“If you were to take a giant caring knife, slice along beneath on of the highest mountain ridges of Switzerland, just where the huge glaciers tumble into the valley below, and then drop your slice of mountain, dripping with sugar-icing, into the sea, I think you would get a fair idea of the place. For it is long and narrow and everywhere the snow covered mountains rise straight from the water, reaching near the centre of the island to a height of over 9,000 feet. Seen from afar on an early spring day , South Georgia is a breathtaking sight and one not easily forgotten.” Niall Rankin. 1946
From 2010 to 2012 I worked as medical officer for the British Antarctic Survey and lived on the island of South Georgia. My home for that time, the research base at King Edward Point, houses 35 people in the summer and 12 in the winter. There are no roads so travel is limited to places accessible by foot or by small boats. There is no television and very limited internet access. Food is delivered once a year with fresh supplies every 10-12 weeks. In the summer there is the occasional night out on a visiting cruise ship and the odd holiday on a type 42 British Navy Destroyer. For residents of KEP the majority of time is spent in Cumberland Bay and the surrounding area.
Station to the bottom right. I often get asked whether I got bored living for a year and a half in such an isolated community. The answer is NO. Getting to experience the island the year round was a fascinating and ever changing experience. Its hard to put into words but with the help of pictures I shall try.
Spring and Summer on South Georgia are green. Maybe not what you would expect from an Antarctic isle but as the seasons progress and the grasses come back with vengeance the island begins to earn its name as the Galapagos of the Antarctic. A name that personally I think does SG an injustice, having visited both I can vouch that South Georgia wins a thousand times over.
As winter ends the wildlife returns from the sea and the beaches fill until there isn’t a space that isn’t occupied by a seal or penguin. The local seal science research area regains its population and then some. Evans Lake, locally known as Puppy Lake, soon resembles a scene out of Jurassic park with the water and land teaming with life.
The noises change. In spring the bull elephant seals can be heard from kilometers across the bay. Later the Fur Seals take over with barks and “ouff chuff”.The King Penguin colony on the beach outside the research station accommodation block grows and the three am hooting gets louder. Through the year the light changes. South Georgia isn’t far enough South to get total light or darkness but as summer turns into Autumn the evening light is spectacular. The kelp in cove glows gold at sunset and the sunrises are more and more beautiful. As the nights get longer and darker and the night sky becomes a canopy of stars stretching from the sea to the mountains.
In Autumn the weather begins to change, the cold winds from the Antarctic peninsular hit the high peaks of South Georgia exposed Southern Coast resulting in some incredible lenticular clouds. Cloud watching becomes a favorite pastime.
Early winter is a time of ice. More and more often the temperature dips below zero. Ice starts to form on the ground. Icicles hang from tussock grass, rock faces and the buildings. The sea in cove starts to free over. To start with pancake ice forms, as the tide goes in and out these round flat ice formations wash up on the shore. As it gets colder sea ice covers the bay. In the calmer part of Cumberland bay, Morraine Fjord, the whole area freezes over.
As winter progresses the early snows get thicker and thicker. For two months of the year travel is by ski or snow shoe only. During August and late winter snow is so deep that the research station is nearly
buried. For six weeks life at KEP is in the shade as the sun doesn’t reach above the mountains.
By September the snow is gradually melting and the wildlife is being to return ready for another year. I left the island in Jan 2012 and only stayed away for 10 months before I found my way back, this time working on a South Georgia Government Conservation project. To get there I hitched a ride on the Ocean Diamond, as we approached the island had something new. We sailed through a sea of icebergs fresh up from the Weddell sea.
This year I am returning to South Georgia with Quark and the South Georgia government. I can’t wait!