Stromness: Abandoned Whaling Station of South Georgia

17 July 2017

The island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic is remote, to say the least – they are 1,390 kilometers (864 mi) east-southeast of the Falkland Islands, considered the ends of the earth by many themselves.  There is no air strip and visitor must arrive on the island by boat.  On the northern coast of the island is the former whaling station of Stromness, named for a village in the Scottish Orkney isles.  The last time the place was used commercially was in the early 1960s.  Now it is left to decay, its only company the seals and penguins native to the islands.

The first whaling station on the island was built in the harbour in 1907 as a kind of floating factory.  Business must have been good as the permanent land station followed in 1912.  The place operated as a whaling station until 1931 when it was converted in to a ship repair yard.  Just thirty years later the entire place was abandoned.

One might say that the station was a victim of its own success.  The shore-based industry on the island closed down because whales became very scarce around it.  However, it was also the rise of the factory ship which did for the permanent station, with the island’s facilities used for only repair and maintenance after 1930.  However, South Georgia and its several whaling stations processed 175 thousand whales while it was open – a frightening figure.

Image Credit Flickr User Brittany
Image Credit Flickr User Brittany
In its time the place had saved the life of at least one famous explorer.  In 1916 Ernest Shackleton landed on the southern coast of the island.  He and his team had to trek through the glacial interior of the island to reach the northern shores – the only places which have ever been populated by people.  After a 36 hour slog they arrived at the whaling station and became guests of the manager, Petter Sørlle. His home, known as the Villa at Stromness as it had so many European creature comforts became their temporary hotel until a ship arrived to take them off the island.

Image Credit Flickr User Rita Willaert
Image Credit Flickr User Rita Willaert
Image Credit Wikimedia
After the closure of the station it was left to its own devices and the damage from the elements had meant that many of the buildings are now simply ruins.  It is in such a dangerous condition that visitors are prohibited from going within 200 meters of the structures.  This is a very windy place - a loose piece of corrugated iron sent flying by a sudden gust could easily cause serious injury or death. Yet the local fauna do not seem fazed by its presence.

Image Credit Flickr User Amanda B
Image Credit Flickr User Brian.Gratwicke
It is the least of their worries.  Reindeer, left behind by the predominantly Norwegian whalers have found the island a suitable habitat and their numbers have grown to over 5,000.  This is the only place on earth where you can get a photo like this - penguins and reindeer together.  However, due to their destruction of the pristine wilderness it has been decided that the reindeer will be culled - completely eradicated.

Image Credit Flickr User Amanda Graham
Image Credit Flickr User Edward Rooks
Image Credit Wikimedia
So too with our age old traveling companion, Rattus rattus. The rats which were inadvertently introduced to the islands has decimated the sea bird population which, before the rodents’ arrival, could lay their eggs anywhere with impunity as there were no natural mammalian predators on the island.  However, there is hope: a major project to eliminate the rats has been underway for four years and the island should be rodent free in a year or two.

Image Credit Flickr User Brian.Gratwicke
Stromness Harbor
Soon,the islands original inhabitants will be left once more to their own devices, free of invasive species.  Only the occasional ship of tourists or scientists and the rusting hulk of the Stromness whaling station will serve as a reminder that we were ever here at all.

First Image Credit Flickr User Amanda B

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