'Hundreds' of Dead Seals Block Antarctic Explorer's Grave

Virus has taken a heavy toll on South Georgia's wildlife
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 14, 2024 11:00 AM CDT
Dead Seals Block Access to Antarctic Explorer's Grave
The cemetery can be seen at the bottom right of this 2004 photo of Grytviken.   (Lexaxis7/Wikimedia Commons)

Passengers who'd hoped to walk with penguins on a cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula and the island of South Georgia weren't allowed to go ashore, but they witnessed distressing scenes of animals that had been killed by a bird flu outbreak in the region. Passenger Astrid Saunders tells the Guardian that the ship was allowed to anchor in Grytviken on South Georgia, but they weren't permitted to disembark. "We weren't allowed to go up to the grave of Ernest Shackleton because there were so many dead seals blocking the way," she says. The Antarctic explorer had a heart attack during his final expedition in 1922 and is one of 64 people buried in the Grytviken cemetery.

Saunders says that while it isn't easy to tell dead seals from resting ones, there appeared to be hundreds of dead ones. "There seemed to be an awful lot of bodies on the beach," she says. "A lot of seal pups with no mum. They were desperately trying to run around." Colette Engstrom, another passenger on the January cruise, says passengers were told they couldn't visit the grave because " all the seals—or many of the seals—were dead, and bird flu was being blamed." British Antarctic Survey seabird ecologist Norman Ratcliffe says researchers have observed "widespread mortality along the north coast of South Georgia." Bird flu has been found in seals, skuas, terns, albatrosses, and, most recently, penguins.

"I liken South Georgia to the Alps, with Serengeti-style wildlife around it," Ratcliffe tells the BBC. "The wildlife concentrations around the coast are just phenomenal—multiple species of penguins, albatrosses, and seals." Researchers says bird flu has been detected in gentoo and king penguins on the island, but penguin breeding season is almost over, so the impact on populations may be limited, for now. Researchers have warned, however, that it could be "one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times" if the H5N1 virus hits Antarctic penguin populations, per the Guardian. (More bird flu stories.)

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