The island of South Georgia, lying cold and isolated in the south Atlantic
ocean north of Antarctica
, not only has strong associations with that white desert continent's early exploration, it was also one of the most notorious places of the great slaughter of whales and seals during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Back then, whales had no lobby and were hunted to the brink of extinction, namely for their blubber, from which whale oil was extracted … At peak times this was done on such a truly industrial scale that it makes your skin crawl. Hundreds of thousands of these gentle giants were slaughtered here or at sea and then "processed" at Grytviken
and at numerous other such "whaling stations" operated by Norway
on South Georgia.
It ranks as one of the greatest crimes of humans against other mammals and is these days fortunately banned, or at least nearly completely banned: a number of countries, especially Japan
, still engage in whale hunting, albeit on a much smaller scale and allegedly "for scientific purposes" only (although the whale meat is sold to, and devoured with gusto by "gourmets" in those countries).
The south Atlantic and Antarctic region's seals didn't fare much better (in fact, larger numbers of individuals were slaughtered, for oil as well as fur – in their millions!) but at least they've since had a better chance of recovering populations and are again fairly plentiful on South Georgia and elsewhere. Many whale species, in contrast, remain threatened with extinction even today and may well not make it through.
In fact, sealing and industrial whaling only really stopped because it was no longer profitable rather than because of any moral qualms (although international pressure surely helped in the ending of the practice before there were no whales at all left). In the case of South Georgia this happened first during the great depression in the 1930s, and then around the mid-1960s operation stopped for good.
Grytviken stands out because it was the oldest and longest continuously operated whaling factories of them all, closed only as late as 1965, and one with a particularly bloody legacy. Thousands and thousands of whale carcasses were hauled on land here, stripped of their blubber ("flensing"), which was cooked up in huge pots and the oil then transferred into barrels and exported. The rest of the carcasses were further ground up and processed to extract even more oil. Dry remains even served as fertilizer.
It was like mining, only the raw material was one of the most highly developed species on Earth. The largest animal ever seen was likewise slaughtered here: a blue whale measuring over 100 feet (33.5 m) in length and weighing well over 150 tons. This species has been nearly 99.9% exterminated.
Today, Grytviken is largely a ghost town
– vestiges of the old whaling industry slowly rusting and houses crumbling away on shore, whaling vessels' wrecks half-submerged in the harbour.
It would be a totally forgotten place if it wasn't a regular spot for Antarctic cruises to stop by.
They do so mostly for one other popular spot: the grave of the early polar explorer from the "heroic age", Ernest Shackleton, who died here in 1922. He's buried in the whaling station's cemetery and has an elegant grey tombstone. Also buried in this cemetery is a soldier from Argentina – and here's another dark link:
South Georgia, a UK 'overseas territory', also played a role in the war for the Falkland Islands
and Great Britain
. In the beginning of this war, the Argentine military also occupied South Georgia, but were soon expelled by the British – who maintained a military outpost here for many years after. A bit inland the wreckage of a shot-down Argentine military helicopter is said to be still visible too.
Remarkably, there is even a museum in this remote near-ghost town
displaying various artefacts relating to the island's history, including the gruesome "processing" of whales. You can even by postcards, T-shirts and stamps in the museum's shop!
Getting to South Georgia is as good as impossible on an independent basis (unless you have your own Antarctic ocean-going vessel and can face the bureaucracy involved in getting a permit for landing here), so tourists really only come by as part of a cruise. Such cruises usually also take in the Falklands
and/or other islands in the sea around the Antarctic – and even bits of that white continent itself. Predictably, then, this is a very expensive destination indeed to reach as a tourist. See under Antarctica
for more travel tips and a few operators' names.
Grytviken is not the only former whaling station-cum-ghost town on South Georgia (nor is it the biggest, Leith is reputedly even bigger and eerier), but mainly thanks to the presence of the museum and Shackleton's grave, this is the standard point for cruises to put in a visit at and the only one accessible for tourists.