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South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands: Grytviken

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Grytviken | South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands | Antarctica

[Visited: December 2011]

From Stromness, we continued sailing along the east coast of South Georgia. Much of the time, we were on the lookout on deck, as we were spotting always more icebergs. Moreover, a small group of humpback whales drew most of us outside; the spray blown into the sky by the enormous mammals remained an exciting sight. We entered Cumberland Bay and then King Edward Cove; it was only after a last turn that we could finally see Grytviken, securely tucked away in a deep bay. A small white cross on a bluff greets the visitor and was erected to honour Sir Ernest Shackleton. At the end of the cove, the contours of the old whaling station appeared before our eyes. In line with the historic significance of the day, we directly headed to the small cemetery where we held a short ceremony in memory of Shackleton at his grave. Where the other tombs were facing west, Sir Ernest's head is pointing south - after all, that was the direction in which he always traveled. One of us had even taken along the very same whisky Shackleton had had to abandon on the Endurance; a toast was given to the great explorer. Coincidentally, Frank Wild, Shackleton's right hand, had just been buried here a few days before, and we naturally also included him in the toast.

Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Grytviken, the capital of South Georgia, is but a small settlement with historic significance

There was more to Grtyviken than the cemetery though, and our group soon dispersed in exploration of the site. I had not expected to see so much wildlife: mostly elephant seals and weaners, but also the odd king penguin could be spotted walking around the ruins of the whaling station. Once I started exploring the old buildings of the whaling station, I was hooked, and decided to skip the kayaking of the afternoon which we were supposed to do in the same bay. Window shutters were being moved by the wind, banging against the window frames. Rusty old containers were slowly being eaten by the tooth of time. The Petrel, an old whaling boat, was lying on shore, also waiting for time to finish it off. The atmosphere of the place was eerie, desolate, and yet immensely attractive to me. Gone were the days in which huge whales were hauled in here, cut to pieces, and processed in the plants that had fallen to decay decades ago. It took an effort to imagine the brutal work of the whalers; at the same time, it was easy to see that that work was well organized. So well, in fact, that the whales were on the brink of extinction in the 1960s, leading to the closure of the whaling stations; at some point, South Georgia was the number one whale processing place of the world. Silent witnesses to the history of the place were the pieces of whale bone lying everywhere, some stained with rusty colours, others just in a very slow process of decay.

Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Petrel whaling ship wrecked on the shore at Grytviken

The shades of brown, the shapes of the chains, containers, broken metres: they proved to be a photographer's dream. I wrestled myself away from the rusty stuff, and walked to the small Lutheran church, where in 1922 the service was held following Shackleton's death. It is said to have not changed at all ever since. A little higher up, I could still see the remains of the ski jump that was heavily used by the Norwegians. It seemed hard to live here; half of the year there is little daylight, the climate is - to put it mildly - unfriendly, and Grytviken is a long way away from anywhere; but that is of course also what makes it so attractive. Talking to a Scottish girl working in the small, and interesting museum, I found to my surprise that she loved living here, and was already hoping to come back another season. The shipwrecks were calling me, and I continued rumbling around the old rusty hulls, some with anchorless chains hanging from the anchor holes. Next to one of the old ships, a one-day old weaner was sure to get a lot of attention from everyone. I could have stayed for much longer, but unfortunately time had come to go back to our ship.

Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Old buildings and rails at Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Old wooden Lutheran church at Grtyviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Rusty detail of ship at Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild are buried at this cemetery in Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Small wreck on the shore at Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Detail of rusty machines, remains of the whaling station at Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Old rusty container in close-up
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Old tanks are the remainders of the whaling station at Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Grytviken whaling station: rusty remains of the efficient factory
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Rusty remains of whaling ship on the shore of Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Petrel, wreck of a whaling ship rusting away on the shores of Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Remains of a whale, testimony of the history of Grytviken
Picture of Grytviken (South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands): Weaner swimming in the waters of Grytviken

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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