Saturday, 16 October 2021


Stromness Whaling Station
A cautious seal pokes up his head to greet you as you walk the ground of Stromness, an abandoned whaling station on the northern coast of South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. 

Snuggled at the centre of three harbours on the west side of Stromness Bay, South Georgia, this famous site was the destination of Sir Ernest Shackleton's rescue journey in 1916.

In 1907, a floating factory was built in Stromness Harbour and a land station was added in 1912. 

From 1912 until 1931, Stromness operated as a whaling station — not the proudest moments of our marine overtures. It was later converted into a ship repair yard, machine shop and foundry. From the mid-1930s to 1961, Stromness did minor repairs for a small local customer base then closed down completely, letting nature take back the land and the local animal inhabitants run amock.

The site would gain worldwide recognition with the 1916 landing of Ernest Shackleton and his small crew on the unpopulated southern coast of South Georgia at King Haakon Bay. 

The landing was a Hail Mary moment for the hypothermic men — cold, wet and shivering from an arduous sea voyage in their 22-foot (6.7 m) lifeboat, the James Caird — this was do or die.

Shackleton was on his grandly titled Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, an ambitious and hazardous journey he would embark on in early September 1914, shortly following the outbreak of World War One. This wasn't the ooh-la-la luxurious travel we enjoy today. This was pure rough and tumble — massive ocean swells and bone-shattering storms endured by the hearty. 

Whether or not the aptly named Ernest ever placed his prophetic ad, the words ring true for what the crew endured: "Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success." 

Truth in advertising? Generally, we share only the bright blue sky of possibilities, this was the exception to the rule. The adventure was to be a high-risk manoeuvre that could pay off spectacularly — or kill you dead.

He set sail on the Endurance from South Georgia for the Weddell Sea on 5 December, heading for Vahsel Bay. As the ship moved southward navigating through the ice. Deep in the Weddell Sea, conditions gradually grew worse until, on 19 January 1915, Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe and was abandoned. 

Shackleton refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks, knowing that if they did not reach South Georgia within that time, the boat and its crew would be lost. Shackleton, along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, rowed to Elephant Island. Their small craft, the James Caird, was launched on 24 April 1916; during the next fifteen days, it sailed through the waters of the southern ocean, at the mercy of the stormy seas, in constant peril of capsizing. 

On 8 May, thanks to Frank Worsley's navigational skills, the cliffs of South Georgia came into sight. Hope was within sight. Hurricane-force winds prevented the possibility of landing. The party was forced to ride out the storm offshore, in constant danger of being dashed against the rocks.

Finally able to land, the waterlogged men then trekked across South Georgia's mountainous and glaciated interior in an effort to reach help on the populated northern shore of the island.

After 36 hours of crossing the interior, they arrived at the Stromness administration centre, also was the home of the Norwegian whaling station's manager. This building has been dubbed the Villa at Stromness because it represents relative luxury compared to its surroundings. 

Shackleton immediately sent a boat to pick up the three men from the other side of South Georgia while he set to work to organise the rescue of the Elephant Island men. His first three attempts were foiled by sea ice, which blocked the approaches to the island. 

He appealed to the Chilean government, which offered the use of the Yelcho, a small seagoing tug from its navy. Yelcho, commanded by Captain Luis Pardo, and the British whaler Southern Sky reached Elephant Island on 30 August 1916, at which point the men had been isolated there for four and a half months, and Shackleton quickly evacuated all 22 men.

In the decades following its closure, Stromness has been subject to damage from the elements and many of its buildings have been reduced to ruins. 

However, recent efforts have been made to restore the "Villa" and clean up debris from the rest of the site in order to make it safe for visitors. Outside of Stromness is a small whalers' cemetery with 14 grave markers.