In the morning our ship, National Geographic Explorer, dropped us off at a place called Maiviken, affording us a spectacular several-mile hike to a place called Grytviken. Grytviken is the site of another abandoned whaling station. And the site of Ernest Shackleton’s grave. It’s also got a small museum. No one really lives here, but a few people work here on administrative matters. The museum has excellent exhibits on fisheries and, of course, whaling.
Oddly enough, South Georgia now has some of the best-managed and well-policed fishing in the world. It’s just about the only place where fishing for Patagonian Toothfish (marketed as “Chilean seabass”) is sustainable, and illegal fishing is essentially eliminated. (The message is unambiguous; one illegal fishing ship was seized, then blown up.)
Fishing here, as elsewhere, was out of control a few decades back. The museum tells us that trawling for a fish called Marbled Rock Cod (Notothenia rossii), which grows to three feet in length, “sadly led to a classic example of a ‘boom and bust’ fishery when 501,000 tonnes were caught during the 1969-1970 and 1970-1971 fishing seasons. The catch then fell to zero for the next four seasons.” And fishing is still not allowed, and won’t be, “until there becomes definitive evidence of their recovery.”
And speaking of slow recovery—. Since leaving the coast of South America, we’ve seen exactly one large whale and two old whaling stations. Why that ratio? Here we go; this is from Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, published by Academic Press:
“In 1904, the Norwegian whaler C.F. Larsen arrived at South Georgia and reported with astonishment, ‘I see them in hundreds and thousands.’ Huge pristine populations of rorquals – notably blues, fin whales and humpbacks – filled the surrounding waters together with southern right whales and other species. Modern whaling had found its greatest playground, and a slaughter unparalleled in whaling history was about to begin.
“…The industry accomplished the destruction of local stocks of whales with remarkable efficiency.
“At the height of operations, hundreds of humpback, fin and blue were taken in a single month. By 1915 the South Georgia population of humpbacks had essentially been extirpated, with a total catch of some 18,557 whales; while occasional catches were made in later years (the largest being one of 238 humpbacks in 1945/46), the stock had essentially been rendered commercially extinct by the time of the Great War. Blue whales suffered a similar fate; 39,296 were killed at South Georgia between 1904 and 1936, at which point the population had crashed, irretrievably.
“The problem of dependence upon land stations was solved, at a stroke, with the introduction of the factory ship. …Factory ships could operate independently far out to sea for months at a time. They maintained round-the-clock processing operations, their huge flensing decks kept constantly supplied by an attendant fleet of catcher boats. Whale carcasses were hauled up the large stern ramp and dismembered with astonishing mechanical efficiency: an adult fin whale of 70 or 80 feet and 100 tons could be rendered from whole animal down to bone in half an hour. With the factory ship, all of Antarctic waters became open to whalers, their operations limited only by the constant dangers of weather and ice.
“Over the six decades following the opening of the Antarctic grounds in 1904, the whaling industry killed approximately two million whales in the southern hemisphere. This included 360,000 blue whales, some 200,000 humpbacks, almost 400,000 sperm whales and a staggering three quarters of a million fin whales.”*
This was ground-zero for modern, industrialized, highly mechanized whaling. Many of those whales should still be alive. Certainly, their offspring should be with us. That’s why we haven’t seen more whales.
The whales were hunted for oil. They were the first offshore wells, and harpooners were the first oil drillers. We nearly pumped the sea dry of whales, and their scarcity prompted development of petroleum. We appear to have learned a little about whales but almost nothing about our appetite for oil.
*Quoted passage from: Clapham , P.J. and Baker, C.S. 2 002. Modern whaling. In: Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B. & Thewissen, J.G .M. (eds.) , Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, pp. 1328-1332. Academic Press, New York.