thule from 1976 to 1982.

South Georgia was discovered by La Roche in 1675, and formally taken possession of for the British Crown exactly a century later by Captain Cook, who named it after the reigning sovereign. A little later Cook discovered the South Sandwich group. South Georgia was named "the Isle of Georgia" in 1775 by Captain James COOK in honor of British King GEORGE III; the explorer also discovered the Sandwich Islands Group that year, which he named "Sandwich Land" after John MONTAGU, the Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty; the word "South" was later added to distinguish these islands from the other Sandwich Islands, now known as the Hawaiian Islands.

All visiting vessels are expected to be self sufficient in all respects and contingency planning is an incredibly important part of the visit application process. This must take into account the extremely harsh and highly changeable conditions at sea and ashore, which can deteriorate rapidly, the extremely remote location with no search and rescue (SAR) capability and the limited medical facilities at King Edward Point (KEP) which provides medical cover for station personnel only except in emergency.

The islands, with large bird and seal populations, lie approximately 1,000 km east of the Falkland Islands and have been under British administration since 1908 - except for a brief period in 1982 when Argentina occupied them. Grytviken, on South Georgia, was a 19th and early 20th century whaling station.

Although whales had been reported by Captain Cook in the vicinity of South Georgia as long ago as 1775, no attempt was made to develop this industry until recent years. Ross in his memorable voyage to the Antarctic visited the South Shetland area and reported a large number of huge black whales in Erebus and Terror Gulf, which led half a century later (1892) to the despatch of four vessels of the Dundee whaling fleet. The venture was a failure, as the vessels were equipped in the old style for the capture of “bowhead” whales, of which none were seen, and as the vessels had not the guns and equipment on board for dealing with the “finner” and other quickly moving whales met with, the ships filled up with a cargo of Weddell and other seals of low commercial value.

Modern whaling methods were introduced into sub-Antarctic seas in 1904, and operations commenced in the following year at South Georgia. The whales were killed by a bomb fired from a gun on the bow of a small steamer known as a “catcher.” and are then towed either to a shore or “floating” factory, and the blubber and other products removed. The oil is extracted by means of steam, and the residue put into drying kilns fired by coke, then passed through a disintegrator and sifted, finally emerging as “guano.”

So successful was the initial venture that several companies were floated, and the fishing area was extended to the South Shetlands, the South Orkneys, and as far as 67°S along the western coast of Graham Land. This area lies within the Dependencies of the Falkland Islands, and is under the control of the British Government, and its geographical position offers exceptional opportunities for the successful prosecution of the industry by providing a sufficient number of safe anchorages and widely separated islands, where shore stations have been established. The Dependencies of the Falkland Islands lie roughly within latitude 50° and 65° S. and longitude 25° and 70° W, and include the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkney, and South Shetland Islands, and part of Graham Land.

The industry was prosperous, and the products always find a ready market. In this sub-Antarctic area alone, the resulting products more than doubled the world's supply. This resulted chiefly from the marketing of whale oil and the byproduct, guano, and represents for each total a season's capture of several thousand whales. In 1916, the number of whales captured in this area was 11,860, which included 6000 from South Georgia alone. Whale oil, which is now the product of most economic value in the whaling industry, was produced in four grades (there are six barrels to a ton).

Whale oil can be readily transformed into glycerine: it is used in the manufacture of soap and, quite recently, both in this country and in Norway, it has been refined by means of a simple hardening process into a highly palatable and nutritious margarine. War-time conditions emphasized the importance of the whale oil, and fortunately the supply was fairly constant, for the production of the enormous quantities of glycerine required by the country in the manufacture of explosives during the Great War.

The most productive part of the South Atlantic lay south of latitude 50°S where active operations extend to and even beyond the Antarctic circle. It appeared to be the general rule in Antarctic waters that whales were more numerous the closer the association with ice conditions, and there seemed to be reasonable grounds for supposing that this may explain the comparatively few whales sighted by expeditions which had explored the more northerly and more open seas, while the whalers themselves asserted that their poor seasons nearly always coincided with the absence of ice, or with poor ice conditions.

Famed explorer Ernest SHACKLETON stopped there in 1914 en route to his ill-fated attempt to cross Antarctica on foot. He returned some 20 months later with a few companions in a small boat and arranged a successful rescue for the rest of his crew, stranded off the Antarctic Peninsula. He died in 1922 on a subsequent expedition and is buried in Grytviken.

Today, the station houses scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. Recognizing the importance of preserving the marine stocks in adjacent waters, the UK, in 1993, extended the exclusive fishing zone from 12 nm to 200 nm around each island.

The area has no indigenous inhabitants. The small military garrison on South Georgia withdrew in March 2001, replaced by a permanent group of scientists of the British Antarctic Survey, which also has a biological station on Bird Island; the South Sandwich Islands are uninhabited.

Some fishing takes place in adjacent waters. Harvesting finfish and krill are potential sources of income. The islands receive income from postage stamps produced in the UK, the sale of fishing licenses, and harbor and landing fees from tourist vessels. Tourism from specialized cruise ships is increasing rapidly.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2017 18:15:11 ZULU