Saturday, June 9, 2012

Antarctic Whaling at Grytviken South Georgia Island

By Robert Cushman Murphy

Whaler Daisy stationed at Grytviken, South Georgia Island
under the shadow of Mt. Paget
The grayness of an Ant­arctic spring day was deepening, and the watch at the bow of the Daisy peered, with re­newed keenness, into the tenebrous mist ahead. The old, black, New Bedford whaling-brig rolled jerkily on her light-ballasted keel. There was hardly enough wind to fill her canvas, but the dull waters of the South Atlantic were still troubled by the memory of a four days' storm. Masses of brown kelp and scat­tered bits of worn floe ice heaved with us on the surface of the sea and slowly fell astern; a gleaming-white snow-petrel (the first we had seen) brushed the rig­ging in its flight, and three graceful, sooty albatrosses circled round and round the vessel, poising successively above the ball on the foretopgallant­-mast. Both the signs and the reckoning told of the proximity of land, and we were all expectancy after five months of sperm-whaling through three zones of the mighty Atlantic.


I rushed to the bow at the welcome cry, and gazed into a monochrome of gray. Dimly, gradually, a long, dark line loomed out, and above it an area of intangible whiteness blending with the soft sky. Before we could see distinctly, evening closed in with a wet snow-squall, so we wore ship and stood offshore, knowing, however, that our outward voyage was about to end, for through the darkening haze we had caught a glimpse of the blackish coast hills and illimitable snow-fields of South Georgia.

A small speck near the bottom of an unfamiliar map may be all that South Georgia means to most Americans, and yet for more than a hundred years Amer­ican seafarers have voyaged regularly to that faraway isle, and some of them have grown wealthy on its spoils. About the size of Long Island, New York, lying in a blustery ocean twelve hundred miles east of Cape Horn, South Georgia is one of the chain of sub-Antarctic islands which almost encircles the south-polar axis of the earth. These isles are bleak, treeless, mountainous, and essentially Antarctic in all features save that their fauna and flora possess an interest all their own. The islands form the transi­tion zone between the south-temperate and the polar regions, the habitat of the great-winged wandering albatross and the myriads of other sea birds of the southern hemisphere, the breeding-grounds of fur seals and sea-elephants, and the range of the southernmost flowering plants.

Grytviken, South Georgia Island lies at the
head of King Edward Cove
South Georgia was discovered and named in January, 1775, by Captain James Cook while on his historic voyage round the world in H. M. S. Resolution. It had certainly been sighted and re­ported before his time, perhaps as early as the year 1500, when Amerigo Ves­pucci's galleon was driven by furious storms many hundred miles southeast­ward from Patagonia; but it was Cap­tain Cook who first explored and charted the forbidding coast of the new land, and who, going ashore, "took possession of the country in his Majesty's name, un­der a discharge of small-arms." Cook believed at first that he had reached the Terra Incognita Australis which he was seeking, but on finding the ice-capped, lofty region to be merely an island of seventy leagues in circuit, by which, he observed, no one would ever be bene­fited, and which was eminently "not worth the discovery," he na├»vely entered in his journal: "I called this land the Isle of Georgia in honor of His.Majesty" (George III.). He then proceeded on his quest of the Antarctic Continent.

For a century after Cook's voyage the only visitors to South Georgia were members of passing Antarctic expedi­tions, or lonely wind-jammers in search of seals. Yankee mariners, mainly from the seaports of Connecticut, were the first to disprove the great discoverer's statements concerning the utter worth­lessness of his first Antarctic landfall. They subsequently, however, did all that lay within their power to make the island worthless, for during the first few years of the nineteenth century they killed more than a million fur seals. In­termittent slaughter since that time has completely extirpated these animals at South Georgia. By the time the height of the fur-seal massacre was over, the "elephant oil" harvest had commenced - that is, the traffic in the high-grade lubricating oil made from the blubber of the Antarctic sea-elephant. The num­bers of the latter species were also seri­ously reduced, but its recent status was unknown, and in order to study this largest and strangest of seals, as well as to observe and collect other forms of life on South Georgia, I made my long voy­age thither in 1912.

November 24th; the morning after we had "made the land," dawned bright and blue, a happy change after the dismal mists through which we had been cours­ing. A thin fog half veiled the valley glaciers and the bases of the steep, bare coast ranges, reddish-brown in the sun­shine, but the white mountain ridges and ice-sheathed pinnacles beyond gleamed in clear detail against the bluest of skies. As we cruised before a gentle breeze along shore we passed close by several dazzling, water-worn icebergs, in the crevices of which the swelling seas made symmetrical mushrooms of spray as tall as our masts. All about us on our way were great numbers of water birds, the kinds that had been seen by Captain Cook on a morning so many years before. There were blue-eyed shags with their immaculate throats and breasts, albatrosses and petrels wheeling over the sea, and flocks of terns and screaming kelp gulls along the shore rocks. At midday we came abreast the entrance of Cumberland Bay with its background of white, pointed mountains, Mount Paget and Sugar Top rearing their unclouded outlines seven or eight thousand feet in the midst of a dozen lesser peaks. We knew that Norwegian whalemen had lo­cated within Cumberland Bay, and we lay in the offing until the little whaling steamer Fortuna hailed us and took us in tow. Late in the afternoon we dropped anchor in King Edward Cove, the "Pot Harbor" of old-time sealers.

Hauling a finback whale ashore
The extent to which the enterprising Norwegians had carried their industry into the far south was a complete sur­prise to me. Whaling at South Georgia was instituted about ten years ago by C. A. Larsen, once captain for both Nansen and Nordenskjold, and leader of the Jason Antarctic expedition. The success of his whaling venture soon led to the establishment of other stations in various fjords of the northern coast. "Grytviken," which is the name of Cap­tain Larsen's station, lies under high hills at the head of King Edward Cove, and is a hamlet of considerable preten­sions. There, in addition to the "whale slip" and oil factory, we found docks and a marine railway, dwelling-houses, dormitories for two hundred men, car­pentering and coopering shops, metal­workers' forges and machine-shops, cat­tle and poultry shelters, a telephone and electric-lighting plant, a library and chapel, an infirmary, and other amenities of civilization. On the west shore were the headquarters of the resident British magistrate and an observatory of the Officina Meteorologica Argentina. When we first entered the residence of Captain Larsen and his staff our illusions of the rude, inclement Antarctic were shattered for the time by luxuriant palms and blos­soming plants which banked the walls and windows of the rooms. A glance through the window of the billiard room brought us still more within the pale of civiliza­tion, for

"The maid was in the garden hang­ing up the clothes."

She was the sole representative of her sex on the is­land, however, as we afterward learned.

The whaling industry at South Geor­gia is, of course, of the modern Norwegian type, the whales being killed with bomb-harpoons shot from cannon. Through the kindness of Captain Larsen, whose courtesy and hospitality were unfailing, I spent twenty-four hours on board the Fortuna, the first whale steamer that ever hunted in South Geor­gia waters. When we arrived, about the middle of a bright December forenoon at the bank where the whales feed, some thirty-five miles off the coast, we saw an astonishing number of spouts in all direc­tions, the thin, high spouts of finback whales being readily distinguishable from the bushy spouts of the fatter, more desirable humpbacks. Eleven other steamers were within sight of us when we began hunting, and often two or three would start in pursuit of the same spout. After much maneuvering Captain Lars Anderson succeeded in bringing the Fortuna's prow over a pair of rising humpbacks, and, tipping up the breech of the swivel-gun, he sent the eighty-pound, bomb-pointed harpoon crashing into the lungs of the larger ani­mal. The hemp harpoon line, coiled on a plat­form in front of the cannon, unwound more quickly than the eye could follow, and almost as soon as the smoke had cleared away the whale lay dead upon the surface. The second whale, which had dived at the discharge, rose nearby and lingered near its mate for a few moments, but made off before the gun could be reloaded. For just such cases as this the newest steamers are equipped with two guns, one on either side of the bow. During the whole morning of this day on the Georgia banks the distant "bang! bang!" of harpoon-guns was unceasing, and we were continually crossing the bows of steamers lying-to, winching in struggling whales or making their catches fast alongside with fluke chains. We passed others of the bloodthirsty little vessels with two or three huge carcasses trailing on either side, and the point of a harpoon projecting ominously from the gun, ready for more. By day the Fortuna herself was towing three air-distended humpbacks, one of which had cost two harpoons. Sometimes even three or more shots are required to kill one whale, and the gunner always notches the dead whale's fluke stump once, twice, or thrice, to indicate the number of irons, in order that the flensers may subse­quently recover them.

Whaling-gun aboard the whaler Fortuna
From the Fortuna's bridge the view of South Georgia, lying forty miles to the southward in the full rays of the noon sun, was magnificent. The atmosphere was of rare clearness, and it seemed as if one could almost toss a stone to the steeps of those sparkling alps. But the vista was of short duration, for presently the sleety, chilly mist of the southern ocean rolled upon us, and for the remain­der of the day we twisted in calm, ghostly grayness through the squadron of our dimly seen companion steamers, the cannon reports becoming less and less frequent, and, like Captain Cook's Resolution of old, we were encompassed by a vast number of "blue petrels," or whale-birds, whose food consists of the same " krill" (crustaceans) on which the various species of whalebone whales sub­sist. These petrels were about us in such incredible numbers, I venture to say millions that they resembled the flakes of a snow-storm, and several were knocked into the water by every dis­charge of a harpoon-gun. Tens of thou­sands of wandering albatrosses, molly­mokes, night petrels, Mother Carey's chickens, and Cape Horn pigeons were likewise in the murky air and on the water. All the swimming birds took wing in parting clouds before the steam­er's bow except the albatrosses, which preferred to paddle to one side, at the risk of being run down, rather than to undertake the exertion of launching into flight. Many of the albatrosses were "gamming" - that is, meeting in flocks on the water, rubbing their bills together, raising their longest of wings, and chat­tering and squealing to their heart's con­tent. Penguins, too, were about in great numbers, but visible only as momentary flashes whenever they leaped porpoise-like above the surface. The Fortuna took no more whales that day. At eve­ning we headed toward Cumberland Bay, and after an excellent supper, including a penguin-egg omelet, I turned into my snug berth. We arrived at Grytviken about three o'clock next morning, and as soon as the whales had been moored the Fortuna stood out to sea. Following a more successful day's hunt, I have seen this good little steamer come laboring into port surrounded by a raft of nine or ten whales.

The country around Cumberland Bay is representative of most that South Georgia affords of geological features and vegetation. The folded, clay-slate strata of the hills, reddened by iron oxide and whitened by rifts of snow, are rugged and bare, but the lower tracts are well cov­ered with tussock grass, the red flower heads of "Kerguelen tea" (Accena), a few ferns, and a variety of brilliantly colored mosses and lichens. A sheltered lake region lying in an ancient moraine near the west fjord of the bay is particu­larly attractive. Meadows of delicate grata and pillowy mosses watered by clear snow streamlets, over which swarms of Mayflies tremble in the sunshine, make one forget the latitude; and the bold, shrubless landscape possesses a unique charm. To one standing on the farthest headland below the west fjord moraine, the view is extremely beautiful. In the foreground are the rough and crumbling rocks covered with gray and orange lichens, and footed with strands of golden brown kelp upon which the ice-filled ocean breaks. Beyond are roll­ing tussock knolls with their blossoming grass, and dotted among them the quiet. blue lakes contrasting with the brighter, greener bay. Close on the left a jagged range of dark, bare rock shuts in the scene, and there, on talus slopes six or seven hundred feet up, the shy kelp-gulls gather and watch trespassers among their lakes below. Behind the lakes the verdant, irregular valley, with its network of rills and cascades, rises just high enough to show only the snowy peaks of the distant inland mountains.

Six glaciers come down to the sea in Cumberland Bay, the largest of which is Nordenskjold Glacier, in the south fjord. From the face of this, and the others, ice is continuously breaking with a perpen­dicular cleavage, filling the bay with floes that drift hither and thither before the wind. More rarely a large piece, worthy the name of berg, sunders off entire and sails away gloriously until stranded on a lee shore, where the harrying waves soon undermine it. The south coast of the island, which never knows much sunshine, owing to the lofti­ness and sharp incline of the mountains, gives birth to icebergs of the grand, ocean-ranging type. The fragmentary ice, which I met constantly, to the peril of my dory, in South Georgia bays, is curiously marked and worn by the water. It commonly assumes bowl shapes, with staghorn-like fronds projecting above the rim. Other pieces are roughly spher­ical chunks, but in either case the flinty surface is evenly pitted all over with polygonal facets - like an insect's com­pound eye. In the upper mountain val­leys about Cumberland Bay are numer­ous hanging glaciers whence streams of water tumble down all the gullies. Some of these valleys contain also sloping snow-fields, where on Sundays and moon­lit evenings throughout the year the hard-working Scandinavian whalemen can enjoy their national pastime of skiing.

A bull sea-elephant
The principal business of the Daisy's captain was to stow away for the second time in the old brig's hold a cargo of sea-elephant oil. The Cumberland Bay region had ceased to be good hunting-ground for these much-persecuted seals, and so, in mid-December, the Daisy got under way for regions more primeval. Old Glory, the blue cross of Norway, and the Union Jack on the snug little home of the British magistrate dipped thrice in gracious farewell as we passed from the milky snow water of King Edward Cove to the blue outer bay and stood to sea. Several days later we dropped an­chor in the broad, hitherto uncharted Bay of Isles, which lies near the northwestern termination of South Georgia, beyond the last of the whaling stations. As viewed from the ocean, it would be hard to imagine a more Cheerless sea­board than this, for the only green spots visible were the hilly isles of the bay, about a dozen in number. The coast of the mainland seemed bleak and frozen throughout, even in midsummer, with snow-fields inclining four thousand feet from the gorges of utterly inaccessible hills almost to the level of the sea. Four glaciers came down to the bay, all but one of which actually entered deep water, the other terminating at high-tide line on a sandy beach. The western­most, and by far the largest, of the gla­ciers, which I charted on the first map of the Bay of Isles as "Brunonia Gla­cier," in honor of Brown University, filled a profound valley, and the splendid crystal wall of its front, several miles in length, formed the square coast-line of the head of the bay. Above it a spotless, undulating desert of snow, crossed by nothing save freezing winds and evan­escent illuminations and shadows, rose to a far-away divide so soft and dim at its sky-line that it often blended invis­ibly with a background of clouds. Fortunately, the shore of the Bay of Isles proved slightly less desolate than it had promised from afar. Near our anchorage a small; rock-enclosed basin, calm even when the surf was heaviest elsewhere, offered a good landing-place for my dory, and in a fairly dry gulch of a neighboring promontory we built up a drainage platform and pitched a tent which for nine weeks was my head­quarters ashore.

Below my solitary tent the grassy bank sloped sharply to a milk-colored glacial stream entering an inlet of the sea only fifty yards away. A quarter of a mile across the inlet stood the perpen­dicular front of a beautiful valley glacier, coming down between peaked white hills from the lifeless, silent interior. All sum­mer long, hundred-ton ice-blocks fell from its front with the sound of a Presi­dential salute, and the columns of its ever freshly cleaved surface were prisms which flashed back each of the dazzling colors that make up sunlight. Penguins bobbed out of the sea below the glacier and were my most interest­ed callers, for their curi­osity could not resist a human being. Sea-elephants crawled un­concernedly up the stream below me and went to sleep among the hummocks on tilt beach. Above the tent, on the plateau of the little promontory, seven pairs of alba­trosses carried on their courtship and nesting, along with giant pe­trels, skuas, kelp-gulls, and the pretty little Antarctic titlarks, the only land birds of the far South, whose cheer­ful song was almost the sole homelike sound. For a naturalist the situation could not have been improved upon.

The herds of sea-elephants distributed over near beaches were a source of con­tinual interest. The "pups," as these offspring of "bull" and "cow" sea-elephants are incongruously termed by sealers, had been born early in the South­ern spring, and by the time of our arrival had become rather independent, fre­quently entering the water and playing with one another in schools, particularly at night. During the day whole nurseries of fat pups four or five feet in length lay asleep on their sides or backs, often piled one upon another. Even when I walked among them and stepped over them, they usually slumbered as though anesthetized, rarely stirring except to scratch themselves with the nails of their flippers, or to yawn. A vigorous prod would arouse them, but, after mo­mentarily attempting to look ferocious by showing their ridiculous little peg-like teeth, they would fall back again with closed eyes and a sigh of resigna­tion. They did not object very seriously even to having their chins scratched.

The fathers and mothers lay apart from the weaned pups, most of the cows beside a few of the larger bulls. The lat­ter were huge beasts, some of them meas­uring eighteen or more feet in length, with a girth but slightly less. Their seamed necks and breasts were covered with fresh lacerations as well as innumerable old scars, marks of constant bat­tles with rivals. Whenever I approached too closely they reared up on their fore flippers, thrashed their hinder parts about, contracted their trunk-like snouts into tight, bulging folds, opened their pink maws to an angle equaled among all mammals only by the Pleistocene saber-toothed tigers, and finally uttered their vocal expression of displeasure, which cannot be suggested by any Eng­lish word.

An adult cow sea-elephant
Bull sea-elephants settle the question of possession of the cows by fighting; but they fight from other motives as well, or, one might be tempted to say, from no motives at all. They are in­stinctively ill-tempered mammals, and seem never to become accustomed to the society of other creatures. They snarled, for instance, altogether unnecessarily, at any poor familiar penguin which hap­pened to walk near them along the beach of the inlet. From the tent I frequently saw half-grown bulls wake from peaceful naps and instantly start quarrels with near neighbors; and the youngest pups were quite as likely as their elders to be rearing and bumping against one anoth­er, glaring with infantile ferocity into one another's eyes. In the ordinary con­tests of the bulls, which seemed to be of a purely calisthenic nature, the two champions met closely and reared up until only the hinder part of the belly rested on the ground, and then hurled themselves one against the other, clash­ing their 'breasts and raking each other's thick-skinned necks with their heavy lower canines, at the same time flinging their tail ends into the air. Occasionally they came to a clinch by pressing the sides of their necks together, and so took a breathing-spell. All the motions were clumsy and lumbering; a good deal of threatening and sputtering occurred between the clashes, and some­times they merely rose up on the toes of their fore flippers and stood rigidly, with heads held back and mouths wide open, until each collapsed from weariness with­out a blow having been struck. Thoroughly angry bulls, however, clamped jaws on their rivals, badly lacerating one another's pelts. I saw one big fellow which had lost a good portion of the wall of his snout. If a group of sea-elephants were annoyed, they sometimes gave way to uncontrolled passion, thrashing about blindly, biting the ground, running amuck, and tearing the backs of all their companions. When I shouted and swung my arms in front of a bull, vexing it until it had become thoroughly excited, its behavior recalled a toy rocking-horse, for the enraged seal swayed in a similar manner, first rising until its fore flippers were far above the ground, then rolling forward until its hind flippers were curved up over its hack, but as a rule only rocking, and not moving away from one situation. All the while the beast's bloodshot eyes were blazing with rage, the trunk was drawn up into a bonnet above the gaping mouth, the tusks gnashed viciously on the sand, and the whole expression was truly hideous. Generally their tactics with regard to human beings were wholly defensive, but occasionally I met a jealous or pugnacious bull which sought trouble from the start. Once I observed from a hiding-place an unusu­ally fine sea-elephant come out of the cove below my tent and work its way up among the tussock hummocks. I wanted its skeleton for the Museum, but, unfor­tunately, had left my rifle aboard the brig. However, as soon as the lazy animal had found a satisfactory berth and had fallen asleep, I descended all unsuspectingly with a camera and a seal-lance, and, after making ready for a head-on snapshot, I whistled to awaken the brute. The effect was greater than I had bargained for. It opened its eyes casually enough, but instantly, upon see­ing me, it rolled over with a snort and bounced toward me so quickly that I had barely time to avoid the charge. I dodged aside, but it continued to bump along steadily after me with homicide in its eye. Setting the camera on a hum­mock, I attacked my ardent pursuer with the lance, and the brute snorted and bellowed as it reared two or three feet above my head and hurled forward its two tons of weight in an effort to crush. me to a pulp; but after perhaps five minutes of desperate attacking, lunging, dodging, and retreating on my part, the great beast sank down in a pond of its own blood and expired.

A catch of whales in the slip at Grytviken
Although it was December, the June of the Southern world,-when the Daisy dropped her two enormous anchors, originally designed for vessels of thrice her tonnage, the skipper's wisdom in planning such substantial moorings was demonstrated ere many days had passed. Cape Horn may be more notorious for its gales, but South Georgia is no less deserving of fame. Coming up from the Antarctic wastes lying southwest of the island, the icy winds cross the barren mountain ranges and howl down the northern steeps and across the fjords with such force that sea-water is torn in sheets from the surface, and the air is filled with water-smoke. Gales accom­panied by blinding snow and sleet are so frequent that one must always be alert; a calm may give place to a blizzard without ten minutes' notice. On De­cember 21st - the longest day of our year, and the windiest, I hope - I went ashore early with the crews of two whale-boats, twelve men in all. The morning was quiet and gray, with light westerly winds, when suddenly we spied the storm flag going up on the rigging of the Daisy, and immediately the experi­ence and discipline of south-sea sailors revealed themselves, prepared to meet an emergency. A few short commands, and one of the whale-boats, carried quickly up the steep beach, was half filled with stones and sand, in order that it could not be blown into the sea. Then into the second boat we all sprang, and with two men at each of the five long oars, swung our bow toward the ship.

The cold sou'wester struck us just as we started, after which there seemed to be as much salt water in the air as in the bay, and we were whisked along, pulling as best we could with heads bowed down before the biting sleet, until we scurried past the brig and the end of a rope flung from the deck was seized and made fast. We swung alongside, scrambled aboard, wet but safe, and hoisted our whale-boat after us. For the following thirty-six hours the Daisy tugged madly at her cables while the bay seethed under the lashings of the wind and the stinging, granular snow. We were cooped up helplessly on our little vessel, with all our hopes in two iron chains; but the glorious albatrosses, scorning the gale, were rioting over the bay, sailing like superhuman monoplanes before, across, against the wind, as though all direc­tions were to them down-hill.

One afternoon, when two of our whale­boats had gone to a distant beach, a similar storm sprang up and the crews could not return. We on board spent an anxious night, striving to hope, however, that the men had seen the approaching wind in time, and had camped ashore. By dawn the gale had abated and the sun rose into a clear sky, yet from the mast-head of the Daisy we could see no sign of boats or men. Going ashore to my tent, which had again been blown flat by the wind, I climbed the promontory and scrutinized all shores of the Bay of Isles through field-glasses. Eventually a group of penguin-like fig­ures, standing disconsolately on an ice-bound point miles away, resolved itself through the powerful lenses into men. Within an hour we had them all on board, where their misery was soon forgotten under the effects of hot coffee and warm berths. It seemed that the boats, laden with -sea-elephant blubber, had been overtaken by the first gust while they were several miles from land. The blubber had been speedily thrown over­board, but the boats had, nevertheless, been driven helplessly down the long, wild fjord, and only the utmost exer­tions of rowers and helmsmen had kept them from being dashed against the ice wall of Brunonia Glacier. In attempt­ing a landing on a rocky beach adjacent to the glacier, both boats had been stove in, the anchors, guns, and other out­fit lost, and the men left floundering in the water. Fortunately all had reached shore, but they had spent a wretched night on the beach in the gale and the wet snow.

Albatrosses in their nest
But, after all, the prevailing tempestu­ousness of the weather only enhanced those rare summer days when South Georgia lay in breathless calm, and wraith-like mists hung over the glaciers and the glittering hills; when penguins sat bolt-upright along the beach and dozed away the sunny afternoons; when young skuas and giant petrels in the nest found their coats of long down uncom­fortably warm, and lay panting beneath the sun's rays. Once, late in the sum­mer, such a clear, quiet sunny day lengthened into evening and then into full night without a breeze or a snow flurry to mar its beauty. I climbed the promontory after dark, startling a pack of giant petrels which had settled there to sleep. The ugly, clumsy birds, squawking in alarm, dashed pellmell over the brink and down the long bank to the sea, like the swine of the Gada­renes. For the first time at the Bay of Isles I could see the full vault of the Southern sky with all its unfamiliar stars, the mysterious Clouds of Magellan, and in the zenith the four luminaries of the Southern Cross.

From every isle and headland through the still night came a sweet, bell-like piping—the singing of numberless petrels and whale-birds in their burrowed nests. At South Georgia it took the place of the katydids, the whippoorwills, and the frog choruses of summer nights at home.

Originally published in Harper’s Magazine in January of 1914.

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