South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands lie more than 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles) from the southern tip of South America in a remote expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean. While mostly uninhabited by humans, the area hosts what could be the single largest concentration of marine species in the world. In the past, the wildlife of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands was seriously depleted by overexploitation, mostly in the form of whaling. The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project and its partners are exploring the feasibility of enhancing marine protections in the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Forming part of the Antarctic ecosystem, the rich waters are full of plankton and krill which support one of the largest and most varied populations of seabirds and marine mammals on earth. Overall, they have a higher diversity of species than the more temperate Galapagos Islands.
The islands, a British overseas territory, provide habitat for more than four million Antarctic fur seals—more than 95 percent of the world’s population—and more than half of the world’s southern elephant seals. Sperm, humpback, and other whale species are also frequently seen in the islands’ waters.
South Georgia has as many as 100 million seabirds, including vast numbers of penguins, albatross, prions, and petrels. The Antarctic’s only songbird, the South Georgia pipit, of which only 6,000 remain, is found only on that island. The continued existence of this species is threatened by the spread of introduced rats on South Georgia. Zavodovski Island in the South Sandwich Islands has more than one million chinstrap penguins, the largest colony in the world.
The South Sandwich Islands have no permanent inhabitants, while South Georgia has a transitory population of scientists, government officials and military personnel. Both are mountainous and capped by glaciers. Volcanic in origin, the islands are surrounded by nutrient-rich waters. The South Sandwich Trench, which at more than eight kilometers (five miles) is one of the deepest parts of the ocean, includes thermal vents which are yet to be fully explored.
Captain James Cook, a Briton, first landed on South Georgia in 1775. In the early 20th century, it was the destination of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic mission to save the crew of his ship, the Endurance. In 1916, after an 800-mile voyage in a lifeboat, he reached South Georgia. Crossing its ice cap on foot, he famously remarked: “We had seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project is calling for enhanced protection of this spectacular region.
Did you know?
- The islands have a higher diversity of species than the Galapagos Islands.
- Zavodovski Island is home to the largest colony of chinstrap penguins in the world.
- South Georgia Island is believed to have as many as 100 million seabirds.
- This region is home to more than 95 percent of the world’s Antarctic fur seals. These waters include the South Sandwich Trench, one of the deepest parts of the ocean.
Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project
The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bertarelli Foundation joined forces in 2017 to create the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project. This effort builds on a decade of work by Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy initiative, which helped obtain commitments to safeguard more than 6.3 million square kilometers (2.4 million square miles) of ocean by working with philanthropic partners, indigenous groups, community leaders, government officials, and scientists.
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South Georgia and the nearby Sandwich Islands are home to one-quarter of the penguins on the planet, as well as tens of millions of breeding pairs of other seabirds and an abundance of seals and whales—two animals that were nearly wiped out by hunting here in the 1800s and 1900s. Read More
In 1788, some 13 years after British explorer Capt. James Cook landed on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, the first sealer arrived. By 1825 an estimated 1.2 million fur seals had been killed for their pelts, and by 1912 the fur sealing industry had come to an end, with the species almost wiped out on South Georgia. Read More
Remote, windswept, and inhospitable to humans, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands harbour biodiversity and a cultural history worthy of protection. Which is how I found myself aboard the U.K. Government’s logistics and fishery patrol vessel Pharos SG in February, rolling over endless blue seas en route to these islands, which together are a U.K. sub-Antarctic territory. Read More