Monday, January 17th was South Georgia Possession Day, marking 247 years since the first landing on the island was made by Captain James Cook. The British explorer was on his second world voyage aboard HMS Resolution.
Many had made sightings of the small island in the South Atlantic before him, but Cook and his men in January 1775 were the first to reach the land, plant a British flag, fire a volley of musket shot, and claim the island for King and Country.
Cook and his party landed in what he would name as Possession Bay. Having departed London in 1772, on his second world voyage, one of his objectives was to determine the existence of a great southern landmass that had been believed as possible.
A hundred years previously an English merchant named Anthony de la Roche sheltered in a bay in the harsh Southern Ocean, and James Cook used those reports to aid his navigation. At first appearance South Georgia must have raised expectations that this was the vast landmass they were searching for; but as the ship charted the coast so the reality became clear and Cape Disappointment was thus marked.
The impact James Cook had on the islands cannot be underestimated. His reports of the spectacular wildlife present in epic numbers initiated an era of exploitation that cascaded through the ecosystem with the harvesting of seals, whales and fish. The men who came to develop these industries brought with them foreign plants and animals, both deliberately and accidentally, significantly altering the ecology of the island. The historical over-exploitation of natural resources was however unsustainable, and as industries became unprofitable and regulations restricted activities, the workers left, the pressures on the island reduced, and a new era of regeneration could begin.
Today, the Territory is a success story and a shining beacon in a world where it has become common-place for unsustainable human activity to result in environmental deterioration and a decline in biodiversity. Through the hard work and sustained active management of successive governments, South Georgia is a global rarity – an ecosystem in recovery. This restoration has been championed through environmental remediation; ongoing habitat restoration projects and bio-security measures; the establishment of a Marine Protected Area and science-led precautionary use of marine resources; the highly regulated permitting of visitors and fishing; and the removal of some of the most harmful alien species.
Whales are now returning to the 1,240,000 km2 maritime zone, eradication of reindeer, rats and mice from South Georgia has allowed native vegetation, including tussac grass, to thrive and ground-nesting bird populations to recover, including species found nowhere else in the world. Whilst invasive plant management is ongoing, the presence of non-native vegetation on South Georgia provides a reminder of the need for excellent bio-security and constant vigilance to reduce their impact on native species.
As a barometer in the Southern hemisphere, what happens at South Georgia offers a glimpse of potential impacts across the whole world. Whilst the rapid glacial retreat at some sites is a clear sign of a warming planet, it is likely that climate change is affecting ecosystem processes at all levels. The world-leading science taking place at South Georgia will not only be critical to understanding and managing local impacts but will also enhance global knowledge of climate and environmental issues.