Mithril Visits South Georgia
South Georgia lies at 55 degrees south and 1,100 miles east of Cape Horn, at the heart of the Furious Fifties. In this ten day passage Mithril experienced the very worst weather of her career - severe gales, icebergs, monster waves, snow squalls and the constant, nagging, temptation to turn north towards kinder weather. But we persevered and on the 16th of March 2002 Mithril became the first Irish boat ever to reach the sub-Antarctic island.
South Georgia gives an awesome landfall. A stark black and white coastline towered against a vivid blue sky. Black as it is mostly rock, devoid of tree or shrub, and white from sheer snowy peaks and dozens of glaciers inching their way to the sea. At last we turned into King Edward Cove and our fist sight of Grytviken, the whaling station, now abandoned. A forlorn collection of rusty buildings huddled in a small flat corner of a vast amphitheatre of a bay where our voices echoed off the hills and scree covered slopes. After the shriek of the gales the silence rang in our ears.
When the whalers last departed Grytviken they left everything in place for the next season; a season which never arrived. It's fascinating, but eventually depressing, to wander among the decrepit buildings with their miles of steam pipes which once fed the factory. There are rusty tools on broken shelves, birds nest in the mouldy cinema seats and at the back of the restored church library books await their next readers.
Our berth was alongside the flensing plane where the carcasses were butchered and processed in vast pressure cookers. Once a riot of blood and stench it's now an adventure playground for thousands of fur seal pups.
We found them sheltering inside pieces of pipe and under machinery in the gloomy workshops from where they would growl menacingly at us. Out on the snow they chased us like irate terriers, snapping at our ankles. Shackleton's grave is marked by a block of rough hewn granite and from there we looked down on a group of male elephant seals with their distinctive large fleshy noses. They were moulting and despite weighing several tons each they sprawled over one another in a foul-smelling, gurgling, growling heap - a wallow that actually steamed in the near zero temperatures.
King penguins trumpeted at us - their bills stretched to the sky. I sat on a length of snow covered pipe while Peter videoed them and within seconds two inquisitive old gentlemen, almost a metre tall, shuffled over to prod insistently at my legs. It was astounding. Up close their plumage is stunningly beautiful; gray to blue black with vivid orange splashes at the neck and a pristine white front.
For years man hunted and slaughtered the wildlife of Grytviken - almost to extinction. Today their factory is in ruins whereas animal numbers continue to increase and once again, it seems, that nature has the upper hand in South Georgia.