Ross James, Visitor Management & Biosecurity Officer for the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands takes us behind the scenes of GSGSSI’s new visitor film; South Georgia, A Visitor’s Guide
South Georgia is a special place. If you’ve been, you’ll know that already. When landing there you can’t help but be blown away by its wildness and wonder. Even long after a visit, most people find that something of their experience remains with them, deep under their skin.
Naturalist and broadcasting legend Sir David Attenborough has been returning to South Georgia since 1981, and we felt that there was a good chance it had got under his skin too, so when it came to updating the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands’ (GSGSSI for short) visitor briefing film, we took a shot and asked Sir David if he would consider narrating it. He returned a lovely hand written note to offer his help.
One of the many shared values we hold with IAATO is that through sustainable and responsible tourism, we might instil in people a sense of value for South Georgia, so powerful that they will become ambassadors for the region and be part of the solution to combat the environmental pressures it faces. For us, tourism isn’t just about having a nice holiday, but it’s about showing people how precious South Georgia is for wildlife and humans, on a global scale. We firmly believe that when people understand why South Georgia is worth protecting, and are armed with the how, they will play their part gladly.
We approached Silverback Films to deliver the project. Being home to some of the best names in natural history film-making, and having produced exceptional programs such as Our Planet, it was the perfect choice to make our film with Sir David Attenborough.
In early 2020, Silverback cameraman and producer Jon Clay headed down to South Georgia along with GSGSSI’s Director of Operations Steve Brown and a huge amount of camera gear. Their mission was to collect the footage we needed to tell South Georgia’s story. With support from Pharos SG and Hapag Lloyd ships Bremen and Hanseatic Nature, they landed at a number of sites and captured incredible footage from a visitor’s perspective.
I’m a huge fan of David Attenborough, and of natural history documentaries. It was watching these programs as a child that inspired me to study zoology, and put me on a path that would eventually lead me to South Georgia. So, when I got the chance to project manage the making of this film for GSGSSI, it was a dream come true.
Looking back, we were incredibly lucky to get the footage in the can before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 still had an impact. With Sir David Attenborough, along with the rest of the UK, in lockdown, recording the narration was delayed, but when restrictions were eased Silverback delivered what is a truly beautiful film. With a mixture of BBC Archive material and specially shot footage set to a rousing soundtrack and Sir David’s expert narration, it is a beautiful portrait of South Georgia today.
But the film’s beauty is more than skin deep; important messages are held within it. It provides visitors with information and an understanding of why it is important not to harm or disturb wildlife and the environment during their visit. There is also another message which is relevant to us all; South Georgia is proof that nature can recover, if we give it the chance.
The film tells the story of how with careful management, ambitious habitat restoration projects, dedication and the passing of time, an ecosystem was saved from disaster. Past human activities on South Georgia harmed the environment through sealing, industrial whaling and unregulated fishing. The introduction of rats, reindeers and invasive plants upset the delicate ecological balance on land, pushing some species to the brink of extinction. Today, through hard work, commitment and partnership working, South Georgia is a global rarity; an ecosystem in recovery.
Fur seals now number around five million, that’s 95% of the global population. 400,000 nesting pairs of king penguins and their chicks jostle for space with nearly half a million southern elephant seals; South Georgia is home to the greatest concentration of seabirds and marine mammals on the planet.
Tourism played an important role in that recovery, and it continues to do so. Sustainable tourism is a key part of our vision for South Georgia’s future. In Sir David’s words “I’d like to invite you to share the wonderful story of how an ecosystem can be saved from disaster. Let [South Georgia] be your inspiration to seek out nature, and play your part in protecting and restoring our planet, whenever and however you can.”
In times of Covid, we all need a good news story, and for me, South Georgia’s recovery is one of the best.
Visitor Management & Biosecurity Officer for the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI).
About the Author | Ross James
Ross first saw South Georgia in 2003 from the deck of a fishing vessel during his time as a scientific observer. It was love at first sight and he has been involved with the South Atlantic region ever since. Ross moved to the Falkland Islands with his wife and three children in 2012, and joined GSGSSI in January 2018 after working as Biosecurity Officer for the Falkland Islands Government, combining his scientific knowledge and practical skills in this role.