Rewilding South Georgia

Grytviken South Georgia
Former whaler at Grytviken. Richard Meyer: Unsplash

There’s something about being island-born that calls you back, even if delivered there by accident (instead of London).

Gazing from a mainland shore, if I see an island I feel drawn to visit and savor the mystery. It is Avalon guarding King Arthur’s bones; it is Ludovico Einaudi’s Islands. Some I have known harbor memories of medieval monks living in caves, others are cities for nesting seabirds, while my island is sandcastles on the beach and flying kites on top of the ‘downs’. But not all are so idyllic.

Gruinard off the west coast of Scotland was a no-go island for 50 years after the government contaminated it with anthrax spores in a wartime experiment to develop a biological weapon. And Lundy off the north coast of Devon used to be a base for Barbary pirates. Both have lost all traces of dark history.

Not so for South Georgia, a 100-mile-long streak of mountain in the South Atlantic. It was a refuge for Ernest Shackleton’s crew after an epic voyage when pack ice crushing their ship close to the Antarctic continent forced evacuation by rowboat across the Southern Ocean in 1916. One of the most remote places on earth and associated with polar exploration, it is in fact only 54°S compared to Edinburgh at 55°N.

Between 1904 and 1965, some 175,250 whales were processed at Grytviken and other locations. Ghosts of that industry are strewn around the stations: rusting tanks, boilers and hulls of whaling ships. Thankfully, today there is no more gore, litter of bones or stink of boiling blubber.

It wasn’t the rise of oilfields that put whaling out of business but the tapering of stocks. Hunting became highly efficient by arming harpoons with a grenade. Imagine the outrage today if hunters blew up hippos, the closest living relatives of whales, which I vouch are not as smart as whales and their relatives.

What went on far from home and under the waves took a long time to wake public sensibilities. Since the 1980s we have a commercial whaling moratorium that is now generally observed, except for two nations, and just in time to save species from extinction.

Given a chance, nature can come back and as bountiful as ever. Islands offer outstanding opportunities for conservation. Images of Grytviken flicker between the ruin of former industry and vitality of rewilding. Rookeries of four species of penguins exist in greater densities than anywhere else on earth. The sky is full of the cries of seabirds and thousands of albatrosses nest on the hilltops. Fur seals and elephant seals bask with their pups on the beaches, fearless of humans they seldom encounter. Offshore, humpback, fin and blue whales blow spouts of water and dive unmolested. What a draw for a naturalist who delights in wildlife on the rebound.

To visit South Georgia would be like going home as it is a British territory. But despite the pull of another island to check off my list, it will only exist for me in pictures and imagination. Apart from a tiny staff in the summer months, the only visitors are from an occasional cruise ship stopping en route to the Antarctic. They step on shore for a few hours, which is no way to get a feel for an island still healing. Do we always have to intrude on nature and leave our mark?