South Georgia Gateway to Antarctica

A massive mountain range rises out of the sea.
The glaciers between the rugged, snow-covered rock slopes glow ice blue. South
Georgia - a rough gem of sublime beauty. The starting point of many famous,
historical Antarctic expeditions. Last hope and lifeline for Sir Ernest
Shackleton. Today, a unique natural paradise and extraordinary research area.

At Sea close to the sub-antarctic Island South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

With RV "Polarstern" during the expedition PS 119 off South Georgia.

Albatross near South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Island at the end of the world

South Georgia, claimed by the British seafarer and explorer James Cook for England in 1775, is virtually uninhabited today. Only two government officials hold positions here in this British Overseas Territory, as well as some scientists with the British Antarctic Survey. The island, about 170 kilometers long, is a unique natural paradise. Home to millions of seals, sea elephants, and penguins, as well as around 65 million flying birds, including the wonderful albatrosses that accompany our research vessel.

Albatross near South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Seals in Grytviken (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

When our chief scientist Gerhard Bohrmann worked around South Georgia with the research vessel "Meteor" in 2017, we were able to go ashore for sampling, immersed in the unique nature and observing the wild animals.

Elephant Seals and Penguins on South Georgia (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Little Seal in Grytviken (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Whale Hunting (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Traces of the past

The whaling industry dominated life in South Georgia until the mid-20th century – and the sea turned blood-red. Whole cities like London or New York were lit with thousands of tons of lamp oil extracted from the fat of whales. Sad heartbeat of our civilization with its insatiable hunger for progress. Following his visit to South Georgia, Shackleton's companion Frank Hurley noted, "I had been amazed at the instruments used by human ingenuity to triumph over the whims of nature and its greatest creatures, but I was even more astonished that humans failed in defeating the apparently more powerful monster in themselves: its name is greed."

Old Whaling Ship (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Rusted whaling boats in Grytviken …

Whale Hunting (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

… and huge steel vats in which the blubber was cooked from the whale bodies, still reminiscent of the industrial scale of whaling in South Georgia.

Old Whaling Ship in Grytviken (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

"Onshore, clouds of smoke rose from a large collection of huts, mingling with the mists around the snow-capped heights. Many whale cadavers, swollen like balloons, were moored to a buoy directly in front of the cutting platform, the so-called Flensing Plan. Decaying carcasses, already slimmed down, drifted in huge quantities on the greasy water or lay stranded on the banks. The factory sirens gave us a loud reception, carcasses bobbing up and down, nauseous”, noted Frank Hurley after he had reached South Georgia with Shackleton and the "Endurance".

Whale close to South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Today, the whales are back …

Whale near South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

… and can circle, undisturbed, in the waters around South Georgia.

Thies Matzen on South Georgia (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

A ‘Memorial to the Whale’ is what Thies Matzen envisions. When we meet him on South Georgia he tells us: “Industrial whaling began right here in Grytviken in 1904, leading over the next 60 years to the near total extinction of Antarctic whales. It is precisely the industrial slaughter of the whales that started here, which caused the whales to become the key species in turning our thinking around. It was their absence that – in the 1970s – united the various environmental groups into the Environmental Movement under the slogan ‘Save the Whales’.

The largest animal ever to have lived on Earth – a 33 meter long blue whale – was butchered on this very Flensing Plan. But, it was also exactly here that, around 1916, the very first questions arose about how best to conserve a marine resource, the whale stocks. Today, South Georgia is at the center of wide scientific interest: preservation instead of profit, habitat restoration instead of greedy exploitation.

Like no other island on the planet, South Georgia embodies this shift in our thinking. South Georgia’s turn-around story is one of the most positive I know – and in order to carry it into the world, I came up with this vision: to rededicate the former whaling station of Grytviken as a ‘Memorial to the Whale’. Whales exemplify our learning; they represent ocean life. The Memorial would guide the future. And as the first ever memorial to a wild species, not we humans would be center-stage, but the animals.”

Thies Matzen und Gerhard Bohrmann on South Georgia (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Our expedition leader, Gerhard Bohrmann, and Thies Matzen meet by chance on South Georgia in 2017. Matzen is restoring the windows of the small whalers’ church in Grytviken when he hears of the arrival of a German research ship.

The North German and his wife, Kicki, first visited South Georgia on their 30-foot long wooden sailboat Wanderer III in 1998. Since then they have lived and worked together in the region.

His idea of creating a memorial not for us humans, but for an animal that we drove to the edge of extinction, fascinates us. How close Thies feels to South Georgia’s animals, and how closely he and Kicki live in and with nature is palpable in their book Antarctic Wilderness: South Georgia, which he autographs as a farewell present.

South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

In the struggle for knowledge at sea, there is only little sleep, because research time is precious. Work is done around the clock on a research vessel. Yet those special moments still exist, when the power of the ocean takes your breath away and you find algorithmic borderland …

Fluke of a Humpback Whale (2017/2017)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

… or the fluke of an emerging whale reminds you how small you are in the big picture, or, as Alexander von Humboldt called it, the "web of life" that needs to be recognized and explored.

Stranded Iceberg (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Off South Georgia, a stranded table iceberg whose journey is over …

Sublime Beauty (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

… but our journey continues. The Antarctic winter is approaching. We are alone at sea with "Polarstern". No other ship dares to go to this area now.

At Sea near South Georgia (2019/2019)Federal Ministry of Education and Research

What remains?

The tireless search to get closer to the secrets of our planet earth – and the thought that land and ocean for many people often seem like two worlds apart, and yet they are one world - our world. The only one we have.

Credits: Story

PHOTOGRAPHY: Holger von Neuhoff
TEXT: Stephanie von Neuhoff

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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