Tag Archives: Whaling

True Gryt

Tuesday March 5 2024 – Even as we were leaving Pippa’s recap yesterday, we could feel the sea getting rougher.  During the night there was quite a lot of pitching and rolling; talk this morning was of gusts of 50-knot winds, which, if memory serves (because it has to; our expensive internet has given way to an entirely non-available one, which means Googling is now impossible) is bordering Storm Force 10.  There were no injuries, but suffice it to say that the rocking and rolling was sufficient to a) cause a slightly mysterious but weighty de-ioniser device to jump off its shelf in our cabin with a considerable thump at 3 in the morning; and b) tip over the cup of milk we had kept in our fridge for the purpose of making tea. A slightly disturbed night, then, but not too uncomfortable otherwise – we both managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep.

It was clear that the captain had had to do a lot of careful navigation; there were a lot of very large icebergs around.

However, as we entered Cumberland Bay, at the back of which the settlement of Grytviken lurks, the waters reverted to millpond stillness, and we could start to see the Grytviken government buildings on King Edward Point

and the settlement itself.

As I’ve said before, Grytviken is the centre of government for the island of South Georgia, which was the first whaling station on the island, established in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian who realised there was an enormous fortune to be made from whaling.  Up to that point, the island, which was claimed for King George III in 1775 by James Cook, had been a centre for sealing – fur seals were killed for their pelts, and elephant seals for their blubber.

As I’ve already mentioned, South Georgia operates a very stringent biosecurity policy, and Grytviken is the centre of government for the island; the already-high focus on biosecurity is particularly keen here.  So we experienced an iron fist in a velvet glove.  The glove was operated by Deidre

a nice Scottish lady from the South Georgia Heritage Trust who spent 15 minutes extolling the wonders of South Georgia and particularly the work of the Heritage Trust, whose fundraising has been critical to transforming the area from an ecological disaster to an ecosystem in recovery. And it was, indeed, fundraising for this very worthwhile charity which was clearly to the fore in her messages to us. We took away a sponsorship form from her colleague Bodil (also Scottish) and a determination to support the Trust in some way or other (see later).  The iron fist was the inspection we underwent before we were allowed on to the Zodiacs.  To be as sure as possible that this would not reveal any shortcomings in Hondius’s biosecurity measures, there were staff performing extra checks on people before the inspector got to them.

All of us disembarking on the first Zodiac were checked (we don’t know if those disembarking from the second shell door were also checked). The inspector was cheerful, but brisk, and raised no alarms in checking us over as we went through (and in fact, Pippa revealed later that we had had a 100% clear record, meaning that future inspections would need only to check a smaller sample of passengers).

Off we went to the shore where we were able to wander around some areas of the settlement – not all; some areas were closed to us because of the risk of avian influenza. But we were able to see a lot, and to note the extent to which nature was Taking Back Control over the years.

One had to be careful in walking around, as there were fur seals everywhere, including on the paths.  I nearly stepped on one little one as I was taking a photo; vigilance was very necessary.

So, what’s in the settlement?  As you can see from the above, there’s an old whaling ship, and, on the right is the museum, which used to be the station manager’s villa, with its fragments of whalebone and other items on the lawn outside.

Just behind the flagpole are some pots.

These are the old “trying” pots which were used for boiling up seal blubber, and were what Larsen first saw when he made ground here. It is these pots which give the place its name; Grytviken is the Norwegian for “Pot Cove”.

This nugget, and many others, were provided on our short but informative guided tour, which was led by yet another Scottish lady, whose name, shamefully, I have forgotten. (It seems that there’s some kind of a morphic resonance between South Georgia and Scotland, possibly because of similarity of climate?)

The old machinery used for processing the whales is a major presence across the site,

but regrettably we weren’t allowed to wander around amongst it.  Our guide pointed out that originally these machines would have been housed in buildings, but the preservation work on the site had them removed, as they were (a) unsafe and (b) toxic, particularly riddled with asbestos.

Other surviving buildings include the post office and shop

where one could buy all sorts of things, including, unsurprisingly, stamps, both ornamental, such as Platinum Jubilee or Coronation sets, or functional, to be put on the postcards that one can also buy there to send home or wherever. (“Next post”, a sign proudly announced, “March”).

The museum

has all sorts of items of interest, both historical, to do with whaling and that Shackleton chappie, and also the wildlife.

Above you can see an example of a leopard seal’s skull with its canines and filtering molars.  There was also a pleasing variation on the “Do Not Touch” you see so often in museums the world over:

a seal skin, stroking which gives a very good idea of why they were so sought after.

There were also some quirky exhibits in the museum’s retail area

and both post office and museum gave us the chance to donate to the island and its trust by buying a couple of things as well as making an explicit donation on the “Tap to Donate” pad so thoughtfully placed by the exit.

Another important building is this

which houses a replica of the James Caird, the little boat that you’ll have read about in previous posts, so I won’t bore you again with its story; it also, importantly, houses

the only public toilets on the island.

Inside the James Caird hut

gives an impactful insight into the stuff of which Shackleton and his men were made.  Remember, there were six men on this boat, which means that five had to be below decks

alongside ballast rocks and other supplies.  On the wall are Shackleton’s makeshift crampons

amid a plethora of other items pertinent to the momentous journey this little boat undertook.

Finally, there is the church

constructed in Norway, then dis-assembled, transported and reconstructed here.  It wasn’t apparently, used so much as a church as a cinema.  Inside

it’s well-maintained, and includes the lending library that was in use at the time.

It has two bells, which punters can ring.  I did (I have the video) and it gave me quite an insight into the skill of church bell ringing.

Outside the church, the guides from Hondius were organising a toast to “The Boss” (yes, Shackleton – difficult to get away from the man), led by Saskia

using his own blend of whisky (now made by Mackinlay’s according to an original recipe specified by the man himself, apparently).  Normally, this toast would have been conducted at his grave in the cemetery, but we were not allowed to go there.  Instead, we took a look from the shore as part of the Zodiac ride back to Hondius.

Shackleton’s headstone is the big grey one in the centre of the cemetery.

For all its dark past, the Grytviken settlement makes for an emotional visit, possibly because it shows that humans are beginning to pay more respect not only to the past but to the environment.  In any case, it was an absorbing morning, and we feel privileged to have been able to visit the site.

In the afternoon, the skipper took Hondius gingerly towards the afternoon’s site – gingerly because of the care with which he had to navigate.

The location for the afternoon was a nearby cove called Godthul.  Ursula was our guide for a cruise which was to be followed by a landing.

The cruise took us by more thundering great lumps of ice

some of which had penguins on.

It was engaging watching them leap out of the water on to the ice – not always, it has to be said, successfully. (Yes, I have video.)

The cruise didn’t reveal too much in the way of new wildlife, except for one fur seal which was leucistic – a very pale colour, but not albino. They’re apparently known as “blondies”.

After the cruise, we landed at a cove whence we could wander along the beach and/or take a hike to either a penguin colony or a freshwater lake.  The hike was through tussock grass. The lower part of it was up a steep bank (for an idea of scale, the tussocks are 2-3 feet in diameter and rather taller than they are wide).

It was at times difficult to see where to put one’s feet, the tussocks concealed some unsuspected deep gaps and holes, and there were some large steps to be scrambled up. Once you’d conquered the first, tough, part, the going got easier as it went across mossy ground.

We eschewed the penguin colony on the basis that we’d already seen quite a few gentoos by now, and instead headed to the glacial lake

where there were just a couple of penguins loitering nearby.

I’m not quite sure what penguins make of fresh water, but there they were.  On the way down, we got a decent view over the cove and Hondius.

As usual we were enjoined to follow the track laid down by the guides, who set up red poles to guide visitors.  Even so, to avoid stressing the local wildlife, one still had to extemporise occasionally.

And so ended the day’s entertainment, apart from the usual daily recap from Pippa, which was, as ever, well-attended by everyone, agog to see what was planned for the next day.

That plan turned out to be a bit of a gamble, since the lack of an internet meant that even she and the ship’s crew didn’t have an up-to-date wind forecast.  The dice were loaded in favour of decent weather, but, as with all random events like weather and dice, there was the chance of an unexpected outcome. But the plan was to go to Fortuna Bay, the place where (him again) Shackleton actually reached the coast after crossing the island from Peggotty Bluff – it’s next to Stromness so he could hear the whistle from the whaling station there to guide him to what passed for civilisation in those days in these parts. In order to reduce the chance of birds choosing to land on the ship, something which requires a special procedure to be followed to ensure that they take off safely again, we headed out to sea to make the short hop northwards along the coast from Godthul. There is the chance of rougher seas, therefore; with luck, it won’t be too rough, the conditions will stay calm and we’ll have a good final day on South Georgia at Fortuna Bay.