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Maiviken to Grytviken walk and visit to Grytviken Whaling Station

Heaving anchor during the night from Jason Harbour, Europa drifts for a few hours until the early morning, when we approach the little bay of Maiviken, a rocky cove indenting the headland that splits in two the wide Cumberland Bay. Foul sea bottom, together with its small size and the sheer cliffs surrounding Maiviken make for a bad anchorage, but still offering enough shelter this morning to continue with our plans to land here. Maiviken hosts three small rocky coves can be found between the capes (Rocky and Mai points) limiting Maiviken. On its Northwest corner first we pass by Tortula Cove, then we leave behind Burnet inlet and the third one is where we plan our landing, Poa Cove. At our arrival we can see 12 people standing at the beach. They did the very same hike we intend to do this morning but in the opposite direction, from the whaling station and scientific base located at Grytviken. Cheerful faces tell about their moods for having a few hours off their jobs and having the chance to sail the Europa, while we walk across the headland to the neighboring Grytviken. For us, it will be a gentle hike over mountainous terrain from here to the whaling station. There we expect to re-join the ship. While we all go ashore at Poa Cove, they are welcomed on board and straight away enthusiastically start pulling ropes hoisting zodiacs. Unfortunately this morning the wind doesn’t blow enough to set sail, but nevertheless sure they enjoyed going aloft and playing crew for a while. For us it will be first setting foot at Maiviken and soon started the walk. The cove was a preferred place on the early sealing times of the 1800s. As a testimony of their activities, right on the landingsite a cave where they used to stay while hunting and skinning seals can be visited. A quite precarious shelter in the past, but in present times a wooden door has been added to improve the accommodation. At the present times Maiviken is often visited by scientist from King Edward Point for
research purposes, mostly surveying Fur seal population and Gentoo penguins nesting at Tortula Cove. From the beach, a short climb over the famous tussock grass of South Georgia, led us to easier slopes above. This important tall grass is of utmost importance on the coastal ecosystem of the whole island, offering nesting grounds for many birds, including large variety of petrels and also for Macaroni penguins, that prefer this difficult terrain to the open areas. But leaving aside its important role on the nature’s diversity and richness of South Georgia, many of us struggle on such illustrious terrain, trying to jump from top of one stool to another one, often failing and falling in the deep muddy holes in between. Not leaving anybody indifferent, a few minutes are enough to make our minds
about it… love it or hate it…
From here the path leads South through grassy slopes, to the so-called Maivatn lake, in the Bore Valley and then climbs up to a 205m high mountain saddle. Next to the lake lays a cozy little hut built in 1974 and kept in good conditions, being normally used by King Edward Point scientists. Arriving to the highest of our track, a scenic saddle between the mountains, all that is left now is to descend the hills, leaving behind the great viewpoint coronated by a large cairn named “Dead man’s cairn”. An easy trail leads to the freshwater intake for the Station. Grytviken can’t be seen until almost reaching the sea level, as it lays hidden on a bay just around the corner of the valley we use to climb down. There, we are welcomed by the views from the Whaling Station’s remains, with the Europa moored there as she just arrived. Zodiacs soon picked us up to board the ship for lunch. Even though we have been on South Georgia for quite a few days already, we are not cleared in yet, and as we now have entered that possibility, this is the first thing that has to happen. Since we officially cannot visit the place yet, we quickly make our way through Grytviken with closed eyes. From the pick-up site we go straight back to the ship. First our passports have to be stamped, and our boots have to be checked. This is probably one of the only times in our live customs will be cleared while we are eating lunch. No cues, no waiting, no questions; Jordi and Janke arrange everything in the library with officer Emma, while we are enjoying our soup. Right after lunch we are surprised by two more new persons in board: Finley and Dani are here to inform us about the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project. In the deckhouse they tell us about several of their projects, one of them being the ambitious projects of getting rid of all the rats that came to the island with the sealers. As glaciers are retreating fast on the Northern side of South Georgia – they knew they did not have much time before retreating ice would open even larger areas for the rats, so they acted as fast as they could. By spreading poisoned bait by helicopter over all the affected areas, it indeed looks like they managed to get rid of all the rats. After their talk, all the paperwork is done, and we are ready to visit Grytviken. It is a calm afternoon – the sun is shining and the ride easy. We will start our walk
at the Southern side of King Edward Cove, at the famous graveyard. The graves are surrounded by a spotless white fence – which is used to place a long row off whisky glasses. This may seem a bit inappropriate, but in this place it actually is a long standing tradition, the tradition to toast on 'The Boss'. We gather around Shackleton's grave – as he is buried here in South Georgia. He died in 1922, on board the Quest, on the way to yet another great southern expedition. His body was already on the way North, when the wish from his wife arrived that he should be buried where his dreams and thought had been his whole life, in the far South. And so it happened that Shackleton was buried here, and in 2013 got the company of Frank Wild’s ashes, his right hand man. Tjeerd has prepared a nice speech, telling about Shackleton and how we have followed in his footsteps, have seen some of the places he went, and will now continue to the North beyond. During our toast Sarah, museum curator and head of the South Georgia Heritage Trust has come our way. She takes us on a tour through the remains of the town – bringing to life buildings that are no longer here, stories that have happened about a century ago, and a vivid image of how it was to life and work here. We can still see many of the remains – but few of the overall structures are still standing. Grytviken has been cleaned up and made save to visit – unlike the rest of stations in that rest in several of the wild South Georgia bays in advanced state of decay-. It was in 1904 that Larsen settled down here and introduced whaling to the Southern Ocean. Larsen made important contributions to the exploration of the Polar Regions, amongst them one that would seal the fate of South Georgia. It was while working as Captain of the ship “Antarctic” for the Swedish Antarctic Expedition (1901-03) leaded by Nordenskjold, that he realized the great commercial opportunity of whaling in the waters off South Georgia. Tireless man, following his grueling struggle for survival being castaway in Antarctica for about a year with his crew, and their rescue by the Argentinean vessel Uruguay, he found financial support in Buenos Aires to establish the Grytviken whaling station. He soon brought 60 men, many prefabricated buildings and the whale catcher Fortuna to the bay in November 1904. Only six
weeks later, the first whale was processed. Grytviken soon became the centre of whaling. The centre of town was formed by a large slipway where whales where hauled on land with a steam winch. From there on blubber, meat and bones where brought to their different boilers, and transformed into oil. At the height of operations, 300 men worked in Grytviken during summer. And there were not only men – Larsen and other officials brought their wives, and children. The first baby to be born South of the Antarctic convergence was born here, in 1913. The commercial success of the first whaling season caused Norwegian and British companies to further establish other stations in the Southern Ocean Islands. With this, a new era of modern whaling and further ecosystem changes began after the decimation of the seal populations. To the point that within a few years, Antarctic Regions were producing about 70% of the world's oil. During Larsen’s life at Grytviken he gave support to several Antarctic expeditions. Many used to stop at South Georgia before venturing into the icy realms of the White Continent. And he even acted as mediator of the arguments that lead to the brisk of mutiny on board the Deutschland, during the polemic German Expedition of 1911 under Wilhelm Filchner. Before heading South, the crew, that already showed internal personal problems, was welcomed by him. Issues just grew bigger in Antarctica, when they even got trapped in the pack ice, until breaking free on November 26, 1912. Date when they started heading back to South Georgia. Here Larsen made the appropriate arrangements for the mutinous crew to return to Buenos Aires and Filchner’s return to Germany. Despite all the tribulations, the expedition achieved great success on the fields of new lands discovery, cartography and mainly oceanography. On that subject, their research led to a much better understanding of the different water masses and their circulation in the Southern Ocean. Feeling privileged to soak into this significant part of South Georgia Historical times, we land and walk around what is nowadays left of the whaling station founded by such distinguished and principal character of the Polar History. Here we are surrounded by rusting boilers, containers, enormous chains, anchors, and even four weathered shipwrecks. Several buildings have been restored, one of them being the church. The church was built in 1913, and was used as such for a long time. But to speak with the words of one of the priests that lived here for a while ´Religious life among the whalers left much to be desired'. In later years the church was often used to store potatoes, or as a cinema.

We end the tour close to the post office, gift shop and museum. There is a lot of useful and visual information to be found on life on the island here. As well as a replica of the James Caird, and a stuffed albatross – making us surprisingly aware of how small the first and how enormous the latter is. A good while before dinner everyone starts to long for the ship again, and our zodiacs are called. When we arrive home, it is a quite different pale that welcomes us. A tent has been put out on deck, and in this tent is a true barbecue is taking place. The crew in the galley has been working all day, as usual, but today even more so, to make this braai night happen. It soon becomes clear that the night will be long. Even more so when our visors arrive; many of us spend the evening on deck, chatting with the different researchers from King Edward Point. KEP, also called the 'Capital of South Georgia' – and was started when the first British magistrate arrived in 1909. At the moment KEP is a mixture
of research and politics. This evening, the largest part of the local population is aboard our ship. As we talk through the night the sky clears up completely – overwhelming us with its amount of visible
Southern stars.

Written by:
Sarah and Jordi | Guides

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