Bird Sound: arrival and biosecurity

The archipelago of South Georgia includes the study site of Bird Island, lying just off the north-western tip of the main island. Between them lies a rocky, narrow channel known as Bird sound. The detailed chart shows that the deeper water (the white bits) reduces to a narrow channel between rocks and kelp forests. Most ships go round the outside but with a perfect breeze, Europa sailed through. The engine was on but out of gear and, understandably, everyone was very pleased with themselves.

Bird Island is one of the richest wildlife sites in the world, and an important research station for the British Antarctic Survey. There are scientists on site all year round, with complicated routines and requirements for studying the island’s species, including seals and wide variety of birds, with an average bird or seal for every 1.5m². Because the island has no rats (of which more in later posts), there are large numbers of small burrowing birds such as petrels (700,000 of them) and prions. However, many sea bird species at Bird Island are listed as endangered, threatened or near-threatened. Albatross numbers on the island are declining rapidly, now at around 14,000.

We didn’t go ashore on Bird Island, but we were already well into South Georgia bio-security. We had become used to the routines in Antarctica, but they are even more strict on South Georgia. Every scrap of Velcro going ashore needs to be hoovered and if necessary scraped clean with a fork. All clothing and pockets should be vacuumed, along with the backpacks, camera bags and so on. Before going ashore, boots and the bottoms of walking sticks go through a decontamination rinse, and again on return. At more fragile sites, nothing should touch the ground except those boots and sticks, so bags must not be put down. Those routines must be confirmed by the Expedition Leader and at any time officials can come aboard and check compliance. (Not that there are many: the entire staff of the government here is eight people.) We were checked when we got to Grytviken.

Not that I mind. On the contrary, observing all efforts to return these islands to their original state seems only respect. After coming through Bird Sound, we turned east and then south into the deep bay at Elsehul. The anchor went down with its characteristic rattle and whoosh. Around us tiny fur seal pups played in the kelp fronds. Much faster and in greater comfort than Shackleton, we had arrived.

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