South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands


South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands flag


Name: South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Capital: King Edward Point

Continent: South America

Official languages: English

Religion: Christianity

Motto: Leo Terram Propriam Protegat (Latin: Let the Lion protect his own land)

Status: British Overseas Territory

Government: Dependency under a constitutional monarchy

Population: 30 (2018)

Demonym: South Georgian, South Sandwich Islander

Currency: Falkland Islands Pound (FKP)

Time zone: UTC –2:00

Calling code: +500

Internet TLD: .gs


Neighbouring countries: None


South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands on the Globe


South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) is a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. This is a collection of islands, consisting of South Georgia and a chain of smaller islands known as the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is 165 km long and 1 to 35 km wide; it is the largest island on the territory. The South Sandwich Islands lie about 700 km southeast of South Georgia. The Falkland Islands are about 1,300 km north-west from its nearest point.


Grytviken panorama
Grytviken panorama. Credit: Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute


No permanent population lives on the islands. The present inhabitants are the British Government Officer, Deputy Postmaster, scientists, and support staff from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who maintain scientific bases at Bird Island and at the capital, King Edward Point (KEP), as well as museum staff at Grytviken. As no permanent inhabitants live on the islands, no legislative council and no elections are needed. The UK Foreign Office manages the foreign relations of the territory.


Waterfall near Kirke i Gytvika
Waterfall near Kirke i Gytvika. Credit:


The South Sandwich Islands are uninhabited, apart from a 6-year period when a manned Argentinean research station (Corbeta Uruguay)  was located on Thule from 1976 to 1982. Although the British discovered the presence of the Argentine base in 1976, protested and tried to resolve the issue by diplomatic means, no effort was made to remove them by force until after the Falklands War. The base was removed on the 20th June 1982.

Since 1982 the territory celebrates Liberation Day on 14 June. Argentina continues to claim sovereignty over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.


Grytviken visitor map
Grytviken visitor map


Economic activity in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is limited. The territory has revenues of £4.5 million, 80% of which is derived from fishing licences (2011 figures). Other sources of revenue are the sale of postage stamps and coins, tourism and customs and harbour dues. Tourism has become a larger source of income in recent years, with many cruise ships and sailing yachts visiting the area. The only way to visit South Georgia is by sea; there are no airstrips on the Islands. The territory gains income from landing charges and the sale of souvenirs. The pound sterling is the official currency of the islands, and the same notes and coins are used as in the United Kingdom.

The Island of South Georgia is said to have been first sighted in 1675 by Anthony de la Roché, a London merchant, and therefore, it was named Roche Island on a number of 17th-18th-century maps.


Richard William Seale's map featuring Roche Island
Fragment of Richard William Seale's map (ca. 1745) featuring Roche Island


Captain James Cook circumnavigated the island in 1775 and made the first landing. He claimed the territory for the Kingdom of Great Britain and named it 'the Isle of Georgia' in honour of King George III. British arrangements for the government of South Georgia were established under the 1843 British Letters Patent.

Captain James Cook discovered the southern eight islands of the Sandwich Islands Group in 1775, although he lumped the southernmost three together, and their status as separate islands was not established until 1820. The northern three islands were discovered by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen in 1819, a German who served in the Russian Navy. Cook named those islands 'Sandwich Land', although he also commented that they might be a group of islands rather than a single body of land. The name was chosen in honour of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. The word 'South' was added later to distinguish them from the 'Sandwich Islands', now known as the Hawaiian Islands.


Ernest Shackleton grave in Grytviken
Ernest Shackleton's grave in Grytviken


The United Kingdom claimed sovereignty over South Georgia in 1775 and the South Sandwich Islands in 1908. The territory of 'South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands' was formed in 1985; previously, it had been governed as part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. Argentina claimed South Georgia in 1927 and claimed the South Sandwich Islands in 1938, challenging British sovereignty in the Islands on several occasions.

In 1882-1883, a German expedition for the First International Polar Year was stationed at Royal Bay on the southeast side of the island.

In 1786 Seal hunting began at South Georgia and continued throughout the 19th century.

South Georgia became a base for whaling at the beginning of the 20th century until whaling ended in the 1960s.


Carl Anton Larsen Room
Carl Anton Larsen Room at the South Georgia Museum. Credit:


In 1904 a Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen established the first land-based whaling station and first permanent habitation at Grytviken. It operated through his Argentine Fishing Company, which settled in Grytviken. The station operated until 1965.

Other whaling stations operated under leases granted by the British Governor of the Falkland Islands. There were seven stations on the north coast. With the end of the whaling industry, the stations were abandoned. Apart from a few preserved buildings such as the museum and church at Grytviken, only their decaying remains survive.


Grytviken Church
Grytviken church on South Georgia. Credit:


Grytviken Church, also known as the Whalers Church, and as the Norwegian Lutheran Church, was built in 1913 in Neo-Gothic style and consecrated on Christmas Day. At first, it was pre-built in Norway and later erected in Grytviken by whalers under Carl Anton Larsen's supervision. The church consists of a single nave leading to a small altar, with a small attached library to the side. It has two bells that still can be tolled. In 1994 the church roof was damaged because of bad weather. In 1996-1998 South Georgia Museum curators and volunteers have renovated the building.


Christmas at Crytviken church
Christmas service at Grytviken church for cruise ship visitors. Credit: Gemma French


Grytviken church was part of the Church of Norway for a century from 1913 to 2013. It was formally handed over to the United Kingdom in 2013 and is now part of the Anglican Communion Diocese of the Falkland Islands. Nowadays Kirken I Grytvika serves for occasional church services and marriage ceremonies.

The church had a cameo appearance in the 2006 animated film Happy Feet. The island of South Georgia has featured in the video Storm, by American filmmaker Warren Miller.


South Georgia Museum
South Georgia Museum. Credit:


The South Georgia Museum is situated in Grytviken, near the administrative centre of the UK overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The museum is housed in the renovated villa built in 1916, which used to be a residence for the manager of the Grytviken whaling station and his family until the station was closed in 1964.


South Georgia Surveys
South Georgia Surveys (1951-1957). Credit:


The South Georgia Museum was established in 1991 by William Nigel Bonner, the internationally respected specialist on marine mammals, as a specialised whaling museum. Its scope now embraces all the main areas of island's history, including expositions of the discovery on the island, sealing industry, maritime, South Georgia's human heritage and natural history, as well as the 1982 Falklands war.


Nigel Bonner Room
Nigel Bonner Room at the South Georgia Museum. Credit:


The museum has become a popular tourist venue, visited by cruise ship and yacht tourists. For several years Tim and Pauline Carr served as museum curators, living on board their yacht Curlew moored in the Grytviken port. The museum is now managed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust that took over the management of the museum in July 2006. The collection of the museum can be viewed online.


Whaling station on South Georgia
Whaling station on South Georgia. Credit: Aah-Yeah


International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) advocates and promotes the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. IAATO has to be contacted when planning a tour to the South Georgia Islands.