October 28, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
For a man of action, the delay must have been maddening. With alarming
reports of ice creeping northward, Shackleton had no choice but to mark time
in Grytviken and wait for the onset of the austral summer. The departure of
Endurance for the Antarctic was postponed for a month, but Shackleton had
already been waiting for years. This was his third voyage to the Southern
Ocean, and since he came within 97 miles of the Pole in 1909, he was
intent on another bid. But the warnings of the whalers stayed him.
We, too, remain in Grytviken, filming the place where Endurance was last
seen by anyone other than its crew. I slog through the snow between buildings,
sometimes drifted seven feet high, hoping not to break through. It is a ghost town now, a huddled
assemblage of ruddy metal buildings whistling with wind. There is an
ambivalence about the place: Its heritage is celebrated in the South Georgia
Whaling Museum close by, and the historic buildings bear placards explaining
their former purpose. Yet they also bear signs warning visitors of the
dangerous asbestos and unstable metalwork within, and forbid entry. During
Shackleton's stay here in 1914, it was a prosperous community grateful for
the industry that allowed a fragile human foothold in this harsh place. Yet
it was also collection of charnel-houses, where whales were stripped of
blubber and flung back into the harbor, clogging its shores with tons of
mutilated remains. Cumberland Bay, once
so teeming with whales that their captors rarely ventured into the ocean
beyond to catch them, is now quiet and its native species scarce.
Cumberland Bay, where our ship the Shuleykin rests at anchor (at right in photo), was once stained crimson with the blood of whales.
Hulks of whaling ships hunker down in the harbor, their harpoon guns skewed heavenward.
The Norwegian Petrel, built in 1928, saw some 30 years of service before
being abandoned here. She is now a dock for a more elegant bird namesake,
Curlew, the sailboat belonging to the island's only longtime permanent
residents, museum curators Tim and Pauline Carr. Petrel and the other
rotting here were eventually replaced by factory ships that caught
and processed whales far out at sea.
Disused whale oil tanks betoken the booming trade of the early century.
When the station closed after 60 years, its residents seemed to have rushed
out with every intention of returning. The tiny, austere church still houses
a lending library of 19th-century volumes for whiling away the long
winter nights. The boarding houses contain film hung for examination and
books left open. But their owners never returned. Neither did the residents
of South Georgia's handful of other whaling towns some 15 miles to the
northwest: Husvik, Stromness, and Leith. The interior of the glacier-carved
island was unexplored and uninhabited. Today, besides the Carrs, only a tiny
British army outpost at King Edward Point cycles through transient
Skimming the shoreline on the way to the cemetery, I am startled by a
raucous chorus of sounds: A colony of elephant seals lounges on the beach.
It is remarkable how easily I can walk along unaware of these two-ton
animals until I've nearly trod on one, which would be unfortunate for both of us. I'm
particularly wary of a male beachmaster bull, a red-eyed, furious-looking
beast who rules this harem and a handful of pups. Each seal lolls lazily,
occasionally articulating a flat fin to delicately scratch. The mothers seem
intent on keeping the pups well in line; when the month-old babies
tentatively raise their heads, the mothers unleash a torrent of scolding.
They have a lot to teach in a short time; these pups will be on their own
and weaned in their second month of life. Seals, once harvested by whalers,
now clamber into the cemetery and wallow over tombstones if the gate is left
The wreck of the whaling ship Petrel, harpoon gun at the ready, sinks slowly in the harbor.
The handful of graves date back to the founding of Grytviken by Carl Anton
Larsen in 1904. He was Captain Larsen of the Antarctic for Otto
Nordenskjold's 1901 expedition. Sailing into the unknown expanse of the Weddell Sea,
the men became separated and stranded among the frozen islands of the
Antarctic peninsula. Watching his ship claimed by the pack ice, the stranded
Larsen led his stranded men on two open-boat journeys in the treacherous
Weddell before being rescued. After nearly two years in the ice, they were
saved. Shackleton would have cause to remember Larsen in the months after Endurance left
Grytviken on December 5, 1914.
We sailed late this afternoon for Stromness Bay, northwest of
Cumberland East Bay. Just before we left, we heard news of our second
expedition ship, the Laurel. The ship had departed from Punta Arenas just behind a
brewing storm in the Drake Passage, and we hadn't heard from its crew for two days.
When they finally arrived, we learned that our colleagues' passage was much
rougher in the compact Laurel. We'll have to wait for the stories of the
sea-weary crew. Tomorrow we begin flying over Shackleton's footsteps in the
remote interior of South Georgia.
The whalers' church nestles below the brooding mountains.
Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
Question of the Day
Past expeditions have traveled on foot, dog sled, skis, wind-power, the
newly invented motor car, ponies, and even bicycles, and each had their
drawbacks. What method of travel will you choose for your expedition?
Watch the next dispatch for a response from our guest commentator,
celebrated explorer Will Steger.
Answer to October 27 Question of the Day:
What kind of people will you choose for your crew? What kind of training
will you give them?
Shackleton's choice of men was excellent. This was surely proved by their
performance and their hardiness throughout the whole amazing journey. Were I
to face such a journey, I could not do better than to emulate his selection
—Sir Ranulph Fiennes led the British Transglobe Expedition in Antarctica and
crossed Antarctica on foot in 1992.
Sound of the Day
Elephant seal colony with beachmaster bull, females and
pups on South Georgia Island
Get RealPlayer software
View Expedition Maps
Survival Training (October 19)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)
Photos: (1-4) Kelly Tyler.
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