Grytviken – An Abandoned Whaling Station In The South Atlantic

The abandoned whaling station in Grytviken

South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands is a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. The population is approximately 30 and most are involved with Antarctic tourism.  South Georgia was first discovered by a merchant ship under the command of Anthony de la Roché in 1675, giving rise to its first name – Roche Island. It wasn’t until 1775 that the first landing took place when Captain James Cook arrived, renaming it “the Isle of Georgia” after King George III of the Kingdom of Great Britain.

A cruise ship in South Georgia

Cruises to Antarctica have become popular with a stop in South Georgia featuring on many.

Seal hunting began in 1786 and a British Letters Patent determining the government arrangements for South Georgia were established in 1843 as a Falkland Islands Dependency. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands became a British Overseas Territory in 1985.

In 1904, the first whaling station at Grytviken was founded by Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian, under a lease agreement from the British government. 7 whaling station in total were built on South Georgia including the one at Husvik. Grytviken was the largest, and one of the largest in Antarctic waters. Its location was considered to be within the best harbour in South Georgia.

A panoramic view of Grytviken

A panoramic view of Grytviken.

It took 60 Norwegians 38 days to build the whaling station and factory at Grytvikan. 300 men worked there at its peak, mainly in the Summer months from October to March. Aside from whales, elephant seals were also hunted. Once processed in the factory at Grytviken, they were taken to Europe or other destinations.

The name Grytviken was actually adopted in 1902 by the Swedish Antarctic Expedition and the Norwegians decided to honour their Scandinavian neighbours by keeping the name. Grytviken became the largest settlement in South Georgia, although the British administration was the at the British Antarctic Survey at King Edward Point.

The abandoned village of Grytviken in South Georgia

A view of the abandoned settlement at Grytviken.

Due to overhunting, whale stocks around South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands diminished rapidly and whaling became unviable by the 1960s. Grytviken closed in 1964 and the last whaling station, Leith Harbour, closed the following year. Ships relating to the whaling industry lie rusting around the bay along with industrial buildings and fixtures relating to the whaling industry.

An abandoned whaling vessel in Grytviken

The rusting whaling ship, Petrel, deliberately grounded at Grytviken.

Argentina briefly captured Grytviken in 1982 during the Falklands War however, they were unable to take the rest of South Georgia. When the Royal Navy captured the submarine ARA Santa Fe only 3 weeks later, the Argentinians surrendered. In 1985, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands became a British Overseas Territory.

The noted polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried in the graveyard at Grytvikan. Having died at the beginning of an Antarctic expedition in 1922, his widow requested he be buried on South Georgia. His final resting place is a popular spot among visiting tourists.

A penguin in Grytviken

An emperor penguin visits the Grytviken Whaling Station on South Georgia.

Today, there is a museum, the South Georgia Museum, located at the abandoned whaling station at Grytviken. It mainly sees luxury tourists and cruise passengers visiting the South Atlantic. Locations such as the abandoned Puerto Del Hambre in Chile and Scott’s Hut are also often on the itinerary.

Abandoned whaling boats in South Georgia

Tourists visit abandoned whaling boats in South Georgia.

This is an account of Ernest Shakleton’s trip to the island as part of the trans-Antarctica expedition of 1914 – 1917 which included the Irish explorer Tom Crean

There was still a major obstacle to overcome. They had landed 22 miles from the Stromness whaling station as the crow flies. In order to get there they had to go across the backbone of mountains that ran the length of South Georgia, a journey that no-one had ever managed, the map depicted the area as a blank.

McNeish and Vincent were too weak to attempt the journey so Shackleton left them with McCarthy to care for them. On May 15th Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out to cross the mountains and reach the whaling station, they crossed glaciers, icy slopes and snow fields. At a height of about 4500 feet, they looked back and saw the fog closing up behind them. Night was falling and with no tent or sleeping bags, they had to descend to a lower altitude. They slid down a snowy slope in a matter of minutes losing around 900 feet in the process. They had a hot meal with two of them sheltering the cooker from the wind. Darkness fell and they carried on walking, soon a full moon appeared lighting their way. They climbed again and ate another hot meal to renew their energy.

They were soon able to make out an island in the distance that they recognized, but realised that they had taken the wrong direction and had to retrace their steps. At 5 a.m. they sat down exhausted in the lee of a large rock wrapping their arms around each other to keep warm. Worsley and Crean fell asleep, but Shackleton realised that if they all did so, they may never wake again. He woke them five minutes later and told them they had been asleep for half an hour, once again they set off.

There was now but one ridge of jagged peaks between them and Stromness, they found a gap and went through. At 6.30 a.m. Shackleton was standing on a ridge he had climbed to get a better look at the land below, he thought he heard the sound of a steam whistle calling the men of the whaling station from their beds. He went back to Worsley and Crean and told them to watch for 7 o’clock as this would be when the whalers were called to work. Sure enough, the whistle sounded right on time, the three men must have never heard a more welcome sound.

The three walked downwards to 2000 feet above sea level. They came across a gradient of steep ice, two hours later, they had cut steps and roped down another 500 feet, a slide down a slippery slope placed them at 1500 feet above sea level on a plateau. They still had some distance to go before they reached the whaling station. The going was still less than easy and they had some climbing still to do to negotiate ridges between them and their goal.

Location: Grytviken, South Georgia & The South Sandwich Islands 🇬🇸
Abandoned: 1964

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