October 01, 2016

The deserted and abandoned whaling stations of South Georgia

The famous manager's house at Stromness. On 20 May 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton knocked on this door after his heroic open boat journey from Elephant Island. (Roderick Eime)

The history of whaling in and around South Georgia is a blood-curdling tale of brutality and exploitation that remains a blemish on the environmental record of mankind.

Today the remains of the whaling stations and their supporting infrastructure serve as memorials to this bleak period in history when the world’s great whales were hunted to the brink of extinction by greedy whalers seeking to maximise their catch without any thought for preserving these beautiful animals.

In late 1998, I was fortunate to visit the crumbling stations on these far-flung islands which now attract tourists in ever-increasing numbers. Much of the buildings are in a very poor state of repair and quite dangerous to enter, so these days much of it is roped off for good reason.

Looking for a cruise to South Georgia?
Whaling began on South Georgia at Grytviken in 1904 and continued until whale numbers became uneconomical in the mid-1960s. There were also major bases and facilities at Leith Harbour, Stromness and Husvik which stayed open intermittently until the same time. Other smaller bases were permanently closed prior to WWII.

Many polar explorers used South Georgia as a supply base prior to their Antarctic missions. Most notable among them was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who remains buried there in the whalers’ cemetery. He had died aboard his ship Quest while enroute to South Georgia in 1922. Captain Frank Hurley, Sir Hubert Wilkins and Captain James Cook also have ties to South Georgia, with Cook claiming the islands for Britain in 1775.

Related story: Sub-Antarctic Renaissance 

In April 1982, Argentine salvagers landed at Grytviken and Leith Harbour under the pretense of removing scrap metal, but this turned out to be a prelude to their invasion later that same month. This event was the first spark of the ensuing Falklands War and South Georgia was retaken by British forces on 25 April 1982, during Operation Paraquet.

Grytviken 07-31

Grytviken 06-09

Grytviken 07-32

Grytviken 06-06

Collapsed smokestack at Stromness, South Georgia




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