Saturday, March 11, 2017

Grytviken, S.Georgia Scenery

      I had intended to visit Shackleton's grave at Grytviken, but I decided not to when the day finally came.  The morning offered a hike to the site, but I had no interest in putting on all that gear and hiking, especially in polar boots and given that the hike would not really yield wildlife but views. (I'll hike almost anywhere for mammals but not for a view).  I was glad I didn't go because many who did were later sporting incredible sunburns from the snow glare, including one staff member who literally burned her eyeballs somehow and one crew member who had a completely red face for several days after.

Grytviken, where the whaling station is a museum
     There were landings at Grytviken in the afternoon to visit the grave, but it was an en masse event and I didn't care to visit it with other people.  I also had less than no interest in the whaling station and definitely did not want a tour to hear about the massive numbers of whales that were murdered there and how wasteful man had been in that timeframe with the whale bodies.  I was glad I didn't go because visiting Elsehul had already gotten me thinking too much about the massive slaughters of the past and I literally couldn't stomach the idea of visiting the actual station.  The scenery from the boat was good enough for me, and since the storm had passed I was better able to read.
    I like to read books on a trip that relate to the trip: the place, the environment, the wildlife or the history.  Not exclusively, but it is always interesting to be reading about a place while experiencing it as well. 
     I read "Two Years Before the Mast," which
The ice was impressive
was published in 1840 about a voyage from Boston to California and written by a young man who had taken a sailing job for the first time as a break from college.  It was very interesting, but the point of the voyage was to fill the ship with furs.  Basically there was (surprise) a massive, massive amount of animal killing, then a scraping and drying of skins, and then packing the skins very tightly in the ship.  We are talking thousands and thousands of animals killed - just for this one ship.  The author describes California as it was first being settled, the animals there now gone.  It's a great story, but certainly if animal massacres bother you and you happen to be thinking about them anyway, not great to dwell on the details. 
     The author did encounter storms in the Southern Ocean, and the description of those and how the crew coped with them on an old time sailing ship was really interesting and timely.  It meant so much more having had the experience of a storm in that location, and of course on a far, far more modern ship and not having to do any hard work of sailing it.
     I read "The Home of the Blizzard: A True Story of Antarctic Survival," (about an Australian exploration of the Antarctic 1911-1914) and "The Worst Journey in the World" (about Scott's last journey in the Antarctic), and "Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex" (supposedly the true story Moby Dick is based on, a whaling mission that ends in shipwreck).  These were not easy reading, and included descriptions of killing whales, penguins, and seals.  While the conditions in Antarctica were incredibly tough for the men, resulting in many well-described deaths and injuries, they actually took animals with them.  What a terrible idea.
A zodiac is in the lower right
    There was a description of horses brought to Antarctica, and how the horses were below deck during storms in the southern ocean, sometimes dying before reaching shore.  I love my horses every bit as much as people love their children.  I cannot imagine any person putting horses through storms in the southern ocean and then expecting them to survive in Antarctica.  Pure lunacy and cruelty. Every one of the poor horses eventually died from starvation, exposure, falling through ice, or otherwise in storms.  Brutal.
     The poor dogs fared a bit better but not much, always having some tragic, tragic end.  There were descriptions of dogs chained to the deck in storms in the southern ocean, repeatedly doused with cold waves, sometimes drowned, sometimes washed overboard. Again, what on earth possessed people to subject dogs to these conditions? The things the dogs were subjected to as they pulled sleds and helped man explore the newly discovered Antarctic continent would chill any dog lover.  I thought of my border collie waiting for me at home. 
     I can accept men wanting to explore and taking risks with their lives.  It's much harder for me to accept subjecting animals to such risks and conditions.  Clearly some of the men cared for the animals but were realistic about having to kill them, sometimes eat them, sometimes feed them to the other animals.  It was a harsh time, no doubt.  I wouldn't have wanted to have any part of it.
     For science, some of the early explorers made great efforts to obtain some Emperor Penguin eggs and some actual penguins.  It's so odd though that while the explorers describe the penguin colony with reverence and the birds as majestic and beautiful and they view their mission as one that will advance scientific understanding of the birds in the future - they would then describe having a few for lunch.  Kind of surreal.  Complaints were made about taste and texture.
    Another shocking description in these books was that ships would stop at the Galapagos Islands and stock up with tortoises, filling the ship with hundreds.  The live animals would be living in the dark with no food and water below deck until they were cooked and eaten.  They were considered a great food supply as they stayed alive and "fresh."  The description of how many hundreds were gathered by each ship for this purpose was another terrible shock - reflecting on the population decimation that took place.  How could it not occur to anyone that such pillaging was totally unsustainable?  Having been to Galapagos and seen the tortoises (and how few remain) again, it was appalling to think about how much destruction of other species man has managed in such a short time. How so many people could go along with these practices without concern or conscience I can't understand.
     Suffice it to say that the reading did not improve my conflicted emotions about visiting S. Georgia and Antarctica.  It also did not make me want to engage in dinner conversation; what can one possibly say with all these thoughts of animal massacre on such grand scale floating about?
     Sometimes birds landed on our ship, despite the fact we turned off lights and closed windows at night as instructed.  If they were just resting, that was great and they moved on eventually - but sometimes they were injured or killed.  Great.  We do everything possible to protect the animals and the environment where we are visiting, and we still take some lives.  Ug.  We were being so careful, I couldn't help but think about all the ships that weren't, and how many ships visit Antarctica these days.  Is the fact that the animals we are killing now are few and unintentional comforting?  Not really.

A sooty albatross on deck
I forgot what kind of bird this was, despite the guide telling me
      At the end of the day dinner was served outside on deck, surrounded by a gorgeous view - but it was super cold.  So cold one didn't want to eat, and I felt awful that the ship staff were trying to serve in those conditions.  I worried about each plastic cup or piece of paper that might get blown into the ocean by the wind and ran down several.  It seemed somehow like we were violating this place despite all efforts not to do so.  I really wonder if there are some places we just should agree not to go. 
     Then again, Japanese whalers are still whaling in the Antarctic every year despite an international ban, claiming whaling is for "scientific purposes," which is a complete crock.  Maybe tourist traffic gets in their way a bit?  In India the presence of tourists helps reduce poaching - I know of no studies on how it might impact whaling in the modern age. (Japan, Norway and Iceland are still whaling).  There is no question that we are doing far less damage now than in years past, and that this part of the world is a gorgeous, special place to visit.  There was also no doubt in my mind the company I was traveling with was serious about conservation and the environment and responsible.
     I wanted to be able to enjoy the scenery and feel at peace in such a beautiful setting, but I found it just wouldn't work.  I was still feeling deeply unsettled by my reflections at Elsehul on how easy the seal killing had been for decades and how mankind managed to almost completely destroy the marine mammals in this part of the world, in very recent times.  Reading was not proving a good distraction.  I was grateful that dinner conversation was impossible in the cold conditions, and hoped tomorrow would be a more uplifting day.  I wanted to leave Grytviken, and the horrors of sealing and whaling, behind me.





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