Life in South Georgia – Six months on, six months off

Laura Williams image

Sarah Lurcock, Director of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, has spent a quarter of a century on South Georgia. One of just 30 people who call the island home for half of the year, Sarah explains what makes the antarctic island so special.

Penguin Colony South Georgia

Saint Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

“My time is coming up… I can’t actually engage with the thought about not going back very much because it doesn’t go well for me. It goes very, very deep: it’s not just the people; it’s not just the job; the heritage and the stories; it’s not just the stunning scenery or the wildlife. It’s everything.”

Sarah Lurcock, talking through teary eyes, as she looks back on her time living and working on the remote island of South Georgia, the final resting place of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

sarah Lurcock on South Georgia island

Sarah and Pat on South Georgia

Pioneering Woman

Sarah was one of the first women allowed to live and work on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia in modern times. She moved there with her husband, Pat – when he took on the job of Government Officer in the 1990s, a role he left in 2017. The pair met at university in Birmingham, UK and Sarah, a biologist with an already established interest in Antarctic history, says it was a very easy decision to move to the British Overseas Territory.

“When he was in his last year of university and I was in my first year of work, my husband applied to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and got a job down in the Antarctic in Halley Bay, which is the most remote of the BAS stations; he disappeared off for two and a half years. In those days, the BAS certainly didn’t employ women over winter. When he came back, he had ‘the bug’ as we call it. People who really get the Antarctic region are compelled to find a way back.”

Pat secured a job with the Falkland Islands Fisheries Department, so in the right general direction, during which time the pair travelled to South Georgia – which is a 2-3 day boat ride from the Falkland Islands. “It was absolutely his thing,” says Sarah, “he wanted to get back to South Georgia so he took a job on the island which morphed into an accompanied role with me joining him there.

With her scientific background, Sarah soon got involved in a multitude of requests – initially helping scientists on the island before carrying out tasks for scientists across the globe looking for someone competent on the ground to collect samples and data etc.

“Over the years, we’ve got involved in such interesting projects,” says Sarah, “Everything from the study of spiders to inshore fisheries and all sorts. I ran the Post Office for a few years and then the job at the museum was advertised and I thought: ‘well, I think I have to go for that’ because I did want to be employed while I was on the island. There’s obviously very limited opportunities. I had no expectation whatsoever, they would give it to me, because I had no experience in museums. But what I did have was a really strong interest in polar history.”

history in south georgia

The Church in Grytviken

The most remote museum

Sarah got the job and has been leading the team at of of the most remote museums in the world ever since. The Museum is located in the town of Grytviken, a former whaling station, and is run by the South Georgia Heritage Trust on behalf of the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands welcoming up to 10,000 visitors in an average year.

Part of Sarah’s role sees her board cruise ships to talk about the work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust and secure more donations which it can put towards projects on the island. “There’s no native population,” says Sarah, “So, we need everyone who’s coming to the island to care about this tiny remote place. Otherwise, things wouldn’t be going as well as they are.

“Most museums want as many people through their front doors as they can, but in South Georgia, that just can’t happen – you’re going to get as many visitors as come on a cruise ship. That’s a very limited audience. We’ve got some very big and interesting historical stories to tell and we’ve got some fairly major players in our history, like Shackleton.”

Sarah works at the museum for six months, then takes the epic return trip back to the UK once a year where she’ll spend six months working remotely. When in South Georgia, she lives in a staff house which is part of the old whaling station in Grytviken – while everyone else lives a kilometre away at King Edward Point. This paves the way for some incredible moments of island life.She says: “If you’ve gone and had a meal with them or something, and you’re walking back at night, and if it is one of those clear nights, you know we have very little light pollution, and the skies – oh my goodness. We’ve got a couple of benches outside the museum and some nights you switch off your head torch and you just sit on the bench. This sky is amazing, we’ve got the Milky Way, shooting stars and satellites going over. It’s absolutely incredible.”

“The island has lots of micro-climates. Luckily for us, where the settlement is, is actually one of the best micro-climates on the island. So we do get sunshine sometimes and clear skies. Whereas there’s a science base right off the northern tip of the island in a place called Bird Island, which is protected, nobody gets to visit there or anything. It’s only for the scientists who go there. They rarely see the sun because they’re covered in low cloud and fog.”

south georgia photo tour penguins

“One of the delights is to go and spend a night out… you might
get yourself into a little hut close to a glacier that’s calving through
the night. You’re listening to the sound of the glacier and it’s just
amazing. That’s an experience not many can have.”
Sarah Lurcock reflects on the privilege of living in South Georgia.

Much more to explore

Between 12 and 30 people live on South Georgia at any one time, depending on the season. With no permanent population, it could suffer from transcience but there’s actually a good sense of community – albeit without many of the home comforts you may be used to.

“Where we live is right in the centre of the island,” Sarah explains, “We can only access what we can walk or ski to, we do have little boats, which are there for work purposes. And if we’re very, very lucky, we might be able to go out when those boats are out doing things, and maybe see a local glacier or even get dropped onto a nearby Peninsula. But there have to be restrictions on what we can do there. So we can’t disappear off to very remote parts of the island; if we get ourselves in trouble, there’s no help. It would use every resource on the island to try.”

For that reason, despite spending so many years living and working on the island, there are a multitude of places Sarah hasn’t – and probably never will – make it to.

“There are designated places for visitors,” says Sarah, “but the hidden corners are an amazing privilege. There are places that I have never got to, and probably never will but I would dearly love to go. I would love to go to King Haakon Bay purely for the history of the place. This is where Shackleton landed that little lifeboat when he was rescuing his crew. I’d love to go to that spot and get a feel for what that would have felt like, and what lay ahead of him still in terms of sort of crossing the island.

So, yes, I’m an armchair traveller to parts of the island that I’ve lived on and worked on for over two decades. One of the delights of being there is that we have the privilege of doing something that most can’t do, which is to go and spend a night out. Sometimes there’s these little huts around that used to be for science projects; and you might get yourself into a little hut close to a glacier that’s calving through the night. You’re listening to the sound of the glacier and it’s just amazing. That’s an experience not many can have.

“We’ve absolutely loved it. My job is the one now on the island. But my husband is working in the cruise ship industry and passes through my life a couple of times when I’m down there in the season and we wave at each other. And then come back together off-season.”

south Georgia island
The beauty of St Andrews Bay

Sarah shares one of her personal highlights of South Georgia – a visit to the island.

“When we moved to the island, I’d already been to some of the places that are the highlights of the island; like St Andrews Bay. St Andrews Bay is absolutely beautiful, so scenic. The backdrop is the spine of the island, so you’ve got mountains going up to 9,000 feet, creating this fantastic sort of natural amphitheatre. “On the beach, you’ve got a big rolling surf going in and a really dense population of either elephant seals or fur seals or both, and then you have hundreds of thousands of breeding King penguins.“

“The first thing you’re going to notice is the smell. Hundreds of thousands of King penguins don’t smell very good. All the wildlife has got its own smell and there’s so much wildlife. You could actually make your way around the island by smell alone and have a really good idea of what’s going on around you. Fur seals smell like steak and onions, elephant seals smell slightly fishy, and with burrowing birds, you actually get this beautiful musky smell.Penguins, I’ll spare you that description.

“It’s just an overwhelming place. Even if there was no wildlife, you would still be stunned by it. But with all that wildlife there as well, it is an extraordinary spot. And there are actually several places like that on South Georgia.”

Caring for the Island

A key part of Sarah’s work in recent years has been undertaking a successful project to get rid of introduced species which threaten the fragile ecosystem of the island – rats and mice. Sarah said: “We did a huge multi-year project to successfully remove ‘pest’ species – reindeer and rats and mice.”

“The Government of South Georgia removed the reindeer, which had been introduced as a source of fresh meat. Luckily, they were confined by the glaciers to only two sections of the islands. They’ve done immense damage in those sections, but they hadn’t managed to spread across the whole island. And, off the back of that, the South Georgia Heritage Trust could go in and do a project to remove the rats and the mice. Mice were in only one tiny little  area, but rats were more of a problem. The southern coast, luckily, was largely unaffected because humans haven’t really been there. But anywhere that humans went in and landed and put stuff on shore, some rats got. So we ran a project to successfully remove them.”

Sarah says the result of this work – which was aided by sniffer dog Sammy checking docked vessels for rodents – has led to higher numbers of breeding birds and even brand new bird colonies altogether. They expect the bird population to double with rats now eradicated from the island.

She muses: “There are very few of us who have had such a long involvement with the island, and it’s been a real privilege to have been able to play my part to make the future as good as we can.”

As she laments once more the thought of leaving South Georgia for good, she reflects on how the island captures some hearts and alienates others. She says: “Once the ship has gone away, it can be bit too much for some people I have known people come down to do a job or something who who have felt so isolated, so very at the end of the world, that actually it’s not for them – but for those those of us who do love it, what a privilege.

Albatross Wildlife Photography South Georgia

Wandering Albatross on nest in South Georgia

“I’ve been lucky enough to spend a more protracted period on the island and I’ve seen it in all its glory. You get to a point, probably about four months in, where you stop reading the news and that’s when you realise that actually you do need to remember that there’s a bigger world out there. Six months on, six months off is a nice balance.”

But, as with everything, all good things must come to an end and, as Sarah approaches 60, she explains that her days on the island are numbered. She sighs: “This is a hard environment. You have to go through a really rigorous medical; we’ve got a doctor and a small medical centre but the big hospitals are days away by sea, assuming there’s a ship to get you there. So, I’m coming to the end of being physically able to live and work here.

“It’s a fantastic experience but I can’t give it the energy that it needs. Will I stop being involved with South Georgia, not given half a chance. I really hope that I’ll continue working with the South Georgia Heritage Trust for some long while, but my days of going down to the island are not going to carry on for too much longer.”

Southern Elephant Wildlife in South Georgia

Southern Elephant Seals, South Georgia

“The island has protected itself because it’s remote and not so many
people in human history have got there. We haven’t caused quite as
much chaos. There are times you really feel you’re seeing nature in
the wild, as it should be.”
Sarah Lurcock on South Georgia’s unique situation.

Past, Present and Future

There aren’t many who’ve experienced South Georgia for as sustained a period as Sarah has, which gives her a good grasp on where things could be headed. Here, Sarah explains what fascinates her about the past, present and future of the island.

“I would like a time machine; I would like to go back a few hundred years, and I would like to go forward a few hundred years. Going back, I would like to see the island before humans ever got there and then think it would be so very different. I’d like to go back to when the whaling station that I live in was working to its fullest extent. I’m pretty imaginative, but to put those 400 men back in there in that area with the smell, and the noise, the chimneys and industrial-ness of it all – I just can’t imagine.

And I want to go forward 100 years and just see how we’re doing. Changes are coming up that are probably not controllable. The climate is changing, that is going to change South Georgia, the plants and animals that thrive will change. We’re seeing the beginning of it now. I have visually seen some of the changes already, which is terrifying. Where I live, we have lost two glaciers in the time I’ve been there. Normally this is a hundreds of years process, but there are two glaciers I used to visit that are no longer there. They are now dry valleys. Climate change is real and South Georgia is going to look very different I think because of that.”

If you would like to explore South Georgia for yourself consider our in-depth 15 Day South Georgia Wildlife and Photo Expedition with just 48 guests. 

This article first appeared in our Explorers Club Magazine Volume 1. You can download a free copy here.