South Georgia is a wildlife haven and the site of globally significant environmental and conservation research. South Georgia’s importance as a feeding ground for whales led to it being the epicentre of a global whaling industry in the early twentieth century, driving species to near extinction. Fortunately, times have changed and the outlook for South Georgia’s whales is improving. Read about projects to study the island’s recovering whale populations and help protect them in the future, and find out more about an exciting new artwork to celebrate the whales’ return to the Southern Ocean.
Wild Water Whales
In recent years, SGHT and Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI) supported the Wild Water Whales project, an international collaboration led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) which aimed to understand the population recovery, health, habitat use and migratory connections of whale populations in South Georgia waters.
Whales images, BAS
The project also made important discoveries about other species. High densities of humpback whales were seen, with preliminary estimates suggesting that they are now very close to full population recovery on this former whaling ground. Critically endangered Antarctic blue whales were sighted 36 times during the 2020 survey with 55 animals seen. For such a rare species, this is an unprecedented number of sightings and suggests that South Georgia waters are again an important summer feeding ground for this poorly known species.
The encouraging news that whales are returning to South Georgia waters means that understanding the resilience of their food source, krill, is critical. Whales are the largest krill-predators at South Georgia, yet unlike other krill predators, they are not regularly monitored. Together with FOSGI, we will be supporting new work by BAS to measure whale foraging patterns (using satellite tracking) and krill consumption rates across seasons in South Georgia waters to help develop an ecosystem-based management of the krill fishery.
A parallel project that we hope to support will build a sustainable framework for long-term monitoring of whales at South Georgia (focussed in high vessel-traffic areas) using acoustic detection and citizen-science partnerships. It will quantify overlaps between whales and human activities and provide management guidance to minimise impacts from vessels (collision risk and underwater noise) in key whale habitats.
Both projects will help the South Georgia Government to minimise any potential negative impacts of human activity on recovering populations of whales in South Georgia waters.
Return of the Whale
The return of whale species nearly hunted to extinction on an industrial scale marks a new chapter in the history and a defining moment for future of South Georgia. SGHT has commissioned Scottish artist Michael Visocchi to commemorate this profound shift in our human relationship with the Island and its whales. This first-ever work of art to be on South Georgia at Grytviken, entitled Commensalis – the Spirit Tables of South Georgia – will be a place of reflection and learning for all future visitors, coinciding with this glorious resurgence of the whales’ return.
Still from drone footage of Grytviken Whaling Station, showing the old landing point (the “Flensing Plan”) for Whale Catcher ships. Click button below to view Drone Film
for whales at South Georgia and beyond.
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