Grytviken is a place with a faint feeling of a grim past. Grytviken does sit in a lovely isolated setting in the best protected harbor on South Georgia Island, and is the main settlement for the British in South Georgia island. It is also closely associated with the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who was buried there in 1922. The grim feeling, for me at least, was probably due to the industrial remains of the efficient whale processing factory that operated there for decades.
Grytviken, founded in 1904, was an important whaling and sealing station for South Georgia Island in the early to mid-20th century. The efficiency is on display in the rusting hulks of large metal storage containers, big vats used for boiling and separating whale oil, rusting hulks of several whaling ships sitting quietly along the shoreline, with whale bones still scattered about the water's edge.
The whale processing at Grytviken was a very efficient, industrial enterprise, and quite modern for its time and remote location. Whaling was a profitable business well into the 20th century. At Grytviken, every part of the whale was processed, rendering the blubber, meat, bones and viscera to extract the oil, with the bones and meat turned into fertilizer, fodder and many other products. Whale meat was even used to make pet foods. In the late 1940s when refrigerated ships became available, whale meat was able to be stored for human consumption. Japan was (and still is) a primary market for human whale meat consumption.
Whale hunting and processing in South Georgia was so effective that eventually the whales just disappeared from the seas surrounding South Georgia. Though the hunting of whales stopped over 50 years ago in the South Georgia region, there have been almost no whale sightings in South Georgia recorded since. It is as if the whales remember that their ancestors disappeared in the waters around South Georgia, and keep away from the place. The leadership of our expedition became quite excited then, when we actually had a whale sighting while we were visiting South Georgia.
There is a very nice museum at Grytviken, the South Georgia Museum, which is housed in the old whaling station manager's house. I spent some time in the museum. Part of the museum is dedicated to the old whaling industry that took place in South Georgia. From what I saw, it is easy to see why the whales eventually disappeared. The most modern technology from the times was employed in hunting whales, including the use of radar and sonar technology.
The human aspect of whaling and settlement on the island during its whaling heyday were also on exhibit. Top whale harpoonists were celebrated figures in the whaling world, given privileged treatment and awards for their proficiency. Life on the island appeared to be reasonably comfortable. Most of the workers with the whale factory, all men, would live on the island for around 6 months each year during the whaling season. No women were on the island except for wives and daughters of managers and senior officers of the whaling station. Alcohol was banned for all workers. Exceptions were made for senior managers, some of whom kept a small supply of liquor well locked away. Of course, naturally, illegal and concealed stills were operated by some of the seasonal workers!
Today Grytviken is mainly a tourist site for Antarctic cruises. People mainly come to see the museum and visit the grave of Ernest Shackleton. Only a small group of people now live on Grytviken, mostly during the summer season. Some are interns working in the museum and the others tending to the small gift and souvenir shop and post office on the island.