Sally Poncet first came to South Georgia in 1977. Back then, the sub-Antarctic island was as gorgeous as it is today: a column of mountains, about 100 miles long, defines the terrain; Glaciers hang from the peaks, ascending green slopes to meet them; Glittering beaches wrap around the shoreline. But in those days, Mrs. Poncet remembered, the island felt empty. “I felt a lack,” she explained. “He wasn’t as alive as you know he could be.”
Nobody knows South Georgia as well as Mrs. Poncet. An independent field ecologist, she has surveyed or counted everything from herbivores and albatrosses to elephant seals. Her second son was born on a sailboat here in 1979. Now that she is 69 years old, she continues to work in the field – just as she did 45 years ago.
South Georgia is part of a remote British Overseas Territory and has no permanent residents. It is located on the edge of the Southern Ocean 900 miles northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and about 900 miles east of the Falkland Islands.
Its history reads like a list of crimes against nature, including commercial sealing, commercial whaling, and the introduction of non-native species, including rats and reindeer.
Now that hunting is a thing of the past and the invasive mammals have been wiped out, Ms. Poinsett and her colleagues are experiencing a remarkable ecological recovery. The scientific literature offers a silent version of this, but when listening to scientists—who are motivated by data and not prone to exaggeration—their joy and amazement fade. Among the terms they used to describe the island’s revival were: “miraculous,” “amazing,” “really emotional,” and “a beacon of hope.”
Of course, in the age of climate change, nothing is so simple. But the rebirth of this island is easily noticeable. All you have to do is listen.
Captain James Cook was the first person known to explore the island – and set the flag – in 1775. He described it as “wild and terrible,” but he also found millions of Antarctic fur seals lining the beaches, prompting a rush to harvest their skins. Seal workers arrived in 1786; Over the next century, millions of animals were killed, and their fur turned into luxury goods like toppers. As a result, the fur seal was almost eliminated.
At the same time, poachers have killed southern elephant seals, including huge bulls that can reach 8,000 pounds. Their tallow was turned into oil, and hunting continued until the 1960s. With the disappearance of these two species, their barking and roaring also faded – and the beaches became quieter and calmer.
Whaling in South Georgia began with Karl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian captain and businessman who founded a settlement called Grytviken in 1904. Mr. Larsen and his crew killed their first whale on Christmas Eve, and by the end of that season they had caught 183 whales, primarily humpbacks, without Leave the Gulf.
Over the next 60 years, a handful of coastal stations treated 175,250 whales, a number that does not include offshore factory ships—large oceangoing vessels that can handle whole carcasses on board—operating with impunity throughout the Southern Ocean. This massive harvest has left the blue whale, the largest animal ever known, endangered.
When whaling in South Georgia ended for good in 1965, it also left behind a largely silent ocean.
Major human influences persisted on Earth. Mr. Larsen brought the reindeer to South Georgia so that the whalers had something to catch. While the glaciers, which serve as natural sections, confine the animals to two southern Georgia peninsulas, their numbers continue to grow steadily, especially after the stations closed. In many places, reindeer trampled on the fragile landscape.
Rats and mice also accompanied the seals and whalers. Rats in particular found plenty of bird eggs and chicks to feed on, including two endemic species: the South Georgia half, which is a small duck; and South Georgia Island, the island’s only songbird. These birds were literally swallowed up and their songs also disappeared.
Progressing from such conditions to “an island that settles back into its natural rhythm,” Ms Poinsett said, is very simple in some ways: leave it alone.
Seal hunting and whaling for commercial reasons largely ended; Subsequently, the practices were banned. The only fur seal census on all islands was conducted in 1991, about 200 years after the peak of the fur seal era, and the estimate was 1.5 million animals. Today, that number is likely to be between three and six million and still rising. It is estimated that southern elephant seals, which were last surveyed in the 1990s, are stable at 400,000 animals. These residents return on their own. Our role is to step back and allow this to happen, which includes protecting their food sources like krill and squid.
One result of these changes is a soundscape filled with screeching, barking, burping, moaning, and snarling.
“Seals are calling everywhere,” said Ms. Poncet. “It’s going on—a completely constant noise.”
Counting whales and understanding their habits can be a daunting task, but Jane Jackson, a whale biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, is working on it. Dr. Jackson’s research methods include professional monitors, darts, stool samples, whale breath drops, acoustic detectors, and satellite tags. Using historical catch statistics and new scientific data, her team concluded that humpback whales are back to where they were before whaling. There are 24,500 of them in the Scotia Sea, which surrounds southern Georgia.
The blue whale’s recovery has been much slower, and an estimate of its count, which has yet to be released, will be based on image recognition. But Dr. Jackson said one of the best signs comes from the sounds you hear underwater. “What you have in the underwater environment now is blue whale contact almost continuously,” she said, noting that the whales have been almost completely exterminated.
“It just makes my heart sing,” she added. “We’re watching the ocean reconfigure itself.”
Ridding the island of invasive wild mammals – reindeer, rats and mice – required a massive effort and more than $13 million, but the reward for the wildlife was extraordinary. During the summer of 2013, teams that included indigenous Sami reindeer herders and Norwegian shooters came to eliminate a group of 6,700 reindeer herds. The shooters are back in 2014. They were so effective that they only used 11 bullets for every 10 animals they killed. By 2015, the island was free of reindeer.
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Meanwhile, another effort was underway: the largest rat eradication project in history. Drawing on ship and helicopter support and the expertise of 39 team members (ranging from logisticians to camp cooks), these specialists sprayed 333 tons of custom-designed poison pellets across every square inch of rat habitat, then waited. In the Australian summer, they monitored the presence of mice, using (among other things) sticks coated with peanut butter. The island was declared rat-free in 2018 – and the rats are gone, too.
The tubes flowed from rat-free areas so quickly that scientists did not have time to document their recovery. Since these birds can lay four clutches of three to five eggs per year, their numbers have grown in a jiffy. Meanwhile, those who live at Britain’s main survey station in Antarctica have found themselves watching large rafts of baby ducks in the harbor during the winter, scavenging pipes and legumes from the tack grass during the spring.
“It was as if Grytviken was haunted by knives,” said Jamie Coleman, a biologist who spent three years in South Georgia. “You can hear them whistling constantly throughout the buildings.”
Not all species experienced the same rebound. Macaroni penguins are declining, even as royal penguins rise — in part because the glacial retreat is revealing more breeding habitats for king penguins to exploit.
Sei whales are still less common than they used to be, and the light-hearted albatross, a remarkable pewter bird that Mrs. Poinsett calls the “soul of South Georgia,” is fast disappearing.
The impacts on these species, including climate change and associated changes in the ocean, are much more difficult to deal with.
Back on the island, Ms. Poncet said she sometimes steps outside during the night to listen to seabirds. In this season, she could hear the white-chinned petrels and prions. “Their calls are now back during the night where silence was before,” she said, adding that the bird revival is just the beginning of environmental changes on the island. “Every year I come back thinking, wow, how lucky I can be to see it change year after year.”
“We are capable of doing good things – we are,” she added. “And South Georgia is one of those examples.”