22 Feb 2024

Antarctic Expedition. Part 9. Grytviken and Macaroni's

After cruising slowly around the coast of South Georgia we arrived at our destination in glorious weather. Ideal for our zodiac landing at the old whaling base at Grytviken. Before that  we had a presentation from Lauren of the South Georgia Heritage Trust about their work. This was followed a presentation on biosecurity from Dee Baum from the Governors office. The first ten passengers to board the zodiacs were thoroughly inspected and had a 100% pass rate in the biosecurity checks - just as well really as I was the first to be inspected! 

Grytviken is famous for Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's grave. Unfortunately bird flu in the area meant we couldn't visit but we managed to see it from the zodiacs as we motored past. A real shame but I understood, more than most on board, about the need for biosecurity and the spread of bird flu.

Shakletons grave

Grytviken was also home to the largest whaling station on South Georgia and it was sobering to think how many whales were slaughtered and processed here for their blubber, which was rendered into oil for use in a whole range of what were everyday products. Elephant Seals were also processed here for their blubber. All of the whale carcasses were used with the flesh and bones being ground to make fertiliser and bone meal. The waters around the harbour are still littered with the skeletal remains of whales and their decomposition gives the water a strange colour. As late as 1966 whales were still being hunted here but the decline in the whale population and the development of pelagic factory ships (meaning the whales could be processed at sea) led to its eventual decline.

This extract is from the South Georgia Heritage Trusts history of whaling in South Georgia. See here for more details.

Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region some 1,432,862 animals were taken between 1904 and 1978, when hunting of the larger species ceased. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was taken at South Georgia, it was a blue whale processed at Grytviken in about 1912, with a length of 33.58 meters. Another was processed in 1931 at Prince Olaf Harbour was 29.48m long and estimated to weigh 177 tonnes. 

Incredible to think that not so long agoa we were so reliant on whale oil. Michael Green, assistant expedition leader, made a very valid observation when he said our descendants would look back at us in a 100 years time and wonder how we could have caused so much environmental devastation by using fossil fuels! 

Once ashore I made straight to the post office to send postcards to our grandchildren in Australia and the UK before exploring the areas we were allowed into and searching for the two South Georgia endemics  - the pipit and pintail.

Despite the feelings of profound sorrowat what the equipment and machinery was used for the old whale processing equipment was fascinating to see. It really was mass slaughter on an industrial scale and I felt it was only fitting to photograph in black and white rather than colour.

Abandoned whaling boats hauled up at Grytviken

By contrast the small 'whalers church' seemed an incongruous haven of peace and tranquility.


Fur Seals and King Penguins were all over the area but there was no sign of any pipits. South Georgia Pintails were common though and we counted 22 in one small area. This small duck has the morbid reputation of being carnivorous as its sometimes known to feed on seal carcasses in the same way as Giant Petrels  - once the body cavities been opened up they'll get right inside the carcass.

Our time on South Georgia was soon over and we headed back to the Plancius to move to the Nordenskj√∂ld Glacier where we moored and had a BBQ on the rear deck surrounded by growlers (small icebergs and with incredible views of the glacier. A great evening.

Overnight we moved again and woke the next morning near Hercules Bay where we visited the Macaroni Penguin colony! Once again we couldn't land but took a zodiac cruise around the bay. In reality we didn't need to land. We had superb views of the Macaroni's! They were nesting higher up the hillside in the tussock grass but following their 'penguin highways' down to enter the sea. We probably had better views from the zodiacs than if we'd landed as the birds were nearly completely hidden by the tussock grass.

Another fantastic experience and it was here, at Hercules Bay, that we finally got good views of the elusive South Georgia Pipit with several pairs behaving just like the Rock Pipits back on Hilbre Island in the UK! 

In danger of being made extinct due to predation the pipit is now heard singing again  due to the eradication of the rodents that were eating the young and eggs. Its South Georgias only songbird so a poignant moment to see and hear them so well.

Out time at South Georgia came to an end wit hout trip to Hercules Bay. With six species of penguin already under our belts it was time to head to our final destination - The Falklands. This entailed another two days at sea providing me with plenty of seawatching opportunities...........and more missed breakfasts! 

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