247 anniversary of the possession of South Georgia for the British Crown
Monday January 17 was South Georgia Possession Day, marking 247 years since Captain James Cook first landed on the island. The British explorer was on his second world voyage aboard HMS Resolution.
Many had sighted the tiny South Atlantic island before him, but Cook and his men in January 1775 were the first to reach land, plant a British flag, fire a volley of musket shots and claim the island. for King and Country.
Cook and his party landed in what he would name Possession Bay. After leaving London in 1772, on his second world voyage, one of his goals was to determine the existence of a large southern landmass that had been thought possible.
A hundred years before, an English merchant named Anthony de la Roche had taken shelter in a bay in the harsh Southern Ocean, and James Cook used these reports to aid his navigation. When it first appeared, South Georgia must have made it look like it was the vast landmass it was after; but as the ship charted the coast the reality became clear and Cape Disappointment was so marked.
James Cook’s impact on the islands cannot be underestimated. His reports of spectacular wildlife present in epic numbers launched an era of exploitation that cascaded through the ecosystem with the harvesting of seals, whales and fish. The men who came to develop these industries brought with them foreign plants and animals, deliberately or accidentally, dramatically altering the ecology of the island. The historic over-exploitation of natural resources was unsustainable, however, and as industries became unprofitable and regulations restricted activities, workers left, pressures on the island eased, and a new era of regeneration was able to begin.
Today, the Territory is a success story and a beacon in a world where it has become commonplace that unsustainable human activities lead to environmental degradation and biodiversity decline. Thanks to the hard work and sustained active management of successive governments, South Georgia is a global rarity – an ecosystem in recovery. This restoration was championed by environmental remediation; habitat restoration projects and ongoing biosecurity measures; the creation of a marine protected area and the preventive use of marine resources based on science; the highly regulated authorization of visitors and fishing; and the elimination of some of the most harmful alien species.
Whales are now returning to the 1,240,000 sq km sea area, the eradication of reindeer, rats and mice from South Georgia has allowed native vegetation including tussac grass to thrive and populations of ground-nesting birds to recover, including species found nowhere else in the world. While invasive plant management is ongoing, the presence of non-native vegetation at South Georgia serves as a reminder of the need for excellent biosecurity and constant vigilance to reduce their impact on native species.
As a barometer of the Southern Hemisphere, what is happening in South Georgia offers insight into potential impacts across the globe. While the rapid retreat of glaciers at some sites is a clear sign of global warming, climate change is likely to affect ecosystem processes at all levels. The cutting-edge science taking place in South Georgia will not only be essential to understanding and managing local impacts, but will also improve global knowledge of climate and environmental issues.