Life at Disco House

Field station at Discovery house

Our team are fortunate to be based at the recently refurbished Discovery House. Opened in 1925, the building was designed to withstand the heavy winter snow and regular “violent winds” of South Georgia. The building has historical significance: Discovery House was built as the Biological Station for the Discovery Expeditions. These surveys, begun in the mid 1920s, were designed to provide information to manage the rapidly expanding whaling industry. Over the 1928-1929 period, the industry was worth £5.5 million great British pounds, or nearly £300 million in today’s money. The bionomics of the whales was therefore of major interest, and knowledge on many species was “inadequate in important respects”, including “breeding habits, migrations, rate of growth, length of life or food of the whales hunted in the dependencies”. The expeditions provided a wealth of information on the oceanographic conditions and food web around South Georgia, and the biology and movements of whales.

Whale research 100 years later

Despite the wealth of information from the Discovery Expeditions, whaling lead to a dramatic decline in abundance and change in distribution of whales. The historical information collected 100 years ago is likely a poor reflection of the present. The questions remain the same, however: we are interested in how the whales use the local food web and environment, and their migratory connections. We are using cutting edge technological methods that have as minimal impact on the whales as possible. For example, we are using GPS tags to track how the whales are using South Georgia waters. Additionally, we take photographs to assess health status, and linking whales found in South Georgia back to winter breeding areas using individuals identified using natural markings and genetics.

Visitors to a wildlife paradise

Whales are not the only species that have made a comeback to South Georgia. Like whales, elephant seals were killed for the oil in their blubber in large numbers. Fur seals were also killed in huge numbers: over 1.2 million are estimated to have been killed between 1775 and 1822, and the population was estimated to have numbered in the low hundreds a century later. Fur seals began recovering in the 1960s and 1970s: a recent estimate puts the population at 3 million fur seals. This time of year the fur seals are breeding: big males are defending harems of females and their pups along the beaches. There are fewer elephant seals as the mating season has finished and moulting season is only just starting. As visitors to their world, we are learning seal body language to be able to navigate around them. If we give them space and respect it is easy enough to coexist. It’s like living in a reverse zoo; the animals just look into Discovery House when they want to see the humans…

NB: quotes are from the Discovery Reports, Volume 1.

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