30 April, 2008 King Edward Point
South Georgia is well known nowadays for its wildlife but it once supported a massive and destructive whaling industry and in it’s heyday, 1925-26, nearly 8000 whales were processed, with a total of 175 250 being taken at South Georgia between 1904 and 1965. The industry also provided employment for many Scots and hence many Islanders and there are several excellent narrative accounts of whaling adventures and experiences. The Island was first landed and explored by Captain Cook in 1775 and it was his description of the abundance of elephant and fur seals that brought the first sealers to SG in 1786. Whaling started on the Island in 1904 under the management of Captain C.A. Larsen who’s voyages to the Island in 1894 and 1902 confirmed the vast number of whales also described by Captain Cook as a viable commercial enterprise.
The only station that the public now has access to is Grytviken, in King Edward Cove, 15 minutes round the bay from the BAS base. Grytviken was the first whaling station in the Antarctic and was eventually closed in 1964. The Government of South Georgia cleaned it up at great expense in 2003, it had been previously subject to a 200m exclusion zone due to the high amount of asbestos used in its construction, many of the buildings were too dilapidated to be saved, and due to safety and budgetary concerns were pulled down. A lot of the heavy machinery, blubber and bone cookers, mills and grinders even the bakery and cook house are exposed to the elements now and slowly decaying but visible to all who visit. There is a wonderfully informative whaling and wildlife museum in Grytviken, manned in the summer by employees of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, telling the story of an industry and the men who ran it. There are also three large stations close by, and in our occasion travel range, Husvik, Stromness and Leith. These are all subject to a 200m exclusion zone due as with Grytviken,to the risk from asbestos that was used in their construction. BAS are permitted to take the jet boats on an offshore Government inspection tour of these stations once or twice a year and although I didn’t go last year the Master of the Fishery Protection Vessel was kind enough to go into the Bay and close enough to Leith Harbour so I could see it for myself on the return from Prion Island, when I told him my Father had worked there. Leith was the largest of all the SG stations and is still a very impressive sight although several buildings are now falling down and there is a lot of debris scattered around, it remained active until 1965, and was the last station to close.
The two most memorable camping trips I’ve been on have been to old whaling stations on the Barff Peninsula, they were also in the most picturesque and atmospheric settings I’ve seen in my time here. Godthul, the site of an floating factory between 1908 and 1929 is set in an enclosed, sheltered cove with steep sides and vast Gentoo Penguin colonies. It is reached round the Bay via a steep tussock slope upon which the introduced reindeer have carved a very manageable path. The beach is covered in bleached whale bones, the thickest concentration I’ve seen, a throw back to the times when only the blubber was stripped from the whale, leaving the carcass to rot onshore, this was changed during the early days and the whole carcass was then used for oil extraction. These bones came back to the forefront recently when a group of visiting Norwegian scientists studying glacial retreat sampled them in order to help fix a datum for carbon dating the oceans as they came from such a specific time period. The remains of three small boats still lie hauled up on the foreshore, making an excellent hiding place for disgruntled fur seals to ambush from. There is also a huge pile of slowly decaying oak barrels, many of which are still intact. A large tank and a collapsed building complete the remains of Godthul. It has a spectacular amount of wildlife on the beach, Gentoos trekking uphill to their colonies, King Penguins moulting in the stream where the water runs over their feet and keeps them cool until their new feathers are ready to be tried out. Many, many fur seals, thousands infact…the rule being to count the blonde pups, as there is approximately 1 blonde in every 700 seals, and when we were there a good number of moulting elephant seals, wallowing in mud all around the barrels. It’s quite perverse to see the decaying ruins of a whaling station overrun by that amount of wildlife, but extremely gratifying also.
Ocean Harbour was another station on the Barff Peninsula, abandoned early in it’s life, it’s plant and equipment being moved to Stromness in Cumberland West Bay due to company amalgamation. The trip to Ocean Harbour was the first I’ve taken since the snow has really set in. We decided to snowshoe to Ocean as the snow was too soft and wet for skiing, as a novice skier I was happy to comply as the thought of hurtling into Ocean Harbour with a heavy pack on was giving me sleepless nights! Although crossing the Barff Peninsula is a mere 6km, the vertical rise, scrambling, deep gulleys, streams and snow drifts, not to mention the heavy pack make this a much longer journey than a flat 6km. It took us three hours to cross into Ocean Harbour, plodding through deep soft snow in snow shoes, luckily far, far advanced from the old ‘tennis racquet’ style shoes that I’d imagined I’d be using. Low level cloud also meant we had to scale a ridge that took us on a more circuitous route as we were unsure what the avalanche risk would be at the end of the valley….
I was paying extra attention to this as The only recorded death by avalanche was the Magistrate, William Barlas in 1941, he was ‘knocked into the sea’ on the track between Grytviken and KEP and died as a result. Having seen how quickly the slopes avalanche around the track it’s no surprise that we’re required to carry avalanche transceivers, avalanche probes and snow shovels incase of burial. We had a session on avalanche recognition and signs at the last base meeting followed by a practical on searching using a transceiver, all this equipment is necessary and lifesaving but the extra burden does nothing for your morale when sinking knee deep in soft snow with a heavy pack!
As we neared the col that took us down into the Harbour we broke out of the cloud and were rewarded with sunshine and a spectacular view down to the sea. The most noticeable thing being the wreck of the Bayard, still seeming very much intact. She was alongside the coaling pier one stormy evening in 1911 and was blown off her moorings to the opposite side of the harbour whee she was holed, couldn’t be refloated and has remained there ever since. She is still a very impressive ship and is now home to a colony of shags. Distance and perspective seem to play tricks with the eye in South Georgia, bluffs that seem far away are closer and lower than you think, The sight of Harbours that give weary legs that added boost seem much closer than expected as we found. We finally arrived though and dumped our packs in the old bath-house, our refuge for the night, and went to explore the shore. There was a small gauge (0-4-0) railway in Ocean harbour in its heyday, and the steam locomotive is still there. I’d been really keen to see it as it looked very impressive in the pictures I’d seen, in real life i was struck by how tiny it was, tiny, but nevertheless impressive! We set a small fire as it was beautiful, starry, still night and enjoyed the peace until it got too cold to sit outside at which time we retreated for hot chocolate. That night in the small bath-house in Ocean Harbour was one of the eeriest and coldest nights I’ve spent in SG, we were all wrapped up in thermals, down sleeping bags, bivvy bags, with hats, gloves and socks on but it was still cold enough to wake you up if you moved and let any cold air in. I was also trying to dry out my socks in my sleeping bag from the trip over, not having brought an extra spare pair, which didn’t make for a very comfortable night’s sleep…and we all agreed that camping makes your dreams surreal and totally abstract! The sunrise the following morning was spectacular and had us all heading to the beach, tea in one hand, camera in the other, I haven’t seen anything like it before, and the wreck of the Bavyard and the remnants of the whaling station added to the atmosphere immensely.
South Georgia’s whaling industry, although accounting for less than 10% of whales taken in Antarctic waters still took an immeasurable toll on the whale population in the Southern Oceans and the remains of the stations are an enduring testimony to this, they also provide a key to the lives of the men that worked in the industry. Having seen pictures of Grytviken when it was a working station, and heard testimonies of old whalers, whalers sons and historians, the existence of the stations, their purpose and the lives of the people that ran them is still extremely hard to put into any kind of perspective, the smells and sounds must have been indescribable, as well as working in Antarctic conditions far from home with very little contact, sometimes over the winter. It makes me realise how lucky we are at BAS to be conducting viable research, helping safeguard a sustainable fishery and to be as protected and connected as we are on our modern base.
KEP Base Commander