In the midst of the Atlantic Ocean lies an isolated island, with its mountainous landscape providing a port of call for Antarctic expeditions. South Georgia, while being 1,300 kilometres offshore from the Falkland Islands, seemingly in the middle of the ocean, plays an important role in the local ecosystem, and has a fairly recent history to discover.
Here we take a look at this special island, introducing you to its historical and ecological background.
Despite having an area of 3,756 square kilometres (just bigger than the city of Adelaide), governance over South Georgia has been fiercely contested over the years. The British first laid claim to the island in 1775, with the arrival of renowned explorer, Captain James Cook. Britain retained control over South Georgia for decades to come, with the island used as a base for both whaling and scientific expeditions throughout the 1800s.
In 1908, both the South Sandwich and South Georgia islands were formally annexed by Great Britain, but their identity once again came under fire after Argentina made a territorial claim in 1927. This dispute came to a head when Argentina attempted to annex South Georgia as a dependency of the Falkland Islands in 1982.
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Battle of Grytviken
Perhaps once of the most momentous points in South Georgia’s young history is the Battle of Grytviken, part of Argentina’s campaign to annex the Falklands in 1982. The conflict occurred when Argentinean troops landed on South Georgia in February, overcoming the British Marines stationed there. Britain finally recaptured the island in April of the same year.
After the Falklands War, a British garrison was posted on the island, however it was decommissioned relatively recently in 2001.
Exploration of South Georgia only began in fairly recent times with the founding of the first research stations in 1945. Mount Paget, the island’s highest point, was first ascended in 1964 by members of the British Combined Services Expedition to the Antarctic.
However, one of the island’s most famous visitors is undoubtedly Sir Ernest Shackleton. On his third Antarctic voyage in 1915, Shackleton and his crew had to abandon their ship, the Endurance, after it became trapped in ice. After making their way to Elephant Island, Shackleton and five crew members set out in a small boat to find help. Sixteen days later, they landed on South Georgia, where they crossed the island to find a whaling station. Due to Shackleton’s tenacity, the rest of the Endurance crew were rescued in August 1916 without a single casualty.
Sadly Sir Shackleton passed away from a heart attack on his forth and final journey to the Antarctic, and was buried on South Georgia at Grytviken. You can learn more about this great man in our very special voyage, In Shackleton’s Footsteps.
Due to its location, South Georgia became the base for the whaling industry throughout the 19th century. Norwegian and some British companies established outposts on the island, using the sheltered fjords. A commercial outpost was first founded by the Norwegians in 1904 at Grytviken.
After years of whaling, the populations decreased, leading to business finally closing in 1964. You’ll be glad to hear that whales here are now fully protected, and are slowly beginning to recover from this environmentally damaging time.
Today, the South Georgia museum is housed in what was once the home of one of a whaling station manager. Established in 1992, you can find excellent exhibits on topics from natural history to whaling and the Shackleton expedition.
The island today
Presently, it forms part of an island group called the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, a British overseas territory since 1985. Only a small group of scientists remain on the island, charged with the maintenance of the British Antarctic Survey stations there.
You can look forward to seeing South Georgia for yourself onboard the Polar Pioneer with Aurora Expeditions. You’ll be joined by an experienced crew and our history and naturalist experts, giving you the once in a lifetime chance to discover the Antarctic region. To find out more, or get in touch with our helpful team to start planing your expedition today.