Early scientific exploration on South Georgia probably dates from 27 December 1819 when a Russian expedition commissioned by Tsar Alexander I and led by Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen arrived. Their detailed account of the island reported numbers of whales and many species of birds and giant kelps near Willis Island.
James Weddell arrived in 1823. He gave an account of the island’s natural history, the exploitation of seals by the sealers and he recorded the first seismic activity by observing a dish of mercury being used as a horizontal mirror for surveying. Equinoctial gales were also recorded.
The first land-based scientific expedition took place from August 1882 to September 1883. A German team led by Dr K. Schrader included physicists, a meteorologist, a botanist, a zoologist, a medical officer, an engineer, an artist, a mechanic, a cook, a carpenter, and a seaman. The scientific programme included astronomical, meteorological, geomagnetic, gravimetric, and tidal observations. Biological, geological and other research was undertaken. The expedition brought in for the first time a hound, 3 oxen, 17 sheep, 6 goats with 3 kids and 2 geese. The team also tried to grow potatoes, rye, barley, wheat and some salad. The expedition was a success and in particular provided some valuable mapping of the local area that was used subsequently in the Admiralty charts of the area.
The ship Antarctic, captained by C. A. Larsen, anchored in Jason harbour in 22 April 1902. The scientists on board, J G Anderson, C J Skottsberg and S Duse made zoological, botanical, and geological collections and observations, prepared charts, and undertook significant other work. The ship visited Moltke Harbour, Cumberland Bay, Maiviken (May Cove), Grytviken (Pot Cove) (which Andersson named), Possession Bay and the Bay of Isles. The first fossil from South Georgia was collected near the Moraine Fjord. The expedition results were published and many charts prepared. C A Larsen learnt much about the economic potential of the island. The expedition subsequently lost its ship by being crushed in the Antarctic ice, and was stranded during the 1903 winter until rescued on Snow Hill Island in November 1903 by the Argentine ship Uruguay captained by Julián Irízar.
Dr Wilheim Filcher led a German expedition on 3 visits during 1911 and 1912 to conduct geological, geophysical, meteorological and some other scientific investigations in the Deutschland. On their arrival in South Georgia C. A. Larsen made the steam yacht Undine available. The expedition opened and used the 1882/3 Polar Year expedition base, however only the main building was useable once the accumulated snow was cleared out and the roof repaired. On return from the South Sandwich Islands, while anchored in King Edward Cove, the wireless operator Walter Slossarczyk went out in a small open boat on 26 November. He was never seen again. The whale catcher Fortuna found the boat well out in Cumberland Bay. A memorial cross was erected to his memory and still stands above the cemetery at Grytviken. The expedition provided much improved charts of South Georgia including astronomical positions and photogrammetric survey details as well as hydrographic surveys.
The sealer Daisy was probably the last to visit South Georgia at the end of the first epoch of sealing. On board was a naturalist R.C. Murphy, who had been sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. He wrote a valuable account of his findings and collections of flora and fauna that included over 100 bird skins, seal skulls, whale embryos, fish, invertebrates, plants and rocks.
Barrett-Hamilton of the British Natural History Museum undertook a scientific investigation of whales in 1913/14. He sampled 294 whales processed at Leith. P. Stammwitz was his assistant. He had previously escaped, as the first prisoner, from the unfinished goal in the customs warehouse on King Edward Point. He fled up the steep slopes of Mount Duse while stoning his pursers. After a very cold and windy night out he returned voluntarily to the jail!
Alberto Carcelles made a series of collections and observations on the birds of South Georgia on behalf of the National Museum of Buenos Aires between 1923 and 1927. He also prepared a report on birds, whales, whaling and various other aspects of the island. Captain Richardo Vago conducted a hydrographic survey in Cumberland Bay and took geomagnetic observations at Royal Bay.
The Discovery Investigations (1925-1951), encompassing some of the most ambitious scientific studies ever undertaken, were commissioned by the Royal Society. The pioneer vessel undertaking the Discovery surveys was Captain Scott’s RRS Discovery , refitted for survey work. On board the first voyage was Sir Alistair Hardy, artist, scientist, and the inventor of the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR).
The Discovery surveys aimed to understand more about the whale populations in the Southern ocean, their distribution and the food chain that supported their numbers, which were in decline. The results of the extensive studies were captured in the 34 volumes of the Discovery Reports which are still the primary reference for marine studies of the Southern Ocean.
A number of scientific voyages to research the whaling industry were made by consul Lars Christiansen between 1927-29 that were complementary to the investigations made by RRS Discovery. Lars Christiansen, son of whaling pioneer Chr. Christiansen, founded a whaling museum in Sandefjord, Norway, in his fathers’ memory.
The principal objective of the Kohl-Larsen Expedition of 1928-29 was to study the glaciations of South Georgia. Part of the exploration included the large ice plateau behind Husvik that was later named the Kohl-Larsen Plateau, now called the Kohl plateau. Glaciological, geological, biological and meteorological observations were made. Many fossils and biological specimens were collected. The first commercial cinematographic film was made on South Georgia showing the expedition’s activities, as well as the whaling industry and the island’s wildlife.
Eric Dutert, a German from the University of La Plata, Argentina, published a book in 1931 of his two man biological expeditions. It contained a good description of the Grytviken whaling station and its activities.
Niall Rankin led a private ornithological expedition to the island in 1946/47. Albatross was a converted lifeboat taken to the island on a whale factory ship, the Southern Venturer. Rankin studied penguins and published an illustrated book in 1951.
Steiner Olsen, a Norwegian, investigated the fisheries potential around the island in the 1951/52 season. The project resulted in only two boats fishing during the following season, due to the depression in the price of fish and whale oil.
During the period 1953-55 both Bernard Stonehouse and Nigel Bonner conducted biological studies and produced several scientific reports on reindeer, king penguins, the brown skua and other animals. This was the start of Nigel Bonner’s long association with the island. He was appointed sealing inspector and government naturalist shortly after the expedition.
As part of the International Geophysical Year (1955-59) international cooperation studies were conducted on South Georgia. A small laboratory was established at King Edward Point where seismic and gravitational observations were made. The meteorological observatory established by C.A. Larsen contributed data. A tide meter measured mean sea levels. A glaciological study, principally on Hodges glacier, was undertaken.
Expeditions to Bird Island from 1958 to 1964 under the leadership of Lance Tickell were the pre-cursor to British Antarctic Survey’s permanent field station in operation today. The island has become a major centre for the study of Antarctic seal and bird studies. The applied fisheries research station at King Edward Point is also managed by British Antarctic Survey scientists.
The first survey of South Georgia was made when Captain Cook claimed the island in 1775. The process of surveying the island continues today. The chart drawn by Captain Cook in 1777 contained 18 named features. Charts were developed throughout the early sealing period as the sealers explored the island’s coastline in search of fur seals. Voyages of exploration contributed to the knowledge of the island. An early example was the chart that was drawn after the 1819 Russian expedition.
The first Royal Navy hydrographical charts for South Georgia were published in 1906. Many Royal Navy ships have been involved in hydrographical survey of the waters of South Georgia. HMS PROTECTOR served in the Southern Oceans for 10 years up to 1967 and was then replaced by HMS ENDURANCE in June 1968. The Royal Navy has provided the data for a substantial proportion of the charts of the region. HMS ENDURANCE continues to survey the offshore area surrounding South Georgia. In particular as a priority she has been and continues to survey those areas visited by cruise vessels.
The Duncan Carse survey of 1951 to 1957 was the first comprehensive survey of the island’s interior. Carse’s purpose from 1951/52 was to produce a topographic survey and to familiarise himself and his team with the island. The team of six lived comfortably in the jail at King Edward Point. The expedition surveyed the area to the southern end of the Allardyce range and the northern end of the Salvesen range. Carse’s second expedition team of four men arrived on 10 October 1953 and reoccupied the jail. Their survey began in the Bay of Isles (Ample Bay).
The team discovered some significant inaccuracies in existing maps of up to 10 km. Three of the team then visited the southern end of the island landing at Wirik Bay on 11 January 1954. They surveyed much of the southern part of the island. Finally they surveyed Annenkov Island, leaving South Georgia on 11 January 1954. The third survey 1955/56 included 8 men who encountered a spell of good weather, although at one point two of their four tents were destroyed in a severe storm. The survey included the route taken by Sir Ernest Shackleton. They completed the survey of the western end of the island by the end of January 1956, followed by the southern end of the island by 1 March 1956. With little time left the team focused on the area south of the Kohl-Larsen Plateau. Duncan Carse finished the survey alone during the summer of 1956/7 when he was able to cover much of the coastline in the sealers Albatros and Dias.
The results of Carse’s very accurate work from the expedition which he had privately funded, in addition to features identified from aerial photography taken by HMS Protector‘s helicopter, were published in the Directorate of Overseas Surveys (DOS) map in 1958. The peak Mount Carse at 7,649 feet was named in recognition of his remarkable achievements. Today satellite imagery at British Antarctic Survey is used to compile maps of South Georgia’s interior.