"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Antarctic Journals, Chapter Twenty-two, Grytviken

March 23, 1916:  Ernest Shackleton spots land to the west, the first they have seen in more than a year.  Hurley says they could reach land in a day if the pack ice relents and they could find open water.

The ice does not relent, and near the end of the month, Shackleton realizes they have drifted so far north there might not be reachable land ahead.

March: 30:  The last of the dogs are killed, the younger ones eaten.  The men lie in their sleeping bags and feel the swell of the ocean beneath them.  Lees suffers from seasickness.

April 7:  The tall peaks of Elephant Island are seen ahead in the far distance, but the ice shifts again and again, sometimes putting the island out of reach, sometimes making it seem a possibility.

The floe on which they are camped becomes smaller and smaller, until it is a 90 by 100 by 120 yard triangle.   A crack opens in the disintegrating ice and dumps the James Caird into the water.   The next afternoon, after a substantial meal, Shackleton and the men take to the boats.

This photo by Frank Hurley shows the 22.5 foot long James Caird after she was decked over.  However, at this point in our story, she is still an open life boat.

On the James Caird are Shackleton, Wild, and nine men.  The Dudley Decker holds Worsley and eight more men.  And finally, on the smallest boat, there are the remaining  eight men.

The ice moves crazily, constantly threatening to crush the small boats and finding open leads become an ordeal.  Wet, cold, and miserable, the 28 men had been trapped in the ice for fifteen months.

Now comes the hard part.

Shackleton's route now changes to green when the 28 men launch the three life boats as the ice disintegrates.


Try pot for rendering seal blubber.
Death has a strong presence here.

It haunts this place, this small bay set in nearly unparalleled, but stark, beauty.  High mountains like sharks’s teeth ring the bay while down below the spectre of death swaggers up the conveyors and swirls in the monstrous cookers and flows to the massive  tanks the color of old blood where the precious whale oil was stored.  Whale bones litter the beach and grounds.

The former whaling station of Grytviken in background.  Administration buildings are on the spit of land in the foreground.

The butchery that was rampant here a century ago and until the not-so-distant past now lingers in the trypots where seals were rendered for their oil.  This place, this place of death, is now a museum but the carnage and slaughter could still be taking place as I walk the beach behind the guide.  

We are in the long-abandoned Norwegian whaling station of Grytviken on South Georgia island, listening to the guide explain the workings of the machinery of death.  The Norwegian ship Fram, a bringer of tourists, bobs gently on her anchor in East Cumberland Bay, while the whaling ship Petrel, a deliverer of death until 1956, rots on shore in front of the museum that once was the station-master’s home.

The whaler Petrel.

“It was a different time, it was a different time,”  I silently repeat again and again, like a mantra that might somehow explain, but not excuse.  I lag behind farther and farther and turn my eyes away when my imagination becomes too vivid until, eventually, I can listen no longer.  I turn my back and wander away.

The pressure cooker where whale blubber was rendered into oil.  Slabs of blubber were loaded into the conveyor buckets  in front, lifted up and deposited into the cookers.

Relics of the whaling industry.  Try pot for rendering seal and penguin blubber in foreground.

Note all the seals on the beach in front of the administration and science buildings.

Former barracks.  Station ledgers show numerous orders of cologne.  Why?  Alcohol was forbidden here and cologne is mostly alcohol.

The white buildings at right are the former station manager's residence now converted into a museum and gift shop.  The church is an iconic landmark in Grytviken.

I look for life, instead. 

Around me, in this small, placid bay, elephant and fur seals were once slaughtered for their precious oil.  They now sleep unmolested but for the clicking of camera shutters, on the beaches, along the walking paths, beneath the bows of small boats.   

The administration buildings are barely visible behind the Fram.

A young male elephant seal offers me what I seek.

When fully mature, this male elephant seal can weigh up to 8800 lbs and measure 15 to 19 feet long.  He will be several times larger than female elephant seals.

The enormous proboscis of a mature bull elephant seal.  I'm still trying to orient what's what in this photo.  I think we are looking at this seal upside down, with the bottom of his head lying on the grass.
   That is his eye on the left of the proboscis and his whiskers and mouth on the right.  That is a cut above (below in the correct orientation)  the eye.

The King penguin with its fins up is trying to cool off.

Penguins in various stages of moult.

When he stops beyond another penguin, he provides a perfect shot of front and back.

Once aboard the Fram, the ship leaves this protected cove and heads east-southeast towards the southern tip of South Georgia, then into the open waters of the Scotia Sea once again.  They meet us with gale force winds, but this time we take the waves bow-on, rather than at the stern.

We have a two-day journey ahead of us before we see land again, all of it into the face of the prevailing westerly winds that whip unimpeded around the globe.

We will return to this place later in these journals (though not on our voyage).  It is here we will find the dénouement of the adventure that is Shackleton’s.

Remnants of skis used by the Norwegian whalers for recreation.




  1. Hello Gullible--You seem to have an interesting life! I am writing this because I have a request: I teach boy scouts about poisonous plants and in an image search for false hellebore, I ran across a couple of great shots you took and posted in your June 5, 2011 blog. Would you be willing to let me print them to use for teaching purposes? I would of course give you proper credit for the images. I will watch for your reply. Thank you.

  2. WoodsWalker: With pleasure. Be my guest and thanks for asking permission.

  3. I have to chuckle .. in more than one photo I wondered .. hmmmmm .. what is what here .. fun to read the above interaction with the two of you .. LOVED THE QUIP about the purchases of cologne and it being high in alcohol content .. with that I will sign off as cap anonymous ..

  4. Fantastic sentence: "High mountains like sharks’s teeth ring the bay while down below the spectre of death swaggers up the conveyors and swirls in the monstrous cookers and flows to the massive tanks the color of old blood where the precious whale oil was stored."

    The close-ups of the seal's face are poignant.

    I had to close one eye and squinch the other almost shut to skim the words on those signs describing the "process." Awful.

  5. Wow, Gullible! I am SO impressed with this adventure. You make both stories come alive. I shuddered with you this afternoon as I read about the storm. I cannot believe Shackleton and his men endured so many months on their ice raft. I cried every time a dog was shot - or seal - and just now, reading about your visit to the whaling station on So. Georgia Island, my stomach turns at the thought of all that slaughter.

    I feel I am living both stories with you. I shall have to send you pics of Mom on her trip to Antarctica in 1994, She was all of 82. But it was a different tourist line and her small craft wasn't as outfitted as yours. She reported 3 days in the bunk due to heavy seas as well.

    I'm gonna keep reading! Jana