On 17th January 1775 a small party of men landed on a beach beneath snowy peaks and tumbling glaciers. In charge was an officer by the name of James Cook; the British Flag was planted, a volley of musket shot was fired, and the land was claimed for His Britannic Majesty. Cook named the bay in which he landed Possession Bay. On the 17th January 2018 (and every year) South Georgia marked ‘Possession Day’ with a bank holiday and reception at Government House.
James Cook departed London in 1772 on his second world voyage aboard HMS Resolution. One of his objectives was to determine the existence of a great southern landmass which had been hypothesized. As such, Cook’s could be considered the first Antarctic expedition. At first appearance South Georgia must have raised expectations that this was the landmass they were searching for; but as the ship charted the coast so the reality became clear. Cook’s view of South Georgia may have been influenced by this disappointment, as well as the bad weather. He referred to it thus:
“Lands doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness never to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays whose horrible and savage aspect I have not words to describe.”
The abundance of whales in the bays, beaches teaming with fur seals and albatross circling overhead couldn’t even entice his naturalist. Nonetheless, his discovery of South Georgia, and some of the South Sandwich Islands, was important; it informed future expeditions and sparked a long-term political and economic interest in the Southern Ocean.
South Georgia has probably changed little since Cook’s first landing and likely remains one of the few places today that would still be recognizable to him. Wildlife remains firmly in charge. Protecting wildlife and the wider environment is the highest priority of the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. Perhaps because of the remoteness, mountainous terrain and inclement weather the island remains largely pristine; there are no permanent residents and the majority of the island – visited by nearly 9,000 tourists each year – is as wild as it was when Cook first saw it.
The high level of environmental protection of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands are a recent development. After Cook’s landing others came to capitalize on its rich resources. In the 1780s came sealing expeditions and in the early 1900s whalers began operating from shore-based facilities in some of the more sheltered bays on the north coast; over 175,000 whales were caught before the last station closed in 1966. While their exploitation severely depleted many populations it also triggered scientific research; the Discovery Investigations carried out between 1925 and 1951 yielded an enormous amount of data including the discovery of the Antarctic Convergence. This data also showed that the mass harvest of whales was unsustainable leading to tighter industry regulation. Since then, populations of the wildlife that Cook must have seen have started to recover, many spectacularly.
The whalers and sealers also introduced various non-native species such rats and mice which had a devastating impact on ground nesting bird species, and non-native plants that have outcompeted native vegetation. Thanks to the work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, supported by the Government, a major habitat restoration project has taken place to eradicate rodents and we hope that South Georgia is now rodent free for the first time in over 250 years. Work is also taking place to manage and eradicate non-native plants and it is hoped that by 2020 nearly two-thirds of the 40+ non-native plant species on the island will be gone.
The territorial waters surrounding South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands are now a sustainable use Marine Protected Area within which operate some of the most sustainably managed fisheries in the world. Strict biosecurity protocols ensure that visitors to the island today do not accidentally introduce new species, implemented in partnership with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.
While Possession Day is an opportunity to look back and mark Cook’s endeavours, it is also a chance to look forward and to identify new opportunities and collaborations to share and enhance this unique place. (South Georgia Newsletter)