By the time you read this, I will 8000 miles away, on a little Fisheries Protection vessel the Pharos 2, just off South Georgia. Little heard of since Argentinian ‘scrap metal merchants’ sparked off the Falklands War in 1982 by hoisting their flag over the disused Whaling Station at Grytviken; South Georgia and Antarctica are rarely out of the environmental news these days.
The Nation’s heart went out to the South Georgia Albatross chick in Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent Blue Planet 2 filmed full of plastics, and now the island’s penguin population is also under threat. Around 300,000 king penguins live on this remote, mostly uninhabited island, which together with the neighbouring South Sandwich Islands, are a British sub-Antarctic Overseas Territory. A quarter of the world’s penguins are by that means British citizens.
Yet a report this week suggested that Climate Change is driving the meeting point between the warm and cold waters of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctica, which currently lies close to South Georgia, further South, away from established penguin colonies, who depend on them for survival. Rats leaving British and Norwegian whaling ships over several centuries resulted in an infestation of the islands. Retreating glaciers then allowed them to spread across the island, with disastrous consequences for the rare South Georgia Pippit and destruction of 95% of the native bird population. Only now, as a result of a multi-million pound rat eradication programme is the native birdlife beginning to recover. And there’s been a debate in parliament recently about the Patagonian Toothfish, which is also under threat.
So at the invitation from the Governor of the Falklands I will be joining British Antarctic Survey scientists, Foreign Office officials and others, on an expedition to South Georgia to see for ourselves, and then promote greater attention to the islands, their delicate environment, and Britain’s obligation to protect them. For example, there is a current proposal, the privately funded Discovery 100 Project, which would bring together heritage protection and cutting edge Antarctic science to create a scientific research station in and around Grytviken. And there is work to be done to enhance the protection of marine areas not just around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but right across the Southern and Antarctic Oceans.
It’s remote, largely uninhabited, and wholly inaccessible. But Britain should be proud of all we are doing to preserve the heritage and biodiversity of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; we should be immensely proud of the superb scientific contribution of the British Antarctic Survey; and we should be doing all we can to preserve and enhance this remote British territory, which is of such vast importance to the environmental health of the Globe.
I’ll report back from my expedition to Shackleton’s grave next week.