First stop was the post office in South Georgia to escape the torrential rain
South Georgia might be regarded as being the last stop on earth, but visitors are can enjoy a truly astounding array of wild life, industrial history, reminders of war and a scientific look into the future. The rain was coming down in stair rods when we arrived but it couldn’t hold us back. First stop was the post office
Ainslie, the post mistress, who hails from south island New Zealand, greeted us with a beaming smile and quickly assured us that “rain like this is so rare”. Now there’s a familiar cry. In fact the torrential monsoon-style downpour was the first real rain they’d had for weeks. Water was cascading down the surrounding hills in jagged white cataracts. Most of our foul weather gear was found wanting including that of Adele’s crew some of whom were on at least their second set of Musto Ocean HPX kit. Check out those knee reinforcement seals, guys!
Posting a card from SG is de rigeur and there are any number of spectacular first day covers including one adorned with images of Ellen MacArthur whose voice has been added to the movement to stop the accidental slaughter of albatross, the so-called by-catch of long line fishing.
Interestingly, SG has become a model of how to prevent these deaths and in five years the numbers have fallen from 500 to nil in their waters. Sinking bait faster by weighting lines, restricting fishing to winter months, flying streamers from boats? bridges and banning the discharge of guts and offal have made a huge and effective difference. The problem, however, is far from being solved globally.
Weirdly, after fishing and tourism, philately is the third biggest industry? on SG and with the prices one can see why. If ever there was a captive market this must be it. When the cruise liners come in, Ainslie moves her post office aboard the ships to maximise the business.
Having posted our missives we were faced with an extraordinary choice. Should we visit Shackleton’s memorial cross standing on King Edwards Pt reached by running the gauntlet among fur seals who occasionally bare their teeth and have a little snarl (armed with our sticks – see previous blog- we fended them off but our group’s tail end Charlie was well advised to glance astern occasionally)? Or should we dally by a small colony of king penguin, looking a little bedraggled in their moult, huddled on the beach. Or you could watch elephant seals frolicking – well, rolling around – on the water’s edge. We did it all of course!
Across the bay at Grytviken a piece of strange and gruesome industrial history lay rusting and rotting, the whaling station where once 30 mammals a day would be hauled ashore, flensed with razor sharp blades, cut into bits by rotating knives and dropped into boiling pots to reduce them to oil. Bone, which contained a third of the whale’s oil was similarly dealt with. This enormous industry supported thousands at one stage and Grytviken is one of a number of stations on the island.
But all is now deserted. Like rusting ghost towns these eerie memorials to a bygone era, during which certain species of whale were all but eradicated, lie abandoned and half wrecked, many of the original buildings torn down because of a high asbestos content.
The local church, imported from Norway as an early day flat pack? in 1913, is a little beauty and the library within it, a must, even if the majority of volumes are in Norwegian. Many of the memorials to Shackleton have been moved into the church from his grave for safer keeping.
An excellent museum records in detail the history of whaling and of course the other remarkable subjects for which the island has become so famous; Shackleton’s exploits, the phenomenal abundance of sealife and the 1982 South Georgia conflict which was the precursor to the Falkands War all have their stories told in pictures, words and artefacts.
We rounded off the day with cocktails at the Commissioner’s house where the delightful and surprisingly young scientists of the British Antarctic Survey entertained us and explained some of the work they were doing with the vitally important fisheries industry. A thorough understanding of the behaviour, life cycle and movement either side of the Antarctic Convergence Zone is crucial to the good management of stocks particularly those of the extraordinary tooth fish which lives at in excess of 2,000m and is regarded as white gold? by fishermen who sell it for our tables dressed up as Chilean Sea Bass.
Scientific co-ordinator Mark Belchier showed me around the BAS’s new and impressive laboratories where among other things they are putting minute slivers of tooth fish ear bone under the microscope to determine age. As head scientist Anjali Pande explained, there is so much historical research just sitting there – BAS needs to use new knowledge alongside the existing research and use the results more strategically.
What of global warming I asked. “Well,” said Mark, “just look at the photographs.” Glaciers which we would have been able to see from the Commissioners’ window in Shackleton’s time simply aren’t there any more. But he added that nature tends to balance things and that what may suffer as a result of a glacier receding is balanced by a benefit for something else in nature. The danger is another less natural influence possibly accelerating or artificially continuing the trend. If he could tell what would ultimately happen, he?d be in demand he reckoned!
Later today we’re off to look at four sooty albatross chicks on their nest, found by Ainslie. We’ve been sworn to secrecy as to their location!