Many people are well aware that Wellington, New Zealand is the southernmost national capital on the planet. But that definition does not include dependent territories (lands that aren’t independent but remain outside of the integral territory of any other state). For the answer to this query, we must travel to the intersection of the South Atlantic Ocean and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, where one will find the British-controlled archipelago of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI). With a temperature that only fluctuates year-round between 8°C and – 10°C, and a relatively heavy dose of constant snow and sleet (around 1 500 mm of precipitation a year), many would wonder what kind of permanent settlement could exist there. Technically, the administrative headquarters are at one end of King Edward Cove at the aptly named King Edward Point. There, one will find 9-to-18 government personnel, plus museum staff, a post office and visitor accommodation. But the real centre of human activity is a few kilometres away at the place most sources actually list as the capital.
Grytviken below Mt. Sugartop, 2005. Photo: D. Nicholls. Copyright: Project Atlantis. Source: http://www.sgisland.gs/archive/uploads/large/DSC_3206-sg2005.jpg.
It was on 16 November 1904 that the Norwegian whaler/explorer Carl Anton Larsen (previously known as the first person to ski on Antarctica in 1893 and as the co-captain of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition, later the discoverer of the Larsen Ice Shelf) established a whaling station on South Georgia he called Grytviken (Swedish for ‘the pot cove’) for his new Compañía Argentina de Pesca (Argentine Fishing Company). Grytviken was phenomenally successful as a whaling base; within just a few years, Larsen’s company produced 70% of the world’s whale oil. Larsen himself moved there permanently and became a naturalised Briton, remaining there until his 1923 death. Another figure associated with Grytviken is the great explorer Ernest Shackleton, from where he based an Antarctic rescue effort in 1915 to save some of his men trapped on Elephant Island. By request of his widow, Shackleton was buried here in 1922. It’s a tradition to pour out a shot of rum on his grave in his honour.
With factories and storehouses humming, Grytviken was home to a small but productive number of the whaling company’s employees, mostly Norwegian, until 1965, by which time the whale population had become so depleted that commercial hunting was no longer viable.Indeed, entire families had established themselves there; Grytviken is the place where the first child on Antarctic soil was born in 1913. An astounding 175 250 whales were processed on South Georgia during that span, reducing the population to just ten percent of its former numbers. Today the shores and townsite are littered with whale bones, abandoned ships, and rusting oil processing shacks.
Grytviken is most infamous for being the de facto starting point for the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina. In early April 1982, Argentina captured Grytviken and would control the island for most of a month before being recaptured by the British. Argentina still maintains its claim on SGSSI to this day. With the brief period of belligerence long since passed, things are peaceful on South Georgia, and Grytviken is a popular cruise ship destination. Visitors enjoy trips to the South Georgia Museum (established 1991) and the historic Grytviken Church. The church was built in Norway, disassembled, shipped to South Georgia, and reassembled in 1913. Not only is it still in use, but marriages are even performed there occasionally.
South Georgia Museum, Grytviken.
If you’d like to explore Grytviken a bit more from your desktop, you can visit these fantastic photo essays here (be warned: the sheer number of penguins on South Georgia on the Royal Bay page is mindblowing- I’ve never seen anything like it), here, and here.You can also watch this slideshow on YouTube below:
Bowermaster, J. (2009). Bowermaster’s Antarctica — Grytviken, South Georgia. Gadling, 10 March 2009. http://www.gadling.com/2009/03/10/bowermasters-antarctica-grytviken-south-georgia/. Accessed 2 October 2010.
Carroll, P. (2003). 20th Century History of South Georgia, South Atlantic Ocean. The South Atlantic & Subantarctic Islands, 29 June 2003. Available at http://www.btinternet.com/~sa_sa/south_georgia/south_georgia_history_20.html. Accessed 2 October 2010.
Colla, P. (2010). Grytviken, South Georgia Island. Natural History Photography Blog – Phillip Colla, 1 April 2010. Available at http://www.oceanlight.com/log/grytviken-south-georgia-island.html. Accessed 1 October 2010.
Frysigner, G.R. (n.d.). Grytviken, South Georgia. People and Places of the World – Photos by Galen R. Frysinger. Available at http://www.galenfrysinger.com/south_georgia.htm. Accessed 2 October 2010.
Government of South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands (2010). South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands. Available at http://www.sgisland.gs/index.php/Main_Page. Accessed 2 October 2010.
Paul, J. and M. Spirit (2009). The Argentine Invasion of South Georgia. Britain’s Small Wars. Available at http://www.britains-smallwars.com/Falklands/South-Georgia.html. Accessed 2 October 2010.
Phenomenica (2009). Grytviken Ghost Town. Phenomenica, 22 May 2009. Available at http://www.phenomenica.com/2009/05/grytviken-ghost-town.html.