Last edited 16 Apr 2023

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Conservation in South Georgia

With South Georgia now an ecosystem in recovery, the evocative, physical remains of the whaling past are being cared for and presented to adventurous visitors.

Stromness Whaling Station.png
Stromness Whaling Station, South Georgia, in the summer (Photo: Ross James).

On the edge of the windswept throes of the South Atlantic and the frigid Southern Ocean there is a British Overseas Territory fighting to preserve a dark past while also celebrating a wildlife revival. Part of its unique story is the built heritage and the need to conserve it. The island of South Georgia lies 1,400 kilometres southeast of the Falkland Islands (another British Overseas Territory), but has its own government and legislation. The territory includes the more remote South Sandwich Islands, another 500 kilometres to the south east. South Georgia itself is home to two stations, run by the British Antarctic Survey on behalf of the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI). Through careful management and large-scale protection, the islands are now renowned for their rich wildlife, which supports both a sustainable fishery (where much of the government’s income originates) and environmentally conscious tourism industry (through small-scale expedition cruise ship visits).

One late afternoon this winter, the GSGSSIs patrol ship, FPV Pharos SG, steamed out of the administrative centre of King Edward. For a couple of hours, the vessel had been rolling gently in the luxury of relatively calm seas (a rarity for the Southern Ocean), sheltered from the prevailing westerlies by the lee of the land. Its destination was the abandoned whaling station at Prince Olav Harbour. On its final approach the first signs of once-frantic human activity were spotted, an old navigational marker on a promontory, followed by more and more buildings that began to emerge from the shoreline.

The island of South Georgia’s relatively short human history is rich and full of intrigue. It can be divided into roughly five themes, resting within the following categories: seafaring and navigation; exploitation of the natural environment; the heroic age of Antarctic exploration; scientific endeavour and sovereignty; and defence. Prince Olav, one of five land-based whaling stations on South Georgia, is inextricably linked to the exploitation of the natural environment. The harbour was initially used as a site for the sealing industry, and whaling activities followed. This culminated in the buildings which are still visible ashore, 90 years after their abandonment. The name itself celebrates the unique cultural blend on South Georgia, which included, among others, many Norwegian whalers. The station operated for only 20 years before becoming the first station to close on the island, in 1931–2. Throughout the following decades many items were salvaged for use in the other whaling stations on the island; however, Prince Olav manages to retain a unique character. Due to its small size and being more geographically constrained within its own narrow valley in comparison to the other land-based stations, it is much more intimate, unlike the sprawling industrial stations from the latter period of whaling found in Stromness Bay.

Shortly after arrival a rigid-hulled inflatable boat was launched, and we cruised around the edge of the whaling station, skirting the 200- metre exclusion zone. All but one whaling station is out of bounds unless you have a special permit to enter. The abandoned buildings pose an obvious safety risk as they continue their managed decline and are in various states of collapse. There is also a hidden danger: many of the structures contain asbestos and so great care must be taken. The remaining buildings are photographed to document their present stage of decay. It is particularly poignant to observe this whaling station as it continues to deteriorate in the harsh environment of South Georgia.

The whaling stations on South Georgia reflect one of humankind’s greatest achievements. The structures themselves showcase the remains of a once-booming whaling industry. It speaks of a time when no thought was spared on the moral and ethical use of a natural resource being fully exploited. Even once the sustainability of such harvesting was put into question, the problems of the commons allowed it to continue until multiple species of whale were almost extinct. Thanks to a turning tide of public perception on whaling, these activities ceased, and the International Whaling Commission was able to place a moratorium on whaling. Nowadays tourist ships visit the island and spend time watching whales surround their vessels. The ruins on South Georgia and the stacks of discarded harpoon heads rusting on the beach are a reminder of how humankind can reach consensus to move forward and conserve nature. It also speaks of how much more there still is to do.

It represents a time which is in stark contrast with what the islands are renowned for around the world today: their rich wildlife. Come summer, there will be countless Antarctic fur seals and elephant seals hauled out along the shore and among the remains of the buildings, with loafing penguins also taking a rest. The present abundance of seals adds yet another challenge for access and works, due to their aggressive nature during the breeding season. It is hard to imagine a time when humankind hunted these animals almost to extinction along the island’s windswept beaches in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One can not but wish that something more could be done to save the buildings and the ambience of Prince Olav, but there are many factors at play. Here on the edge of the Southern Ocean nothing comes easily. The logistical challenges of operating in such an isolated and remote territory are vast, and when combined with the unpredictability of the extreme weather, the abundance of wildlife (sometimes aggressive), and the questions on how to manage any waste, it can at times feel insurmountable. The rusting remains of Prince Olav will persist for now as a potent physical symbol of the change from an island where inhabitants were filled with unfettered greed to one managed with a focus on the environment, education and sustainability. Inevitably this will result in some of the island’s tangible cultural heritage being lost through time, but much is being done to ensure some will remain, despite all the challenges. Future generations of visitors will continue to see a whaling station on South Georgia and know the importance of the story.

Of course, the whalers do not just connect to human manipulation of the natural environment (with over 175,000 whales harvested on the island), but also represent a link to the heroic age of exploration. In this period of intense activity around both poles, the whaling stations on South Georgia were renowned as both a gateway to the Antarctic and as an emergency escape. Most significantly, Ernest Shackleton benefitted from South Georgia, and the whalers, in both capacities, and undoubtedly his salvation is what the island is famed for in many circles.

This brings us back to King Edward Point and the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken. Grytviken is both the site of the first whaling station, and of Shackleton’s death and his grave. This station went through a colossal decontamination in 2003–04. Due to the removal of asbestos, a large amount of the building’s structures had to be removed, which came at a great cost to the government (almost the entirety of the Territory’s annual budget), and this was with the benefit of being where there already is a running water supply and electricity. It represented an inevitable loss of our heritage, which was weighed against the benefits of being able to facilitate opening the entire station complex to visitors.

Through a long programme of repair and conservation some buildings were able to be saved structurally by thoroughly overhauling and repairing them. They included the Manager’s House (now home to the museum), the Foreman’s Barracks (museum staff accommodation), Provision Store No 3, the Potato Store, the Coffee Roasting House, Nybrakke, the Main Store, the Workshop, the church and the Slop Chest (now the post office and shop). Thus, there is a corner of the station that will continue to be conserved for the benefit of all. The Grytviken works have enabled the museum (run by South Georgia Heritage Trust on behalf of GSGSSI) to be a central part of the island’s cultural heritage. The staff in summer give free walking tours of the sprawling industrial site, explaining what all the various buildings and machinery were. It is incredible to think how much ingenuity went into the construction of the factory and, eventually, harvesting of the entire whale.

Initially some mistakes were made in the attempt to make this a safe space for visitors. This included not necessarily recording the original layout and condition prior to conservation work commencing; not using the original colours of the station and having a mix-match of paints that did not reflect the historic colour palette; and the use of inappropriate cladding that offered only temporary protection and then required replacing itself. Sometimes decisions were made on the practicality of ensuring the lifespan in such a harsh environment (which regularly receives gusts of over 50 knots), such as the pressed metal edgings. It has been a steep learning curve, transitioning from simply making repairs to hold back the collapse of a building to ensuring the conservation of the building’s structural heritage, with more attention being paid to reproducing existing details.

Despite the challenges encountered conserving Grytviken, the story it tells continues. In July 2022 a three-week survey conducted by BAS scientists of the Winter Krill Project recorded almost 200 whales, including the rare southern right whale, sperm whale and blue whale, around the island in winter. South Georgia is an ecosystem in recovery and the GSGSSI believes that it is critical that this is seen in tandem with the associative value of our heritage. Grytviken, representing the tangible built heritage of a dark time in human history, must be conserved for future generations.

It is a holdfast, underpinning the story of revival and attaching it to lessons learnt by humanity the hard way. We continue to tell this story and will outline how in a new heritage strategy that will be published by 2025. We look forward to working with partners and interested parties, such as the IHBC, in the interests of an enduring legacy of the unique South Georgia heritage.

This article originally appeared as ‘Conservation in the Southern Ocean’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 174, published in December 2022. It was written by David Burton, government officer for the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. This article develops the heritage theme in the talk on South Georgia at the IHBC Aberdeen 2022 school.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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