JAN 13: South Georgia Island 1

Friday, January 13, 2017
South Georgia Island, Antarctica

Jan 13th, 2017: South Georgia Island 1: Grytviken, Fortuna Bay, Stromness Bay

South Georgia Island is long and narrow, shaped like a huge curved fractured and savaged whalebone, some 170 km long and varying from 2-40 km wide. Two mountain ranges (Allardyce and Salvesen) provide its spine, rising to 2,934 meters at Mt. Paget's peak (11 peaks exceed 2,000 m). Huge glaciers, ice caps and snowfields cover about 75% of the island in the austral summer (Nov-Jan): in winter (Jul-Sep) a snow blanket reaches the sea. The island then drops some 4,000 m to the sea floor. South Georgia is about the same latitude relative to the South Pole as the north of England is to the North Pole. The mountain ranges and the precipitous southern coast shield the northern facing bays from the fierce prevailing winds and depressions that roar in from the Drake Passage to the west and Antarctica to the south, as we will experience in the next few days…

South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands are UK overseas Territories. At the height of the whaling period some 2,000 people lived on South Georgia, but now there are no permanent residents, but there are two British Antarctic Research Stations, government officers and museum curators during the summer months.


Today was a HUGE day; we awoke to snow showers in Grytviken Bay. Windy (30-35 mph) Zodiac ride from our mother ship to Grytviken, a tiny, but quaint settlement that is surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains, currently with about 40 residents (mostly scientists with the British Antarctic Survey). The rich blue/green water in this bay today looks almost tropical.


Immediately upon getting out of the Zodiacs, we encountered King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) and Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) as we had to wind our way around them to get to the trail to town. Male fur seals constantly watch and herd females to keep them within the boundaries of their territories, often preventing them from going out to sea to feed until the male has mated with them. At the height of the breeding season, between November and December, the grunting, growling, bellowing, squawking, and whining on colonies can be deafening. During our visit only a few younger males, practicing for the future, were trying to maintain a harem. Still, with the thousands of fur seals and dozens of elephant seals scattered on the beaches we visited, the cacophony of grunts, groans and gaseous expulsions (that sometimes resembled long, wet farts) made conversation difficult. We also had to be careful not to step on them because they are totally not intimidated by humans and not infrequently will come up behind you to check you out. Although, they certainly seemed to get riled up by other males entering their territories...


Whaling & Sealing:
This is also the site of one of the most historic and monstrous whaling operations that began around 1900. At that time, because of the incredibly high oceanic productivity, there were literally hundreds of whales in and around Grytviken Bay. This region of the Southern Ocean was a prime location for baleen whales because it supported an incredible abundance of krill, the primary food of the large baleen whales. The abundance of the 3-inch shrimp-like Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) in this area has been estimated at over 500 million tons with densities of 10,000-30,000 individuals per cubic meter. If those estimates are accurate, and the extreme abundance of whales in the area before whaling would indicate they are accurate, it would make this species one of the most abundant animals on the planet. Spawning occurs from January to March with females laying 6,000-10,000 eggs at a time. Once fertilized by the males, the eggs sink to 2,000-3,000 m (6,600-9,800 ft) depths. Once the eggs develop into larvae, they migrate back up to the surface in a process called "developmental ascent" (in about 2-3 weeks), but they don't fully mature for 2-3 yrs. During our passage through the Scotia Sea, we encountered some rough waters at which time thousands of Euphausia were washed up on deck. Conrad's cute and enthusiastic daughter Erin went about collecting a bunch of them for all of us to see…



At Grytvikin many of the old whaling structures still remain: including heavy chains and winches to haul the dead whales up from the beach, boilers and pressure cookers to render the oil out of the blubber and especially the bones (which have the most oil), and holding tanks. There are also several old whaling ships beached on the shore, with multiple scupper-type holes under the railing near the bow (5-6 on each side) out of which would have led cables that would have towed one whale per cable. During the early 1900s, Shackleton's era, EACH whaling ship might bring in 10-15 whales a day to this and other whaling stations.

Early whaling operations involved hand-held wooden poles with a steel-tipped end (harpoon) being thrown into whales from small open oared boats. Attached to the harpoon would be a line and several buoys. After many harpoons are embedded into the whale the floats slow
it down and prevent if from diving, allowing the small catcher boats to row up the whale and strike it repeatedly and deeply with a lance to finally kill the whale. This was a horrific struggle and many men lost their lives in the process. Later, they became more "sophisticated" (really??) with
powerful explosive harpoon guns mounted to bow of the mother ship, and explosive heads on the harpoon tips that triggered inside the whale. Then emerged the whaling "factory ships" in 1925,
which killed, flensed, and processed the entire whales on board; these were massive floating operations. There were over 40 large factory ships operating around South Georgia Island daily; they ended up slaughtering about 175,250 whales, of all kinds, including the Blue whale, the
largest animal to ever exist on earth.




To put this into perspective, one Blue whale consumes about 4 tons of krill/day. At that time Grytvitkin, and all the other whaling stations, had a wretched odor of boiling and rotting blubber. One Norwegian described the smell as: "… a mixture of the smell of a tanning factory, and that of a fish meal and manure works together with a sickly and nearly overpowering odour of meat extract". At this one location, over 400 men flensed the whales, chopped them up, boiled the blubber and produced a variety of products that went into the making of many different products and uses like: lighting, lubrication, tanning, and later for margarine and hand soap. Other whale products included: oil as a stabilizer for margarine, soap, nitroglycerine, and explosives, as well as perfume from ambergris (a waxy substance produced by their stomachs; baleen used in corsets; and bone used to make, among other things, mahjong, dice, and domino playing pieces as well as scrimshaw. What would it be like to jump into a time machine and revisit the outrageous sights and putrid smells of Grytviken?

Before the whaling era, in the late 1700s, they also first started clubbing fur seals and elephant seals for their oil, with over 1,100 sealing ships dedicated to this process. Elephant seal hunting resulted in the capture and rendering of 6,000 seals, yielding about 2,000 tons of high quality oil -- per year.

Fortuna Bay:

After lunch we relocated to a beautiful fjord, Fortuna Bay, where one group of passengers visited the site of a monstrous King penguin colony of about 7,000-10,000 breeding pairs in that one location. The backdrop of this site is the magnificent Konig Glacier winding its way down the mountain behind the King penguin colony. Overall, there are about 500,000 King penguins on South Georgia. Kings do not make nests per se. They incubate their single egg on top of their feet, with folds of fat that drape over the egg until hatched. Males and females take turns going to sea and incubating the egg. In this location, eggs have hatched long ago and there are mostly adults and chicks.

The magnitude of this colony is astounding. They stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. This was an amazing site to behold, with adults and all phases of juvenile penguins, many still with their brown downy feathers; mostly looking like fuzzy round brown blobs with a beak. They were referred to as the "oakum boys" because their pelage resembled the color of oakum, used to fill the cracks between laths making up the planks of a boat. The juvenile fuzzy feathers, while cute, are not waterproof, so they must remain on land through the upcoming winter. Then they will molt all of their original brown down feathers. Their new (waterproof) adult feathers will push the original brown down out and they will look like healthy black and white adults. Here, we also saw the rare pipit which is the only songbird in the Antarctic region. On this beach were also many Fur seals, again both adults and juveniles. They tend to be more aggressive and some lunged at us, but those were mostly small and appeared to be juveniles. Finally, there were also some Elephant seals, again mostly juveniles, but they will grow from about 100 to 400 lbs in one season. Many of those were also molting, not only their fur, but their outer skin layer as well.

Roger joined a different group that took a 6 mi hike, partially retracing the mountain route Shackleton, Creen, and Worlsey took over the top of South Georgia to reach the Stromness whaling station in 1917. The staff had warned the passengers that the hike was pretty strenuous/difficult and it turned out to be too much for quite a number of folks, although eventually everyone made it with only one person falling and hurting a knee. The hike started up a steep mushy trail among the tussock grasses. This was particularly interesting because all throughout the grasses were young and sometimes aggressive Fur seals and one was never quite sure if one of more these little sneakers would try to sink their teeth into your derriere as you passed by. After that it was pretty much straight up hill in broken sedimentary rocks to the summit were Shackleton named the lake on the ridge Creen Lake. As we crested the hill we had a beautiful view of Fortuna Bay and the Stromnees Whaling Station.

The hike down to the valley floor was the most difficult part as the leaders took a rather odd and more challenging route right along a cascading stream. We all made it down then it was merely a couple miles across the valley of braided streams to the bay. The only challenge there was not getting whacked in the head by dive bombing Antarctic terns as we passed by their nests and chased by the young and testosterone filled young Fur seals as we approached the shoreline to our waiting Zodiacs.

The funniest aspect of the trip occurred while we were waiting for the rest of the hikers to catch-up with us at the base of the stream. Looking down the valley I noticed a penguin waddling up the valley toward us. Soon we ID’d it as a Gentoo Penguin and this 'guy’ (you can’t sex penguins externally) kept on coming up the valley. Just before reaching us it veered off and headed up an adjacent creek. Every so often peaking its head over the rocks separating our streams and staring at us for awhile before continuing on up the valley. Since all the other Gentoos were hanging around their beach front colony over two miles in the opposite direction I was left wondering if this 'guy’ was shooting to become a Darwin Award winner. We assume you all know what THAT means…..
No Roger... he belongs to the Shackleton Explorer Club!


• The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17): 

Grytviken is the site where Ernest Shackleton launched his fateful voyage trying to cross Antarctica by traveling straight over the South Pole. 
Ernest Shackleton:

• Born in County Kildare, Ireland in 1874. His father was a doctor and the family moved to London where Shackleton was educated. Rejecting his father’s wish that he become a doctor, he joined the merchant navy when he was 16 and qualified as a master mariner in 1898.

• Shackleton’s first encounter with the Antarctic was with Robert Falcon Scott in 1901, for a 3-man polar party on an overland expedition. In 1908 he led a 2nd attempt for the South Pole on the ship Nimrod, but when the party was within reach of the goal, he turned back preferring to save himself and his men rather than push on and die on the return trip as his former mentor, Scott, famously chose to do.

• After the South Pole had already been reached by Roald Amundson and Scott in 1911, Shackleton decided he would try to cross the entire Antarctic continent (sea-to-sea) by passing through the South Pole, his Trans Antarctic Expedition. This "Endurance expedition" took place within the so-called "Heroic Era", about 1901-1922.
Resiliency involves both the hardihood and courage to take on risks and challenges, and the ability to bounce back from difficulties and disappointments. Shackleton would face hardships that almost defy belief, and it was his iron-clad resilience that allowed he and his men to survive. The story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is the story of surging optimism met with crushing defeat manifested over and over and over again. That the former never failed Shackleton, and the latter never broke him, is truly what brought his men through to the other side.

Numerous times, Shackleton and his men felt incredibly hopeful that a goal was in sight and things were turning their way, only to have these hopes utterly dashed:

The Endurance:
Designed by Ole Aanderud Larsen, Endurance was built at the Frames shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway and fully completed on 17 December 1912. She was built under the supervision of master wood shipbuilder Christian Jacobsen, who was renowned for insisting that all men in his employment were not just skilled shipwrights but also be experienced in seafaring aboard whaling or sealing ships. Every detail of her construction had been scrupulously planned to ensure maximum durability: for example, every joint and fitting was cross-braced for maximum strength. 

 By the time of launch on 17 December 1912, Endurance was perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built, with the possible exception of the Fram, the vessel used by Fridtjof Nansen and later by Roald Amundsen. However, there was one major difference between the ships. Fram was bowl-bottomed, which meant that if the ice closed in against her it would be squeezed up and out and not be subject to the pressure of the ice compressing around her. But since Endurance was designed to operate in relatively loose pack ice she was not constructed so as to rise out of pressure to any great extent.
December 5, 1914: LAUNCH

Shackleton, using the ship Endurance, formally started his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition here at Grytviken on Dec 5, 1914 and headed off to the Weddell Sea, on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula, not far from where our expedition visited. His expedition route is shown in our Entry #1.

Shackleton's entire expedition was incredibly well documented and photographed by the ship’s photographer Frank Hurley. Thus, making it possible for us to provide a running diary of their trials and extreme hardships, as well as ours in comparison….


Here is the first of a series of commemorative stamps minted by the British government honoring Shackleton for his heroic efforts on the amazing ENDURANCE Expedition. This one produced for the launch of the Endurance from South Georgia Island.


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Bruce Wyman

Wow, these pictures and accounts are amazing. I'm a big Shackleton fan, too. Thanks for documenting these adventures for us!

Laura Pasik

Another great entry! That King penguin colony at Fortuna Bay was just spectacular. Our group was very well-behaved and orderly about staying well within the perimeters established by the flags, but the greedy oakum boys had no such compunctions. One little guy came right up to me demanding to know what I had done with the smoked salmon I was supposed to bring him from the ship. Apparently it's a local custom ... :)