Who would be a whaler? Not many, thesedays. A rough life, even if you disregard the mechanics and morality. Consider though, for a moment ,the men who came down to the South Atlantic to work in the industry here on South Georgia. I’ve met a few of them – a few survive in the Falklands.
They were men, chiefly from the east coasts of England, Scotland and of course many Norwegians. The industry here recruited those who were already used to a life at sea: some fishermen, some whalers out of ports like Dundee and Hull. Men used to waving goodbye to their families for months at a time. Men used to an uncertain future. There are many graves here on South Georgia. Each whaling station has a small cemetery, marking at the very least those men whose bodies were recovered.
Those lost at sea, well we will never know of them. Their families would have had no way of knowing till months later, perhaps if ever.
The north shore of South Georgia has a narrow coastal strip of tussock grassland, with low hills that quickly rise to 2-3,000 metre mountains. The landscape would be dramatic enough without the millions of seabirds and seals that dominate the beaches. Take St Andrew’s bay, our destination this morning: some 250,000 king penguins reside on the narrow beaches: huge glaciers rise behind them.
The whaling stations themselves, now completely abandoned, rust unhappily in between the biological majesty of the beaches. Animals, once hunted to near extinction such as the fur seal have taken possession of the island once again. Some beaches are almost so thick with them that we struggle to get a foothold. You have to have your wits about you. Fur seals are appealing, curiously attractive seals that swim, turn and play in the shallows, while on land they are fiercely territorial and prone to charge, chase and bite if you are unlucky. They weigh up to 300kilos, charge at 25-30 kmph and really mean it. We stay away from the big ones, but even the little pups have a mean streak and will charge, even when they are only the size of a kitten.
Up behind Stromness, one of the larger whaling stations, a wide glacial valley curves a mile or so up to Shackleton’s waterfall. Having crossed the island, after months drifting in the ice of the Weddell sea and weeks sailing north in his tiny 22ft lifeboat, this final watershed marked his route down to potential rescue for his men, left 800 miles south on Elephant Island.
Of course it is impossible to imagine the hardships that he and his men had gone through on their journey. The final stage, though, the last few steps to home and the safety and warmth of a friendly face, something or someone familiar, is a feeling that we all can empathize with surely? The return to familiarity is something I feel strongly when I return home from a trip – the usual everyday smells of the house, the ease of living back in your own briar patch.
Shackleton wasn’t a man to linger. All of his men were to return to Europe torn hideously apart by the First World War. Some of his survivors were indeed torpedoed within a month or two of their rescue. Desperate.
A week has passed since I started this blog post, and I am now listening to tango music in a café in Ushuaia. Gateway to the Antarctic. Well, one of them at least.
Our ship docked last night and we met up with old friends who are joining the ship for the next few months. I often find myself being confused when I see people that I work with South anywhere else – it's a little disconcerting. The Halley winterers, well those of them who are back at the station for the summer, made a picture yesterday of our 2014 winter team, mops replacing those of us who are elsewhere. Nice one boys. It will be at least a year till there is a chance of us all getting together again as Octavian and Mike are wintering again at Rothera and Halley respectively. Away from their families. Its hard to describe how Antarctica grabs you, holds you and keeps you. But it does, and all those who come here leave a little bit behind. To paraphrase an old friend, I’d hate to think I could never come back’.