Mornings in the Antarctic do not typically begin with rats, reindeer, whale slaughter and whiskey—but this was no ordinary day.
A week and a half into our voyage from South America to Antarctica, Pamelia and I were preparing to go ashore at two vastly different spots on remote and wildlife-rich South Georgia Island. The morning stop was Grytviken, site of a rusting, abandoned whaling station, a small history museum and the grave of famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. The afternoon would take us ashore at Jason Harbor, one of the most interesting and beautiful landscapes we would see on our three-week journey.
But first we learned about rats.
A lecture on board the Akademik Sergei Vavilov laid out a tale of invasive species dating back at least a century. Brown rats arrived on South Georgia either on explorer James Cook's ship in 1775 or later on a whaling or sealing vessel and ever since then have wreaked havoc on ground-nesting birds, particularly the South Georgia pipit and the South Georgia pintail duck. Expanding herds of reindeer—brought in by Norwegian whalers in the early 1900s as a source of food—compounded the problem by eating tussock grass needed for bird nesting and otherwise damaging the environment.
Unlike most invasive-species stories, this one seems on track for a happy ending. The South Georgia Heritage Trust launched a multiyear project to rid the island of rats using poison pellets dropped by helicopter. That program has worked so well—with minimal impact on birds that eat rats—that other invasive-species-plagued islands around the world want to emulate it. Meanwhile, the reindeer were culled by more traditional hunting. The populations of South Georgia pipits and South Georgia pintail ducks are already increasing, and Pamelia and I hoped to see both.
We wouldn't have to wait long. A short Zodiac ride took us ashore at Grytviken for a morning that combined history and animals—some of them alive, some of them stuffed, some of them (the whales) shown in photos being harpooned, dragged onto the beach, carved up and boiled down. It served as an important reminder of what happened in those rusty buildings in the first half of the 20th century to more than 100,000 highly intelligent, sensitive, social mammals.
Whaling and whalers have often been glorified in literature and history, but from today's perspective there seems little glory in the slaughter of highly evolved animals—mammal cousins of ours, known to live as long or longer than we do and to remain close to their family members. Yes, the whalers were tough men (in some cases racist ones, to judge from the Grytviken museum's fascinating installation on the treatment of black Africans brought in to toil at the station). But their brutal work brought some whale species to the brink of extinction in the Southern Ocean and seriously affected world whale populations.
One member of our expedition said that her father had been based at Grytviken as a young engineer and that he was horrified by the wanton killing of whales that went on even after demand for whale products had virtually disappeared. The experience left such an impact on him that he went on to work on environmental projects such as research into declining albatross numbers and the link to long-line fishing.
(I should note that my 88-year-old father later told me that the factory he worked in used whale oil in honing machine tools; a bit of abrasive would be added to the top-quality oil for the last, finest honing. What happened when whale oil was no longer available, I asked him. "We used Crisco," he said.)
With the cold rain falling on us as we wandered among the rusted relics, a few in our group joked that the whaling station might better be called "Grim-viken." It would indeed be the most somber and sobering stop on our voyage, but one that we would never forget.
We were glad to get back to the Sergey Vavilov to dry off and warm up. And as so often happened in our travels in the Antarctic, the weather soon changed dramatically. Our afternoon at Jason Harbor could not have been more beautiful—or a better antidote to the grim reality of Grytviken.
By day's end Pamelia and I were tired but elated. We shared dinner with an expedition member from the Isle of Man, a self-governing entity located between England and Ireland—never a dull conversation on this ship!—and then learned that tomorrow's wakeup call would come at 4 a.m. No problem. We would visit three more amazing spots on South Georgia Island, including Salisbury Cove, a haven for seals and penguins; Prion Island, home to nesting wandering albatrosses and those rare South Georgia pipits that we had yet to see; and Elsehul, a place that would turn out to be as moody and memorable as its Lord of the Rings-sounding name might suggest.
Off to bed we went, eager for a new day in an extraordinary adventure that just kept getting better. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood