South Georgia may be best-known as the island Earnest Shackleton crossed in 1916 seeking help for his stranded men after the loss of the Endurance. It is also regarded by many as one of the top wildlife destinations in the world, where a variety of species can be observed at close range. By the late 17th century, seal hunters and whalers had begun to treat South Georgia as a banquet of unlimited resources. Records from peak harvests tell of as many as 57,000 seal skins harvested in one haul. In 1825, James Weddell—the Weddell Sea and the Weddell seal bear his name—estimated that over a million seal skins had been collected. Several whaling stations were located on South Georgia—more than 175,000 whales were rendered for oil, baleen, meat, and bone meal. Before whaling was severely restricted, nearly 1.5 million whales were hunted and killed in Antarctic waters. South Georgia is also home to approximately 30 million birds—that’s right, 30 million—including 2 million pairs of macaroni penguins, 400,000 pairs of king penguins, 100,000 gentoo pairs and 6,000 chinstrap pairs. This is a staggering number of penguins, all living in a fragile habitat that is plagued by climate change and invasive species.
The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) was established to make sure that those penguins—and all kinds of other wildlife—continue to thrive. They’re working to eradicate the brown rats that threaten nesting areas, and to preserve and share the island’s whaling history. They’re collaborating with other foundations to protect and study marine life from krill to whales. They also run the museum at Grytviken where you can see a replica of the James Caird III, the modified lifeboat used by Shackleton on his journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Their mission, at its most basic, is as follows (from the SGHT website):
SGHT has a sort of sister organization—the South Georgia Association—that’s open to members from around the world. Their mission is a little more community focused (from their website):
They’re based in the UK at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge and hold events that educate attendees about the issues affecting South Georgia. Last year’s calendar listed talks about the geography and history of the islands—including “how to Arrest a Pirate, Hug an Albatross, Save an Elephant Seal from a fate worse than death, Exchange Rats for Beer and De-Luxe your Snow Hole”—and current research taking place on South Georgia.
I’ve read repeatedly that a trip to Antarctica turns the most apathetic person in to a staunch advocate for protection of the last continent. Supporting organizations like the SGHT and the SGA upon return from your travels is one way to stay involved with South Georgia’s stewardship. If neither of these organizations inspires you, both sites have lists of associated foundations and organizations that work for the conservation of the history, culture and unique ecosystem of Antarctica.