Sunday, 14 April 2013

A visit to South Georgia

Hi again blogwatchers, both of you!

Last Friday was a special day.  We’d been promised a stop at South Georgia all cruise long, but it had always been threatened to be cut out to make up for delays or possibly impossible due to high winds at the awkward mooring site.  But, as dawn came two days ago we were awoken to by the sight of towering snow capped mountains jutting straight out of the sea, interspersed with massive glaciers and numerous bays dotted with freshly minted icebergs glowing yellow in the first light.   Even more magical was the wind on the monkey island (the ship's roof to lubbers) where we all gathered to take pictures.  Rather than the traditional teeth shattering gale, it was actually warm.   Having been warned that South Georgia would be some sort of glacial death zone, raining and snowing 320+ days a year and populated entirely by man eating fur seals, the blue sky and mirror finish bay flanked by luxuriant cushion grass and tumbling brooks looked a bit incongruous.  Possibly the whole thing had been dreamt up by Shackleton’s PR department? 

Not as bad as it looks.

The JCR pulled rank on the ship presently resident at the one ship dock at King Edward Point (the BAS base) and forced them to stand off to sea for 24 hours while we did vital science tourism.  We impatiently listened to the quick briefing by the base commander and then took off ashore armed with day packs bulging with foul weather gear, slabs of bread pilfered from the galley and several terabytes of blank memory cards.  The party quickly spread out, with some visiting the historical ruins and museums, others heading for the hills and one or two keen philatelists (word of the day) heading to the post office that inevitably marks the far flung outposts of the British Empire.  Some of these places presumably consist only of a post office and a postmaster who has annoyed someone.  Our small band had a plan to seize the day, and cram as much possible into the daylight hours. 

Grytviken viewed from KEP.

First stop, at 9 am, was the traditional drink with the boss.  Shackleton’s grave sits on the opposite side of the bay from KEP at the end of a gravel road that passes through the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken.  Ambling along the road, and enjoying standing on firm ground again, we encountered our first fur seal pups and everyone began fumbling with their cameras.  To be frank, these things are adorable.  Imagine a small fuzzy ball of long whiskers, ridiculously oversized flippers and huge black eyes that look imploringly up to you.  Even their uncoordinated waddle seems precisely calibrated to melt hearts.  Basically, they're so sweet that simply looking at them can inflict type 2 diabetes. Until they get close to you that is, at which point their eyes glow red and they open their fang lined mouths and charge in at a gallop.  Let me tell you this, fur seals can produce an amazing array of sounds and all of them are threatening.  They range from a mildly annoyed snort of derision to a deep bellied growl that could be used by security companies in place of, say, armed guards and dobermen.  In any event, the sight of several respected scientists stumbling backwards over each other in order to get away from this foot-high hell beast was both disturbing and amusing.

A cold hearted killing machine.

The entertainment starved locals know the comedy value of this first encounter, and they were probably watching with high powered lenses from the base.  We later found out from them that they normally walk the beaches armed with a broom handle.  Calling it a club is probably in bad taste, but evidently a stout piece of wood and a good aim is the best way to dissuade seals from snacking on bits of your anatomy.  This is definitely something you want to avoid, as a big seal can weigh almost two hundred kg and their fangs are serious business.  Worse, John the ship Doctor informs us, their bite carries some very nasty bacteria that make infection inevitable and leads to the terribly named condition of 'seal finger'.  This name seems specifically chosen so that people will either laugh off your injury or believe that you are some kind of deviant, both ways guaranteeing insufficient sympathy for the blackening and swelling of bits of your body.  Seal bites are such a problem that the small huts scattered around the island, where people go when they feel that the base simply isn't isolated enough for them, are equipped with 'seal bite kits'.  Each hut has four such kits, presumably to deal with mass casualties when the seals finally get around to organising a coordinated assault.


I'm not kidding.

In any event, our first encounter with the seals was a learning event.  Everyone started taking a bit more care where they stepped, as the seals were scattered absolutely everywhere and were at the very least a tripping hazard.  Mostly we got on by by keeping our distance, although Andy Watson seemed to rub the seals the wrong way with his mere presence.  Others would wander by and the dozing seals would open one eye and stare malevolently.  Andy strolling past absentmindedly musing on tracer concentrations would elicit a much more serious defcom level and he was more than once was forced to apply the tip of his boot in order to keep his fingers.  As we rounded the bay, we passed through Grytviken, the old abandoned whaling station.  Had I payed more attention in the museum I'd know why this UK outpost has a name like this.  Presumably it has a lot to do with the many Norwegians buried in the cemetery where Shackleton also rests.  I gather throwing things at whales was such a popular national pass time that Norwegians would literally travel to the ends of the earth, immigrating in the process, to pursue it.  The norse certainly have a knack of naming manly things. Grytviken. Just the word alone sounds like it should be used to describe a group of huge hairy men with more eyes than teeth and possibly wearing helmets with wings on.  I imagine they probably struggle to find a good name for something like, for example, butterflies, but if you need to name a town where people will stab whales from open boats in subzero gales, drag them to shore and then cover themselves in blood and oil, ask a Norwegian.  

This particular species also shows affection through biting.

The town itself has seen better days, with rusting industrial whale processing machinery everywhere and several beached and decaying whaling boats, but it is certainly evocative of the brutal life that the whalers must have lived to bring nice lamp oil and perfumes to the folk at home before they discovered that they were running out of whales.  It did have an excellent museum that demonstrated the remarkable amount of history that has been crammed into this little cove.  From the whalers, being the light at the end of Shackleton's epic journey, hosting a small war where both sides took turns surrendering to each other and now to a busy tourism, fisheries and science destination, Grytviken and KEP have been through a lot.

Pretty sure it was an insurance job.

Pressing on through the grassy field, littered with glowering and blood thirsty seals, we came to the neat and quiet white fenced cemetery where Shackleton and others are buried.  All the small white graves face the traditional east, except for the large slab denoting Shackleton's final resting place which, legend says, faces forever south.  I earned no friends at all by pointing out that the stone, in fact, faces north, and for Shack to be facing south he must be lying with his feet to the stone.  To the right of the stone is the much newer and smaller marker for Shackleton's 'right hand man', Frank Wild, who's ashes were recently discovered in South Africa and reinterred next to his old boss.  I further compounded my unpopular literal interpretation of metaphor by pointing out that for Frank to be on Shackleton's right hand, the great man must also be planted face down.  I continue to maintain that technically correct is still the best kind of correct.  As one of the giants of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration (which for UK explorers traditionally meant failing with great style and bravery) Shackleton is a spiritual founder of the British Antarctic Survey.  He was also a man who enjoyed a drink and so, with great reverence, several bottles of beer appeared and he was duly toasted.  As tradition dictates a small sip was spilt for him to enjoy.  This is something that has been going on for decades, so Shackleton must be particularly well preserved in his old age.  Possibly even pickled. 

Jan, Pierre, Gwyn, Andrew and Paul pay their respects.  Jan appropriately sombre.

Expeditioner tradition satisfied, and inspired and humbled by the amazing determination it must have taken Shackleton and his companions to cross the rugged ice caps of South Georgia, we finished our beers and looked up at the peaks towering over us.  I'll recount the tale of our own epic journey across the mountains in my next post.





  1. Your joke -sorry, technically accurate thought- about Shackleton being buried feet to the stone AND face to the ground had me laughing to tears. Thanks for the wonderful story!

  2. Well. The other two blog viewers are really enjoying your insightful commentary. Thanks. Louise and Pete, Isle of Lewis