Two days’ sailing from the Falklands we pass Shag Rocks with their resident shags before tracking along the north-eastern coastline of South Georgia. Our first stop is Right Whale Bay and our first taste of the immense numbers of king penguins and elephant seals on the beach. Another stop at Rosita Harbour and Salisbury Plain, then the wonderful Prion Island with its nesting sites of wandering albatross and giant petrels on the highest points. A zodiac cruise around Prion Island reveals the myriad of life around its rocky edges. Slithering strands of giant kelp, its movements orchestrated by the ocean’s swells, seem to have a life of its own.
A leopard seal makes good use of the thick forests by sliding beneath them and emerging right beside our boat, its grinning face more curious than threatening. Nearby, another lies slumbering on a rock platform, no doubt dreaming of a recent feast, while a sea lion pulls itself out onto lichen-yellow rocks, casting a backyard glance at our strange red-coated procession.
The former whaling stations along this coastline once assaulted the senses with the noise and smell of industrial-scale whaling. By 1912-13 there were six stations operating here. In that single season nearly 11,000 whales were slaughtered in the waters off this remote subantarctic island. By the 1920s steam-powered factory ships equipped with exploding harpoons were decimating the whale populations of the Southern Ocean. Even the giant blue whale, the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth, was no match for the rapacious whaling industry, their numbers reduced from a global population of 300,000 to just 6,000 individuals. If the statistics were alarming, the technique for slaughtering these gentle giants was barbaric. As the British naturalist FD Ommanney observed during the Discovery Investigations in the 1930s:
There is difficulty of imagining that this grotesque creature,
plunging and wallowing at the end of the line, is a beast as
sentient as a horse and, in its own way, as noble. Its habit of life
in its unfamiliar element makes it impersonal and mysterious.
What an outcry there would have been long ago, as Sir Alister
Hardy has remarked, if herds of great land mammals, say
elephant or buffalo, were chased in armored vehicles firing
explosive grenades from cannon, and then hauled close at the
end of a line and bombarded again until dead.
The southern whaling industry brought many ships and men to these parts. The Norwegian explorer Carl Anton Larsen became the undisputed ‘king of modern whaling’ here, establishing the Grytviken whaling station in 1904. By 1912 the settlement accommodated 500 families and boasted a ‘fully-fledged Empire Post Office’ and a Lutheran chapel. The chapel is still there, together with the rusting hulls of whale catchers and the paraphernalia of shore-based whaling – chains, flensing platforms, and massive tanks that were used to store the precious whale oil after the animal had been dissected and boiled.
Shackleton slept here
If visitors can put aside the grim history of whaling on South Georgia, they can find some solace in the fact that the whalers at Stromness played a key role in saving the lives of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his two companions and, in turn, the two injured men left stranded on the southern side of the island and, ultimately, the 22 men left stranded on Elephant Island some 800 km to the south. The Shackleton story resonates powerfully here, not least because Shackleton himself lies buried in the Grytviken cemetery, and his name appears in the visitors’ register of the above-mentioned chapel. Some on my expedition disembark in Fortuna Bay and hike over the ridge into Stromness, walking in the footsteps of Shackleton. At Grytviken, we pay our respects to ‘the boss’ in the tiny cemetery overlooking the bay where thousands of whales met their own gory death. We are about to retrace the route (in reverse of course) of the tiny lifeboat, the James Caird from South Georgia to Elephant Island.
Penguins and more penguins
We set sail from Grytviken, tracking south-east along South Georgia’s coastline to St Andrews, and the largest king penguin colony in the world! We are lucky – the weather is closing in, but we manage to spend the morning amongst a bevvy of elephant seals, fur seals and some 400,000 king penguins – all in mating mode!
It is hard to leave this wondrous place (though perhaps less wondrous in mid-winter) but we push on for Gold Harbour, so-called because of the way the sun’s rays paint the cliffs golden in the morning light. Alas, the Furious Fifties are doing their thing by then, and we abort our final landing on South Georgia. As our vessel tracks around the southernmost end of the island, Cape Disappointment comes into view. We are far from disappointed, however, as the force 10 gale combined with the setting sun create a palette of colours that bring most of us all up on deck – storm or no storm!