Hiding from the storm: Grytviken, South Georgia Island

The  oceans around South Georgia were once full of whales and the island had at one point held the dubious honor of being the place where more whales were killed each year than anywhere else. There were five prosperous whaling stations here for many years. The last one closed in 1969, but they live on in various stages of disrepair – neglected and for the most part deserted, but still clinging to the mountains that tumble directly into the frigid ocean.

The Captain’s plan for Boxing Day is to hide out from the storm in the protected inlet at Grytviken, an old whaling station that is being restored and turned into a museum and tourist attraction for the few hardy souls who venture this way. This is being done by the South Georgia Heritage Trust who are funding the project with the help of the British government.

Grytviken is also home to Shackelton’s grave. We are excited. Gordon really wants to see Shackleton’s grave and the whaling station should be interesting. And if the Captain says this will keep us safe from the storm then it must be a good idea. The captain should know what he is doing……………..shouldn’t he?

The small inlet of Grytviken certainly looks calm enough as we arrive

But the weather has changed dramatically from yesterday. The clouds are grey, sleet is falling and there is a freezingly cold wind whipping down from the mountains.  It is a bitterly cold journey in the zodiac to the little pebble beach that is about half a mile from the old whaling station

Above the beach is the local graveyard and there, with the biggest headstone by far (competition is limited as there are only two other grand headstones),  is Shackleton’s grave

It is a desolate place to be buried, but I am not sure that matters to the people resting here

There is a pebble path from the graveyard to the whaling station. It is guarded by a huge male fur seal who fortunately seems unperturbed by our arrival

But his young pup is far more aggressive and charges us with teeth bared. He is only tiny, but quite frightening (a seal’s bite is toxic and should you be bitten you must get medical treatment immediately). Gordon, despite his advancing years, manages a convincing imitation of a Beyonce fan but the seal-ette is unimpressed. It takes quite some time for us to negotiate safe passage.

Meanwhile two well fed mama seals take no notice whatsoever as they take a nap. They look like Mama Cass’s love children. They have more than enough blubber to keep them warm but they cuddle up delightfully for a little extra comfort.

Some king penguins are dozing in a nearby stream to keep cool, although why they need to keep cool is anybody’s guess as the wind speed has increased noticeably in the short time we have been here and the sleet is now whipping in at 45 degrees

The whaling station itself is at the most sheltered part of the inlet. Several of the whaling ships have just been left to rot and an antarctic tern searches for fish nearby

These ships have sat here unattended since 1969 when the station finally closed down for good. There were no more whales to be found. When the whaling station first opened, this tiny inlet was home to hundreds of whales and the whalers didn’t even have to sail out into the open waters. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The population was completely wiped out in a very short time. So now the whalers had to work for their money. They sailed out into the oceans searching for more whales to kill. There were plenty.

They became more and more proficient at killing the whales. As they traveled further afield it became inefficient to return to Gritviken every time they killed a whale. They invented a system of running ropes through holes in the bow of the ship. In this way they could trawl up to 14 dead whales behind the ship.  In this photo you can see the holes in the bow made for this purpose .

Grytviken was the most prosperous of the five stations and according to the records kept by the whaling company they killed over 170,000 whales

Once back at the station the whales were winched onto the beach. From they they were drawn up giant metal slopes onto the butchering platform and cut up into manageable chunks.

They became so fast at butchering the whales that one whale could be cut up in 14 minutes. From there everything went into the huge boiling tanks

where it was boiled down into whale oil  and then stored in enormous vats that now resemble a piece of Richard Serra’s sculpture.

Behind the vats you can see the building where some of the whalers slept. This building was one of two but was the only one with inside toilets. Only the best workers were assigned beds here. The other building, now gone, had no toilets. If your work wasn’t good, neither were your sleeping quarters. If these whalers were caught short in the night they had to put on all their layers of clothing and boots and trudge through the snow to the communal toilets where they had to take all the clothing off again to do what they came to do. So waking up desperate in the middle of the night was not an option.

You would think the whalers would realise that it would be better not to drink before going to bed, but life was so hard here, they needed to drink. Alcohol was banned by the company as they wanted their workers to be sober. But alcohol was the only thing that got the whalers through the endless long hard freezing days, so they found alcohol whereever they could.

Many had small stills hidden away in their rooms where they produced alcohol from potato peelings which they scrounged from the kitchens. Those that did not have a still had to resort to even more desperate means, one of which was drinking perfume. There was a small shop that sold basic necessities to the whalers and even though perfume was the biggest selling item by far, it took the company years to realise why that was. When the perfume was all gone, they resorted to boiling down boot polish. Neither was a very healthy thing to drink, but at least they smelled good and had nice shiny brown skin!

There were  communal showers, but most whalers never used them as stripping off in the freezing temperatures was not anything anyone wanted to do. They must have smelled like a sewer, except those hooked on perfume who smelled more like a brothel.

All of this is recorded by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. They have also created a wonderfully interesting museum in what was the house of the manager of the whaling station and restored some of the little cottages to their former glory making it look almost like an appealing place to live.

We did mail some postcards while we were there and were assured they would reach their destination within two months!

One of the Trust’s earliest projects was to restore the church which is the southern most church in the world. As we make our way towards it the sun comes out for a brief moment and snow begins to fall

Inside is charming especially with the Christmas decorations. But we become very aware of how the weather is changing. The wooden church is groaning and creaking and actually appears to be rocking in the wind.

Outside the place suddenly seems deserted. The sky has darkened. The sleet is no longer falling, it is hammering into us horizontally. Our eyes and cheeks sting.

Even the antarctic tern has decide to hunker down out of the wind

Where has everyone gone? We start to worry about getting back to the boat. The captain had said we would be sheltered from the storm here in Grytviken.

He can’t be wrong ……….can he?


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