GENERAL GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY OF LIVINGSTON ISLAND
Institute of Mathematics and Informatics Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Bl. 8 Akad. Georgi Bonchev Street, 1113 Sofia
These introductory notes offer an outline description of Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. They are focused primarily on the island’s geography, history and present circumstances, while leaving geology, flora and fauna, and other aspects to subsequent chapters.
Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
On advancing from the northward toward Livingston's or the Main Island, the land will appear in mountains of a vast height, and covered entirely with snow; the base of them terminating in perpendicular ice cliffs. The whole has an awfully grand, though terrific and desolate, appearance; the snowy mountains showing themselves, one over another, far above the clouds, and exciting in the mind a devotional reverence on the wonders of the Almighty: and even if surrounded on all sides with rocks and breakers, the mind is forced into pious contemplation on the grandeur of the scene.
Robert Fildes, 1821
Livingston Island is one of the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago in the Southern Ocean comprising (west to east) Smith, Low, Snow, Deception, Livingston, Greenwich, Robert, Nelson, King George, Elephant and Clarence islands, as well as a number of minor islands, islets and rocks. The islands group extends 510 km in a west-southwest to east-northeast direction roughly parallel to the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, separated from it by Bransfield Strait (about 120 km) and from South America by Drake Passage (about 850 km). It has a surface area of 3687 km2 (late 20th-century estimate; the current figure would be somewhat smaller due to coastal change (SCAR 2015)) comparable to that of Luxembourg or the US state of Rhode Island, and an extensive maritime zone. The archipelago lies south of the Antarctic Convergence.
Trending parallel t o the southeast coast of the South Shetlands is the submarine Bransfield Ridge, which features at least ten volcanoes with three of them emerging above sea to form the islands of Deception, Penguin and Bridgeman. Lying just 18 km from Livingston Island, the horseshoe-shaped Deception Island is an active volcano that erupted most recently in 1967, 1969 and 1970. A powerful eruption around 10,000 years ago formed the Port Foster caldera, a 10 by 6.9 km protected natural harbour with a single 540 m wide entrance on the southeast. The island’s name is because of that hidden bay invisible to passing ships.
Livingston Island is centred at 62°36'S and 60°30'W, and situated 110 km northwest of Cape Roquemaurel on the Antarctic Peninsula, 796 km southeast of Diego Ramirez Islands (the southernmost land of South America), 809 km south-southeast of Cape Horn, 1,063 km due south of the Falklands (Beauchene Island), 1,571 km southwest of South Georgia (Willis Islands), and 3,040 km from the South Pole.
The island is separated from the neighbouring islands of Greenwich to the east, Deception to the south and Snow to the west-southwest by the straits of McFarlane, Smolensk and Morton respectively. Its waters harbour many small islands and rocks, particularly numerous along the north coast. Notable among the adjacent minor islands are Rugged Island (10.43 km2) and Window Island (0.23 km2) off Byers Peninsula to the west, San Telmo Island (0.1 km2) off Ioannes Paulus II Peninsula to the northwest, Desolation Island in Hero Bay (3.12 km2) to the north, and Half Moon Island (1.51 km2) in Moon Bay to the east, as well as the small island groups of Dunbar Islands and Zed Islands off Varna Peninsula (surface areas according to ATCM (2002), CEP (2011) and Ivanov (2010)).
Livingston Island is the second largest in the archipelago after King George Island. Its surface area is 798 km2, extending 72.4 km from Start Point on the west to Renier Point on the east, and is 5 km wide at the isthmus separating South Bay from Hero Bay, and 35.85 km wide between Williams Point to the north and Botev Point to the south. The coast is indented by several sizable embayments: False Bay, South Bay, Walker Bay, Osogovo Bay, New Plymouth, Barclay Bay, Hero Bay and Moon Bay, with half-a-dozen intervening peninsulas: Rozhen Peninsula (projecting for 9 km), Hurd Peninsula (10 km), Byers Peninsula (15 km), Ioannes Paulus II Peninsula (12.8 km), Varna Peninsula (12 km) and Burgas Peninsula (10.5 km) (Ivanov 2010).
The mountain range that so impressed the British sealer Robert Fildes in 1821 (Purdy 1855: 173) was Tangra Mountains, extending 30 km along the southeast coast of the island east-northeastwards from Barnard Point to Renier Point, and 8 km wide. It features over 30 peaks including the island’s summit, Mount Friesland, rising to 1700 m. Both the crest and slopes of Tangra are covered by ice that feeds Huntress Glacier, Huron Glacier and 15 smaller glaciers draining into False Bay, Moon Bay and Bransfield Strait. The mountains are connected to Bowles Ridge to the north by Wörner Gap, which ice saddle, interestingly, is situated 1 km west of the subglacial ridge that connects the two features and projects from the ice cap at Kuzman Knoll according to Macheret et al. (2009).
Other notable orographic features in eastern Livingston Island include Bowles Ridge (extending 6.5 km and rising to 822 m), Vidin Heights (8 km, 604 m), the ridges of Burdick (773 m), Melnik (696 m) and Pliska (667 m), as well as a series of peaks and hills on Hurd Peninsula (summit Moores Peak, 407 m) surrounding Hurd Ice Cap and Johnsons Glacier. Dospey Heights (6 km, 265 m), Urvich Wall (6.7 km, 121 m), Rotch Dome (360 m), Oryahovo Heights (6 km, 340 m) and Snow Peak (428 m) are situated in the western part of the island (Servicio Geográfico 1991 and 1992; Ivanov 2010). The submarine Quiroga Ridge in False Bay and Vergilov Ridge in South Bay were formed as frontal moraines of Huntress and Perunika glaciers respectively, some 3 km from their present termini, during a period of ice cap advance from late 13th to late 17th century (Pallàs i Serra 1996: 187).
The island is largely covered by an ice cap occupying 87.6% of its surface (Ivanov 2010), with valley glaciers in the mountainous areas in the east, ice plateaus and ice domes in the central and western part, and ice free western extremity (López Martínez 1992: 271-282). Conspicuous in the local glaciers are the black ash layers originating from volcanic activity on Deception Island. The island hosts also several rock glaciers consisting of rock debris frozen in ice (Serrano and López Martínez 2000).
The ice cap of Livingston, whose margin forms much of the island’s coast or which terminated on the beach, has been retreating during the last 60 years letting new coves, beaches and points emerge. Such new features are in particular Stoyanov Cove, Prisoe Cove, Skravena Cove and Maleshevo Cove in Hero Bay, formed by the retreat of Urdoviza, Medven, Berkovitsa and Tundzha glaciers; Chavei Cove east of Gela Point by the retreat of Prespa Glacier; and a small new cove between Charrúa Ridge and Atlantic Club Ridge by the retreat of Contell Glacier. Glacier retreat for that period has amounted up to 1 km or more in the case of Huron Glacier in Moon Bay (most recently just south of Elemag Point), of Huntress Glacier in False Bay (between Napier Peak and Kikish Crag, making Inepta Cove disappear in the process), Perunika Glacier and Pimpirev Glacier in South Bay, and Verila Glacier in Walker Bay (SCAR 2015). Shingle beaches under the ice cap edge sometimes prove to have been frontal moraines. Following glacier retreat, these moraines remain as coastal spits or shoals, subjected in turn to the erosive action of waves enhanced by drift ice and debris from icebergs.
Further changes in the coastal configuration depend also on the insufficiently known subglacial topography of the island. According to a Russian-Spanish-Uzbekistan radio sounding of upper Perunika Glacier and upper Kaliakra Glacier, the ice thickness there averages 265 m (including a 20‑35 m top firn layer), reaching 500 m in the area northeast of Burdick Ridge, with portions of the bedrock east and west of Gurev Gap, and another one between Burdick Ridge and Bowles Ridge actually lying below sea level. In the latter case the deep Macheret Trench beneath upper Perunika Glacier extends 4.8 km northwestwards from Wörner Gap with most of it lying below sea level – up to 120 m in the area north of Rezen Knoll (Macheret et al. 2009). It is not known whether such subglacial depressions continue beneath the lower courses of the two glaciers, but there seems to exist some potential for further advance of Moon Bay, False Bay and South Bay at the expense of the glaciers Kaliakra, Huron, Huntress and Perunika.
Certain areas of the ice cap, especially near glacier termini or over steeper slopes, are severely crevassed and almost inaccessible without specialized equipment. Elsewhere, the surface is smooth, hard (in the summer when there is little accumulated fresh snow), and comfortable for walking, skiing or snowmobiling, yet with the ever-present danger of falling into some hidden crevasse masked by a snow bridge, including in frequently visited and supposedly well-known localities. Protracted periods of warm weather tend to make the snow bridges more unstable and hazardous.
Byers Peninsula, which forms the western extremity of the island, is the largest ice-free territory in the South Shetlands with a surface area of 60.35 km2. It is of gently rolling relief, mostly low platforms at altitudes up to 105 m interrupted by isolated volcanic plugs, with Dospey Heights rising on Ray Promontory in the northwest. The peninsula features extensive beaches comprising South Beaches on the south (12 km long and up to 900 m wide, the largest in the archipelago), President Beaches on the west and Robbery Beaches on the north (ATCM 2002; Servicio Geográfico 1992). Some coastal areas at Cape Shirreff, Siddins Point, Williams Point, Rozhen Peninsula, Hurd Peninsula, Hannah Point and Elephant Point are free from ice too, as are various patches on the slopes of mountain ridges, hills and heights that are too steep to support snow and ice accumulation.
Bulgarian Beach is the ice-free coastal strip in northern Hurd Peninsula occupying the southeast coast of Emona Anchorage, the innermost part of South Bay, and hosting the Bulgarian base St. Kliment Ohridski. The feature extends 2.5 km between Hespérides Point and the terminus of Perunika Glacier, and comprises four shingle beaches separated from Balkan Snowfield to the southeast by a chain of five hills. The combined ice-free area of Bulgarian Beach and the contiguous Ojeda Beach south of Hespérides Point is 1.12 km2.
Numerous meltwater streams flow in the ice-free areas during summer, extending from hundreds of meters up to 4.5 km. Byers Peninsula alone has more than 60 such streams and as many lakes, notably Midge Lake (587 by 112 m), Limnopolar Lake and Basalt Lake (ATCM 2002; Servicio Geográfico 1992). The 500 m long Rezovski Creek flows across the territory of the Bulgarian base, supplying high quality drinking water. Its lower course forms Grand Lagoon (1 ha) and has its mouth at the southwest extremity of Bulgarian Beach. Several other small lakes and ponds are situated in the vicinity of the Bulgarian and Spanish bases (Servicio Geográfico 1991; Ivanov 2010).
Livingston Island has a polar climate, namely polar tundra under the Köppen-Geiger climate classification system. According to Chipev and Veltchev (1996), the climatic conditions on the island are influenced by the following specific factors: the location of the island in the narrowest part of the Southern Ocean (less than 600 km between the Antarctic Convergence and the Antarctic Peninsula); the relatively small amplitude of water temperatures of the sea surrounding the island; the local relief including one of the highest mountain ranges in the archipelago (Tangra Mountains), which contributes to changes in the local atmospheric circulation; and the ice cap of the island.
The island’s weather is notoriously capricious. As befits a maritime climate, and unlike the mainland’s interior, weather conditions can pass very quickly from one extreme to another, not infrequently several times within a day, altering in particular the state of ice cap’s snow cover, visibility and wind chill, and thus the field-work conditions, too. Whiteouts are common, and blizzards can occur at any time of the year. According to the seasoned Australian mountaineer Damien Gildea who has climbed extensively in Antarctica including Mount Friesland, Livingston got just about the worst weather in the world (Gildea 2003).
The dynamic nature of the local weather does not affect temperatures, which are rather constant and seldom exceed 3°C in summer or fall below minus 11°C in winter, with variations greater in winter. In high winds, however, the wind chill temperatures could become up to 5‑10°C lower. The highest daily temperature measured so far on the island is 19.9ºC (CEP 2011), and the lowest is minus 22.4°C. Although not yet registered, still lower temperatures might possibly occur, too, as one of minus 30°C was reportedly measured in August 1954 on Half Moon Island (Fundación Marambio 2015). By way of comparison, the lowest temperature measured in Sofia is below minus 30°C.
The average annual temperature is minus 1°C, that of the warmest month (January) 2.6°C, and that of the coldest one (July) minus 4.6°C (Labajo 2008). The Livingston climate data cited here refers to the coastal location of Juan Carlos I Base, except for the highest temperature, which was measured at Shirreff Base. Surface air temperatures decrease with increasing altitudes, which in the interior of eastern Livingston Island reach 550 m at the centrally located Wörner Gap and over 1400 m at the crest of Tangra Mountains.
The local weather is predominantly cloudy and gloomy. Sunny days are a rarity – an average of four during the summer, which for the local scientific bases is late November to early March. Livingston has 148 rainy or snowy days per year, every other day in summer; winter is drier than summer. Most often it is drizzle, light rain or dry powder snow, but could also be severe wet snow, squalls, sleet or frost. It is not uncommon to have rain in winter and snow in summer. Overall, rainfalls and snowfalls are frequent yet rarely prolonged or abundant – the average precipitation is just 377 mm annually, varying in different areas of the island. It is almost two times less than the average precipitation on King George Island, and less than that in Sofia. The average relative humidity is 81.4%, but due to the relatively low temperatures the absolute humidity is not very high (Labajo 2008).
The average annual wind speed on Livingston Island is 13.3 km/h. Galeforce winds occur 64 days per year on the average, more often in winter. The prevailing winds are south-southwesterly, but the strongest ones blow from the east-northeast, reaching a maximum speed of 150 km/h in March (Labajo 2008). In February 2009 the field camp of an American paleontologist party on Byers Peninsula was wrecked by windstorm and required an emergency evacuation (Rejcek 2009).
Because of the exceptionally clean air of Antarctica, in clear weather (a rare and precious commodity on Livingston indeed) the visibility is exceptionally clear. From the Bulgarian base one may observe the 120‑km distant Imeon Range on Smith Island, and from more elevated locations – the entire 200 km stretch of mountains on the mainland from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to the southeast to Cape Sterneck 160 km to the south-southwest.
Charles Darwin, 23 years old as he started his biological research in neighbouring Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands in 1832, noted, The South Shetland Islands, in the same latitude as the southern half of Norway, possess only some lichens, moss, and a little grass with frozen under-soil within 360 miles of the forest-clad islands near Cape Horn (Darwin 1845: 248-249). He pointed out also the differences between the climate of the archipelago and that in the northern regions of Asia and North America.
Indeed, although Livingston Island is farther away from the pole than are the Norwegian city Trondheim, Russian Arhangelsk or American Fairbanks in the Northern Hemisphere, its flora and fauna are polar, and most of it is covered by ice cap thanks to the influence of the nearby, vast continental ice sheet. Additionally, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current hampers the transfer of warmer sea water from the north. Nevertheless, the island’s climatic conditions are rather less severe than those of the northernmost Arctic settlements with a permanent population, and as the island is situated outside the Antarctic Circle (i.e. north of 66°33'44"S), it has no polar night with its adverse effects on human psyche.
Having left the vicinity of Alexander Island and making for the South Shetlands in January 1821, the Russian mariner Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen wrote in his diary: It is noteworthy that navigation round Fire Land spanned over two hundred years, yet no one saw the coasts of New Shetland. In 1616 the Dutch mariners Lemaire and Schouten found a strait between Fire Land and Staten Land named after Lemaire. Having sailed that strait and rounded Fire Land, they were the first to enter the Great Ocean by that route. Since that time ships rounding Fire Land not infrequently encountered prolonged and strong northwesterly headwinds and storms, and probably were carried close to the South Shetland, and some, perhaps, lost their life at its coasts, but it was not until February 1819 that these islands were accidentally discovered by Smith, the captain of an English merchant brig (Беллингсгаузен 1831). Indeed, although it has been postulated that Dutch mariner Dirck Gerritsz in 1599 or Spanish Admiral Gabriel de Castilla in 1603 might have sighted the South Shetlands, or North or South American sealers might have visited the archipelago before Smith, there is insufficient historical evidence to sustain such assertions. Smith’s discovery, by contrast, was well documented and had wider historical implications beyond its geographic significance.
Blown off course in Drake Passage, the 29-year-old British merchant William Smith sighted the northeast extremity of Livingston Island, Williams Point on 19 February 1819. Following the earlier discovery of South Georgia (the first land south of the Antarctic Convergence) by Anthony de la Roché in 1675, the islands of Bouvet by Jean-Baptiste Bouvet de Lozier in 1739, Kerguelen by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen in 1772, and the South Sandwich Islands by James Cook in 1775, Livingston was the first land discovered south of 60° south latitude (Headland 2009). That event marked the end of a centuries-long pursuit of the mythical Terra Australis Incognita, and the beginning of the exploration and utilization of real Antarctica.
Smith revisited the South Shetlands and, avoiding the inhospitable north coast of Livingston Island, landed on King George Island on 16 October the same year. In the meantime, however, a tragic event near Livingston Island resulted in the largest loss of human life in Antarctic history. In early September, a four-ship Spanish naval squadron en route to Callao to fight the independence movement in Spanish America was overwhelmed by severe weather in Drake Passage. The 74-gun flagship San Telmo under Captain Joaquín Toledo lost its masts and rudder, and after unsuccessful towing attempts was left to its fate. The ship sank off Cape Shirreff with all 644 officers, soldiers and sailors on board including the squadron’s commander Brigadier Rosendo Porlier. A few months later an anchor and spars of the ship were found on a nearby beach by British sealer James Weddell, but it remains unknown if any of the Spaniards managed to get ashore (Headland 2009).
In December 1819, Smith was once again in Antarctica, this time with his ship William chartered by William Shirreff, commanding officer of the Royal Navy for the Pacific, and accompanied by Lieutenant Edward Bransfield, three midshipmen and a ship’s surgeon. Their mission was to survey, map and claim the new lands for Britain, which they did. Furthermore, on 30 January 1820, Bransfield sighted Davis Coast on the Antarctic Peninsula, unaware that just three days earlier and far to the east, the continent had already been discovered by the Russian Imperial Navy expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev. Indeed, оn 27 January, Bellingshausen wrote, We saw solid ice extending from east to west through south as they were facing Princess Martha Coast in Dronning Maud Land. One year later, completing their circumnavigation of Antarctica, the Russians sailed along the southeast side of the South Shetlands chain, mapped the islands and gave them Russian names.
On 6 February 1821, Bellingshausen approached Livingston Island, observed eight British and American ships off Byers Peninsula, and was visited by American sealer Nathaniel Palmer to learn from him that seal hunting was going at full steam, with Smith alone having taken 60,000 seal skins. At noon the Russian mariner passed Botev Point and briefly but aptly described Livingston Island as 41 nautical miles (76 km) long, with low and partly snow-covered western part, and an eastern part with rocky and steep shores and high mountains covered with ice and shrouded in clouds, having its south extremity projecting into the sea with two ridges and forming a bay. (The mountain range was Tangra Mountains, and the two ridges were Hurd Peninsula and Rozhen Peninsula with False Bay in between.) Bellingshausen named the island Smolensk after one of the great battles of the Napoleonic Wars (Беллингсгаузен 1831). The name Livingston Island was probably given by Robert Fildes, also in 1821, and soon became established, replacing the name Friesland Island (in a variety of spellings) popular until then. The names Friesland and Smolensk are now preserved as Mount Friesland and Smolensk Strait respectively (Иванов и Иванова 2014: 69-70).
Smith’s discovery attracted to the South Shetlands the American and British sealers from the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, where the seal populations had already been greatly depleted. First to arrive was Joseph Herring (ship’s mate during Smith’s first visit) who stepped ashore in Hersilia Cove, Rugged Island on Christmas Day of 1819, promptly followed by James Sheffield (with second mate, the 20-year-old Nathaniel Palmer), James Weddell, and possibly Carlos Timblón from Buenos Aires. Those early voyages started the Antarctic sealing industry south of 60°S, marking the beginning of a most important chapter in Livingston’s history.
Sealing fleets were based in the bays of New Plymouth and Johnsons Dock (Livingston Island), Hersilia Cove (Rugged Island), Blythe Bay (Desolation Island), Yankee Harbour (Greenwich Island), Port Foster (Deception Island), Clothier Harbour (Robert Island), Harmony Cove (Nelson Island) and Potter Cove (King George Island). Along with the fur seals taken for skins, elephant seals were later killed for their highly priced blubber oil (Basberg and Headland 2008). The skins were shipped to the markets of London, New York, and the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou).
An estimated 1.7 million or more fur seals were killed in the Antarctic region (the area within the Antarctic convergence) and certain adjacent peri-Antarctic islands. Some 1,400 men were employed in the industry during the 1820/21 peak season, about 1,000 of them in the South Shetlands alone (Basberg and Headland 2008).
Livingston Island became the most populous place in Antarctica for a time, with the number of inhabitants exceeding 200 in the period 1820-23. Several dozen sealers dwelled elsewhere in the archipelago – on King George, Nelson, Greenwich, and even the forbiddingly mountainous Smith Island. As the seals were killed onshore the sealers spent protracted periods of time there, seeking refuge from the elements in purpose-built stone huts, tent bivouacs or natural caves. The principal sealer ‘settlements’ on Livingston were situated on Byers Peninsula near Nikopol Point, Sealer Hill, Negro Hill, Rish Point, Sparadok Point, Lair Point and Varadero Point, as well as at Cape Shirreff and Elephant Point (Lewis Smith and Simpson 1987). Argentine archeological research has identified 26 human-built shelter structures on Byers Peninsula alone (Zarankin and Senatore 2005).
There were some women among the first inhabitants of Livingston Island, as evidenced by a 1985 discovery of the grave of a 21-year-old woman of combined European and Native American descent at Yamana Beach on Cape Shirreff, dated to the early 19th century (Torres 1999).
The Antarctic sealing in 1819-23 is sometimes compared to the Alaskan gold rush in the 1890s. Profits were so high that the fur seals were depleted in just three to four seasons. The dramatic decrease in seal populations can be judged by the number of sealing vessels operating in the region during the period 1819-28. According to Headland (2009) the number of sealing ships in the South Shetlands was three in the summer season 1819/20, 67 in 1820/21, 47 in 1821/22, 10 in 1822/23, two in 1823/24, three in 1824/25, two in 1825/26, two in 1826/27, and none in 1827/28. Sealing continued until 1892, with another peak in the 1870s, but at a rather modest scale. During the 20th century sealing continued largely as an activity ancillary to whaling, mostly taking elephant seals for oil. The Antarctic fur seals survived only on the small Bird Island off South Georgia and possibly on the inaccessible Bouvet Island from where, about a century later and no longer hunted, they successfully re-colonized their original habitats on Livingston Island and elsewhere in the Antarctic Peninsula region.
Of the early 19th century sealers, American historian Stackpole wrote: While the indiscriminate slaughter of the seals in the South Shetlands was a sad feature of an otherwise thrilling story of maritime adventure, it is not the whole story. Despite their brutal trade, which made them realists in its fullest sense, the captains, officers and men were not all reckless, cynical and dissolute. True, they lived a hard life of necessity, but their fragmentary records reveal them as resourceful mariners, fully aware of their danger but willing to risk their lives in their hazardous calling (Stackpole 1955: 9).
The sealers were well aware that by exterminating yet another seal colony, instead of leaving it capable of reproduction and sustainable exploitation, they were sawing the branch they were sitting on. However, their community was incapable of self-regulation – everybody knew that any seals left would be killed by someone else. The several attempts to introduce governmental regulatory measures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came too late and had a negligible effect.
After the sealers, Livingston was no longer the same. The extermination of fur seals was the smallest change and was fortunately transient; their population has already recovered. What remained was the memory about people and events that ‘socialized’ the hitherto unknown island. Remnants of huts, boats and other sealer equipment and belongings are still found on Livingston, which after South Georgia has the greatest concentration of historical monuments in Antarctica. The early 19th century history of the island has already become the subject of systematic archaeological research at Cape Shirreff, and on Byers Peninsula and neighboring Rugged Island. Besides the material artefacts, the sealers left behind their charts, sailing directions, logbooks and memoirs, and symbolic marks including quite a few geographic discoveries and place names. Some of the place names honoured sealing captains and ships, shipowners and statesmen. Others like Devils Point, Hell Gates, Cape Danger and Neck or Nothing Passage were suggestive of perilous places where ships and men suffered hardship or worse. Still others evoked particular events, like Robbery Beaches where American sealers were attacked and their seal skins taken away by their British rivals.
The South Shetlands suffered another rush of unsustainable commercial exploitation during the 20th century – the Antarctic whaling industry pioneered by Norwegians and taken up by British, Japanese and Russians. Whaling was conducted both from land stations, with Grytviken on South Georgia becoming the world-leading centre of whaling, as the main whale stocks were found in the area bounded by South Georgia, Bouvet Island, Weddell Sea and the South Shetlands, and from factory ships (pelagic whaling). This time Livingston Island was not directly involved, although the southernmost Hector Whaling Station operated on the adjacent Deception Island from 1912 to 1931. As whale stocks dwindled, the last land stations were closed in the 1960s and pelagic whaling followed suit within a decade. The role of whaling as a mainstay of the Antarctic economy was assumed, in turn, by fishing and tourism.
Pioneers of the modern Antarctic fishing industry were the fishing fleets of the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany, active in the waters of South Georgia, South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula since 1969 (Kock 1992: 183). In particular, fishing ships of the Bulgarian company Ocean Fisheries – Burgas operated in those areas from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.
With the departure of the early sealers, Livingston Island remained largely deserted, seldom visited by expedition or whaling ships. A notable exception was the hydrographic survey of the island’s waters by the British research ship Discovery II under Captain Andrew Nelson in 1935.
During the campaign of building Antarctic bases and refuges carried out by Britain, Argentina and Chile in the 1940s and 1950s, the Argentine Navy set up the refuge La Argentina on Livingston Island in the early 1950s, possibly in 1953 (Claudio Parica, personal communication). It was situated in a cove just southwest of today’s Spanish base, now named Argentina Cove. In the 1980s, the small wooden hut was found by visiting Spaniards and Bulgarians to have been wrecked by the elements, with planks and beams scattered around. It was eventually removed some 20 years later.
In April 1953, Argentina established its base Cámara (62°35'41"S, 59°55'08"W) on the adjacent Half Moon Island. One of the early bases in the Antarctic Peninsula region, it was closed in the 1959/60 season, but has occasionally been used in summer since 1988 (Fundación Marambio 2015).
The first modern, ‘post-sealer’ habitation facility on Livingston Island proper was the British base camp Station P (62°38'57.5"S, 60°35'25"W) in Mateev Cove on the east side of Hannah Point, 11.5 km west of today’s Bulgarian base, occupied by a six-member team led by Hugh Simpson from 29 December 1957 until 15 March 1958. A hut intended for erection on the site failed to reach its destination, as the ship transporting it was damaged by the ice and parts of the hut were used in the ship’s repair. As a result, the plans for a more permanent British presence on the island failed to materialize.
A significant milestone in Livingston Island’s history was the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 and entered into force in 1961. It effectively placed the region south of 60° south latitude under the joint governance of the consultative parties to the treaty, providing in particular for the freedom of scientific exploration. The treaty left the personnel of the Antarctic bases under their respective home countries’ jurisdiction, and essentially froze the existing sovereignty claims. (Livingston, in particular, was claimed by Britain in 1820, with annexation proclaimed in 1908, by Chile in 1940, and by Argentina in 1942.) Since then, the evolving Antarctic Treaty system has provided an increasingly comprehensive legal framework for all Antarctic-related activities, including environmental protection and exploitation of marine living resources, and has proved an example of uniquely successful international cooperation.
The first permanent station on Livingston Island was the Spanish one Juan Carlos I (62°39'46"S, 60°23'20"W), built from 7 to 11 January 1988 by a scientific team comprising Antoni Ballester, Josefina Castellví, Juan Rovira, Mario Manriquez and Juan Comas, and a technical team including Jaime Ribes, Elías Meana, Félix Moreno and Roldán Sanz (Castellví 2007). Both the teams and their prefabricated base buildings were transported from Montevideo to Livingston by the Polish training and cargo ship Antoni Garnuszewski under Captain Andrzej Drapella. The base was rebuilt in 2009-12 with all its facilities replaced by state-of-the-art new ones; only the old laboratory building was preserved, shipped back to Europe, and incorporated into the Science Museum in Barcelona.
The Bulgarians came to Livingston Island just a few months after the Spaniards. In view of the Bulgarian fishing activities in Antarctica, and following the work of the Bulgarian scientists Tsoncho Chapanov and Vasil Zahariev at the Soviet base Mirny in 1967-69, it was decided to lay the foundations of a Bulgarian base in Antarctica during the first Bulgarian Antarctic expedition in the 1987/88 summer, organized on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of Sofia University. The first choice was Alexander Island, where a suitable location at Cape Vostok was chosen by the geologists Christo Pimpirev and Borislav Kamenov during their field work on the island in a joint Bulgarian-British party including also Philip Nell and Peter Marquis. Two prefabricated huts were to be brought to that site and installed by the other four members of the expedition travelling aboard the Soviet research ship Mikhail Somov commanded by Captain Feliks Pesyakov. However, having arrived in the vicinity of Alexander Island as late as April, with winter beginning and poor local weather, the Bulgarian huts and equipment could not be brought ashore by helicopters. Its scheduled departure from Antarctica upcoming, MikhailSomov headed north towards the South Shetlands. The two huts, a Bulgarian-made sandwich panel dwelling unit and a smaller Russian-made wooden storage unit, were eventually erected on Livingston Island by the Bulgarian team of Zlatil Vergilov, Asen Chakarov, Stefan Kaloyanov and Nikolay Mihnevski, with Russian support, from 26 to 28 April 1988 (Pimpirev and Davidov 2003: 47).
The huts, known for a time as ‘Sofia University Refuge’ or ‘Hemus Base,’ were renovated and commissioned as Antarctic base St. Kliment Ohridski (often shortened by non-Bulgarians to ‘Ohridski base’; 62°38'29"S, 60°21'53"W) in December 1993. Those two huts remained the base’s only facilities (with tents used if additional accommodation was necessary) until a new main building was completed in 1998. The base’s infrastructure has been systematically expanded with time to include a laboratory building, a new dwelling hut (Casa España) and other facilities.
The original 1988 dwelling hut, much appreciated for its coziness, later became popular under the somewhat peculiar name of ‘Lame Dog,’ after it was found bouncing in the wind with its support legs damaged during the winter. It is now the oldest building on the island, designated in October 2012 as Livingston Island Museum, a branch of the National Museum of History in Sofia. The base has a post office of its own, Antarctica 1090, maintained by Bulgarian Posts Plc since the 1994/95 season, with a second post office Antarctica Tangra 1091 operating on the island during the 2004/05 season at Camp Academia, the base camp of Tangra 2004/05 topographic survey. St. Kliment Ohridski Base hosts also the first Eastern Orthodox edifice in Antarctica, St. Ivan Rilski Chapel, consecrated in February 2003 and provided with new premises in the 20011/12 season.
In hindsight, the positioning of the Bulgarian base on Livingston instead of Alexander Island is a fair instance of the second choice turning out to be the better. Livingston is probably the most remarkable island in the Antarctic Treaty area and, along with South Georgia and Kerguelen, in the entire Antarctic region. St. Kliment Ohridski Base is situated in an area with good sea and air communications – some two days away by ship from South America, and 87 km from the Chilean airport on King George Island. On Livingston itself, one disadvantage of the base is its shallow sea approach, making the transfer of people and cargo somewhat difficult at low tides, even in moderate seas. (The island has semi-diurnal tides with a mean spring tide range of 1.38 m (Vidal et al. 2012).) On the other hand, the base’s location on Bulgarian Beach offers convenient overland routes leading to a variety of interior and coastal areas, facilitating field work. The nearby Spanish base is less than 3 km away by Zodiac boat or 5.5 km by an overland route, allowing for a most friendly scientific, logistic and social association between the two communities.
Both the Bulgarian and the Spanish base support research in various fields of Antarctic science including geology, biology, glaciology, meteorology, physics, human medicine, topography, geographic information, climate change, etc., often with scientists from other nations participating. In particular, the Bulgarian base has hosted the first steps in Antarctic research by scientists from countries like Portugal, Luxembourg, Republic of Macedonia, Mongolia and Turkey.
The third scientific base on Livingston Island was the Chilean–US facility Shirreff Base (62°28'12"S, 60°46'17"W), with its two parts named Guillermo Mann Base and Shirreff Field Station, and established in 1990/91 and 1996/97 respectively to support seal and bird research at Cape Shirreff. The small (2.6 km by 1.6 km, 3.1 km2) ice-free promontory forming the cape has been a protected territory since 1966, now the Antarctic Specially Protected Area No. 149 Cape Shirreff and San Telmo Island, enlarged to include also Gerlovo Beach to the southwest, San Telmo Island to the west, and the adjacent maritime area including Shirreff Cove. Access to that area is restricted to authorized permit holders only (CEP 2011).
All three bases are permanent settlements, although inhabited only during the summer season, with accommodation capacity for ca. 25, 18 and 11 persons respectively, which makes a total of 54 for the island – or 66 if Cámara Base was included. The number of people inhabiting the bases in any particular season is actually greater as some of them stay for part of the time and are replaced by others carrying out the same or different tasks.
All human activities on Livingston Island are carried out in compliance with the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998. In particular, most of the solid waste is shipped for dumping outside Antarctica, with incineration gradually phased out. As elsewhere in Antarctica, the island’s bases use electricity produced mostly by diesel generators, with an increasing share of wind and solar energy.
Field work in remote areas of the island is supported by seasonal field camps such as the Argentine Camp Livingston (62°39'22"S, 61°00'39"W) near Negro Hill in 1995/96 and subsequent seasons, and the Spanish Camp Byers (62°39'46"S, 61°06'00"W) near Nikopol Point in 2001/02 and subsequent seasons. Both are situated in the Antarctic Specially Protected Area No. 126 Byers Peninsula, designated in 1966 and subject to access restrictions (ATCM 2002). The Bulgarian Camp Academia (62°38'41.9"S, 60°10'18.3"W) in the northern foothills of Tangra Mountains operated in the 2004/05 season. The Bulgarian Sally Rocks Camp (62°42'07.6"S, 60°25'06.8"W) supported geological research on southern Hurd Peninsula in 2005/06 and subsequent seasons. Field work on Livingston Island has been noted as a timeline event in Antarctic exploration (Discovery 2012).
Such exploration does not come without danger. One and a half centuries after the San Telmo ship wreckage, Livingston Island became once again the scene of a disastrous accident. On 15 September 1976 an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune aircraft flew on a reconnaissance mission from Rio Gallegos to survey the sea ice conditions in Drake Passage at the beginning of the summer navigation season. The plane crashed in poor weather on the then uninhabited island, killing its military crew comprising Corvette captain Arnaldo Mutto (commander), Miguel Berraz, Carlos Migliardo, Claudio Cabut, Nelson Villagra, Juan Noto, Reimberto Brizuela, Omar Campastrini, Benjamín Scesa and Jesús Arroyo, and television cameraman Rodolfo Rivarola. While the crash site was reportedly detected on the north slopes of Mount Friesland, attempts to recover the bodies had to be abandoned in January 1977 following the loss of a Bell helicopter with its commander Lieutenant Mario García and crew members Alejandro Merani and Ricardo Segura (Gaceta Marinera 2011).
Livingston Island is one of the popular tourist destinations in the Antarctic, with the tourist sites of Half Moon Island and Hannah Point alone receiving over 20,000 visits annually (IAATO 2015). Tourists arrive mainly in cruise ships, and are landed by Zodiac boats to walk along designated trails led by tourist guides and enjoy picturesque scenery and wildlife. (Inflatable Zodiacs are the preferred means of local sea transport, being particularly suitable for navigation among floating ice and landing at places lacking port facilities. Naturally, this is only possible in summer as the sea surface is partially or completely frozen in ice over one meter thick in winter.) Visits by yachts and extreme tourism such as kayaking and backcountry skiing have become increasingly popular, too. In particular, the north slopes of Tangra Mountains east of Elena Peak attract backcountry skiers landed from ships visiting McFarlane Strait.
Mountaineering on the island is carried out mostly in the course of topographic field work. In the challenging Tangra Mountains, the summit Mount Friesland was first ascended by the Catalans Francesc Sàbat and Jorge Enrique in 1991 (and subsequently climbed also by an Australian-Chilean team in 2003, and by a Bulgarian team in 2004), Lyaskovets Peak (1473 m) by the Bulgarians Lyubomir Ivanov and Doychin Vasilev in 2004, and Great Needle Peak (1679 m) by the Bulgarians Doychin Boyanov, Nikolay Petkov and Aleksander Shopov in 2015. Several peaks in Vidin Heights, Gleaner Heights, Melnik Ridge and Pliska Ridge, and minor peaks of Tangra Mountains were first ascended during the Tangra 2004/05 topographic survey.
Along with the people involved in science, logistics and tourism, Livingston is visited also by writers, journalists, artists, sculptors and composers, as well as by statesmen from the countries present on the island. Both King Juan Carlos of Spain and President Georgi Parvanov of Bulgaria visited the island, in January 2004 and January 2005 respectively, reiterating their support for the Antarctic effort of the two countries.
Despite the impressive number of tourist visits, it is the personnel of the island’s scientific bases that have a several times greater presence onshore in terms of person-days, if calculated by the methodology used in (Jabour 2011: 177), and thus exert greater pressure on the environment. Both scientists and tourists are important vectors of introduction of invasive non-native species, which is a major cause of the loss of Antarctic biodiversity. Livingston Island is among the least affected areas, making it particularly important to apply strict biosecurity measures upon arrival, including control of cargo and people coming from nearby locations such as King George or Deception islands where a number of alien species have already become established.
The author is grateful to Christo Pimpirev, Jerónimo López Martínez, Peter Rejcek, Robert Headland, Claudio Parica and Peter Marquis for their valuable comments and suggestions.
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Citation: Ivanov, L. General Geography and History of Livingston Island. In: Bulgarian Antarctic Research: A Synthesis. Eds. C. Pimpirev and N. Chipev. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2015. pp. 17-28. ISBN 978-954-07-3939-7 __
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