All at Sea: en route to South Georgia

by Tom Hart on

Tom Hart, Tuesday 8th November 2011 I’m at sea on the MV Pharos SG. I’ve flown in from Santiago, had a night in Stanley (Falkland Islands) and then joined the ship. The Pharos is the fisheries patrol vessel for South Georgia, and has a remit to deter vessels from fishing illegally in the area. She’s about 60 metres long, quite comfortable but rolls a fair bit. It’s a great crew, all very friendly and open, showing us around the ship and always welcoming us onto the bridge. My task over the coming weeks is to help out on the South Georgia rat eradication project. Although the whaling and sealing industries have long gone, their legacy remains. Introduced on the ships of sealers and whalers in the 19th and 20th Centuries, rats have had a devastating impact on local seabird populations. Today we started to make detailed plans about landing sites and where to camp. I’m excited about the prospect of getting back out into the field on South Georgia. I’ll start off on the Barf Peninsula, which is one of the most beautiful spots in the world, although anywhere on South Georgia is paradise! So, as usual, the point of this trip this season is to monitor penguins and to get to more sites across the Antarctic Peninsula and its surrounding islands, and set up more monitoring stations. However, for the next couple of months I’m primarily a rat catcher. When South Georgia was the capital of whaling in the Southern Ocean, the amount of whaling traffic without any bio-security introduced rats to the island. This has wiped out the ground nesting birds on many parts of South Georgia. The aim is to get rid of rats while they are in relatively small, isolated populations before the glaciers retreat totally and allow them to move around more of South Georgia.
As part of this, we’re doing trapping and genetics to work out the population structure of rats. As with penguins, knowing about how the population is faring tells you important things about areas in which rats can interbreed and which do not. However, whereas with penguins the point is to conserve them effectively, with the rats we are trying to work out the units to eradicate at any one time. The good thing is that we’ll be passing loads of penguin colonies. When we do, I’ll be getting samples and setting up monitoring sites. Once again, a tough job, but someone has to do it... We’re due into King Edward Point in two days, then we have a couple of days training and then we’re off into the field. I’m working with Andy from the South Sandwich Islands trip earlier this year, so we should be fairly slick. That’s the hope, at least. Hasta la huego for now, Tom Hart Penguinologist, Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Subscribe to the Penguin Science 2012 RSS feed.

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