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« Stop, sit down and look aroundGreen and lively South Georgia »

Whalers and explorers

Posted: 2015-09-17 22:58:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, South Georgia, 752 words (permalink)

The old whaler "Petrel" at Grytviken, South Georgia.
The old whaler "Petrel" at Grytviken, South Georgia.
South Georgia has not always been the kind of nature sanctuary we were visiting. It used to be seal hunting grounds at the end of the 18th and during the 19th century, and a hub of the whaling industry until 1960s. Especially from the whaling period there are many old buildings and other constructions. They are nowadays slowly disintegrating due to lack of maintenance, but will most likely remain for hundreds of years. Now under protection, seal populations have recovered well from near extinction. Whales have a much longer breeding cycle and are still a rare sight in South Georgian waters.

Sarah giving us a tour at the South Georgia Museum.
Sarah giving us a tour at the South Georgia Museum.
Due to the facilities which were manned all year round, South Georgia was also an important starting point for Antarctic exploration. Explorers would come in with their ships and get supplies for the last time before sailing south towards the unknown. The most famous of them was Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose heritage is kept alive on the island by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. The Trust also maintains a whaling museum and runs various projects in order to preserve the historical sites and to protect the wildlife on the island.

Raising a toast on Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave.
Raising a toast on Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave.
We started our Museum visit by landing next to the graveyard in Grytviken bay, where Shackleton and his fellow explorer Frank Wild are buried amongst the whalers who lived and worked on the site. According to traditions, the ship barkeeper Andy held a short speech and we all raised a toast of whisky at Shackleton's grave. Then we continued towards the whaling station remains and the museum building, guided by Sarah, the museum director.

Whaling station machinery in open air.
Whaling station machinery in open air.
Due to removal of asbestos and other security concerns, most of the whaling station buildings have been dismantled, leaving the huge kettles, engines and other parts of the processing lines exposed to the elements of the nature. Although nowadays standing still, the slowly rusting pieces of heavy machinery and the old whaling ship wrecks at the shore are a powerful reminder of a bloody chapter in the history of the island.

Replica of the James Caird, Shackleton's vessel on his famous journey from Antarctica to South Georgia.
Replica of the James Caird.
Inside the museum the atmosphere was warmer, presenting the more human side of the story. There we could see how the whalers lived, as well as to learn more about explorers connected to South Georgia and about the nature of the island. One particularly fascinating exhibit was the replica of James Caird, the lifeboat with which Shackleton sailed 800 nautical miles over stormy seas to South Georgia in order to rescue himself and his men almost a hundred years ago. Having just sailed the same route on a much larger ship helped to imagine how it had been in a small boat, in rougher weather and almost without supplies.

Seals return to where they and whales have been slaughtered before.
Seals return to where they and whales have been slaughtered before.
After a too short visit in the museum, quickly popping in the souvenir shop and mailing some post cards at the post office, we returned to Bark Europa for an evening barbecue. Also the museum staff, scientists and South Georgia government employees working at Grytviken were invited, giving us a chance to chat with them and get to know how they live on the island. As on Antarctica, almost all are there only for the summer season, only a few remain through the winter.

Helen practising the use of a sextant.
Helen practising the use of a sextant.
Not only South Georgia, but the whole experience of travelling on the Bark Europa is partly a pilgrimage following the footsteps of early explorers. Their travels and discoveries are remembered, and the ship route include visits on sites of historical importance. On this trip, we visited several sites where the Nordenskjöld expedition had been during 1902-1904 and walked a part of Shackleton's famous crossing of South Georgia in 1916. During the lectures, we also heard about earlier sailing expeditions to find routes across the oceans and around the world since the middle ages, about Nansen's polar explorations and about Amundsen's and Scott's race to the South Pole.

Nowadays satellite imagery, the global positioning system (GPS) and other technologies have completely changed the way we travel and look at the world. Bark Europa is equipped with modern navigation devices too, but we also get a chance to learn how to figure out our position using dead reckoning and the sextant, how to measure the speed of the ship using traditional methods and how to navigate using the stars.

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