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Guest Blog: South Georgia Whaling Part 1 – Life on a remote island

South Georgia is an iconic, UK Overseas Territory, with no permanent population. With strong links to several communities and industries in Scotland, South Georgia was the epicentre of a global whaling industry in the early 20th century bringing whale stocks to near extinction. Nearly a century later, thanks to exemplary environmental stewardship, the island is now described as an ‘ecosystem in recovery’.

Jayne Pierce at the south georgia museum
Jayne Pierce at the South Georgia Museum

My name is Jayne Pierce, and I am the Curator of the South Georgia Museum. Located in Grytviken, the heart of an abandoned whaling station, the museum is nestled under the mountains of Hodges and Orca, facing out to King Edward Cove.  The museum first opened to visitors in 1992.

Originally, exclusively a whaling museum, it grew to protect, document, and promote all aspects of the cultural and natural history of South Georgia. The Museum tells South Georgia’s story, beginning with Captain Cook’s first landing in the 18th century, to later polar exploration, surveying and mountaineering expeditions, whaling in the 20th century, whalers’ social life and traditions, maritime history and natural history.

Grytviken. Credit South Georgia Museum
Grytviken. Credit South Georgia Museum

I form part of a 5-person team who run the museum. The museum is managed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) on behalf of the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI). Every year we travel from the UK on the RAF airbridge, out of Brize Norton, via the Falkland Islands then take a ship, the Pharos SG, to South Georgia. The sea journey is slow and steady and normally takes about 4-5 days. Experience has given me the foresight to know what to expect from the adventure ahead, keeping fingers crossed for flat seas. This year the Pharos trip was very calm. Although good for the seasickness, unfortunately it meant that the view from the bridge was often gloomy, watching through mist at endless greyness. The radar indicated that we were passing many large icebergs, but they were lost to us in the sea fog.

Museum under snow. Credit South Georgia Museum
Museum under snow. Credit South Georgia Museum

We normally arrive in late September, the beginning of the season. Jumping straight from the end of British summertime into the late winter and early spring can be a shock to the system, experiencing less daylight hours and often lots of snow and cold temperatures. Although not within the Antarctic Circle latitudes, South Georgia lies within the Antarctic Convergence zone. The circulating Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent, pushes the warmer northern seas away and gives the island a polar climate with visiting Antarctic wildlife.

The South Georgia marine ecosystem is globally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, containing a very high biomass of zooplankton, including Antarctic krill. A wonderful variety of species feed on krill in this ecosystem, including seals, cetaceans, seabirds and fish.

When you arrive in South Georgia you are thrown in at the deep end and have to live and work with a close community of people, who start out as strangers, but they quickly become your new family. You work all day with your community then you have to cook, clean and undertake all the chores with them making work-life balance a bit impossible to separate.

The day-to-day routine in the South Georgia Museum can be like any other museum. I spend time caring for and managing the collections, monitoring the museum environment to make sure our objects on display are stable and safe, cleaning display cases and mopping floors. I also spending many hours sitting at a computer, researching and writing exhibitions. Plus, anyone who has worked in a museum knows, I also end up spending time sitting in unforgotten, dark cupboards that are full of stuff, trying to make order out of chaos! However, when I am sat at my desk and look out of the office window, I am reminded that this museum job it is quite is unlike anything else. I think it is the setting and the wildlife that makes everything different.

The number of animals can be overwhelming, even in such a busy tourist area such as Grytviken. We have large museum objects that live outside, for example a large anchor, a mast from a sailing vessel and several large sealing pots, used to cook down seal blubber. In peak summer season these objects are overrun by fur seal and elephant seal pups. All looking for scratching posts and somewhere quiet to snooze. Sometimes we will also get large male fur seals blocking the doorways, tracks and walkways – and these boys are not for shifting.

The communication on the island is variable, from poor to non-existent! Living on South Georgia during the whaling years would have been hard, we often complain about the slow internet connection but back then, the only form of communication was by post. Slow post. We still have slow post on the island, taking around 6 weeks to send postcard to the UK. Food plays an important part of everyday. The island is supplied with a lot of food, but it is never quite what you get at home. Most food is either, tinned, dried or frozen and whilst you will never starve or die of scurvy, there are plenty of things you miss.

In the town of Leith.
In the town of Leith.

Living on the island can be a challenge, life is busy, and it is not always easy, but the joys are vast, and it is a privilege to be able to live here. Everyday something new happens, an interaction with wildlife or a great discussion with a local or a visiting tourist. To watch the change in the seasons and seeing first-hand, the shift in breeding animals. The sights, the sounds and the smells are overwhelming, exciting and experiences that you are unable to describe and impossible to forget.

I feel very honoured to be in my role and to have the opportunity to work in such a special environment.

To find out more about the South Georgia Museum please visit the website.


Instagram – @southgeorgiamuseum

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