Ice and Isolation
The Living Edens South Georgia Island: Paradise of Ice Purchase Video

Ice and Isolation: The Discovery and Exploration of South Georgia
by Paul Carroll

Discovery and Exploration of South Georgia Island Timeline

First Discovered South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island is isolated from the civilized world and trapped in the most cruel of climates, but it was destined for discovery. From its first recorded sightings more than 300 years ago until the 20th century, this icy paradise in the Southern Ocean has attracted explorers, merchants and governments.

London-born merchant Antoine de la Roche may have been the first person to sight South Georgia Island or any of its Sub-Antarctic counterparts. In April 1675, as he was sailing from Lima to England, his ship was blown south as it rounded Cape Horn. He and his crew reported seeing ice-covered mountains.

Some historians, particularly those supporting Argentina's claim to ownership of South Georgia, believe that de la Roche was wrong, and that he had in fact sighted Beauchene Island, 800 miles further west. This is unlikely, as Beauchene Island does not possess the high mountains or bays referred to in Roche's account.

Those historians contend that a Spanish treasure ship, the Leon, first discovered South Georgia in 1756 while heading east on a voyage commissioned by the French company Sieur Duclos, of St. Malo. Sailing from Lima to Cadiz, the Leon was blown far off course after rounding Cape Horn.

The Leon crew first sighted the island on the morning of June 29. The feast day of St. Peter is July 1, so they named the island after the saint. Some Spanish and Argentine publications refer to the island as Isla de San Pedro in preference to the English name.

Captain Cook's Icy Reception
Captain James Cook
The first voyager known to set foot on the island, in 1775, was Captain James Cook. He and his crew landed at three places around Possession Bay and partly charted the coastline. Cook gave the name Cape Disappointment to the southern tip of the main island when he realized this was not continental Antarctica. An officer of the Royal Navy, Cook named it The Isle of Georgia in honor of his king. He could not have imagined that two centuries later it would become the stage for the most southerly battle in all naval and military history.

"Ice isle" (Iceberg)Cook's account described his first cautious approach to the coast: "the head of the bay ... was terminated by a huge mass of snow and ice of vast extent ... just like the side or face of an ice isle ... pieces were continually breaking from them and floating out to sea. A great fall happened while we were in the bay: it made a noise like a cannon. Not a tree or shrub to be seen, not even big enough to make a toothpick. I landed in three different places, displayed our Colours and took possession of the Country in His Majesty's name under a discharge of small arms."

Despite claiming South Georgia for Britain, Cook saw little potential for the island and the area south of it. If any explorer pushed further south than Cook, "I shall not envy him the fame of his discovery," he wrote, "but I make bold to declare that the world will derive no benefit from it."

Cook's accounts of fur seals in the region, however, piqued the interest of sealers from the United States and Britain at a time when seal numbers were dropping in the Northern Hemisphere. The next few decades saw many such commercial voyages heading south to the area.

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Scientific Approach

In 1877, an Austrian visitor to South Georgia, Heinrich Klutschak, made observations that he later published. He was followed in 1882 by a group of German scientists who lived for a year at Royal Bay. They made extensive records of South Georgia's geology, biology, meteorology and topography, and prepared detailed maps of part of the hinterland around Royal Bay. This was the first major attempt to define the island's natural characteristics.

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Island For Rent
In 1887, the governor at Port Stanley, Thomas Kerr, received an inquiry from a retired naval officer, Captain C.D. Inglis, who wanted to buy the island outright, or at least rent it for 99 years. Inglis wanted to produce wool and mutton for export.

Kerr passed the request to the Colonial Office with the comment that his administration knew very little about the place other than that it was "covered in snow to great depths, surrounded by icebergs and fringed with glaciers." Kerr saw no objection to renting the entire island to Captain Inglis for a nominal fee if he really did wish to graze his sheep there. The captain, however, lost interest in the project before London ever replied.

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Ideas of Whaling

Fifteen years later, a scientific party arrived, this time from Sweden. The country had mounted an expedition to explore the Antarctic Peninsula, and in 1902 some of the Swedes paid a winter visit to Cumberland East Bay and made a mapping and geological survey. Commanding their ship was a Norwegian, Captain Carl Anton Larsen, a man experienced with whaling in Arctic waters.

Larsen subsequently lost his ship in the Weddell Sea and was rescued by an Argentine warship, but his short time on South Georgia had sown the seeds of a plan to introduce whaling to the Antarctic.

By 1904, the first land-based whaling station at South Georgia was set up in Grytviken. Whaling became a major activity at the island -- from 1904 to 1965, about 175,250 whales were processed there.

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Test of Endurance

Sir Ernest SkackletonOne visit of note, though not scientific, was that of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the whaleboat James Caird. Shackleton had sailed for the Antarctic on the Endurance and stayed a month at Grytviken on South Georgia before making the final leg of the journey in December 1914 to the Weddell Sea. There, the Endurance was trapped and destroyed in the pack ice, and Shackleton and his men trekked and hauled their whaleboat across the ice before eventually reaching Elephant Island.

Shackleton left most of his crew there and set sail in an open boat for about 800 miles across the appalling conditions of the Southern Ocean. This was among the most epic small boat journeys of all time. The men landed at King Haakon Bay on the uninhabited south coast of South Georgia, and Shackleton and two others trekked across the then-unmapped glaciers and mountains of the island to Stromness -- the first crossing of this rugged island.

Shackleton's first contact with the outside world for 17 months was when he heard the steam whistle of the whaling factory at Stromness on May 20, 1916. His arrival at the whaling station caused some concern, so bedraggled was his appearance, but he was eventually recognized by the manager of the whaling station. Shackleton later went on to rescue the men who had been left at King Haakon Bay and Elephant Island. Amazingly, not a single man was lost on the expedition.

The scale of Shackleton's achievement was recognized in 1964 when the well-equipped Combined Services Expedition had great difficulties and nearly lost three men in an avalanche, despite starting fresh and having plenty of food and modern equipment.

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Age of Discovery

In 1920, the British Colonial Office, aware that whale stocks needed to be conserved, imposed a tax on whale oil. With money from whale oil taxes, the Discovery Investigations (1925-1939) were financed and based at South Georgia.

Icy landscapesTo study South Georgia, Captain R.F. Scott's Discovery was fitted out and sent south from Canada, where the vessel had been on duty as a store ship for the Hudson Bay Company. The Discovery was joined by the William Scoresby, and during an epic five-and-a-half day cruise in bad weather around South Georgia, they took 370 water samples and 307 plankton net hauls. Scientists worked nonstop on studies of the krill and whale populations. Accurate charts subsequently were made of South Georgia, the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands.

The Discovery Investigations comprised 13 voyages, which gathered information about Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic islands, and made important advances in biology of the oceans and charts of the regions.

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British Base

In 1943, the British Antarctic Survey began as a wartime naval operation. It was transferred to the British Colonial Office in 1945 and called the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey until 1962. In 1949-50, the organization established a new base at King Edward Point on South Georgia's northeastern coast. This station assumed responsibility for meteorological observations.

South Georgia Isalnd viewed from rolling seasIn 1962-63, a large hospital and residential building, Shackleton House, was built at King Edward Point, but today there are no scientists working at the station: All are located in field camps or at Bird Island, to the extreme north.

Today, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is responsible for nearly all the British government's scientific research in South Georgia.

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Sources for this report include the following:

The Island of South Georgia, Bob Headland, Cambridge University Press

Department of Overseas Surveys, Map 610

Polar Record, Various, Scott Polar Research Institute

The Explorations of Antarctica, Fogg & Smith, Cassell

Life in the Freezer, Alastair Fothergill, BBC Books

Antarctica, the Last Frontier, Laws, Boxtree/Anglia

British Exploration of Antarctica, British Antarctic Survey

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