“Stay at least 200m away from the whaling station – it’s filled with asbestos and the roofs could literally blow off,” warned expedition leader Nate Small,
The displays inside contain some stark figures: 175,250 whales were processed on South Georgia between 1904 and 1965, when the industry collapsed due to over-hunting and developments in the petrochemicals industry.If you consider the Antarctic region as a whole and include the many factory ships’ that processed whales on board, almost 1.5 million whales were killed between 1904 and 1978, when hunting of the species eventually ended.Whale populations haven’t recovered. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) says blue whale numbers in the southern hemisphere have fallen from as many as 200,000 to the low thousands’; fin whales have undergone a similar decline.
There are an estimated 60,000 humpbacks in the southern hemisphere, but this is also far lower than the pre-whaling era. In September 2018, IWC plans for a South Atlantic whaling sanctuary were rejected by pro-whaling countries.Japan later announced it will resume commercial whaling for the first time in three decades, prompting global outrage. It’s a bittersweet irony in that it was a terrible, brutal industry, yet nature took its sweet revenge by reclaiming it The plight of the whales is undeniably bleak, but in other respects, South Georgia has become an improbable model of conservation.
One of the world’s largest marine reserves, the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area, was created here in 2012 to protect more than one million sq km of the surrounding waters, while seal numbers have bounced back: the island now has 98% of the world’s Antarctic fur seals and roughly 50% of its elephant seals.South Georgia also has 30 million breeding pairs of seabirds.
During my visit, I spent a morning at St Andrews Bay in the company of 400,000 king penguins one of four penguin species found on the island and an afternoon on Prion Island, an important breeding site for wandering albatrosses. Last year, South Georgia was declared rodent-free after a pioneering eradication programme, which the authorities hope will allow birds like the endemic South Georgia pipit and South Georgia pintail to flourish.
Despite the profusion of wildlife, it was the island’s whaling heritage that remained foremost in my mind as I sailed out of Grytviken. When you walk about these stations all you see are these rusting boilers, blubber cookers and bone saws, Coulthard said.It’s a bittersweet irony in that it was a terrible, brutal industry, yet nature took its sweet revenge by reclaiming it. It’s a reminder that nature doesn’t need human beings; we need nature.
This trip was made possible by Polar Latitudes. Trips to South Georgia are also available through Quark Expeditions, One Ocean Expeditionsand National Geographic Expeditions, among other operators.Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on , or follow us on and Instagram.If you liked this story, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”.A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.