In the whaling museum here the most fascinating thing to me – after the touch-me-feel-me penguin skin – are the trophies and sports uniforms worn by the different South Georgia whaling station teams which competed against each other in rugby, track and field, ski jumping and more during the heyday of whale killing here.
Grytviken was South Georgia’s first whaling station/factory, set up by Norwegian explorer C.A. Larsen in 1904. Initially only blubber was taken and the carcass discarded resulting in beaches of bones along the coastline which I can still see lying in the shallows off what remains of its main dock. By 1912, seven whaling stations had been established and South Georgia became known as the southern capital of whaling.
That heyday was during the early 1900s, when a variety of whales (blue, fin, sei, humpback and southern right whales) were abundant in South Georgia’s waters during the austral summers, feeding on the massive quantities of krill found on the edge of the island’s continental shelf.
By the late 1920s such shore-based whaling factories on the island declined due the scarcity of whales around the island, followed by a boom in whaling on the high seas. The stations on South Georgia then became home base for repair, maintenance and storage. It was the uncontrolled whaling on the high seas followed – up to two hundred miles off shore – and led to significant reductions in populations of exploited whale species.
Whales were harpooned with an explosive grenade, inflated with air and marked with a flag, radar reflectors, and latterly radios. A catcher would then tow them to a factory ship or shore station. The whale was hauled to the flensing plan. The blubber was removed and boiled under pressure to extract the oil. Meat and bone were separated and boiled. The results were dried and ground down for stock food and fertilizer. Baleen whale oil was the basis of edible, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical products. It was also an important source of glycerol to manufacture explosives.
Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region a low estimate suggests one and a half million animals were taken between 1904 and 1978. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was processed here at Grytviken in 1912, more than one hundred feet long, weighing in at nearly two hundred tons. This intensive hunting reduced the Southern Ocean stock, once the largest in the world, to less than ten percent of their original numbers and some species to less than one percent.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the International Whaling Convention agreed to protect the few remaining species in the Southern Ocean, and whaling here was mostly stopped in 1978. Paul Watson and his Sea Shepard – now Animal Planet heroes apparently, though that has happened this season while I’ve been in Antarctica – are still attempting to dissuade the Japanese from their annual hunt. Today. On occasion, you can spy whales close to shore at South Georgia, as they make a slow recovery, in particular southern right whales and humpbacks.
THE BOSS IS BURIED HERE
On top of the sense of history left at this beach by its whaling history, Grytviken is famous in Southern Ocean lore too for being the burial site of Ernest Henry Shackleton.
In 1921 – six years after successfully rescuing his men off Elephant Island, thanks to the help of the Chilean naval vessel “Yelcho” – he sailed south for what was to be his third Antarctic expedition. Its vague intention was to survey the coastline and carry out somewhat ill-defined science. You get the sense he was just itching to get back down south.
This time out his sailing ship, “The Quest” barely made it to Grytviken and in the early hours of January 5, 1922, he suffered a fatal heart attack here. His body was on its way back to England when the ship carrying him home stopped off in Uruguay and learned that his widow wished her husband be buried on South Georgia. His grave is still the focus of the Whaler’s Cemetery at the end of the beach.
It is tradition to toast “the Boss” – no, not the bard of New Jersey! – with a shot of rum poured onto his grave, which I happily did. Unlike the rest of those buried in the small, white picket-lined cemetery, Shackelton is interned with his head pointing south, towards Antarctica.