Tuesday, 15 March 2016

South Georgia (day 3)

In the previous post in this series South Georgia (day 2), I talked about the visits on our second day. But there was more...

Wednesday, 9th March 2016: Grytviken

After anchoring overnight in a suitable sheltered bay, in the early morning the ship sailed into Cumberland East Bay and rounded King Edward Point. Through the rain-streaked window of my cabin I saw the modern buildings of King Edward Point Research Station operated by the British Antarctic Survey, with the conical-shaped mountain behind rising to a height of 443 metres. Moored at the adjacent jetty, I could see a small motor launch and the Fisheries Protection Vessel ‘Pharos SG’. We dropped anchor facing the settlement of Grytviken itself. From the rain-soaked deck, I had a panoramic view of the bay and the scattered buildings. I could see the neat, white-painted church, what was clearly the remains of the whaling station, a number of small steam-powered boats sunk on the shore and a cluster of modernised, white-painted buildings.

Remains of the whalking station at Grytviken viewed from 'Silver Explorer'.

At 7.45 a.m., a presentation was made in the theatre by Sarah Lurcock from South Georgia Heritage Trust. She had come on board to talk about the rat eradication programme in South Georgia. The first three phases had been completed, apparently successfully, and they were commencing a long-term monitoring programme for which complete funding had not been obtained. At the time, the programme had cost around ten million U.S. dollars! Rats were introduced accidentally by visiting ships and had represented a serious predator to South Georgia’s unique species, like the South Georgia Pipit.

On a dull, rainy morning at 8.30 a.m. our Zodiacs started to land passengers at a stony beach just away from the main settlement. There were lots of small fur seals around as we walked the few yards to Grytviken’s cemetery which was surrounded by a white painted fence. Almost all of the 64 graves are those of Norwegian sealers and whalers but Ernest Shackleton’s grave is the object of pilgrimage for some visitors. Drinks in plastic cups were provided and Peter gave a short eulogy to Shackleton before a toast to the man still often called “The Boss”.

Shackleton's Grave, Grytviken. Peter Harrison proposes a toast to 'The Boss'.

We then walked around the shore towards the main part of the settlement. I joined the party led by Sarah Lurcock who actually lives at Grytviken. We first came to the present hydro-electric power plant. A dam was built on nearby Gull Lake in the 1920s with now-abandoned turbines to power the whaling station. In the summers of 2007/2008 and 2008/2009, the dam was raised 30 cm. and strengthened. A new penstock can supply up water at up to 30 tonnes/minute to the 230 kW turbine supplied by Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon. The new facility was opened by the Princess Royal during her visit in March 2009. I didn’t have an opportunity of studying earlier generating plant standing on the hillside – it looked like a pair of 8-cylinder diesel generating sets and a turbine-generator set.

Sunk in the bay just offshore is what little remains of the barque ‘Louise’, built in 1869 in Freeport, Maine. She arrived in November 1904 with materials to construct the whaling station and was retained as a ‘coaling hulk’. Nearby, on the beach was a wooden-hulled motor boat used for towing whales and general purposes around the whaling station.

We reached the main part of the station with all sorts of intriguing industrial plant around, denuded of the corrugated iron buildings which would once have covered it. The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) had provided 14 information boards around the site with well thought out identification of the equipment to be seen and brief technical descriptions of the various processes. I’m indebted to SGHT for some of the information below. I rapidly collected as many pictures as I could for later study. This task was made somewhat harder by the rain, which kept ‘spotting’ the lens of my camera and the need to avoid stepping on the fur seals who had managed to insinuate themselves in all sorts of places around the site for their ‘morning laze’.

A row of four electrically-driven compressors were presumably intended for the freezer plant. Apparently, they had been installed originally at Husvik whaling station in 1958 and moved to Grytviken in 1961/62 but never actually installed.

We passed the Workshops with a slipway allowing complete boats to be hauled out of the water for attention. The building had been demolished but a heavy-duty plate-rolling machine and press remained. The rather odd-looking sunken structure in the bay outside the Workshops would have been the floating dock which was capable of lifting a complete whale chaser boat out of the water for attention to the hull.

A reasonably complete whale catcher boat, the ‘Petrel’, was beached next to the slipway. The vicious-looking harpoon gun mounted on the bow was a reminder of the vessels purpose. Despite the old-fashioned appearance given by the tall funnel, the structure supporting the radar scanner is visible by the bridge. In the latter days of mass whaling, RADAR and ASDIC became important tools, supplementing the traditional technique of having a lookout in the “crow’s nest” – a wooden barrel secured to the top of the foremast.

Whale catcher 'Petrel' beached at Grytviken.

Grytviken was established as a whaling station by the Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen in 1904. Describing the business of disposing of whales remains distasteful but over the years, new plant was installed so that Grytviken, as a highly mechanised plant, had become remarkably efficient. The station continued to operate until 1964. The whale was first winched ashore onto an area called the the Flensing Plan where it was hacked into manageable sections and cooked to extract the oil. Until the extraction of mineral oils became common and the petro-chemical industry developed, whales were an important source of oil. Originally, only the meat was cooked to extract the oil – bones were regarded as a waste product. Later, it was realised that significant oil could be extracted by cooking the bones so separate Bone Cookeries were provided. Baleen Plates, ‘whalebone’, were initially a product with many uses (perhaps its use in ladies corsets is best known) but, as the plastics industry developed, whalebone lost its value.

At first, vertical cookers were used but I also saw a more modern Hartman cooker and two Kvaerner cookers. There were also the remains of the alternative Rose-Downs plant which produced higher quality oil and protein-rich meal by mincing and lightly cooking the meat followed by pressing through screens. I also saw the remains of the Separator Plant. The initial cooking produced oil, an oil-water liquid called ‘glue water’ and solid residue – ‘grax’. The Separator Plant ensured maximum oil extraction. The solid residue was dried in rotating oil fired ovens, crushed and bagged as meal for animal feed or fertiliser.

There were two more whaling vessels beached – firstly, the ‘Albatros’, built in 1924 in Norway and secondly, the ‘Dias’. The ‘Dias’ was built in 1906 as a Hull trawler called ‘Viola’, converted for whaling in 1927 and served as a whale catcher or seal catcher until 1964!

The original administrative building had been modernised and converted into an excellent museum, with a number of larger objects displayed outside and a museum annexe to one side.

Grytviken Museum: Marconi Radio Equipment used on Whale Catchers.

There was a Post Office with an attached exhibition about Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition. Last Zodiac back to our ship was at 11.30 a.m. so, about 11.20, I reluctantly returned to the ship after a fascinating, if brief, visit to Grytviken.

The ship moved to St. Andrew’s Bay whilst the passengers had lunch but conditions were found unsuitable for the scheduled landing so the Captain decided to move to Fortuna Bay rather than lose the afternoon landing. I’ll describe our visit to Fortuna Bay when I can.

Related posts

Next South Atlantic post.

All my South Atlantic posts.

My pictures

You can find all my pictures on the trip in the Collection Cape to Cape (still being added to, at the time of writing).

There are a few pictures of the trip in the album South Atlantic Voyage.

['Cape to Cape' collection added 5-Apr-2016]