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An Antarctic Expedition: Volume V

A Sombre Morning in Grytviken


South Georgia is renowned for its whaling past and evidence still exists in Grytviken, a small hamlet where one of the largest onshore whaling stations in the world remains derelict, after decades of use. A popular site to visit while touring the deep South, Grytviken holds a special, albeit dark and morbid place in history. A total of 53,761 whales were slaughtered along these shores to sustain human life back in the 20th century. An odd place for a whale-enthusiast to visit, you might say?

Image: Grytviken, South Georgia. Nina Herbert, 2022.

Image: Remains of the derelict whaling station, Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

On the contrary, it is an incredibly relevant place for a whale-enthusiast to visit. I was very much looking forward to immersing myself in this place, yet a part of me was still reluctant to step ashore. I somehow felt like I owed it to all the whales I’d ever seen and stand in solidarity with them, and refuse to visit such a horrific place. But the other part of me yearned to learn and understand more about their suffering, and also about the lives of those who inflicted the suffering, too.


The museum at Grytviken is arguably the best place to start. It has an incredible amount of memorabilia that has been well preserved for the purposes of showing tourists who visit via cruise ship. In the first room to the right, there is a penguin skin you can touch – it actually feels rougher than you might think and that is due to the way in which the feathers interlock and layer on top of each other to repel water. You can also see the skulls of Antarctic fur seals, juvenile humpback whales and beaked whales. Most notably in this room is the humpback whale foetus that is preserved in a jar in one of the cabinets. It was a startling sight if I am being brutally honest, which definitely hit me quite hard. It is believed that whalers used to take baby whale foetuses home in jars as presents for their families… a niche gift if you ask me.


The other rooms appear more theatrical, as if you are walking back in time through a whaler’s house where ropes, harpoons and barrels are stored in great numbers. I remember seeing large barrels piled high in the corner containing spermaceti, an oil once extracted from the heads of sperm whales. It was often used as a lubricant for clock-making and a fuel for lamps back in the day. There was also a gruesome black and white video playing on a loop in the background, of a whale being harpooned and then flensed by a team of about twelve whalers. What shocked me the most was how normal and it looked to them, and how routine and methodical it appeared to me. They were just living their day-to-day lives to earn their keep and feed their families - slaughtering these beautiful animals was simply ‘a way of life’. The museum also had a lovely little gift shop, where I purchased a number of goodies, mainly to make myself feel better and pick up some souvenirs for my own family (no humpback foetuses in jars though, thank goodness! Customs would have a field day). One such item was a cute orca plushie which quite honestly could not be left behind. Once purchased, I left the museum, full to the brim with mixed emotions.

Image: Large vats used to boil whale blubber. Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

I ventured outside to clear my head and walked around the remains of the whaling station. Large, cylindrical pressure cookers stood tall, towering above me. One had ‘whale blubber’ written on the side in large, black letters. These containers used steam to boil and separate the oil from the whale blubber. Each pressure cooker could hold approximately 24 tonnes, which is the equivalent of around three fully grown minke whales. As I turned the corner, I saw the flensing plan, a large steel-like structure with what looked like a big, metal slide. This ramp was used to haul whales up by their flukes so they could be stripped and flayed more easily. This very ramp was where the largest blue whale of 33.6 metres, was recorded in history. That really knocked the breath out of me. Realising that the largest mammal that has ever graced this earth was barbarically killed here, in this very spot… was pretty hard-hitting, especially for a passionate ocean advocate like myself. After that, I thought it was best to head back to the ship and process my emotions, but before I hopped back on the zodiac, I quickly walked over to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave. Weirdly, seeing his grave lifted my spirits a little. It was a poignant moment to see the burial site of such an intrepid polar explorer. A moment I feel privileged and blessed to have experienced, especially early in my career.

Image: Large, metal slide attached to the flensing plan, where the largest blue whale recorded in history was slaughtered. Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

Image: Petrel the whaling ship, Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

Image: Petrel the whaling ship, Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

Image: Sir Ernest Shackleton's grave, Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

After standing over Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave and absorbing what felt like a monumental moment in history, I headed back to the ship. The surrounding landscape was littered with whalebones, yet it was fascinating to see how nature had reclaimed most of the land. The area was practically overrun with seals, an animal once hunted to near extinction. Antarctic fur seals were snapping at my feet and the odd elephant seal sneezed as I passed. It was reassuring to see that, if left alone, nature can ultimately recover and flourish. A vital lesson we should be teaching generations to come.

Image: Elephant seals resting on whalebones, Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

Image: Two juvenile elephant seals eyeing me up, Grytviken, South Georgia, 2022.

I’m profoundly grateful for my experience in Grytviken, despite it being somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster. Having invested so much time and passion into protecting whales and dolphins, it was morally quite difficult to submerge myself in an area where so much pain and destruction occurred. But ultimately it serves as a hard lesson for the next generation of humans to learn from. We are unlikely to see certain whale species recover to pre-whaling levels, that’s a fact. We as a species have to accept the damage we have caused. However, Grytviken serves as a reminder to not make the same mistake and learn from our past. We can, with the correct measures in place, make a difference to the whales alive today and the whales of future generations to come.

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