Grytviken: Closed for more than four decades, Antarctica's first whaling station is a rusting reminder of environmental irresponsibility and a haunting memorial to both hunter and hunted
Story and pictures by Dave Houser
A marvel of whale-slaughtering efficiency at its zenith between the two World Wars, Grytviken whaling station could process up to 25 fin whales, each about 60 feet long, in 24 hours.First and largest of South Georgia Island's several stations, Grytviken was the proud and profitable forerunner of a huge Antarctic whaling industry that ultimately rendered nearly two million great whales into oil, meat, soap, margarine, nitroglycerin, fertilizer and bone meal.
Every austral summer (October to March) from 1904 to 1965, up to 500 workers would set about the grisly but, at the time, highly respectable task of catching, cutting up and cooking down nature's largest mammals.
Commercial killing of whales here has finally stopped but Grytviken remains -- a rusting, rotting hulk of iron, brick and timber -- slowly succumbing to the harsh elements that it and its bold operators defied for more than 60 years.
At first glimpse Grytviken appears as a startling anachronism. An inconsonant hyperbole of human endeavor in the Antarctic. For here, on one of the world's wildest and most remote islands in the South Atlantic Ocean -- east of the tip of South America and surrounded by snow-capped peaks and ice-choked glaciers -- resides a factory of truly impressive scale.
English sealers were the first to take advantage of King Edward Cove, South Georgia's finest anchorage, deep within the recesses of Cumberland Bay. When Norwegian whaling captain, C.A. Larsen, arrived to set up the station in October, 1904, South Georgia was completely uninhabited. He named the place Grytviken or “pot cove” after the abandoned sealer’s try-pots found on the rocky beach.
Flush with capital from a group of wealthy Argentine investors, Larsen brought with him a new steam-powered whale catcher, Fortuna, and a transport barque, Louise, loaded down with 74 men and a whale oil processing plant, prefabricated in Norway.
Whaling operations began in December, 1904, and were an immediate success. Fortuna and her crew of catchers rarely had to venture beyond Cumberland Bay which was found teeming with humpback and right whales.
A prodigious slaughter ensued and during the first year alone some 200 whales were caught from which 5,000 barrels of oil were obtained.
By 1910-11 the season’s total had risen to more than 1,100 whales and 55,000 barrels of oil. In 1912, Grytviken gained the distinction of harpooning the largest whale ever recorded. It was a blue whale measuring 112 feet and weighing more than 100 tons.
Once a whale had been killed -- a task made much easier by a new harpoon gun developed in Norway and equipped with an explosive barbed grenade tip -- it would be inflated with compressed air and towed back to the station. Next it was hauled up by massive steam winches onto the “plan,” a large boarded area on the seaward side of the factory.
Now the bloody work of dissection began as the crew of flensers, armed with razor-sharp knives mounted on poles, stripped large sheets of blubber from the carcass, feeding the oil-rich fat into the blubber cookery. Meat and bones were dealt with by the lemmers and hauled up separate ramps where they were sawed up and loaded into massive pressure cookers and digesters, later to be dried, milled into meal, and bagged in 50 kg sacks. Oil was refined to remove impurities and pumped into huge storage tanks.
Because of its remote location, about 1,200 miles east of Cape Horn, Grytviken was designed to be largely self-sufficient. Save an occasional shipment of fuel oil, coal and stores, the station had to make do on its own. It had repair facilities for the catchers, including a floating dock and slipway.
There were foundries, a blacksmith shop, laboratories, barracks for workers, a hospital, church, laundry, bakery, library and even a cinema. Stocks of cattle, sheep and reindeer were kept for fresh meat. A hydroelectric plant, made possible by damming a stream above the station, was added in 1913, enabling some factory operations to be speeded up by converting from steam to more efficient electricity.
The Grytviken workforce, made up primarily of hardy Norwegians, toiled 12 hours a day under weather conditions that were frequently wet, cold and windy in what essentially was a slimy, putrid slaughterhouse.
Drinking and gambling were forbidden and the only women allowed were the wives of station managers.
Catcher crews faced rough, stormy seas and the ever-present danger of icebergs as they were forced through the years to probe farther and farther south in search of whales.
One by one, smaller whaling stations on South Georgia closed down during the early 1960s. Grytviken, too, ceased operations initially in 1962 but the station was leased to a Japanese company that struggled to keep it viable for several more years.
Whaling ended at Grytviken in 1965 simply because whale stocks had become “fished out.” Even today, nearly 45 years since the slaughter ended, whales aren’t often seen in the bays and waters of South Georgia.
Grytviken sprang briefly into worldwide prominence when an Argentine naval force invaded South Georgia on April 3, 1982, sparking the Falklands War. British forces recaptured the island three weeks later.
The British army maintained a garrison at Kind Edward Point, near Grytviken, until 2001 when its facilities were transferred to the British Antartcic Survery, which has since been conducting fishing sustainability and management studies from the base.
Hardly a tourist haunt, South Georgia receives only about 7,500 visitors each summer. Most are passengers on small expedition cruise ships that call at Grytviken on the way to or from the Antarctic Peninsula.
In spite of its tumbledown condition or, perhaps, because of it, the old Grytviken station has an alluring quality -- not unlike that of the old ghost towns of the American West. There's a certain stark beauty to be seen in the rusting remains and a stroll through the sprawling complex provides plenty for inquisitive visitors to ponder.
A graveyard overlooking the station is notable as the final resting place of British Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who died of a heart attack at Grytviken, January 5, 1922, while bound on an expedition to the south polar ice. Scattered about Shackleton's granite memorial are graves of Norwegian whalers who never made it home and more recent markers of Argentine fighters who fell during the 1982 conflict.
Below the graveyard, forming its own watery tomb, is the burned out hull of Louise, Larsen's original transport barque, built in Freeport, Maine in 1869. Listing along the quay, in varying degrees of submersion, are several other vessels left behind, including Petrel, the last catcher to see service at Grytviken * her deadly harpoon gun now aimed harmlessly at a distant peak.
Focal point of the station, however, is what original curators Nigel Bonner and Ian Hart founded in 1991 as the “world's southernmost museum.”
Ensconced in a white frame building that once served as the station manager's house, the South Georgia Museum presents an array of excellent photos and displays depicting the station's 105-year history and more. Dedicated exclusively to whaling at the start, its scope and scale have been expanded to take in more of South Georgia’s human heritage and natural history.
With assistance from UK-based South Georgia Heritage Trust, plus additional revenues from cruise ship docking fees and private contributions, subsequent curators have managed a comprehensive makeover of the museum and a fine restoration of the station’s old wooden church, pre-fabricated in Norway and assembled here in 1913.
For most, a visit to Grytviken is a haunting experience, evoking a variety of feelings and emotions. On one hand, you have to admire the courage and profit driven ingenuity of the station's founders and workers. On the other, you can't help pondering man's perplexing insensitivity toward nature and the environment.
Without too much imagination, you can stand on the broad old flensing plan and picture in your mind's eye a huge carcass being hauled up to the clatter of steam winches ... then a flenser's first deep cut into the whale's thick blubber.
Still visible on the once bloody boards are hobnail marks made by generations of whaler's boots. Now the flensing plan is home only to clumps of moss and grass and the occasional penguin or seal -- creatures with memories too short to harbor any fear of human onlookers.
This article and photos by travel journalist Dave G. Houser are available for sale to print sources and web sites. Dave travels the world (160 countries so far). For information of Travel Maven Dave Houser