Besides being infused with such abundant wildlife, South Georgia also has an incredible historical significance. The island is central to the most remarkable survival story ever told; that of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s journey there in 1916.
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Our first stop at South Georgia’s capital “city” of Grytviken (pop. 7 in summer) was to visit the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. We were greeted by elephant seals and fur seals as we landed on the rocky beach. You couldn’t have asked for a better weather day, as it was sunny and the winds were calm.
We dodged a few fur seals guarding their beach territories and made our way to the cemetery at Grytviken. There we each had a shot of Shackleton Scotch whiskey to toast the great Antarctic explorer at the site where his body lay.
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Sir Ernest Shackleton had South Georgia on his mind in April of 1916. And it wasn’t because he wanted to view the abundant wildlife of the “Serengeti of the Sea”. He came there to find help to rescue sailors stranded back on the frozen continent of Antarctica. Indirectly, the marine life played a role in his salvation. Without them, no men who wanted to harvest them for a resource would be on that remote outpost of an island. But because of whaling and sealing over 100 years ago, the few men that lived there represented the only human help available for hundreds of miles. Shackleton’s epic 17 day journey from Antarctica in a row boat across the most forbidding seas on the planet would have been an epic journey in itself. Just navigating the 800 miles to that tiny island from Antarctica was quite a feat. They were only able to take three sightings of stars during the whole voyage, due to cloudy skies or heavy seas. Had they been off by just a degree on the compass, they would have missed the island and would have had to travel over 2000 more miles to reach land at the southern tip of Africa. However, some of the most perilous parts of the journey still lay ahead. They landed on the southern part of the island in a storm and had to cross high, snow capped mountains to reach the whaling stations on the other side of the island. This had never been attempted before.
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Grytviken is the site of a former whaling station. A total of over 175,000 whales have been processed through the whaling stations of South Georgia from the industry’s inception in 1904 until its closure in 1965. Prior to the start of the whaling industry, Grytviken was the site of fur seal harvesting. Nowadays, fur seals and elephant seals have reclaimed the grounds as their own.
Almost fifty years after their closing, the whaling stations are disintegrating and are in various states of collapse. For this reason, most of them are off limits to travelers due to unsafe conditions. Grytviken is the exception, as the government invested more than 6 million British pounds to clean up the area by removing asbestos, fuel oil and other hazardous materials. The government also maintains buildings such as the church, the museum and a few other buildings for historical preservation.
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When Shackleton landed on the southern side of the island in May of 1916, he and the four other men who accompanied him on the James Caird (a rowboat) rested for a few days under the upturned boat before they began to cross the island. Grytviken was not their first destination of choice. There was another whaling station at Stromness, which was closer. The interior of South Georgia Island had never been surveyed, and they had to guess their route. To cross the glaciers they hammered nails into their boots to act as crampons. On their way over the island, they heard a factory whistle, the first sounds of civilization they had heard in 18 months. As they entered Stromness, workers at the whaling station were astonished to see something they had never witnessed before; men coming toward them from the direction of the mountains. They ended up making the crossing of the island on foot in only 36 hours, a feat that has not been equaled in modern times by contemporary explorers with modern equipment.
They were now ready to outfit a rescue mission. After a few unsuccessful attempts to reach the men stranded on Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, Shackleton reached the men on the third attempt via the Chilean ship “Yelcho”. Miraculously, all of them had survived the Antarctic winter and all were rescued on 30 August of 1916. They had survived by eating seal meat, penguins and their dogs. The story remains today as one of the most remarkable stories of human endurance and survival ever told.
His original ship, the Endurance, which was crushed by ice and sank in 1915 was recently discovered on March 9, 2022 at the bottom of the Weddell Sea.
For further reading, I would recommend the following books
South:Shackleton’s Last Expedition, Sea Wolf Press, ISBN 10-1952433541
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, by Sara Wheeler. Modern Library, ISBN 10-9780375753381
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After a most wonderful day exploring the Environs around Grytviken, we boarded the zodiacs at the beach and went back to Plancius where the ship’s crew had prepared a barbecue on deck for us. They even made batches of spiced wine to go with our meal. What a great way to top off a memorable day. One more day of exploring another location on South Georgia and we will finally be on our way to Antarctica!
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