Stromness & Grytviken

Nov 3

Today we return to civilization, South Georgia Style. We awoke in Fortuna Bay, where Earnest Shackleton found himself after he and two others had walked across the mountains and glaciers from King Haakon bay (see earlier blog for how he got there). They were trying to reach the whaling station at Stromness, but they were one bay shy being there. They heard the distant sound of the morning horn calling the men to work and headed off towards it for the last 4-5 miles of his trip. The plan was for us to hike these last miles, but we awoke to heavy fog which forced a cancellation of the hike. (Phyllis & I completed the walk in our trip here in 2001).

So, we took the ship around to Stromness, got off, and visited the area. When Shackleton arrived here, no one recognized him – they were amazed that he had survived his ordeal. Shackleton, known as “The Boss”, then set sail to recover his crew from Elephant Island, but was turned away by ice. Two trip’s and several months later, he finally got to Elephant Island on a Chilean (ocean-going) tugboat and rescued the rest of the crew.

Today, the whaling station is rusting away. There are signs prohibiting visitors from coming closer than 200 m from the buildings for fear of buildings falling down and flying debris (the wind can be hurricane-force here). We visited with the fur seals on the beach and then got to witness the birth of an elephant seal pup — quite a morning!

In November, the elephant seals leave the beaches and head out to sea where they will stay until next Sept. They are replaced by fur seals, who behave pretty much as the elephant seals: the males arrive first to claim beach-front real estate and fight it out for possession, then the females arrive to join a harem, give birth, and mate. Fur seals are much smaller than elephant seals, but have fierce canine teeth — better to bite you with. The males don’t like people on their lawn, and will chase us off as well. The male fur seals are just starting to arrive. By Dec 1 it will be very difficult for people to get on the beaches without being attacked.

After our visit to Stromness, we got back on the ship, which the Captain conveniently parked on the beach, and rode around to Grytviken, the main whaling station on South Georgia. On the way we followed a group of Orcas for a while.

Whalers and Sealers have been coming to South Georgia since the 1600’s, James Cook wrote about the island when he was exploring, saying that it was covered with Sea Bears (fur seals). The Norwegians established the whaling stations in 1904 and they continued to operate until 1965. Whales, elephant seals, fur seals, and penguins were all hunted for their blubber, meat, and skins. Fur seals were prized for their fur, elephant seals were taken for their blubber, and penguins were eaten by sailers and their fat was used. Just about everything was used on the whales. Blubber is steamed to release the oil which can be burned as fuel, used in lamps, and used as an industrial lubricant. Some whale meat was eaten, but the majority was turned into meal to feed to animals, or mixed with whale bone meal as fertilizer.
As with the whales, the fur seals were just about hunted to
extinction, and the number of elephant seals reduced as well. Populations have risen considerably in recent decades, but most of the Southern Ocean whale species are still way under their numbers of a century ago.

Antarctic explorers, cargo ships, and passenger ships all made stops at the Norwegian whaling stations for repairs, to drop off mail, or to obtain needed supplies. Shackleton stopped here on his way to Antarctica in 1914, sailed back here in his lifeboat in 1916, and returned again in 1921 on his last expedition. The second day he was here in 1921 he died of a heart-attack, and is buried in the Grytviken cemetery. Our first stop after landing was his grave, where we toasted “The Boss” with a shot of rum.

Today, Grytviken is rusting away, with the exception of a nice museum and a church which are still in use. There is a research station nearby at King Edward Point, where the island’s permanent population lives. They are visited by about 50 expedition ships (like ours) a year.

The permanent population of South Georgia is 11, but it rises to 25 or so in the heat of the summer! There are a couple of government representatives, maintenance people, museum people, a post-mistress, and scientific researchers. Their main sources of income are selling fishing licenses and the cruise ships.

The post-mistress sat at our table at dinner. She has been living on South Georgia Island for 18 years, and loves it! It takes a special kind of person to live in a place so isolated — but they always have beautiful scenery, great hiking, and lots of animals to see. They get one big load of food a year (it had just come in), and then get occasional provisions from the Falklands or cruise ships — fresh vegetables & fruits are a rare treat! They work 8 months on island, then get 4 months off.

The main duty of the local government is to manage the fisheries. Patagonian Toothfish (aka Chilean Sea Bass) is the main catch, but krill and ice fish are also caught. Through careful study and management, they have reduced the deaths of albatross from over 10,000 per year to 3! Long-line fishing is the method used to catch fish, but by controlling the time of the year the fishing season is open, the time of day the lines are allowed to go out, ensuring sufficient weight is put on the lines so they will sink fast, etc., they have learned how to limit bird deaths. They have received the top rating for sustainable, environmentally friendly fisheries management in the world. So, you can eat Chilean Sea Bass without a guilty conscious if you ensure that it comes from South Georgia.

They are making so much money from the fishing licenses and cruise ships that the total expenditure by the British Government for South Georgia is 500,000 pounds.

Another big project on the island is rat eradication. Rats were introduced by ships over the years, and have had a major impact on bird nesting sites in many areas of the island. They will start this year with a major, multi-year effort to rid the island completely of rats. The cost is over 6,000,000 pounds of which they have raised 1.5 million pounds through donations.


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