Friday, March 10, 2017

Elsehul, S. Georgia, and Shadows of a Dark Past

The Ortelius anchored off Elsehul
      The next day of our journey the weather was too bad to land where we had planned.  Later in the afternoon,  we were able to land at Elsehul, South Georgia.  Although there were once again lots of penguins and seals and the wildlife viewing was great, it was at this second stop that a darker shadow of the past began to really bother me, like a dangerous undertow that pulled at me as I walked along the beach.
     I knew that South Georgia had been a whaling station, primarily because of the story of Earnest Shakleton and his amazing survival journey which ended at a whaling station on South Georgia. The story of the Endurance and Shakleton's incredible leadership skills is a really gripping one, and if you haven't read "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage," you really should.  Shipwrecked south of South Georgia, Shackleton and his men survived, and were eventually rescued due to a stunning small boat trip and a hike across the island of South Georgia to the whaling station.  (My husband had planned to retrace Shackleton's steps across the island on a two day hike, but the weather was deemed too bad to embark on the hike this day.)
      Certainly, the records of the Shackleton voyage contain a record of seals and penguins being killed, but they were killed to sustain shipwrecked men, not for sport, and not in excess.  Who can fault that?  It was necessity.  The whaling station eventually provided rescue to the shipwrecked men, and what a wonderful thing, setting aside the dark reason for its existence and the evil that was done there for so many years.
     Whaling in South Georgia was all about excess.  The first whaling station was established there in 1904 and then several more came into being, making South Georgia literally the world wide center of whale massacres. Whaling stations were at Grytviken (operating 1904-64), Leith Harbor (1909-64), Ocean Harbor (1909-20), Husvik (1910-60), Stromness (1912-61)and Prince Olav Harbor (1917-34). Yes, that's right, a continual killing spree from 1904 (when whales were plentiful) to 1965 (when many were on the brink of extinction). We killed almost all of them - literally.  It only stopped five years before I was born, and I was now standing on South Georgia a mere 50 years later at age 45, looking at what 50 years of recovery had brought to pass.
     But setting aside the horrific whaling for a moment, something at least most people are at least mildly aware of as a period in human history, dark and murderous though it was, there is yet another layer of disgusting evil in the shadows of the past that fewer people are aware of.  Before the whalers came the sealers.  Yes, seal killers.  They killed in massive, massive, massive numbers and when they had darn near killed all of the seals (literally), they moved on to the whales.  After all, whales are harder to take than seals.
     The sealing started in 1786, by the English, and started with the fur seals.  Fur seals are smaller (albeit the males can be plenty big) than elephant seals, and certainly can be killed by one man.  A ship of sealers could easily kill thousands upon thousands of fur seals, and so they did.  They did so with no thought to breeding cycles, conservation, sustainability, or anything but profit.  When they ran out of fur seals, they switched to the elephant seals.  Bigger, harder to kill, requiring more men, but still ever so manageable.  And when they ran out of those poor elephant seals, they started in earnest on the whales.  Supposedly, sealing activities on South Georgia had three marked peaks in 1786–1802, 1814–23, and 1869–1913.  Of course, seals were also killed between 1913 and 1965, but the numbers were far less because the populations had been completely and totally decimated.
Mother elephant seals with young nursing pups
  South Georgia, and the Southern Ocean, were essentially the scenes of mass murder from 1786 to 1965, and in those 179 years, mankind managed to all but exterminate the marine mammals.
     Standing on South Georgia in 2015, I looked at the fur seals and the elephant seals - the males, the females and the pups of both species.  These creatures were not afraid, not running away.  They do not naturally see man as an enemy but as a fellow animal, and they won't bother us if we don't bother them.  Sure, maybe they will charge or bellow or nip if you get too close, but protecting a little five foot territory around themselves is certainly reasonable.  If you have ever been to Galapagos you have experienced what it is like to walk among wildlife who do not perceive man as a natural threat.  Birds nesting at one's feet, iguanas, sea lions - all willing to say hello, to interact, or to go about their business and ignore us.  South Georgia is much the same only far, far, far, FAR better.
Mating elephant seals work on the next generation
      Galapagos is already way too touristy.  They have tried to protect it by marking trails and making boardwalks so all the tourists don't destroy the islands.  Quite sensible.  But no matter how you slice it or spin it, there are boatloads of hundreds of tourists downloaded to those poor islands daily, and so the once remote and isolated Galapagos are now nature-filled tourist destinations.  Man has literally overrun the place, which is what made a trip there (although also very good in many respects) a bit disappointing for me.  Too many darn people, and all the drawbacks that they bring wherever they go.
     South Georgia is what I imagine the Galapagos used to be more like (albeit way warmer) - actually remote, with no trails, no cities, no boardwalks.  South Georgia is divine in that respect.  A pure place of nature.  And unlike Galapagos, there are not a zillion ships packed with tourists.  It is such a hard and costly and lengthy trip not that many can do it, and only one ship at a time is allowed in each landing spot if they do.
A male elephant seal, nose and tail fins exposed
     So, in this place which is heavenly devoid of humans, which is still very natural, part of me rejoiced.  All the yucky things that come with humans - noise, garbage, talking, selfies, stupidity, destruction and so much more, were all absent. Wonderful.  And lots of animals who do not fear me, who tolerate me, who sit and look at me placidly as I try to take their photographs, who go about their animal business as if I am not even there.....what could be better?
A young male fur seal calls out to others
    Except that therein lie a great sadness.  These innocent creatures were just like this 179 years ago, and 150, and 100, when men came to kill them.  The baby elephant seals with their completely baby eyes just looked up at men who slaughtered them.  I could have killed any seal on that beach pretty easily; I could have killed them all.  They sat there. All those years ago their ancestors no doubt sat there too, just as innocent, and so they were slaughtered mercilessly and by the millions.    
     I could no more imagine the men who slaughtered them being able to do that than I can imagine how the men who go into a kindergarten with an assault rifle and mow down four and five year olds can do it.  I know the evil in the killers in those two scenarios doesn't compare, but the innocence of the victims does.  The killing wasn't "an industry" or "sportsmanlike" it was just a slaughter.  Senseless killing and wasting of life.  Sure, there was a market for oil, and profits were made, but there was no guiding moral compass setting reasonable limits, trying to minimize suffering, trying to ensure a sustainable resource.  It was just take, take, take, take until everything was gone. I thought about the men who could kill those seals - I would not want to meet such men. 
What could be more innocent that an elephant seal pup??
     The men who did the killing left evidence of their crimes as well, and I saw the first of that here at Eelsehul, in the form of "tri pots."  Heavy iron pots were located not too far up the beach.  Seals were killed and skinned and then the pots were used to melt down the fat and blubber and render oil. I felt, looking at them, much like I felt looking at the ovens used to cremate the Jews and other prisoners at Dachau.  I'm not comparing the moral wrong - I recognize that mass murder of humans is even worse, according to most moral compasses and philosophies, than mass murder of marine animals.  I understand.  But the feeling I had - the something creepy under my skin feeling - was the same looking into those pots on South Georgia as looking into those ovens in Germany.  In both instances innocent life was snuffed out in mass numbers and acknowledging that doesn't mean I am saying those lives are of equal value or the crimes in the killing are equal.
A fur seal peeks over the tri-pots left by sealers
      Faced with a material thing like a pot or an oven that has been used countless times to dispose of countless bodies is a repulsive thing.  A cute young fur seal peeking over the pots was in fact very cute, but not so cute that I could shake the feeling of revulsion.
     As I stood and looked around me, walked around the beach and saw the penguins going about their business of nesting, heard the seal pups calling for mom so they could nurse, heard the barks of the fur seals staking their territories, and felt the strong, cold wind, I was conflicted at the good of the present and the awfulness of the past. 
     The Gentoo penguins, unburdened by the past, were finding mates, making nests, and thinking about the future.  Male penguins collect small stones or items that they give as gifts to female penguins in courtship.  I watched several Gentoos jump out of the waves, climb onto the beach, and wander around looking for the right rock to win over their intended.  Although I hardly ever take video, I captured this small clip of a Gentoo looking for such a rock, and also some of the sounds of the seals in the background.  It's sweet.  But, if you look closely, you will see that what he is picking up, what he is wandering through, are vertebrae and bones on the beach. The future can't be separated from the past.

     But, in the moment, looking around, there was plenty of life to see.  The relatively few King penguins here seemed mostly to be resting.  I tried for a close up of this one that would show the feathers.

    I'm not a birder, but there were many birds I saw here for the first time.  In the interest of keeping the posts about this landing all in one place, I add the bird photos here.  Above it all, on a bluff, were grey-headed albatross.
Grey-headed albatross

A giant petrel.

A South Georgia pintail duck.

A skua bird.

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