Whaling HQ in Antarctica: whales, steam and solar

Larsen founded Grytviken as a whaling station, the first land-based such factory in the southern hemisphere. The bay, with its rusting industry and neat white buildings, the scattered bones and indolent fur seals, is an integral part of the whaling era when the Americas, Europe and Asia depended on the hunt for food and light, cosmetics, clothing, medicine and munitions.

In 1904, after the rescue of the Nordenskjold expedition, Larsen set up the Compañia Argentine de Pesca, the Argentine Fishing Company or CAP. Through this he raised the funds to set up the factory and settle in South Georgia. He took British citizenship and lived there with his wife and daughters until he died in the Ross Sea in 1924. The family remained intimately linked to exploration of the South: his daughter Margit married Ludwig Kohl-Larsen and together they conducted one of the key glaciation explorations of the island in 1928-29. On that expedition, Albert Benitz made the first commercial film about South Georgia (which sadly I cannot find online).

Fur seals and whaling factory in Grytviken

The site was a factory, complete with the manager’s house (now the museum), workers, barracks and all the paraphernalia of slaughter. Before it closed in the mid-1960’s, the settlement butchered 53,761 whales, producing 455,000 metric tons of whale oil and 192,000 metric tons of whale meat. The golden years were before the First World War: in 1907-1908, Grytviken produced more than 27,000 barrels of oil.

The whaling ships were relatively small: unlike the big ships with their onboard cauldrons described in Moby Dick, the land base meant the smaller boats could take their harpoons out and bring back a carcass with relative ease. The Petrel and several others now sit on the Grytviken foreshore, the harpoon guns aimed emptily at the mountains.

Petrel, a whaling chase boat at Grytviken
Whaling hulks at Grytviken
Whaling factory plant at Grytviken

The carcass would be winched up the slip way and onto a big flat area, known as the Plan, for cutting up, starting with long cuts made in each side of the whale so that the flesh could be peeled back along its entire length. Enormous chunks of meat and blubber were thrown into the pressure cookers for the rendering to begin. To give you a  feel for scale, each cooker held 24 tonnes of blubber which would be cooked for 5 hours to give up the oil, which was then piped to the Separator Plant for purification. The entire factory was driven by steam, itself created by burning the blubber, a solipsistic circle of energy production.

Grytviken Station must have been a bustling, stinking place. Very few women, save Larsen’s own family, spent much time there. It was racially mixed though: the museum records the presence of ‘Zulus’ (Africans and Cape Verdeans) alongside the Scots and Scandinavians who made up the majority of the workforce. Once the work was done, the men cleaned up. There are amazing photographs of them socialising on the station in ties and jackets, for all the world as if out on the pull in Glasgow, Cape Town or Oslo. Nan Brown, in her book Antarctic Housewife, describes both the hunt and kill in great detail, for the station was still busy when she lived there in the early 1950’s.

Before the war, the oil was reaching £90 a metric ton, over £9000 in today’s money. For comparison, 7.33 modern oil barrels are a metric ton, making whale oil then worth over £1200 a barrel, when, at the time of writing it is under US$50. You can see why it was worth the astronomical capital costs of establishing the factory, even though Larsen never got reliable financial backing.

Like so many other unbridled exploitations, the industry was a victim of its own rapacity. By the early 1930’s there were enormous surplus stocks and ground-based wells near the markets were being exploited, along with ever more efficient means of distribution via pipelines. The prices plummeted.

Whaling factory plant at Grytviken

And of course, whales were becoming ever scarcer. Even by the mid-1930’s humpback whales were nearly extinct in Antarctica and 99% of blue whales have gone from the Southern Ocean, so the catch became smaller and more dangerous to collect. It was a familiar story, known from the decline of whaling in the Arctic and Pacific. This time, though, there were no more seas to exploit and the industry declined steadily. A Japanese company made a last effort to revive Grytviken’s fortunes in the 1960’s but failed. In 1965, the station ceased to operate and whaling had (mostly) ended.

We all know, of course, that some countries still support the hunt. Despite the international ban and court judgements, Iceland, Norway and Japan are in the business. Japan alleges that it is only taking whales for research purposes but killed 333 minke whales (200 of them pregnant females) during the 2015-16 season. (Picture from the National Geographic.)

Minke wales are not rare, though they have proved hard to study. International law and conservation bodies remain staunchly opposed to whaling given the long term and profound impact of the whaling era on oceanic ecology. Some of those implications are more obscure than you might think, although we do know that there are complex and variable responses within marine ecosystems. For instance, large whales are significant storers of carbon, including the sequestration on the ocean floor created when they die and sink. A detailed study led by American scientists in 2010 concluded that we should consider rebuilding whale stocks as an important tool in combatting climate change, as effective as reforestation and less risky than seeding iron.

Even though fish and whales are only a small portion of the ocean's overall biomass, fishing and whaling have altered the ocean's ability to store and sequester carbon. Although these changes are small relative to the total ocean carbon sink, rebuilding populations of fish and whales would be comparable to other carbon management schemes, including ocean iron fertilization.

Pershing et al, PLOS one, August 2010.

Today, the fur seals hang out among the relics and grass grows in the cracks of the flensing platform. As elsewhere, the remains of extractive industries in beautiful landscapes provide camera-pleasing juxtapositions. In Grytvitken, musing on the ever rising impact of our oil-dependence is unavoidable. The rapaciousness has moved away from here. Despite market optimism about solar power and ambitious carbon budgets set by national parliaments, the challenges of ending reliance on non-renewable sources are still extreme. Just this week the Cambridge based Scientific Alliance, while wondering if the recent UK political earthquakes open up space for radical change in energy policy, have argued that complete decarbonisation of the country by 2050 remains unrealisable.

The empty seas and hulks of South Georgia should remind us all why our individual decisions on oil use, as well as those incomprehensible market flows, matter. It is just 112 years since Larsen founded the Grytviken station. What other changes will our energy demands have made by 2118?

Whaling boat at Grytviken
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