so where in the world am I?
As I sit by the window, I can see a stream of low cloud rushing into Cumberland Bay. Just above sea level, it is well below the lower mountains of the Banff Peninsula to the east. Cumberland Bay is in fact a large series of bays and inlets fed by glaciers on the central north coast of South Georgia. The two largest sections of the bay are known as Cumberland Bay West and East - I am tucked into the western coast of the latter, at a place called King Edward point - a kilometre, maybe less, from the whaling station at Grytviken. More about that in a minute.
South Georgia, then, is a remote, sub-Antarctic island just under 100 miles long - but rather more narrow - with a backbone of stunning mountains - the Allardyce Range. The island is the largest in the Scotia arc - a range of islands that stretches from the tip of the Antarctic peninsula out into the southern end of the Atlantic ocean. These sub-Antarctic islands remain sea-ice free in the winter months in the main, and so offer access to sea birds and seals all year round. One happy result of this fact is that some of the largest groupings of penguins and seals in the world are found here. The species differ from those found further south, or north for that matter. Significant here are King penguins, the second largest, Macaroni penguins with their tufted coloured head feathers, and Antarctic Fur and Elephant seals. Other species about to of course, and there are large colonies of ground nesting flying birds such as Albatross, Prions and Petrels, some of which burrow to make nests. Because the island is so large, and travel so difficult, it can be quite difficult getting to see some of the species. For example, we are getting a boat over to the other side of the bay tomorrow where we will overnight in a hut before heading out on a 35-40 mile round trip, hiking and wild camping, to see the King Penguins at St Andrew's bay.
It is midsummer here, so there are still plenty of young seals and penguins around, but soon they will be mature enough to head off to sea to feed by themselves and only return to the beaches occasionally over the winter. The largest colonies of seal, particularly, are difficult places to be. This is because, particularly in the case of the fur seals, the adult males establish and protect a territory on the beach which gives them access to females during the breeding season. The males are large - 2-300kilos and dangerous. The females are too, to an extent, but mostly they can be kept at bay with a large clap of the hands or by banging a large stick on the ground between you and them. It pays, though, not to be too close as a bite can be very nasty indeed.
Penguins, and most other birds in fact, are laid back and so long as you move carefully, and quietly, can be approached to within a few metres. Given time and patience, they will occasionally come over to investigate you and inquisitive penguins will often give you a peck to see what flavour of animal you are.
The combination of animals, rock sea and ice is alluring and special - the seas here are so fertile that the wealth of the oceans belies the harshness of the land. Currents drive fertile water from the Antarctic peninsula, bringing with it Krill in their billions that have fed on the algae that live on the undersurface of the sea ice through the Antarctic winter. Krill - little shrimp like animals form the main food source of many of South Georgia's residents - resulting in pink faeces literally all over the beaches.
One large group of animals is largely absent from the bay here - the Cetaceans.
Seal-killing and whaling activities here in the Southern Ocean began around islands to the north - sealers travelled from the mid 18th century to the Falklands and further afield. The first documented sightings of South Georgia date to the 1675, when a london merchant, Antoine de Roche was blown off course when sailing from Peru to Europe. There were few other sightings until the Yorkshireman, James Cook came here on the second of his three main voyages of exploration. In January 1775, Cook came upon Bird Island to the north west of South Georgia, and from there sails to the east along the north shore of South Georgia, where eventually he landed and took possession of the island for the crown. Cook had hoped that the land he had found was indeed the lost Southern Continent - the Terra Australis Incognita proposed by Greek Philosphers that would balance the world. In fact, it is not and the mainland of Antarctica lies hundreds of miles to the south.
Cook's reports of the vast numbers of animals here, notably seals, did however, trigger a rush of British and American sealers to the south to exploit the fur resource of the Fur seals. Their pelt has four times the numbers of hairs per square inch of skin than other seals, and was highly prized. Virtually extinct during the following hundred years, the population is now making a stunning recovery. Elephant seals, too, were hunted for their oil, and although almost wiped out here by the early 20th Century, hunting continued through to the end of the whaling industry here albeit on a small scale, such was the value of their oil.
The industry that changed South Georgia most significantly, however, was whaling. The name Carl Anton Larsen is most linked to the establishing of this industry. An Arctic seal and whale hunter, Larsen had sailed south in 1902 with Nordenskjold where he had noted the abundance of whales here. He also found that the north shore of South Georgia offered safe operating facilities, initially her at Grytviken in Cumberland Bay East. Larsen established the whaling station here two years later and the first whale was caught in the December of that year - the first of 175,000 caught in the following sixty years. That number is hard to imagine - the populations of whales were so high that other companies arrived to set up shop in other bays along the north coast of the island at Leith Harbour, Stromness, Husvik. Pelagic vessels, too, which operated further afield, allowed the hunt for whales offshore as they became scarce. As technology increased, so large and more lucrative species could be caught until almost all the stocks collapsed. As early as 1918, protection measures were put in place, but it was not until 1965 that whaling finally ended here with the closure of Leith Harbour. Sally Poncet told me yesterday that when she first came here in 1977, that the stations were more or less intact and pristine.
Each station was slightly different - taking either whales, seals or a mixture, and offering different conditions for the men that worked here, for it was mostly men. Some women came, as the wives of the station managers, and some of them left amazing accounts of life here, recipes too...
Each station had to be self sufficient - blacksmiths, machine workshops, bakeries, kitchens, libraries, a church, ski jumps and, in time, cinemas, all came here. Regular shipments of men, goods and oil came in from South America and removed whale oil and meat and blood products. Initially the oil was used for munitions and lubricants, but as food technology advanced and oil could be hydrogenated, it was also used for margarine. As stocks declined, the whole carcass was used to manufacture a wide range of products.
There exists, at Grytviken, a splendid museum established in 1992 by Nigel Bonner who had worked both as a sealing- inspector and later for the Antarctic Survey. The manager's house here was renovated and artefacts were collected from across the island. Eventually, Tim and Pauline Carr expanded the curative work of the museum and it remains largely as they left it. Now it run under the management of the South Georgia Heritage Trust and staff and volunteers from around the world come to for there.
I am going to head off to see it this afternoon, and from there will walk to Shackleton's grave and then to penguin river to see a small colony of Kings and their chicks.
To come - more about the governance of the island, the research station here and of life here for the winterer's.
Bye for now, Gerard