Once British sailors were
a big part of the whaling industry in the southern hemisphere.
rusting buildings and ship skeletons remain, where once thriving
whaling stations were, writes Adam Nicholson.
The abandoned whaling station at Leith Harbour on South
Georgia in the south Atlantic looks as if it has been bombed. Rusty
steel chimneys lie collapsed across the roadways.
Power plants and dormitory blocks lie half-smashed, their
innards spilling out through the walls - cast-iron beds and baths,
piping and wiring, cushions and mattresses all now leaking into the
Some of the huge steel cylinders of the whale oil tanks,
30ft high and 30ft across, have had their sides folded in, as if by a
But these are just the effects of time and the brutal winds
of the Southern Ocean.
Uncover the story of Britain's Whale Hunters and the whales nearly driven to extinction
It is not somewhere you would ever like to be
The winds that hurl off the mountains of this sub-Antarctic
island, 800 miles east of the Falklands, on the same latitude as Cape
Horn, make the whole place creak and groan.
Rusted corrugated sheets
screech against their fixings, doors slam open and shut, the ventilator
cowls on the giant processor plants still turn in the wind as they have
done since the place was finally abandoned and left to the elements in
No-one is there now because Leith Harbour, like most of the
other whaling stations on South Georgia, is strictly off-limits.
collapsing structures are too dangerous and the asbestos in which the
whale processing machinery is still wrapped makes the enclosed places
The South Georgia government - this is one of Britain's few
remaining overseas territories - had to give us permission to film in
this breathtaking time-capsule of a forgotten way of British life.
we had to be accompanied by Tommy Moore, a Yorkshireman familiar with
asbestos safety, and dressed in full protective gear.
Pick your way through the buildings now and you find yourself in a
forgotten world - mounds of harpoon heads lying rusted together, whale
ribs and scapulae everywhere, abandoned tractors and rusted lathes.
the manager's villa, graffiti tells of Argentine joy in 1982 at
recovering their own, every word of it covered with the unequivocal
responses of the crews of Royal Navy ships who arrived a few weeks
Snow clogs the doorways of the cinema where the whalers used
to watch over and over again the few films they had, the dust-filled
hall still filled with memories of Elizabeth Taylor and Deborah Kerr.
The hospital still has unopened bottles of milk of magnesia and tins of
Prickly Heat Powder on the shelves of its half-trashed pharmacy.
Stinking fur seals lurk in the radio shack and among the overturned
benches of the canteen. In the dormitories, the whalers' pin-ups still
smile winsomely from the walls.
Hidden in attic spaces you can find the
bowls, ladles and tins of yeast with which the whalers made the fearsome
hooch to console themselves on long winter evenings 8,000 miles from
Stromness Bay with the Marine GeoGarage (UKHO chart)
The whole place is a monument to a huge and massively destructive
episode in British history.
By the beginning of the 20th Century,
whaling had virtually eliminated the stocks of whales in much of the
Europe had a growing appetite for the oils that
whales could provide - most of it for margarine and soap - and the vast
stormy waters of the Southern Ocean beckoned, teeming with krill and
with the whales that fed on it.
“He is seldom seen; at least I have never seen him except in the remoter southern seas.”
by the beginning of the 19th century, whales were beginning to
disappear from some coastal waters, and hunters had to travel further to
make a living.
In 1871, 32 vessels were lost when they became trapped in the arctic ice.
Almost entirely fuelled by British finance, the whalers came
south and embarked on a bonanza that lasted for two-thirds of the
Individual whalers made the kind of money they could only have
dreamed of at home.
A young man returning to Shetland or the Hebrides in
the 1950s after 18 months "at the ice" could buy a house, start a
business or commission a fishing boat on his earnings.
Christian Salvesen, the Edinburgh-based whaling company that built
Leith Harbour, could hope in some years for 100% dividend on their
At the peak of the business in the 1920s, Salvesen's were
making the equivalent £100m a year in profit in today's money.
None of it was easily earned.
The conditions were brutal.
often clogged the rigging and individual catching boats were known to
founder in the steep seas of the southern ocean.
Earnings were dependent
on the number of whales caught and the skipper-gunners drove boats and
When the enormous bodies of the whales were
hauled ashore into the huge processing plants, an army of men got to
work, working 12-hour shifts, stripping the blubber from the carcasses,
"like peeling a banana", as the whalers all say, shovelling the meat
into the giant cookers, cutting up the bones with enormous steam saws
and boiling them up for the oil they contained.
An entire whale, the size of a railway carriage, could be
disposed of in 20 minutes.
If newly caught, there were consolations:
"You could warm your hands in the fresh blood," Jock Murray, a whaler
from the Hebrides remembers.
"If it was a week old, that was something
It is difficult to recover the frame of mind in which the destruction
of so many of the greatest animals on earth seemed like a good idea.
About 1.6 million whales were killed in the Southern Ocean in about six
The whalers remain deeply ambivalent about it today.
they are proud to have done it but wouldn't do it now.
There are other ways, largely through plant extracts, of
getting equivalents of the oils once taken from the whales.
But, as one
of the whalers, John Alexander, says: "We thought we were doing some
good for the country."
They were garnering fats which Britain
desperately needed, particularly in the years after World War Two.
was a difficult task, at which they became immensely skilled.
boys from crofts or fishing families in marginal parts of Scotland, they
were providing for themselves in a way little else could have.
Whale hunters in South Georgia in 1935