Grytviken, South Georgia has fascinated me for years. It’s inhospitable nature at the far end of the world, along with being the final resting place of the great Sir Ernest Shackleton gives it a special place in my imagination.
And while one might not necessarily consider it to be a “Dark Tourist” destination, the macabre history of the location as a busy early 20th Century whaling station (the rusted skeletal remains that exist to this day), and its sheer bleakness makes it a journey for the adventurous.
Grytviken is the largest settlement in South Georgia, and your first glimpse will come as your ship sails into King Edward Cove.
The island (and the nearby South Sandwich Islands) has been a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean since a certain James Cook made landfall in 1775. He promptly named it the Isle of Georgia in honor of the King, George III.
For over 100 years little happened in this remote British settlement. However, this changed when the demand for whale oil led sailors and shipping companies to the remotest parts of the globe in search of their quarry.
Grytviken was established under such circumstances, and on 16 November 1904 Norwegian sea captain Carl Anton Larsen, started what would be the largest whaling station in the South Atlantic.
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Grytviken Whaling Station
Taking a walk around the abandoned remains of the whaling station around Grytviken is a somber experience.
The ruins of the processing plants and work buildings that stand against the elements once bore witness to untold thousands of whale massacres.
The practice went on for decades (right up until the 1960s). Hunted for their high-value oil as well as bones and meat, these magnificent mammals met brutal, bloody ends in and around Grytviken.
Elephant seals were also hunted and over the working life of the stations across South Georgia (Grytviken was one of many), it is believed over a million creatures were slaughtered.
Now, of course, the whaling station has long shut down and is now a tourist attraction for those that make the long voyage to the island.
The harbor is relatively sheltered as Grytviken is surrounded by steep mountains, protecting the bay from the harsher weather from the west.
In recent years the South Georgia government has also removed all the asbestos from the site, making it more accessible for people walking around the remains.
You should still avoid touching parts of the buildings as they are in a dilapidated state. That being said, photographers and those interested in old abandoned engineering will be in their element.
Be warned, however, the grim history of the station will arguably make an emotional impact if you stop to consider what actually took place there.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Grave
Of significant importance to me is the fact that Grtyviken is the burial place of Sir Ernest Shackleton; in my mind the greatest polar explorer in history.
I first read “South” as a teenager and it evoked in me a sense of adventure and a lust for travel that remains very much alive in me today.
South Georgia was a destination that figured highly during his adventures, hence it becoming his final resting place.
It was the starting point for more than one of Shackleton’s expeditions and pivotal to the survival of him and his crew for his most famed voyage.
The “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to cross the entire Antarctic continent by land via the South Pole, began in Grytviken.
For those that do not know the story, (read South for the full insider account), the journey was unsuccessful due to his ship, the Endurance, becoming trapped in pack-ice in the Weddell Sea.
This led to Shackleton and his crew being the remotest human beings on earth for a full 18 months as they lived out the final sinking of the ship (from the enclosing force of the ice) and camped on shifting sea ice as they attempted a way back to safety.
They first hit dry land again on Elephant Island in April of 1916, and from there arguably Shackleton’s greatest achievement took place.
With a small group of men, he took the 7m long lifeboat, the James Caird, on a perilous 1300km journey through ferocious waters back to South Georgia.
Remarkably the boat remained afloat and on course, and after reaching the uninhabited side of the island, they traversed the central mountain ranges and made it to Grytviken.
Finally back into the civilization of sorts, Shackleton launched a rescue mission back to Elephant Island and rescued every single crew member.
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The Grave Site
Sir Ernest Shackleton died in 1922 in South Georgia at the start of yet another polar adventure.
At first, his body was on its way back to the U.K, however, knowing that his heart belonged to South Georgia, his wife requested that he be buried in Grytviken.
Even in death, he would travel. His body made its way back to the island that was so integral to his life and laid to rest in the Grytviken cemetery.
Today, of course, his gravesite is a must-visit for tourists on the island. Many will toast the intrepid adventurer with a shot of whiskey, (most tour guides provide the mugs and a bottle of good scotch).
The ashes of Frank Wild, a man that joined Shakleton on many of his expeditions are also at the site, so you can toast him too.
Where is Grytviken, South Georgia
How to get to Grytviken, South Georgia
South Georgia is one of the remotest places on earth that people visit. And for that reason, not many do. No more than 10,000 a year make the trip.
The most common way of getting to the island is via a licensed tour operator. These are part of a longer voyage traveling by ship from Ushuaia in Argentina or Stanley in the Falkland Islands, (there is no airport in South Georgia).
For this reason, getting there is not cheap. In fact, you will unlikely find a package dedicated to a South Georgia visit only, (it’s just too damn far away).
Most tours are combined with an expedition to Antarctica and/or the Falkland Islands.
However, if you want to prioritize your visit to South Georgia, One Ocean Expeditions is a great option if you can afford it.
The company offers a much more in-depth tour of the island, with some trips incorporating 8 full days there in which to explore.
Even the shortest trip with any tour operator will involve a stopover in Grytviken. This is because it is the economic and administrative hub of the island and each guest will need to clear customs there.
There is no available accommodation in South Georgia. Anyone that visits the island as a tourist will sleep onboard their passenger ship.
Featured Image: Lieutenant Philip Hall, NOAA Corps / Public domain
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I have an insatiable wanderlust for the extraordinary. Born with an adventurous spirit, I have spent over the past decade exploring the far reaches of our planet, seeking out the strange and mysterious.