Monday, February 9
Fortuna Bay, Stromness, & Grytviken
We sailed into Fortuna Bay and left 60 people who would make the four-hour hike from Fortuna over the mountain pass to Stromness, the whaling station where Shackleton finally got help. It took him and his two men 36 hours to hike from Peggotty Bluff to Stromness, but they couldn’t always tell from the mountain path whether the bay below was a whaling station. In fact, they descended here to Fortuna under the mistaken impression that they would find whalers only to be disappointed once they hit the beach that they were wrong. So they had to drag themselves up and trudge over yet another pass in order to find Stromness.
We watched the hikers in their orange jackets start up the long hill and then turned the ship for the sea. Shortly after we left Fortuna, the naturalist Mike Greenfelder, found the blows of Southern Right Whales (so named “right whales” by the whalers for their easy hunting and voluminous blubber). Mike was really excited to see them because they were hunted very nearly to extinction and have only recently started to come back. After a 20 minute diversion, the captain set us back on course for Stromness and our rendezvous with the Shackleton hikers.
As we entered the port, we could see the orange jackets assembling near the edge of some ice, and the captain sounded the horn. At the same moment, Santiago Imberti, who was leading the hikers told the story of how Shackleton arrived at this point and just then heard the siren to waken the whaling station workers. They knew, then, that they were in the right place and they would in fact survive.
Those of us on board chose to walk out to the Shackelton waterfall to meet the hikers, which was about a mile and a half away. Unfortunately, we got the same leader who took us on the photographic hike in Peggotty Bluff. He set out on a straight line and never once looked behind him. We were hot and overheated and had to walk through spongy tundra and rocky streams. I think we made it there in 20 minutes, and the guy would have turned right around and started back to the ship but for the fact that Tim Spoor, the expedition leader, told him to relax and let us all enjoy a beautiful day.
In fact, the weather was warm and sunny, and the waterfall was beautiful. The hikers were still making their way down the hillside and everyone felt peaceful and satisfied.
Back at the beach, we took in the views of the rusting, abandoned whaling station, now home to penguins and a bounty of Fur Seals. We happened to see two blond Fur Seals, a variant that happens about once in a thousand. No question we’d seen more than two thousand Fur Seals.
For lunch, we had a barbecue on deck, with hamburgers, links, french fries and baked Alaska. It was the first time we could all sit outside and enjoy the weather.
That afternoon, we went to Grytviken, where Shackleton and his first mate, Frank Wilde, were buried. We all assembled at the cemetery and drank a toast of Jameson’s whiskey to Shackelton. Druid-style, I tossed what I didn’t finish of the first sip ontoj the grave snd offered it to the weather-gods.
Grytviken is another abandoned whaling station and museum. We had a good docent who toured us around and showed us where the young Norwegian workers built a ski-jump where they raced on days between processing the whales. Whaling ships were fitted to bring in as many as 14 whales with one haul, towing the dead carcasses alongside the ship. A moratorium on whaling has been in effect for years now, though some countries, notoriously Japan, still hunt whales for “scientific” purposes. In the museum, we found a replica of The James Caird, the foul weather suit the men wore, and a Wandering Albatross with an 11 foot wing-span. Barry had to ring the bell in the whaler’s church, but he was disappointed that the bell didn’t lift him off the ground like Quasimodo.
Sarah, the docent from the Grytviken museum, came on board for dinner to make a presentation about the South Georgia Heritage Trust, which was established for conservation purposes and to preserve the island as a bird sanctuary. Two pests were imported by Europeans to South Georgia. One, the reindeer, were introduced by the whaling companies to supply fresh meat for the workers. The reindeer thrived, but they tore up the tundra, and they really belong up north in the Arctic. The last of the reindeer was caught in 2014. The second pest was inadvertently introduced; Norwegian rats ran off the whaling boats and found a home without predators. Without anything to keep them in check, the rats interfered with all the nesting birds - e.g., albatross and pipits - who must nest on the ground, as there are no trees. There is an ongoing program to eradicate the rats by dropping poison pellets in specifically targeted areas. They have shown that the bird populations are thriving again, just a few years after the rats were removed. Their goal is to make the island rat-free, and they are well on their way to doing so. And if the island is rat free, the Trust believes that South Georgia Island will be home to over 100,000,000 nesting birds.