Sailing South to Antarctica The Finale

The old Grytviken whaling station with the SA Agulhas II in the bay.

After weeks of tedious cargo operations we temporarily say goodbye to the Antarctica ice shelf. There are mixed emotions all around. We will miss waking up to this place, but the days were long and laboring. We will now set course for Thule island more than a 1000 km to the North West. This means we are entering the final stages of our voyage and very soon we’ll be heading home.

The route from Cape Town, to Antarctica and finally South Georgia island

After a few days we reach Thule island. It is secluded, small, barren, windswept, bitterly cold and uninhabited. Apparently, it is part of an old sunken volcano, but I am not impressed sorry to say. It does have large colonies of penguins, seals and seabirds, but this only makes the place extremely noisy and smelly. After weeks in Antarctica I guess it would be difficult for this place to ever compare. Its value lies in its location and the economic benefits in subsurface resources that comes with it.

Thule island. Cold, barren and windy.

We are here to replace/repair a piece of equipment. I can’t exactly remember what specifically, but either has to do with navigation or weather monitoring. We launch a boat and ferry the landing party across. They battle their way through the hundreds of animals and successfully make the necessary repairs. We recover them in the deteriorating weather, but get it done. We don’t hang around and immediately set course for South Georgia.

We are all excited to be heading to South Georgia as we will have the opportunity to go ashore. In addition, there is another tradition that we need to uphold. On top of a hill very near to the old whaling station is a lake that provides fresh water to the village. We need to hike up there and enjoy a dip in the icy cold water.

Arriving at South Georgia Island

We reach South Georgia in atrocious weather conditions. The wind is howling and sea uneasy. Fortunately, we are only scheduled to proceed into harbour the next day as currently it is impossible. We are all hoping for better weather the following day.

The village at South Georgia island

South Georgia is much larger than Thule. It is a British Overseas Territory with no permanent population. It is only inhabited temporary for a few months a year. On the one side of the harbour is a small village with jetty which houses the non-permanent population and on the other is the abandoned Grytviken whaling station complete with old boats, a museum and the Norwegian Lutheran church.

The Grytviken sign for the Old Whaling station.

The museum has three main sections. The first is dedicated to the old whaling station. As an environmental law student it pains me to see the destruction caused here by men. I say men because I do not see a single women in any of the pictures. The second, is dedicated to the British military that retook the island after it was occupied by the Argentine’s during the Falklands war in the early 1980’s.

The museum complete with British hospitality

The final is the gift shop. With my newly purchased penguin mug and Ernest Shackleton poster in hand I strike up a conversation with the cute young lady behind the counter. Definitely some vibes. I get us invited to their rather large kitchen for fresh coffee, an assortment of English tea’s and home-baked biscuits. Wow what an amazing way to spend an hour, quality conversation, coffee and biscuits. British hospitality at its best, who would have guessed. To me this is the epitome of travelling, meeting new people, sharing stories and remembering these small encounters forever.

The remaining buildings of the old whaling station with SA Agulhas II in the bay.
Equipment and boat of the old whaling station

We continue our tour of the area with the ultimate goal of finding the lake for our icy cold swim. The landscape is dominated by the abandoned rustic metalwork’s of a once flourishing whaling operation. I am glad to see that it is the whale works that is now extinct rather than the beautiful mammals they were hunting for oil. On the upper slope is nestled a disproportionately large white Norwegian Lutheran church. Its location casually allows it to “keep watch”over the harbour.

The Norwegian Lutheran church

We follow the directions given to us by the girl at the museum. It leads us along a steep path up and over a hill. On top our perseverance is rewarded by views offered of the bay on the one side and the lake on the other. Another IG  moment.

View of the lake and surrounding mountains

Our group of three are the first to find the lake and I eagerly strip down. My eagerness rapidly fades as I touch the water with my big toe. The freezing water only halts my progress temporarily and I quickly shirk the initial shock and warning signals sent to my brain. Once your in its not that bad someone once said. Not the case here, but eventually I start enjoying the swim. It is impossible for it to last long as your body starts shutting down non-essential areas. Getting out is not any better. I struggle to get dressed as mild hypothermia sets in and once done we head for the warmth of the ship. Just as good as the ships horn sounds a few minutes later, our time here has come to an end.

A quick dip and IG moment in the freezing lake

Just as quickly as we arrived, we now set sail to leave this majestic little island. Maybe it was her smile and homemade biscuits or the brief skinny dip in the lake, but I quite enjoyed our day visit here. Most will never set foot here, but ill cherish the memory.

SA Agulhas II anchored in the bay. Time to go home.
Cruise liner waiting its turn to visit South Georgia

On our way out we are greeted by a waiting passenger liner. They too shall have the privilege of meeting the South Georgia islanders. We set course for the ice shelf for a few more days of replenishment work and then onto Bouvet island to recover the scientists we dropped there. Along the way we recover unmanned vehicles and lower a few CTD scans into the ocean at predetermined GPS locations. These are used to gather data on water salinity, pressure and temperatures at various depths.

We have a safe and uneventful voyage back to Cape Town. Safe and uneventful is how we prefer it. The quay in Cape Town harbour is lined with family and friends who eagerly awaited our return. We are happy to be home and will enjoy a few weeks of well deserved rest. However, this will not be case. There is a stranded Indian ice breaker in Antarctica and they’ve asked the SA Agulhas II to assist.

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