A world isolated from life by 1,400km
“Stay at least 200m away from the whaling station C it’s filled with asbestos and the roofs could literally blow off,” warned expedition leader Nate Small, as we stepped gingerly out of our Zodiac and into the fizzing surf at Stromness Bay, South Georgia. I picked a careful route across the grey-pebble beach, eyeing warily the growling fur seals and slumbering elephant seals, their gargantuan bodies emitting a series of burps, bellows and rumbling bass notes.
“和捕鲸站保持至少200米的距离。捕鲸站满是石棉瓦，屋顶真的可能被狂风吹掉，”旅行团的领队思莫（Nate Small）如此警告我们，此时我们正小心翼翼地走出Zodiac橡皮艇，进入惊涛骇浪嘶吼声不绝于耳的南乔治亚岛（South Georgia）斯特伦内斯湾（Stromness Bay）。上岸后我挑选了一条沿着灰黑色鹅卵石海滩比较好走的路线，小心翼翼地注视着低声咆哮的海豹和正在酣睡的海象，他们庞大的身躯不断地发出打嗝声、嘶吼声和隆隆的低音。
At the far end of the bay, set against a mountain slope and surrounded by bog land, was a cluster of dilapidated, rusty, corrugated iron buildings. Huge sections of the roofs and walls were missing, and those that remained rattled incessantly in the near gale-force wind. It looked as if a natural disaster had struck. I stopped at an ‘Asbestos C Keep Out’ sign and peered through the encroaching mist, my extremities numb from the sub-zero conditions. It was a struggle to picture the station as a thriving community, yet a century ago Stromness was part of a highly profitable C and brutal C industry that transformed South Georgia into the whaling capital of the South Atlantic.
Earlier in my trip, Seb Coulthard, expedition guide and on-board historian for Polar Latitudes, told me how Ernest Shackleton arrived in Stromness in 1916 following his epic 1,300km escape from Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands that lie just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, after his ship was trapped and later crushed by pack ice. For the polar explorer, the whaling station represented civilisation, but today nature is slowly reclaiming it. Fur seals sheltered beside a blubber cooker, king penguins waddled past disintegrating warehouses and skuas (aggressive, dark-brown seabirds) washed themselves in meandering streams that once ran with the blood of tens of thousands of whales.
在我这次旅行的早些时候，我们此行的导游及极地纬度旅行社（Polar Latitudes）在船上的历史学家科尔塔德（Seb Coulthard）向我讲述了爱尔兰南极探险家沙克尔顿（Ernest Shackleton）1916年到达斯特伦内斯湾的故事。沙克尔顿到南极探险，他的船只被浮冰群所困，然后被撞碎，之后他从南极半岛北端的南设得兰群岛中的象岛（Elephant Island），横渡1,300公里的海域，历经漫长而艰辛的旅程之后，终于抵达斯特伦内斯湾获救。对于这位极地探险者来说，南乔治亚岛的捕鲸站代表着人类的文明，但如今，大自然正在慢慢地收复失地。海豹藏身于捕鲸人遗留的用鲸脂炼油的锅具旁边，国王企鹅摇摇晃晃地走过支离破碎的仓库，贼鸥（深褐色掠食性海鸟）在蜿蜒而行的溪流中洗着身子，这些溪流曾经流淌着成千上万头鲸鱼的血液。
A rugged, inhospitable land of glaciers, mountains and fjords, South Georgia is one of the most remote places on Earth. This sub-Antarctic British overseas territory in the South Atlantic is around 1,400km from its nearest inhabited neighbour, the Falkland Islands, and is only accessible by sea. Like me, the majority of the nearly 18,000 people who visit each year are on Antarctic cruises. The island spans 3,755 sq km C less than a fifth of the size of Wales C and around half is covered permanently by ice (though, as a result of climate change, its glaciers are drastically retreating).
Despite its isolation and harsh environment, South Georgia was once a vital part of the global economy. First sighted in 1675, this uninhabited island was claimed for Great Britain by James Cook in 1775. His accounts of abundant seal populations aroused the interest of sealers from the UK and the US. In little more than a century, South Georgia’s fur seals were hunted to the verge of extinction. By the early 1900s, sealing was no longer economically viable, but it was quickly replaced by an equally bloody industry.
The day after my visit to Stromness, my ship sailed south through 75-knot winds to King Edward Cove. Scattered with shipwrecks and mini icebergs, backed by forbidding mountains and obscured by drizzle, this sweeping bay was the location of South Georgia’s first whaling station, Grytviken. Today it is the site of the island’s main settlement, home to the majority of the 15 to 30 people, mostly scientists and government officials, who live on South Georgia at any one time.
就在我到访斯特伦内斯湾的第二天，我的船只就在75节大风中向南航行到了爱德华王湾（King Edward Cove）。这个深广的海湾内散布着遇难船只的残骸和漂浮的小冰山，海湾背靠令人望而却步的山脉，在蒙蒙细雨中若隐若现。这个海湾曾经是南乔治亚第一个捕鲸站古利德维肯（Grytviken）的所在地。如今此海湾是岛上的人类主要聚居点，为15至30岛民中大部分人的家，这些人主要是科学家和政府官员，他们一年四季都在此工作生活。
After paying my respects to Shackleton, who is buried in Grytviken’s small cemetery, I was taken around the decaying whaling station by Finlay Raffle, a curator at the site’s museum. We walked through an industrial landscape of squat towers, warehouses, power plants, mazes of inter-connected pipes, and huge blubber and bone cookers, everything thickly covered with rust. Along the shoreline, ships and boats in varying stages of collapse were pushed up at odd angles by the tide. Chunks of whale bone carpeted the muddy ground.
In 1902, Norwegian polar explorer Carl Anton Larsen stopped in South Georgia and chanced upon a beautiful natural harbour. After the discovery of several sealers’ try-pots C used to render oil from blubber C the area was named Grytviken (‘Pot Cove’ in Norwegian). “They moored not far off from where your ship is today,” Raffle said. “The only difference was when they looked out over the water they saw hundreds of whales in this bay alone.” With the northern hemisphere whaling industry in decline due to the decimation of whale populations, Larsen spotted a business opportunity. He returned to Grytviken in November 1904 and set up a whaling station, which swiftly prospered. By 1912, there were six other whaling stations on South Georgia, including Stromness.
1902年，挪威的极地探险者拉森（Carl Anton Larsen）在南乔治亚停留期间偶然发现了一处美丽的天然港口。就在发现几位捕猎海豹者的熬油锅（即 try-pot，从鲸脂中熬炼出油的大型锅具）之后，这一地区就被命名为古利德维肯（挪威语中的“锅湾”）。来福说：“他们当时停泊的地方离你们今天船泊位置不远，唯一的不同在于，他们往外望向这片海域时，仅在这一个湾内就看到了好几百头鲸鱼。”由于北半球的捕鲸业因鲸鱼种群的大量死亡而日渐式微，拉森看到了一个商机。他在1904年11月回到古利德维肯，设立了一个捕鲸站，这个捕鲸站迅速繁荣起来。到1912年，南乔治亚已增加了六个捕鲸站，包括斯特伦内斯湾在内。
Narrowly dodging a pair of fur seals, who blended in remarkably well with the rusty machinery, we approached an old whale-catcher. With its steam-powered engine, reinforced hull and mighty harpoon gun, the whaling ship Petrel could capture as many as 14 whales on a single trip. Back at Grytviken, the animals would be winched onto a slipway, the ‘flensing plan’. “It was very slippery with all the blood and oil, so the men wore boots with nails in them to grip properly” Raffle said. “They had a flensing knife C a long, almost hockey stick with a sharp, curved blade, which they used to cut the blubber away.” The whole process took 20 minutes per whale.
Initially the whalers were only interested in the blubber, but later regulations forced them to use the whole of the carcass, Raffle explained, pointing out gory rotating blades and a 24-tonne blubber cooker. Although the meat and bone-meal were sold as animal feed and fertiliser, whale oil was the real prize. “The best oils went into food products like margarine and ice cream,” he said. “The second grade went into soap and cosmetics, and the worst was used in industrial processes.” Whale oil also provided glycerol, used in the manufacture of explosives, and high-quality lubricants for rifles, chronometers and other military equipment. As a result, demand soared during World War One and Two.
There were 450 men at Grytviken in its heyday, working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, in temperatures that could plunge below -10C. Larsen was keen to look after their spiritual needs, building an impressive neo-Gothic church. But, said Raffle said, the pastor “was the least employed man on the station”. The cinema, windswept football pitch and ski jump C now just a few bits of broken timber protruding from a hillside C proved rather more popular. The community store, or ‘slop chest’, also provided distractions. “Tobacco was the most popular item but the men also bought lots of cologne,” Raffle said. “Larsen didn’t allow alcohol, so they drank cologne instead. They also had illicit stills, and even got boot polish, squeezed it through bread, and drank the drippings, which apparently also had alcohol. Anything to pass the time.”
Raffle left me at the former manager’s house, a simple, white-washed building that has been turned into the site’s museum. The displays inside contain some stark figures: 175,250 whales were processed on South Georgia between 1904 and 1965, when the industry collapsed due to over-hunting and developments in the petrochemicals industry. If you consider the Antarctic region as a whole and include the many ‘factory ships’ that processed whales on board, almost 1.5 million whales were killed between 1904 and 1978, when hunting of the species eventually ended.
Whale populations haven’t recovered. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) says blue whale numbers in the southern hemisphere have fallen from as many as 200,000 to the ‘low thousands’; fin whales have undergone a similar decline. There are an estimated 60,000 humpbacks in the southern hemisphere, but this is also far lower than the pre-whaling era. In September 2018, IWC plans for a South Atlantic whaling sanctuary were rejected by pro-whaling countries. Japan later announced it will resume commercial whaling for the first time in three decades, prompting global outrage.
The plight of the whales is undeniably bleak, but in other respects, South Georgia has become an improbable model of conservation. One of the world’s largest marine reserves, the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area, was created here in 2012 to protect more than one million sq km of the surrounding waters, while seal numbers have bounced back: the island now has 98% of the world’s Antarctic fur seals and roughly 50% of its elephant seals.
毋庸置疑的是，鲸鱼的现状令人沮丧，但在其他方面，令人难以置信的是，南乔治亚已成为一个海洋生态保护典范。南乔治亚和南桑威奇群岛（South Sandwich Islands）海洋保护区是世界上最大的海洋保护区之一，于2012年设立，目的是要保护100多万平方公里的周边海域。此外，此海域的海豹数量也已反弹回升：如今岛上拥有全球98%的南极海豹和约50%的海象。
South Georgia also has 30 million breeding pairs of seabirds. During my visit, I spent a morning at St Andrews Bay in the company of 400,000 king penguins C one of four penguin species found on the island C and an afternoon on Prion Island, an important breeding site for wandering albatrosses. Last year, South Georgia was declared rodent-free after a pioneering eradication programme, which the authorities hope will allow birds like the endemic South Georgia pipit and South Georgia pintail to flourish.
南乔治亚还有3,000万对海鸟在此繁殖后代。在我到访期间，我在圣安德鲁斯湾（St Andrews Bay）40万只国王企鹅（该岛发现的四个企鹅物种之一）的陪伴下度过了一个早晨，并在普里昂岛（Prion Island）四处漫游的信天翁的一个重要繁殖地度过了一个下午。在去年当局宣布一项开创性的灭鼠计划后，南乔治亚岛现在已无啮齿动物。当局希望消灭鼠类将使这个海岛特有的南乔治亚鹨和南乔治亚针尾鸭这样的海鸟能重获生机。
Despite the profusion of wildlife, it was the island’s whaling heritage that remained foremost in my mind as I sailed out of Grytviken. “When you walk about these stations all you see are these rusting boilers, blubber cookers and bone saws,” Coulthard said. “It’s a bittersweet irony in that it was a terrible, brutal industry, yet nature took its sweet revenge by reclaiming it. It’s a reminder that nature doesn’t need human beings; we need nature.”