In this journal:
- Sir Shackleton’s epic adventure;
- Grytviken, the smallest capital;
- Brutal history of commercial whaling;
- also, literally 1 million penguins.
We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.
— Sir Ernest Shackleton
Day 9, November 1st
cloudy/sunny, 8 knots southwest wind, 3°C/38°F
A week has passed since the beginning.
A week. Some say a week is enough to shape one’s career; some say a week is also enough to move across the country; some others say a week is enough to fall in love with a stranger; but for me, a week is just a small leg of my journey. Most of this past week was comprised of bobbing up and down in the middle of the ocean. I looked into the distance, a small sanctuary called Fortuna Bay silently sat underneath the snow-capped mountains. I did not discover my career; I did not start a new home; nor did I find the love I have been looking for; instead, I just got a good view in front of me, a damn fine view.
The landing took place at 10 a.m. in the morning, yet I was somewhat detached from all the action. The ocean spray created by the little zodiac blurred my vision, yet I was reluctant to wipe it off my glasses. Not sure whether I was dumbed down by this unidentifiable romanticism, or I was busy thinking about the man I admire the most, the man who once trekked these barren, unforgiving lands: Sir Ernest Shackleton.
To call Shackleton a hero is an honor to the word “hero”. Before I entrust you with his epic tale, allow me to introduce the bay of today’s landing. Fortuna is the name of the first whaling ship to be based in Grytviken, the capital of this farflung island a few miles down the coast. A large glacier called König Glacier washes into this basin, creating a large flat plain suitable for seals and penguins alike.
Luckily, a giant iceberg was beached in the shallow waters that day. (You do not see a beached iceberg every day!) That backdrop was basically unbeatably cool. Penguins frolicked on the beach liberated from the ice, forming another penguin highway connecting the colony far inland with the cold bay water rhythmically crashing onto the rocky shores.
While I show you around Fortuna Bay, I would like to tell you the most epic journey I have ever heard. The epitome of human perseverance, the acme of industrious adventurism, one that flows in my veins, and Sir Shackleton’s.
Born in 1884, Ernest Shackleton was destined for greatness. After his early navy years, he followed another great Antarctic hero Robert Scott on the Discovery expedition into Antarctica from 1901 to 1903. With much experience gained, he wanted to do something extraordinary, something unbelievable. He went on to start a journey to South Pole in his Nimrod expedition in 1908, but was forced to return after reaching a record-breaking 88°S. He returned as a hero, but what made him the hero in my heart, was yet to come…
News came in 1912 that Amundsen had conquered the South Pole, so Shackleton turned to something greater: cross the Antarctic continent. Before he set sail with Endurance and Aurora, two ships he loved and cherished, he proudly named his southern journey “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, and departed for the frozen continent in 1914.
Shackleton’s planned routes (Wikipedia)
The plan was simple: Endurance lands in Ross Sea, and Shackleton will lead 6 men to cross the continent. Aurora lands in McMurdo Bay, and try to meet the party on the other side. Of course, some geological and meteorological surveys were part of it as well. However, things quickly turned south.
1915, January, Endurance was trapped in the ice pack in the Weddell Sea; next month, she had to be temporarily abandoned, so the crew built a makeshift camp right next to Endurance, frozen like a TV-dinner. They wintered over on the ice with good spirits, hoping that next spring would release the ship back into the water. However, the exact opposite happened.
Instead of freeing Endurance, the spring ice movement crushed the ship, and Shackleton watched her slowly sank under the ice in November. The crew salvaged everything they could, and built Patience Camp on top of a pack of drift ice. April, 1916, the ice float broke into two, forcing the men onto the three lifeboats, and they rowed for 5 days straight and eventually reached Elephant Island. Finally they set foot on solid land after 500 days at sea, but their situation was not ameliorated at all…
What they landed on was the northernmost island of the southernmost continent, still a good 1300 km from South Georgia, the nearest land. The food source was limited to seal and penguin meat, and there was no shelter. Ships never passed here, so they just left a deathtrap for another. All hopes seemed to be lost, but Shackleton came up with the unthinkable: he would lead a group of man, and row across the southern ocean to find help. This is the equivalent of a suicide mission. What came after his decision, made him the hero he is known to us… (to be continued further down this journal)
After Fortuna Bay, we finally set sail for the island’s capital: Grytviken. This is very likely the smallest administrative capital in the world. Deducting the scientists researching in a station at King Edward Point, the capital stands proudly with a population of 8. Yes, eight people. The governor and his family, a few workers, and an artist, that is it. Just enough for a beer-pong tournament, but definitely not enough to make such a tournament meaningful.
Due to the lack of docks, we anchored in the tranquil bay and waited for border formalities to be done. Meanwhile, Sarah Lurcock, the governor’s wife (what a coincidence!), boarded our ship and gave an amazing lecture about the ongoing eradication project. Rats is an invasive species, and their activities decimated the local fauna, especially South Georgia Pipit, which I talked about in the last journal. To combat the situation, South Georgia government started an unprecedented campaign to eliminate all rats from this island, which is as big as Rhode Island state!
The preliminary results proved that the project was a success, with complete rodent eradication in most of the areas. They believed that with dedication and monitoring, the island would be rid of those intruding mammals by the end of the decade! A South Georgia Pipit stopped by our ship, and perched on top of a railing, as if it was personally here to thank the human beings for rectifying their past wrongdoings. As the southernmost song bird, its beautiful chirp brought a sense of hope into my heart.
(update: as of 2018, it has been officially declared that all rats have been eradicated from the island)
We landed to the east of the town, where a small cemetery sat quietly at the foot of Mt. Hodges. This, is where Sir Ernest Shackleton was put to rest.
I would like to resume his epic story here, so please be ready for an emotional rollercoaster.
Stranded on Elephant Island, Shackleton was determined to save everyone. He was a very charismatic leader; no matter what happened, he stayed calm, and encouraged everyone with hope and light, even though in multiple occsions even he himself was hanging onto the last thread of hope. It came in handy when he asked a few men to join him on an unbelievable attempt: row across Southern Ocean in the biggest lifeboat named James Caird, and look for help. That was the equivalent of rowing a boat from New York to Orlando, or from Frankfurt to Sofia, or from Hong Kong to Brunei, without enough food, any shelter, in literally freezing temperatures, and after being trapped at the edge of the world for a year. It was the poster child of a suicide mission, because one big wave would capsize the “boat”, and in the Southern Ocean where winds blow unchecked, every single wave is basically a big one; they had as much hope as me losing my double chin, somewhere between -5% and 0%, and yet, they still pressed on.
hey, at least they check the mail once a day!
15 days of gruesome sailing ensued. While gruesome may be an understatement, sailing definitely was an overstatement. As if Lady Fortune was not done toying with them, James Caird, a 20ft long open boat, was tossed around like a black bean in a Chipotle salad in an enormous South Ocean signature hurricane®. While the same storm sank a 500 ton supply ship in Argentina a few thousand kilometers away, the tiny James Caird survived in one piece. According to a sailor, freezing water was constantly poured into the boat, and nothing could stay dry. Everything was soaked in salty seawater, rotting even the toes of many sailors, most of them needed to be awake all the time to pour water out of the small, constantly sinking raft. If anyone complained, Shackleton would order another round of hot drinks, so that the morale would not be blown apart by the howling wind. He knew: that was the last thing holding this glorified driftwood together.
This, is what a true leader looks like. Undeterred yet caring, adventurous yet logical, Shackleton was able to lead his men to the south shores of South Georgia after probably the longest journey of their lifetime. Their sailing across the Southern Ocean was not only unprecedented, but also never replicated even until today. Even on board our modern MV Ushuaia, equipped with ice-piercing armor, a few TV’s airing documentaries, and breakfast buffet bar, I felt like it was a doomsday event while traversing the turbulent Southern Ocean and facing waves taller than the ship itself; I cannot begin to fathom how risky it is to cross the entire distance by rowing a boat smaller than most of the modern SUV’s on the market!
However, their ill fate was not over yet. Grytviken is on the other side of the island, and they needed to get there for any resemblance of help. There was nothing too much in between, just a few thousand-meter high mountain ranges covered with uncharted glaciers that nobody had ever been to!
They departed after a good rest, with a carpenter’s axe, 50 feet of ropes, and a determined heart to rescue every man they left back on Elephant Island. They did not stop at all, and traversed 51km of extremely dangerous terrain in 36 hours straight. No sleep, no food, not even many bathroom breaks. On 20 May, 1916, more than 6 months after Endurance was lost, three bearded man, with rotting flesh peeling away from their feet and near the brink of unconsciousness, walked into the tiny whaling village of Stromness, and was sent here, to Grytviken. Before collapsing to fatigue, Shackleton said the only thing he wanted was to rescue his men…
The rest was history. Shackleton attempted 3 times to rescue his men on Elephant Island, and was finally able to do so in August. Miraculously, not one single soul was lost. This is what a true hero is, not about the expedition or the glory. A real leader cares for his men, works for his men, and never gives up for his men. Despite his mission failure, Shackleton was welcomed as a national treasure, and lived his life to the fullest. He wanted to be laid to rest at the place he missed the most: the south. So he is buried right here at Grytviken, his tomb facing Antarctica, where his heart belongs.
Right next to him was his second-in-command, Frank Wild, who decided to join his leader even for the life after. Shackleton was so revered by his fellow shipmates that they not only called him the nickname “Boss”, but also decided to follow him for his final expedition despite never being paid for Endurance expedition. Now that is real charisma. We gathered around Shackleton’s grave in the whaler’s cemetery, and opened up a bottle of whiskey, his favorite drink. It was the old tradition to toast in front of his grave, take a little sip, and share with Shackleton by pouring the rest onto his grave.
We then had a few hours to explore Grytviken. 90% of the town nowadays is defunct. A large whaling station was stripped down to the bare bones, and only a few houses on the west side were functional. A church, a museum with the mandatory gift shop, the governor’s house, an art display, and a post office basically summed up the entire place. I took my time and dived deep into the abandoned whaling station. A piece of dark history lied here, and allow me to tell you the gut-wrenching tale of whale-processing.
The whalers were once based here in Grytviken, mostly Norwegians. At its heyday, the town housed more than 300 men and women. To tell the whaling story, firstly, you have to know how a whale is killed. A person in charge of spotting whales would be perched on top of the mast of the whaler ship, and if he spots the iconic steam gushing from the waves, he would guide the ship to catch up with the unfortunate mammal. When close enough, the ship’s captain would go to the front and fire a special harpoon designed specifically to penetrate their skulls. The hit had to be precise and lethal, otherwise the animal in pain would drag the entire ship down, so the captain needs to be absolutely accurate or his entire crew would become food for seafood.
After the whale is dead, they would tie a knot around its tail, and drag the whale on a thick rope. In the picture above, each hole on the side of the whaler means it can drag a dead whale, so the ships above can simultaneously bring back 10 whales each on a bloody expedition.
The whales were dragged into Grytviken’s bay, and a small tug boat would individually bring the deceased giants onshore. With that done, the workers had to manually cut the whales into large chunks. They are so full of blubber that normal shoes could not work when standing on top of their carcasses, so their special shoes had nails about 30cm in length to help securing the workers. It is an extremely dangerous job, as a fall from the whale could easily kill. They used saws larger than school buses to dice up the body, so it required more than 2 people to operate.
Then the large chunks go into the cookers, and they cook for hours at high temperatures in order to extract as much fat as possible. The bones got special treatments, because the bone marrow has an extremely high fat content. After the fat is skimmed off, further processings take place in special coolant tanks, and the final fat is stored in enormous tanks at the periphery of the factory.
The entire whale had to be processed according to the law, because previous methods simply took off the fattest chunks and left the whales to rot. Imagine 200 whales rotting in a small bay, that must be some other level of gore and stench… The meat was sold as beef (yes, your grandma likely ate whale), and other parts used as fertilizer.
Commercial whaling slowly died down after WWII, due to most of its products being substituted by petroleum byproducts. A few countries still hunt whales even after the 1985 ban on commercial whaling, but in South Georgia, they are safe. Those whale bones and rusted tanks are all what is left from the history…
I slowly brushed my hands against the rusted machines lining the barren fields, as if I could still feel the heat from all those blood and bones boiling inside, hear the last dying howl and the desperate ultrasonar pings emitted by the tormented souls of these gentle giants who simply commited the unforgivable crime of being alive. Why are humans so cruel, so full of hatred towards its own kind and everything else? Why are we the worst stewards of the planet? Are we even capable of empathy on a larger scale?
While other fellow travelers were getting bored and returned to Ushuaia, I still was deep in the maze of my own thoughts. What if whales never make their recovery? What if we could hear their ultrasonic transmissions begging for mercy? Would that change this piece of gruesome history?
Before my questions could be answered, I had to return to our ship on the last zodiac back. The governor’s wife waved us farewell, and we had to start heading east. The 8-people capital really was one of a kind.
We started our leg towards our last day in South Georgia Island right before dinner. As the sun slowly dimmed into the mountains, we found ourselves in another night of absolute darkness. No stars, no moon, no lights, just a small ship in the abyss of the lack of light. It really suits the sins crawling on my back, as I feel deeply disgusted by the culling of the biggest creatures to have ever walked on Earth, committed just so that people could lubricate their lawnmowers.
St. Andrews Bay
Day 10, November 2nd
foggy/sunny/misty, 2 knots northeast wind, 4°C/40°F
The day began, but the sun never rose. An extremely thick layer of fog covered the entire area, and our little zodiac might as well be sailing towards the edge of the world. Apparently, there was nothing to be seen in the bay, as I could barely see my own boots in the fog thicker than oatmeal. We landed on the 3km-long black sand beach of St. Andrews Bay, where the largest king penguin colony resided. Well, I have to see it in order to believe it, and guess what, the only thing that could be seen was my disappointed reflection in the pale white fog.
We had to make our way to the colony as usual, because landing right next to the penguins was virtually impossible in everchanging Antarctica. No plan ever goes as scheduled, and the only plan to have is to plan for changes. We had to make our way through a few rivers formed by the glacier melt water, and some of them turned out to be quite a challenge.
Not only were most of them rather deep, but also were the currents strong and unpredictable. Some pebbles were not discernible in the rapid water covered with penguins’ molded feather, so I got my boots stuck in cracks for a few times. The water was just a tiny bit above freezing temperature, and I could feel the chills even through my thick rubber boots.
The large amount of penguins were not helping our traverse across the freezing streams either. If they just silently stood there and continued their sweet dreams about chasing flocks of krill, that would be just fine; however, a lot of them would turn around and look at us. Nothing too much, just a full flock of yellow heads neatly fixated at the direction of your very soul. Do you know how much pressure it is when there are 50 pairs of tiny eyes watching you clumsily cross a river with rapid current?
Luckily, though, as we were struggling to cross one river after another, the sun finally penetrated through the thick layer of fog, giving the clear sky a chance to shine. The majestic mountain backdrop opened up, and its sheer size puts every mountain range out there to shame.
What was even more astounding was the colony. Once the fog started retreating, what was virtually a metropolis of penguins started coming into view. However, no matter how much the fog retreated, there were still more and more penguins popping into the edge of visibility. When they say it is the largest colony, they were dead serious. As far as I could see, penguins took the space completely.
Quickly it became clear that human brains were not designed to understand the term “literally 1 million penguins”. By the time I could draw a rough boundary of the colony, my short attention span was already forcing me to lose interest. There was simply no point to understand how many penguins were there. It was not important.
As if those penguins were not enough, some other animals also decided to join this bustling community. Two skuas made their home on top of a rock overlooking the colony’s valley. Yes, the colony literally covered a full valley.
Of course, it would not be South Georgia without a fur seal. There was a relatively small population scattered around the penguin bay, completely buried in the commotion of the raucous tuxedo party. Yes, the penguins do cover the entire bay, and they made damn sure that they did not miss a spot.
I was completely lost for words. In our day to day lives, watching a penguin video on facebook while procrastinating is already a great relief. Now imagine yourself completely separate from the world. No internet, no phone, no TV; no stupid facebook notification of relatives debating plitics, no sirens howling a few blocks away, no unopened letters with large “DUE” written in red on the table, and then, imagine yourself watching a penguin video, except there are 1000000 more, all playing in synch at the same time. Now, you have a minimal grasp of what South Gerogia is.
I spent a good hour just staring into the sky. The layer of fog had retreated from the valley completely, blanketing only the furthest corners of the mountain ranges. The opaque air reluctantly allowed sunlight to illuminate the late morning, while completely showing off the crystal blue sky, doming over the hectic scene taking place on the mortal realm.
We started our way back after sitting on top of the mountain for an eternity. The wading through the rivers was still as difficult as before, especially considering I had a few electronics in my pockets. Yet, I treaded especially slowly, as if subconsciously, I wished something in the crystal blue glacial melt would trip me, “unintentionally” trap myself in paradise for even longer. I, just refused to accept the fact that we had to leave the best place in this world.
We boarded Ushuaia, and slowly left the beautiful yet extremely chaotic beach behind. There is no word that can accurately describe what was just seen. Life has reached its peak when one is among the angels of the Antarctic, and I have truly ascended. That crisp image of blue sky, the colony, and the slightly chilly wind was burned to the back of my head, so indelible that my soul had merged into one with that feeling, of being free of the shackles of society, money, responsibility, and even my own body. For you, my dear reader, it may be a photo, but for me, it is a state of being.
We embarked on a cruise for the final leg in South Georgia: a sail in the famous Drygalski Fjord. However, when I looked outside the window after lunch, I saw the same thing I could see in my future:
Ushuaia was advancing extremely slowly, and the entire afternoon was spent in cold, moist, miserable whiteness. The fog on this side of the island completely obstructed the view, and we could not even see the front of the ship from the back. Suddenly we swang vehemently to the left, jerked so violently that it threw quite a few old ladies off their balance. We almost made contact with a small iceberg! That could have been devastating. Do not underestimate how heavy these things are, just an iceberg the size of a large house can weight heavier than our boat, and cause devastating damage to even the most heavily armored ships.
This is because the part of the ice floating above water that we call “iceberg” is only 1/10 of its total volume, so more appropriately an ice mountain! And ice is extremely heavy, so this little guy can easily break our tiny ship in halves. Ice and fog was clearly not a good combination, and we promptly pulled out of the narrow gorge. After that bombshell, we left South Georgia, and started heading towards the ultimate destination: Antarctica.
On this little piece of land called South Georgia, we found our lives so little compared to these towering mountains, blanketing snow domes, and enormous colonies. Penguins outnumbered us 100,000 to 1 at Fortuna Bay and St. Andrews Bay. We encountered one of the harshest weather phenomenons ever experienced by mankind.
Grytviken felt like an isolated land of joy where angels frolicked, just to be stained by the brutal whaling industry. I can still feel as if my hands were covered in whale blood while walking through a factory made to extract every last drop of that crimson liquid gold.
However, its whiteness, size and purity left me the biggest impression. Cyan sky, white snow, black mountains, tiny green church, yellow penguins, and the deep blue ocean in solemn slumber… South Georgia, oh South Georgia, you enigmatic yet charming lady. Your thin veil of Antarctic fog cannot fool me. You are Earth in its purest form, with no disguise, no alteration, and no facade. You are what my mind is made of. You are the naked soul of man.
As we left the island, the ship started to tumble like a dryer machine at its highest setting to commence self-destruct. Mother nature’s enraged storms pushed this group of shaken travellers towards further south, yet we were determined. We would make it to the other side, the ultimate dream of every person on board. We would make it, to the white continent, of Antarctica.