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A Sense of Place with Jennifer Kingsley: Witnessing Resurgence on South Georgia

Jennifer Kingsley is a journalist and storyteller who specializes in personal stories from around the world. She is the Field Correspondent for Lindblad Expeditions, a National Geographic Explorer, and an award-winning author who also contributes to the New York Times and National Geographic. She is Canadian. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

In this series, she offers perspectives on culture and history based on first-hand reporting experience.

Photography by Eric Guth.

Nobody knows the island of South Georgia the way Sally Poncet does. As an independent field ecologist, she has surveyed or counted everything from its grasses and albatrosses to its elephant seals.

She first came to South Georgia in 1977; now, at the age of 69, she continues to work in the field—just as she did 45 years ago.

South Georgia is part of a remote British Overseas Territory with no permanent population. It sits on the edge of the Southern Ocean over 900 miles northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and almost 900 miles east of the Falkland Islands.

It’s gorgeous: a spine of mountains defines the terrain, glaciers drape down from the peaks, glistening beaches wrap around the shoreline; yet its history reads like a list of offenses against nature, including commercial sealing, commercial whaling, and the introduction of non-native species, such as rats and reindeer.

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Grytviken whaling station with elephant seal pups

When Poncet first arrived, the island had an empty feel to it. “You felt a lack,” she explained. “It wasn’t alive like you knew it could be.” Now that hunting is history and the invasive mammals have been eradicated, Poncet and her colleagues are witnessing a remarkable ecological recovery. Some of them call it “miraculous,” “spectacular,” and “a beacon of hope.”

Of course, in the era of climate change, nothing is that simple. But the rebirth of this island is readily observable. All you have to do is listen.

The first person known to explore the island—and to plant a flag—was Captain James Cook, in 1775. He called it “savage and horrible,” but he also found millions of Antarctic fur seals lining the beaches, which prompted a rush to harvest their pelts. Sealers killed millions, and the fur seal was almost wiped out. At the same time, hunters harvested southern elephant seals for their oil, right up until the 1960s. As both of these species disappeared, so, too, did their barks and roars—and the beaches grew quieter and quieter.

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Hercules Bay

Whaling at South Georgia began with Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian captain and businessman who established 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 ever leaving the bay.

Over the next 60 years, a handful of shore-based stations processed 175,250 whales, a figure that doesn’t include the pelagic factory ships—large oceangoing vessels that could process whole carcasses entirely on board—that operated with impunity throughout the Southern Ocean.

When whaling on South Georgia ended for good in 1965, it, too, left behind a largely silent ocean.

Major human impacts continued on land. Mr. Larsen brought reindeer to South Georgia and after the whaling era their populations grew steadily. In many places, the reindeer trampled the fragile landscape.

Rats and mice also accompanied the sealers and whalers. Rats in particular found plenty of bird eggs and chicks to feed on, including those of two endemic species: the South Georgia pintail, a small duck; and the South Georgia pipit, the island’s only songbird. These birds were literally swallowed up—and their songs vanished, too.

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Pintail duck

Progressing from such conditions to, as Ms. Poncet said, “an island that is settling back into its own natural rhythm” is in some ways very simple: Leave it alone. Sealing and whaling ended largely for commercial reasons; later, the practices were banned. Today, the fur seal population is likely between three and six million and still rising. Southern elephant seals are estimated to be stable at 400,000 animals. These populations are coming back on their own; our role is to stand back and let it happen, which includes protecting their food sources such as krill and squid.

One result of these changes is a soundscape replete with squeaking, barking, belching, groaning and growling. “Seals are calling everywhere,” said Ms. Poncet. “It’s constant—absolutely constant noise.”

Counting whales and understanding their habits can be an arduous task, but Dr. Jen Jackson, a whale biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, is working on it. Using historical catch counts and new scientific data, her team has concluded that humpbacks are back to their pre-whaling numbers; there are 24,500 of them in the Scotia Sea, which surrounds South Georgia.

“It just makes my heart sing,” she added. “We are watching the ocean rewild itself.”

Ridding the island of the invasive land mammals—reindeer, rats, and mice— required monumental eradication efforts and over $13 million, but the payoff for wildlife has been extraordinary. The island was declared free of reindeer in 2015, and by 2018 it was also free of mice and rats.

The pipits poured in from rat-free areas so fast that scientists didn’t have time to document their recovery. Because these birds can lay four clutches of between three and five eggs per year, their numbers grew in a flash. Meanwhile, those living at the main British Antarctic Survey station found themselves watching large rafts of pintail ducks in the harbor during wintertime, and flushing pipits and pintails from the tussac grass during spring.

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A sea of King penguins at Salisbury Plain

Not every species has experienced the same rebound. Macaroni penguin populations are plummeting, even as king penguin numbers rise. Sei whales are still less common than they used to be, and the light-mantled albatross, a gorgeous pewter bird whose call Ms. Poncet refers to as the “soul of South Georgia,” is quickly disappearing.

The impacts on these species, including climate change and associated changes in the ocean, are much more difficult to contend with.

Back on the island, Ms. Poncet said she sometimes steps outside during the night to listen to the seabirds. This season she could hear white-chinned petrels and prions. “Their calls are coming back now through the night where it was silent before,” she said, adding that the birds’ revival is just the beginning of the island’s ecological changes.

“We are able to do good things—we are,” she said. “And South Georgia is one of those examples.”

Read more from Jennifer Kingsley.