South Georgia pokes out of the South Atlantic Ocean a good two or three day sail from the Falkland Islands, which seem downright cosmopolitan compared to the 1,500-square-mile chunk of slate and limestone. Antarctic gusts whittle the summer population of 40 people down to roughly 13 in the winter, but no one stays on the island all year – it’s not that kind of place. The west coast is inhospitable, defined by a row of jagged, snow-peaked mountains rising from the sea, and the east, full of natural harbors, is thick with aggressive Fur and Elephant seals. Grytviken, a former whaling station fronted by a rotting pier, massive metal tanks, and twisted pieces of aging machinery, might be the island’s friendliest spot. It’s certainly the only port with its own museum.
“The museum had about 10,000 visitors this year,” says Sarah Lurcock, the director of the South Georgia Museum. It’s an astounding number given the location on a narrow strip of beach between a harbor of rusting whale ships and a range of treeless mountains. Housed in the former whaling station manager’s home (referred to as “the Villa”) the museum is dedicated to the history of whaling, exploration, natural history, and the short-lived 1982 Argentinian takeover of the island. Ernest Shackleton stopped here as he prepared his ship the Endurance for a doomed expedition to Antarctica in 1914 and died here in 1922 while preparing to go back. The little church had to be cleared of potatoes to accommodate Shackleton’s funeral. He’s buried in the hillside cemetery not far from where 175,250 whales would eventually be processed. Tourists arriving on expedition boats stand at the grave, drink a toast to “the Boss,” then pour a drop of whisky on the earth.
Today, seals are the only marine mammals you’re likely to see in the water surrounding the island. The butchery ended in the sixties, but experts expect it to take a century for whales in the South Atlantic to reach their former numbers – and that’s if the krill holds out.
The return of the leviathans would be good news for Lurcock. She is currently accompanied by just a few seasonal museum assists and an intern from the University of St. Andrews museum studies program. The interviews for those roles tend to be less about qualifications and more about willingness to live at the end of the Earth. “You can’t use Facebook while you’re here,” Lurcock informs applicants before asking what might be the most important question: “Do you cook?”
The intrepid few who sign on help Lurcock collect information on the social history of whaling communities, scouring the island and eBay for artifacts and working contacts in Norway. They also look after the museums amazing collection of maritime treasure, which includes everything from blubber hooks and blueprints of long-gone ships to an impressive number of empty booze bottles. It is, after all, a lonely place.
More information: The best way to get to South Georgia Island is aboard a Lindblad and National Geographic Expedition ship, bound to anchor off Grytviken. That’s how Lurcock does it.