South Georgia on my Mind

by David Clammer


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



South Georgia: a legendary place that seems remote almost beyond imagination, and which we never expected ever to see. Yet here we are, lucky enough to be approaching it a second time. Someone has produced a satellite picture that shows it as a winter-wonderland, a crumpled white caterpillar in an indigo sea, and beneath a cloudless sky. Surely that's not going to last in the land of storms? But the sea is calm as we close Larsen Point, and inside Cumberland East Bay it becomes glassy, dazzling us with reflected sunlight. For the time being, South Georgia is in a benign mood.

Before putting into Grytviken we sailed down to the Nordenskjöld Glacier and lowered the ship's zodiacs for a cruise around the head of the bay. Hemmed in by jagged peaks, the glacier's front presents a chaotic jumble of ice-cliffs, towers and crags deeply riven with inky-blue fissures and undercut by the sea. Whole masses looked ready to fall at any moment and to judge from the soup of brash-ice we found ourselves nosing through, some had recently done so.

Here and there bergy-bits floated, one with a group of chinstrap penguins, smart in black and white, and another with a pair of blue-eyed shags. Neither they nor the elephant seals suckling their pups or roaring challenges at interlopers on the nearby beach took the least notice of us, busy with our cameras and outboard engines. This is a place where natural forces hold sway and the concerns of human beings don't rate a thought.

That feeling had intensified by the time we sailed round and dropped anchor at Grytviken. Visibility had decreased and it was snowing as the zodiacs were lowered again and we crossed to the beach below the lonely little whalers' cemetery. For many, South Georgia is synonymous with the name of Sir Ernest Shackleton and a visit to his grave the highlight of the trip. So our little procession of red-coated pilgrims trudged up from the beach, the snow so deep that the picket fence was half buried and the graves of the Norwegian whalers blanketed and almost invisible. Only the great granite headstone of Shackleton's grave stood clear, with its nine-pointed star and the Browning quotation on the back: 'I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life's set prize.'

The word 'hero' may be overworked, but in this remote and lonely place it's hard not to feel something of the presence of a man who was, truly, heroic. In the wind that drives the snow stinging in our faces and whips our words away, we raise our plastic cups of rum and drink a toast to his memory. By the time we crossed the harbour to walk up to the memorial raised by the crew of the Quest on Hope Point, it was snowing so thickly that we could only hear the grumbling of the elephant seals below. It seemed appropriate.

The deserted whaling station at Grytviken is a strange and rather sinister place and until the 1960s a place of industrialized butchery on the largest scale. There is the whaling slip and the expanse of the flensing pan where the carcasses were winched up on steel cables, where the flensers with knives like hockey sticks slashed at the blubber as it was stripped away like a colossal banana skin on its way to the mincers in the blubber cookery. There too is the bone loft, where giant steam-powered saws made short work of heads and backbones, and the whale-oil tanks, like miniature gasometers, and the guano stores, a reminder that nothing whatever was wasted.

Much to our disappointment, we discovered that since out last visit the visitors' trail has been closed because of the fear of injuries around unsafe buildings - a real possibility - and the remote risk of asbestos contamination. The museum in the old manager's house makes up for a lot, though, with its superb collection of artefacts illustrating the human and natural history of Grytviken and its varied communities. Shackleton, of course, and the 1982 conflict, but also cinema posters and football trophies from the whaling era, domestic objects beautifully arranged, and old photographs of the children who once lived down here. And I was pleased to say hello again to the stuffed wandering albatross that dominates the hallway, with its huge eyes and bill and vast wingspan. Do birds that size really fly?

This is probably the most southerly museum in the world, and the same may be said for the little wooden whalers' church. Prefabricated in Norway, it was shipped out in pieces and consecrated on Christmas Day 1913 and, indeed, with its white woodwork and the pale green steeple it does have a very Christmassy look, although this must have been a pretty tough and unrewarding parish for any priest. You can if you wish go up to the gallery and pull the bell rope, sending the sound ringing round the silent barracks and workshops and the mountains behind.

Perhaps the most memorable image of Grytviken is that of the three derelict whale catchers down at the quay, rusting away in various states of decay. It is hard to imagine that such a task could have been performed in such a sea by vessels hardly more than 100 feet in length, and to realize that when they were retired from whaling in the 1950s there was still life in them as sealers. The Petrel is the best preserved, pulled well up the dock, and with a harpoon gun still at the bows. The Albatros and the Dias lie partly sunk by another jetty, heeled over and down at the stern, but they have the poignancy of all abandoned ships with their patches of rust and the ghostly remains of blue, grey and yellow paint still flaking away.

We sailed again after dark, having first dined on board with some of the British Antarctic Survey staff from King Edward Point. They saw us off, some of them on skis, with a barrage of snowballs. The plan was to sail round to Stromness Bay and visit the site of the whaling station where Shackleton and his two companions staggered in after their crossing of the mountains. But the weather had other ideas.

We awoke next morning to find ourselves in a Southern Ocean storm. One of those days, in fact, when you find it tricky getting showered and dressed, and moving about the dining room at breakfast is a bit of a challenge. The wind speed indicator on the bridge was like a thing possessed, swinging rapidly from force 8 to 10 and occasionally gusting to 11, and the waves at an estimated 13 metres. This is an awesome spectacle. It is not just the endless range of dark green hills marching towards you, there seem to be cross currents too, so that the whole surface is in torment. The waves have white crests which themselves topple over and break up into spindrift blown by the wind into long streaks of foam. The ship rides up and then pitches down into the next trough and white water breaks in torrents over the bridge. The stern lifts clear of the sea and you can feel the vibration of the propeller turning in the air whilst the helmsman reports a temporary loss of steering.

In these conditions the ship cannot be turned, and there is nothing to be done except to remain almost stationary, riding into the sea until the storm blows itself out. The true riders of the storm are, of course, the birds. Using the up-drafts, assorted petrels and albatross skim the surface of the most tremendous waves, dodging the tumbling crests and the flying spray, vanishing suddenly into spectacular troughs as though swallowed up, re-emerging on the steep side of the next green hill.

It took eighteen hours for conditions to moderate: we did not get to Stromness. But the following morning we were able to make our way slowly along the coast past Possession Bay, wondering what it must have been like for Cook and his crew in a square-rigger, hoping that this might be Terra Australis Incognita but actually beating their way towards Cape Disappointment.

In the Bay of Isles we anchored at last. This is a place of spectacular beauty, a vast amphitheatre of peaks and glaciers and grounded icebergs. Shortly after dawn, the low sun bathing the mountains in an opalescent light, we found ourselves trudging in deep snow up a narrow gully to see a nesting site of the wandering albatross. There they are, three of them, chicks the size of the average goose, sitting on their drum-like nests as they have all the Antarctic winter, their down ruffled by the biting wind, now and again stretching a huge wing as if to test it, while the parent birds are out at sea, possibly a thousand miles away.

But perhaps the greatest spectacle of all awaits at Salisbury Plain on the other side of the bay. On the beach a few king penguins loiter, the outposts of the main colony. It is a breathtaking sight. There are tens of thousands of birds stretching away across the beach and beyond to the flank of the mountains. The adults are immaculate in black, grey and white, with orange bills and neck patches. The oakum-boys, the dark brown downy chicks, huddle together in huge nurseries. We know the rule about not approaching too closely, but penguins do not, and share our curiosity. If you stay still they will walk right past, or come up for a closer look, especially if you sit down. It's an intimate and moving experience, and the wonder of it is increased as the weather closes in again. Having allowed us on shore, it lays on another quick-change demonstration. In moments a blizzard springs up and the beach is enveloped in a brief but impressive white-out, reducing the kings to pale shadows. And that's how we'll remember them, down there at the end of the world, enjoying the spring.


© David Clammer 2003. David Clammer taught history for over thirty years and is now a researcher and writer. He also lectures to cruise ship passengers on British and Antarctic history. David's polar experience includes two visits to South Georgia, one to Svalbard and two to Greenland where he dog-sledged.

© All photographs copyright David Clammer, taken on a visit during 1999 when conditions were excellent, unlike the description of this year's visit.


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