Under the umbrella of the GSGSSI heritage strategy and Conservation Management Plan for Grytviken, SGHT has hosted an international competition to engage creative practitioners from varying artistic disciplines to develop a site-specific commission to celebrate the whale through a reinterpretation of the former Flensing Plan. This is an inspirational project (with thanks to Thies Matzen for the original idea), an opportunity to create a legacy for the future, a message of hope for the natural world and a reinterpretation that will challenge visitors to consider man’s changing relationship with nature and in particular with the whale.
The winning commission has been selected by a diverse panel led by the Trust’s Vice Chairman Professor Elaine Shemilt. The panel was composed of representatives from GSGSSI, South Georgia stakeholders and the creative community. The artist’s brief was to create a sculpture that will set the scene for visitors to Grytviken. Its purpose is to help visitors interpret Grytviken’s past and present and to celebrate the recolonization of whales, seals, seabirds and plant life, thanks to excellent British stewardship and environmental management of South Georgia’s terrestrial and marine environments.
This commission is part of a cultural heritage programme to communicate a poignant message about our changing attitudes to nature and the need for resolute stewardship of our oceans and the natural world.
To find out more about Commensalis visit our website: http://www.sght.org/commission-grytviken-whaling-station…/
The artist describes his work in a winning artwork in a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQVjwY4YE1c
The Artists Journey
Michael Visocchi’s diary of his journey to Grytviken.
“The start of my journey South. My journey begins with the train from Dundee to London Kings Cross then Paddington to Oxford and then finally a taxi from Oxford to RAF Brize Norton to catch the flight to the Falkland Islands. I’m not a very seasoned traveller so I have to admit this has been a little stressful for me.Travelling abroad since pandemic seems to have become such an odd and unusual thing to do. Travelling to the southern hemisphere seems even more of an odd and unusual if not an indulgent thing to do right now. I must remember though that this is work and my first ever chance to see the world in which this artwork will be placed in. A world I’ve only ever seen photographs and film of.”Michael meets two of his travel companions who will travel with him all the way to South Georgia at the airport: “Jayne Pierce … (the curator of The South Georgia Heritage Trust Museum at Grytviken) and our last-minute travelling companion Vicky Inglis. Vicky is a freelancer who has worked as a ranger for The Cairngorm National Park and more recently for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust’s heritage site at Port Lockroy (aka The Penguin Post Office!). She’s been drafted into man (woman) the Grytviken Museum until March 2022.Between them Jayne is a trained geologist (as well as a museum curator) and Vicky originally studied marine biology. Possibly two of the best people to be with when travelling in this part of the world. The three of us will be quarantining (for covid) together in a house in Stanley for the next 10 to 14 days. We’re only allowed to go into the garden. This could be interesting.
“Check-in (at RAF Brize Norton) seemed all a little dreamlike, owing mostly to the time (midnight). Strange seeing so many people so wide awake at that time of night. The whole place had a certain calm throughout though. Something I’ve never experienced in a civilian airport before. The military service personnel we met couldn’t have been more helpful and courteous. I guess the RAF are possibly the best outfit you could ask to get you so far and so safely.We boarded at around 1.30am, walking across the massive airfield to board our Voyager Tankerplane. I don’t know very much about planes, but this is a major looking plane; utterly massive and in a beautiful grey/blue colour. I understand they’re normally used for air-to-air refuelling which is a frankly mind-blowing concept to me. I find it difficult enough putting diesel in my van without spilling some.…The flight has been long and arduous; 18 hours including a 2 hour stop over to refuel in Senegal.… I feel very guilty about flying… I always have done. I also find it a very abstract way of getting from one place to another. Unlike that of being on a train say where one can sense the distance mile upon mile. Many of the passengers on this flight are British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists and personnel. I met a BAS deep sea diver; a woman who dives in minus temperatures (!) to help uncover the secrets of the sea. They do such a vital role in helping us all understand how we’re affecting this beautiful blue rock of ours. The heavy BAS presence on the flight abated my guilt a little. We finally arrived at RAF Mount Pleasant at around 18.30 local time.
Images show: Michael heading for the departure lounge; and checking up on the model of the aircraft; the view down onto the Falkland Islands, and the coach trip in the Falklands to Stanley.
“We’ve now arrived at our ‘quarantine house’ in Stanley. An A4 sign in the window reads; ‘STOP! This House in in Isolation’. The Falkland Islands have been very careful with covid. I guess their small population (approx. 3500) and island status means they’ve been able to keep coronavirus under control and very well monitored. Hence our arrival has been very carefully managed…
The landscape here looks remarkably like the northwest of Scotland. Even the light here reminds me of Scotland, and the temperature too. The quantities of sheep everywhere reinforcing the illusion further. Something about the geology is profoundly different though. Jayne Pierce (curator and geologist) alerted us to the dense arrangements of stones across the moorland. These are referred to as Stone Runs. Thousands of densely arranged rocks all sifted and grouped by size by thousands of years of freezing and thawing. They seem wonderfully odd to me. Rivers of rocks.
Our house here is very well appointed. I guess I would describe it as more of a cabin than a house. It looks out over the bay where (the ship) FPV Pharos will sail into and collect us in 10 days’ time – providing we are all covid negative.
It’s early spring here and I’m confused. The moon is upside down. It’s blown my mind.
We must stay in the house, and we’re only allowed out into our small garden. I’m told there are penguin colonies along the bay.
This may be very hard.
Image shows: ‘Stop, Isolation house’ sign and Michael and Vicky looking wishfully from their isolation house balcony toward the far off penguin colonies?
“Our first full day in quarantine has been surprisingly good fun. We all get on very well and we’re each taking our turn cooking and cleaning.
It all feels a bit discombobulating being here after the long flight and in a strange house with a massive sea journey ahead of us and quarantine issues buzzing about.
At around 11 am the local nurse arrived to take swabs from each of us. This was done literally over the doorstep. The nurse was lovely, but sure knows how to take a thorough swab, if you know what I mean. We should hear tomorrow if any one of us has covid. Fingers crossed we’re okay. If all well then, we’ll be tested once again on Saturday. If this is also negative, then we can be released and go and explore the island…
In the evening we watched the second part of the BBC documentary ‘Britain’s Whale Hunters’ presented by Adam Nicolson; a wonderful documentary which tells the story of whaling on South Georgia. It was tough, brutal and dangerous work. No question.
We went out to see the upside-down moon once again and whilst Vicky was explaining the Southern Cross constellation to me, I asked her (in jest) if it should be moving? No, came her reply. Then what on earth is that then? I asked, pointing up at an endless row of star-sized lights moving steadily across the sky. Vicky reckoned it was the ‘Starlink’….”
Note: Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX providing satellite internet access.
Images: The pretty little house where Michael is isolating, and ‘What’s for supper? – a well stock drawer of tins of food.’
Images: Maybe the pub provided a better supper than this lockdown dinner?; Michael’s bedroom window ledge.
“Yesterday we also dropped by the Falkland Islands Tourist Board centre where we met a very friendly woman called Kate. We explained our connection to South Georgia, and in particular Jayne’s role as curator of the museum there, and she suggested we might want to get in touch with a man called Hamish Jennings who worked at Leith Harbour whaling station. We couldn’t believe our luck. Before we knew it Kate had arranged for him to come and pick us up give us a tour of the Island. The people here are so very friendly and helpful.
Mr Jennings arrived right on time this morning to pick us up in his truck. He then drove us to Cape Pembroke to see the lighthouse; to Yorke Bay, and then Gypsy Cove where I saw my first wild penguins. We spotted two people walking along Yorke Bay. This is apparently an unusual sight. Hamish informed us that it has only recently (as recently as last week!) been cleared of all landmines placed there during the 1982 conflict. The beach there was very beautiful, and the gorse is heavily in bloom right now, its yellow popping against the grey and blue hues of the sea.
The penguins looked to me like they were having a bit of a rest on a sheltered part beach, some standing, some reclining. A peculiar sight to my eyes and quite adorable.
Hamish was born here in The Falkland Islands and as a young man went to work as a plumber’s mate for the Salvesen Company at Leith Harbour (on South Georgia) between 1958 and 1960. He has some incredible stories about his time there. He’s very kindly agreed for me to interview him on Tuesday. I’ll try and make as good a job of this as I can.”
Images: How Leith whaling station would have looked when Hamish Jennings worked there. Leith Station as painted by artist Edward Seago in 1957.
“This morning Hamish Jennings came around. I’d arranged to interview him when we met on Sunday about his time as a plumber’s mate at Leith Harbour (South Georgia) in the late 1950’s.I got up early to test all my recording equipment. I’m normally pretty good with this sort of equipment but I’m starting to feel the pressure of this project, the people who are all invested in it and of course the enormity of the subject matter.
It’s strange as, although I’ve not yet visited South Georgia, I feel its spell in all those who talk of it… The interview with Hamish went well. (Curator Jayne had managed to contact the museum here in the Falklands to locate some old pictures Hamish had deposited with them some years ago.) We showed him his old photos and that prompted more memories and stories. Wonderful stuff about securing booze on the ‘dry’ whaling station – some resorting to draining and drinking the alcohol from the compasses! – illicit distilling, and making brew from anything.
I notice Hamish has a reverence for the creatures he was put there to facilitate the slaughter of. He’s very thoughtful about each species and is careful to mention which species he’s describing and their individual characteristics, whether Sperm, Fin, Sei, Blue, Southern right or Humpback Whale. These men were doing a hard job, not unlike those drilling for oil in the seas today. Hamish is a kind and compassionate man who wanted the best for his family. I hold no judgement over him. Just respect.
Image: Image credit Tommy Moore www.paafeltet.org
Today we went to the other end of Stanley to meet Steve Massam. He’s a sculptor and taxidermist. His taxidermy fills the museum at Grytviken, and here in Stanley, and his work is highly regarded. Steve and his wife Sylvia made Jayne and I very welcome. We talked about his time at Grytviken making moulds of massive Patagonian Tooth Fish and preserving and mounting Albatross. He spoke of going camping on his own on South Georgia (before this was banned for safety reasons), removing and replacing the tendons from the legs of tiny birds and making translucent eyelids for the glass eyes he fits to his specimens. I find this all completely fascinating. Taxidermy is something I know very little about only that in order to make these creatures engaging and informative it must be done with sensitivity, love and respect for the animal being ‘set’. Steve has enormous enthusiasm and love for all the animals he talked to me about and for the craft of taxidermy itself.
We then talked machines and tools (this being a major passion of mine). I love looking at the tool’s collections and drawers of other makers….I love visiting other maker’s workshops; they fill me with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm I sometimes lose when I’ve spent too much time in my own workshop sanding things…
We were kindly invited by to have dinner at a restaurant. There we met Jan Cheek (who is a previous Trustee of SGHT), Richard (a current Trustee) and Miranda McKee. Jan spent part of her childhood on South Georgia at Grytviken. She was the daughter of the policeman there. Her stories were fascinating. The whaling stations must’ve been intimidating, smelly and dangerous places for kids to be around although probably quite exciting too… Jan said that she and her siblings developed their own unique way of checking the safety levels of their exploits, whether that be walking across frozen water, or avoiding seals. Jan over-wintered there; I imagine that would have been tough. Her education led her to the UK to train as a teacher. Jan has also very kindly agreed for me to interview her on my route home at the end of December.”
Images: Michael loves seeing other maker’s tool collections. A collection of seal skulls at Steve’s house.
“Today, Curator Jayne Pierce and I took ex-whaler Hamish Jennings out for breakfast. We wanted to thank him for giving us the opportunity to interview him. We treated him to a full fried breakfast and then he drove us to see Michael Butcher’s garden at the other end of town. Anti-whaling campaigner Michael Butcher is known locally for having a collection of whale skeletons on display in his garden to push forward his message. Peppered throughout his garden exhibition are also whale harpoons, harpoon cannons, harpoon grenades, a large sign declaring STOP THE WHALING and a very alive sheep. He obviously feels extremely passionately about this cause. His garden has become something of a local visitor attraction. Beside his harpoon canon there is a large sign which reads 20,000 WHALES WERE KILLED WITH THIS GUN BETWEEN 1937 AND 1967. Extraordinary. I’m presuming this cannon likely played a key role in the figures I’ve been reflecting on this last year for my Key Table element of the artwork Commensalis.”
Later, walking SGHT Trustee Richard McKee’s puppy through the memorial plantation: “This is a memorial to those who fell during the 1982 Falklands War. A tree was planted for each service person who lost their life during the conflict. A thoughtful way to remember….
Later in the evening we moved out of our isolation house and to a B & B. We’ll be here for the next two nights.”
“Today we got settled into the Pale Maiden B&B. Our host Theresa is particularly interested in art and after she asked why I was travelling to South Georgia wanted to know about my commission. I gave her a copy of my proposal which she read ever so diligently. Theresa is from Brazil and has family in Argentina. She knows Spanish well and corrected my Spanish translations of both Fin Whale and Southern Right Whale. The whale names will be incised around the circumference of each species-dedicated Spirit Table, denoting the species name in Spanish and Norwegian alongside the common English name and Latin nomenclature. The Spanish and Norwegian names reflecting the historical ownership of Grytviken (by the Norwegians with Argentinian financial backing)… So, thank you Theresa.
We went to meet Laura Sinclair Willis, Chief Executive of the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. She wanted to meet me and hear a little bit more about Commensalis and how the project is developing. She was wonderfully encouraging and enthusiastic about the project. I could tell she really got the feel for the idea…
Later we bought ‘luxury’ provisions for our time on South Georgia. These include cartons of long-life milk, soya milk, wine and salty snacks.”
Last night we ended up going out for a late drink at the Victory Bar in Stanley. I had a conversation with a fella outside the toilets (as one does after a few beers).I recognised his Scottish accent, and this led to some Scottish based (slightly cheeky) banter along the lines of “what on earth are you doing here?” and “does your mother know you’re out?” etc, etc. Anyway, I finally got him to tell me that he was Kevin, the chief engineer on the Pharos. “The Pharos?” I exclaimed. “I’m boarding your ship on Sunday, do you know what you’re doing?”. When we got back to our table there were a whole bunch of Pharos crew chatting and laughing with Jayne. We had a very long night in the Victory!
This morning I was picked up by Miranda Mckee and her children (Flora and Tom) for a little tour of the bays around Stanley. These included Yorke Bay and Cape Pembroke. I walked past my first group of Magellanic Penguins. A surreal experience, in the true sense of the word. We walked along the newly de-mined beach at Yorke Bay. The sand is almost white there. Truly spectacular.
Later, Jayne, Vicky and I met Connor McLeod. Conner has just left school and is joining us to assist Vicky at the museum at Grytviken. A wonderful opportunity for a young person and for someone who grew up in the Falklands. He should be good company on our trip.
An early night now. Early pick-up tomorrow morning (5.30am) to board the Pharos SG down in Stanley Harbour. The journey feels like it’s now about to start for real.”
This morning we set off to board the Pharos SG in Stanley harbour- our final leg of our trip to South Georgia. It was an early start. A taxi arrived to pick us up from the B & B with out baggage, boxes of milk, snacks, beer and wine in tow.
Pharos SG is a bonny ship; red hull, white top section. The vessel is tasked with a few jobs, firstly, and most interestingly, she serves as a fisheries patrol vessel…in this capacity she essentially patrols the seas around South Georgia on the lookout for illegal fishing activity. She is also the main supply ship to South Georgia from the Falkland Islands and has ten cabins for passengers; most passengers are Government, BAS and SGHT staff. Built in Port Glasgow (UK) in 1993 and designed as a lighthouse service vessel, her original task was to pull buoys out from the sea around the coast of the UK to service them. She therefore has a lower front deck complete with enormous crane. I’m already thinking Pharos could be very useful indeed for carrying large sculpture upon! However, this morning things were held up as the Second Mate noticed a piece of rope which had wrapped itself around the propeller. …we all went down to the lower back deck to watch the crew try to release the rope. Long sticks gaffer taped together, long sticks with GoPro’s gaffer taped on. After struggling for a while, a diver was called in to get to the heart of the matter. Not the most pleasant thing to do on a Sunday morning, I guess. After a couple of hours, he managed to successfully remove the rope (not before a very inquisitive seal and two dolphins came over to see what the commotion was!). I find it astonishing that such a large tonnage of steel and technology can be stymied by a two or three metre length of dirty rope. It emphasised to me just how many variables sailors must deal with. Not only the wind and waves, but all the bits of stuff floating around in our seas too.
We finally set sail around lunchtime on our journey South. I spent the rest of the day adjusting to life on the open seas, getting confused by the myriad sets of, trying to find my cabin (again) and fighting off an encroaching feeling of sea sickness. One thing many have said about Pharos is that she ‘bobs about a bit’. I can now confirm that Pharos does indeed bob about. But also, she bobs about more than a bit.
Outward Bound – Pharos SG, The Southern Ocean.
“Our first full day on our sail South. The sea seems pretty choppy to me, but I’m told it’s not too bad. We were asked by Captain Gerry McLeod to go up to one of the rooms and to bring our survival suits and lifejackets with us. Survival suits are kind of like an all-in-one adult romper suit made from incredibly thick neoprene. They’re designed to be worn if we ever must use the lifeboats. They offer some insulation and protection from the cold sea. I’m told the sea all around us here could be as low as 3 degrees centigrade right now. That’s pretty cold. Gerry described bailing ship as a very unlikely scenario, but we must all make sure we have well-fitting survival suits in case the worst prevails. Now, it seems that no survival suit really fits anyone very well. Once inside you feel like a seal with peripheral neuropathy. The addition of the lifejacket adds even more indignity to the whole affair. Anyway… I’m glad we all now know the protocol.
The rest of the day was spent on the bridge…a huge privilege. To see the workings of a ship like this up close is quite fascinating. The bridge is expansive…full of buttons and dials and maps and compasses and strange instruments. It also has the most incredible view of the ocean laid before us. A horizon line is good for dampening the sea sickness. This is abating today thankfully. The crew are especially friendly and have no issue with us landlubbers hanging out and getting in their way. They’re very gracious and put up with my endless questions. I’ve had a chance to speak to all my fellow travellers now. They’re all here on this ship for varying and very interesting reasons…BAS scientists, boat experts, geologists, biologists, invasive weed control specialists. They all seem very interested in my commission and seem delighted to have an artist on board.
We were shown a film put together by the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, that describes South Georgia and the kind of biosecurity we must all adhere to… A terrific little film which somehow reduced me to tears. The full impact of where I’m going and what I’m about to see hit me like a sledgehammer today.”
Pharos SG, The Southern Ocean.
“During the night we met the Antarctic circumpolar current (ACC). The ACC is a zone where two oceans meet, the cold Southern Ocean and the relatively warmer South Atlantic. The circumpolar current brings minerals from the Antarctic continent to this zone which then feed plankton, which feed the krill, which feed the whales. So, in essence, this zone becomes a massive feeding ground for sea creatures and birds.
I feel much better today and I’m getting on better with my sound recording equipment, I’ve also struck up a wonderful rapport with Captain Gerry. He and I seem to have a giggle about some very similar things. I wonder if Falkland Island humour is possibly similar to Scottish humour. Dry and very black.
At around midday I spotted some peaks rising out of the sea. The famous Shag Rocks. They look so fantastical and incongruous to me that they might as well be painted onto the sky. Like a theatre set. Steep and pointed like how a child might draw mountains. A haven for sea birds. It’s difficult to get a scale on Shag Rocks. They sit so lonesome. They could be either enormous or not as enormous as I think. I’m happy to imagine exactly what scale they might be. I like when I can’t fathom scale. It’s an awesome concept to me that these rocks are simply the peaks of mountains which reach hundreds of metres down under the sea. The scale of everything here blows my mind.
Around late afternoon, word that some Humpback Whale sightings had been made. I made my way hurriedly to the bridge. What happened next… my writing does not do any justice to what we witnessed…For the next several miles we gradually began to spot whale after whale – up to one hundred in total we reckon, each one of them breaching and blowing and sighing.
Pharos’s Second Officer is a keen whale watcher, he slowed the ship down to almost a standstill as more and more whale blows appeared and shiny backs and fins flashed in and out of the water all around us. The ship seemed like it was almost entirely surrounded by Humpbacks. The most extraordinary thing to me was the sound they were making. Long mournful melancholic sighs which resonated through the ship like the body of a musical instrument. I put my camera to one side as I figured there is no real way to capture such a sight. I did however have my recording machine handy, and I think I managed to capture some sighs and gasps and blows…. I’ll never forget what I heard….
I witnessed something that I shall carry with me for the rest of my life. Something sacred and mysterious and something truly and utterly beautiful.”
Images: Shag rocks – the tip of the mountain
Michael watching whales blow all around the ship
Pharos SG, The Southern Ocean.
“Waking up this morning, I still wasn’t sure if I’d possibly dreamed the previous day’s events.
Off to breakfast. George the Ships Cook makes lovely wholesome food and lots of it; his cooking is wonderful. I feel little self-conscious though as I’m the only veggie on board. I don’t want to give others extra work.
More sound recording today. I’m trying to sound more relaxed when I push the record button. Talking to a furry microphone on my own is highly amusing to Kelvin Floyd. Kelvin is an invasive plant expert from New Zealand who’s been coming to SG for years now to control the weeds. I find it hard enough to do this in my own garden, so I don’t know how he does this on a whole island. I’ve told him that if he gives me anymore grief then he’ll be first to be interviewed by me as soon as we get ashore. To explain the reason for my sound recording… The producer of BBC Radio 4’s arts show Front Row has asked me to make some sound recordings so the programme could follow the project. I’m getting better, but I tend to witter on after saying something profound and completely ruin the vibe. I need to rein myself in and stay a bit calmer. I’m no Michael Palin nor Michael Portillo but I am a Michael so I’m halfway there.
I asked Kevin (Second Engineer) if I could interview him in the engine rooms down below. He was reluctant at first (Idon’t blame him) until I told him he just needs to tell me about his job and that I won’t ask specific questions about technical things. He’s come around and decided to ask us all if we’d like a tour of the engines this afternoon. This could be my chance to make some interesting radio if I don’t witter nonsense. I didn’t quite realise just how noisy ship engine rooms are. They’re incredible; massive pieces of machinery and all immaculately maintained, painted and cared for by Kevin and his team. I hope my incredibly loud recordings will be useful.”
Images: Three Michaels –
Michael Palin, Creative Commons
Michael Portillo by Ben Salter, Creative Commons
“I awoke this morning to see a craggy land mass rolling into view. This must be it. It can’t surely be anything else?… I dashed up to the bridge, opened the door, pointed enthusiastically and asked, “Is this it?”. “Yip” said Captain Gerry with a twinkle in his eye…So much anticipation has grown around South Georgia for me. Studying it and thinking about it for so long, it’s become somewhat of a mythical place to me. I’m also not at all used to arriving to places via the sea…. I guess most would have experienced the world via river and ocean less than a hundred years ago. It’s slow, dramatic and contemplative. I like it.
We spent the morning sailing down the coast of South Georgia, its alpine peaks cutting through the sky. It’s truly spectacular and simultaneously odd too. South Georgia does indeed rise out of the sea like the Himalayas (as it was described not long after its discovery)…
Prince Olav Harbour, one of the whaling stations, was pointed out to me. I could just see its rusty tanks with the high-power binoculars they have on the bridge. We sailed past several glaciers punctuating the coast. I’ve never seen a glacier before but know well their effect on landscape. I like to imagine them as the mythical giants that once populated the Scottish Highlands. Only their trace now left. Here are those actual giants though, fully living and breathing. They’re stunning.
Around lunchtime…into the mouth of Cumberland Bay. I know I’m about to see Grytviken. The prospect of seeing it for the first time is filling me with a little apprehension as much as excitement. This long and complicated journey is the journey I will hopefully be making again in a few years’ time but hopefully laden with an artwork.
Captain Gerry docked the Pharos SG at around 3pm. We were finally at our destination, King Edward Point.
We were asked to stay one more night in our cabins onboard. It was a beautiful evening. We went and had beers with the crew on the front deck then later moved up to the helicopter pad as the sun moved around to the rear of the ship…I could see Grytviken over in the distance. It’s red oxide patina familiar to me from the dozens photographs I’ve studied. I took some time out to lean against the ships gunwale to take it all in…Just over there is the heart of the matter, why I’m here. Over there is what captured my imagination when I came up with the idea for ‘Commensalis’. Over there is where so much destruction happened. Over there is where so many men lived and worked and laughed and died. I would never have imagined all those years ago, during my time in the dusty workshops of Glasgow School of Art, that making sculpture would ever lead me to a place such as this. Life is strange.
Image: Looking out from the bridge to see South Georgia.
“We debarked from Pharos SG this morning. The GO’s (Government Officers) organised for us to have an introductory tour of King Edward Point, to bio-secure our luggage and to attend what they call ‘seal training’ with Jamie the BAS zoologist.
Seals seem to be everywhere. A mix of fur seals and young elephant seals. The young elephant seals are referred to rather adorably as ‘weaners’. Weaners have no teeth (yet) and so are harmless. They look like large sausages about the size of a gym punchbag. They lie around growing on the calorific milk suckled from their mothers for just three weeks before their mothers leave them and head back to sea. Weaners lie around and make a hilarious sound as they clear their noses of dirt and sea lice. Basically, a chorus of loud farting noises.
Now fur seals, fur seals are a different matter altogether….Fur seals are pretty aggressive, and Jamie showed us how to move past one safely and to keep a broom handle with us at all times to keep ‘socially distanced’ from them. I should point out that the sticks (referred to as ‘bodgers’) are merely there to discourage a fur seal from coming too close and not to hit them with…They’re very beautiful animals in their own way but apparently a bite from them can be nasty. Not only do they have large teeth and strong jaws, but their mouths contain all manner of unpleasant bacteria.
We biosecured our baggage. This involved emptying everything from our bags and boxes and checking once again for seeds, insects and other organic matter. We were then shown where the food store is. This is a large shed with walk in fridges, freezers and a dry store. It’s a little like a mini cash and carry. We then got shown our residence, Discovery House or ‘Disco’ as they call it here. One of the original buildings built on this site. It has six rooms and a large kitchen-dining area…
I had arranged to meet Captain Gerry to give me his own tour of Grytviken. He’s not used to this, but I wanted to hear his very personal response to the whaling station. He knows it well, spent the first few years of his life here and has travelled here for years. I’ve responded to the site. I’ve read about the technicalities of whaling but as an artist I mostly want to hear a visceral and emotional response to something. ‘Visceral’ and ‘emotional’ being the bread and butter of art as far as I’m concerned.
What transpired this afternoon was a very tender and often very amusing tour of Grytviken from Gerry. This is just what I needed. I also managed to capture it all on my recorder. I really hope BBC Radio 4 will manage to use some of our freewheeling conversation. Gerry…is in awe of this place and has a very deep love for it. One of the loveliest things was seeing him respond to Petrel – a Norwegian whaling ship sitting in Grytviken’s quay. Petrel has the most beautiful shape to her hull; a very high front adorned with harpoon, tapering back to an elegant middle section. Gerry lit up when he started to describe how magnificent a ship he thought she was. Fast and manoeuvrable, he remembered her still sailing in the early 1970’s. I got him to sit on the beach edge and talk to me about her. He described her as his pet project, to get her completely out of the water someday, maybe after he retires. I suggested he should maybe take her home and put her in his garden. He added that his other half could then throw buckets of water at him whilst he stands in the wheelhouse. Brilliant!! I’ll make a passable radio interviewer yet.”
“I’m staying in Discovery House with five others. Discovery house is a timber built, timber clad building with a corrugated steel roof set almost halfway along King Edward Point’s ‘street’. One side of the building looks on to the ‘street’ while the other looks out over the bay and a clear view of the mountains on the other side.
King Edward Point (KEP) is a settlement of buildings which dates back to1905, around the inception of the whaling station at Grytviken. Discovery House (or ‘Disco’ as it’s referred to) is the second oldest building at KEP, dating from around 1915. It was initially built as a laboratory and accommodation for the Discovery Investigations. It has now been fully renovated into a dwelling house and is warm and comfortable, with bedrooms, kitchen, living room and dining area. It also happens to have 3 external entrances (fact) and contains around 50 internal doors (exaggerated fact). This makes for another steep learning curve orientating myself inside and outside of the building… This is all made a little more complex by the fact that Fur Seals lurk right outside each door. I don’t have a problem with this (after all this is their realm) but you do have to think twice when entering or leaving the building, and take corners ‘wide’ when moving around the building lest an angry bull may be shifting itself around the building at speed and take you by surprise. Especially at dusk. (Sometimes when lying in bed I can hear the scrape of gravel as ‘furry’ manoeuvres itself around the building. Bizarre.)
My new housemates are Jayne, Vicky, Connor (Museum Team), Kelvin (Invasive weed expert and eradicator) and Tom (British Geological Survey engineer and geo magnetism expert). I’m sharing a room with Tom. It’s a little like reliving my student days which on the face of it isn’t too appealing but everyone is good fun and we all bonded on the ship coming here, especially over our shared Humpback Whale sighting experience. We must all now take our turn cooking, cleaning and making bread. Everyone here at KEP makes bread…I’m keen to learn how to do this, and use the fancy dough mixer.
Tonight, a treat though… Kelvin has brought a bottle of Darwin’s Botanicals Gin for us all to try. This is distilled in Stanley, Falkland Islands…Connor and I were sent to the food store’s walk-in freezer (a knife and bowl in hand) where on the floor sits a plastic crate with a huge lump of ice in it. This ice lump was calved from the glacier which terminates into Cumberland Bay.
Yes, gin and tonic and iceberg. My mind is blown once again.
Image: Michael with the glacier his gin and tonic ice came from in the background.
Earlier this year, when it was first mooted that I might make my first trip to South Georgia in 2021, I had heard that a 97% solar eclipse was expected to be seen from South Georgia in December. I filed this away in my brain thinking the chances were pretty slim that this might coincide with my trip. Unbelievably here I am in the right place and at the right time on this vast planet to see it. What are the chances?
I’ve only seen two partial eclipses in the UK, and both of fairly lowish percentages; they were striking, nonetheless. The last and most dramatic one I saw was outside my house in the east of Scotland in the spring of 2017. I remember very clearly the darkness, the change in bird behaviour and the strangeness of the hard shadows the sun was still creating despite the low light levels. I remember I used two tinted glass plates from my old welding mask to directly watch the moon transit the sun. A disc of black over a disc of gold.
We were all still a bit tired last night and still settling into our new house …but nonetheless we all agreed to meet in the kitchen at 4.30am to walk up to Hope Point to witness it. ‘Bodgers’ in hand, we walked up through the tussac grass and Fur Seals to the white wooden cross and stone cairn (which stands as a memorial to Sir Ernest Shackleton). There we waited for the changes in light. The sun was up, but unfortunately obscured by cloud cover, so all that we saw was a drop in light level. It was a pretty remarkable drop in light level, but not what you might expect from a 97% solar eclipse. I guess we all underestimate just how bright our sun actually is.
We all had a laugh at the irony of being in such a fortuitous spot on the planet, but with UK like cloud cover ruining this profound event. It was a house-bonding experience.
One-hundred-plus Humpback Whales (more likely 200) and a 97% solar eclipse isn’t bad going for one trip.
We went back to the house to have coffee and plan the days ahead.
Image: Cloudy skies on the morning of the eclipse at KEP.
Today I had my first full day completely on my own at Grytviken… I went straight to the Flensing Plan. The Flensing Plan or ‘Plan’ is where the whales were dragged up and onto from the harbour and ‘flensed’. Flensing is the process by which blubber was stripped from the whale carcass. Bearing in mind a whale’s blubber layer could be thick, flensing was the initial skilled process in processing a whale. The Flensing Plan is essentially then the physical epicentre of the whole whaling station. A massive butchers block if you like. It’s an outdoor area of around 40 m2 and was once floored with a wooden deck at a slight pitch, angled down to the shore. The surface of the Flensing Plan became a mass heap of blubber, gristle, meat, bone and blood. It’s worth noting here that according to those who remember, the whole bay was bright red with blood.
At the water’s edge of the Flensing Plan men would hook whale carcases (which had been floated and brought in close by the whaling ships) and drag the creatures up through a slipway and up onto the Plan. The flensers would then set about cutting the skin and blubber off the whale. This was a skilled, physically demanding and dangerous job carried out by hand with their flensing knifes (a hockey stick shaped tool with a long wooden handle and curved steel blade). I understand that this was an industrial process happening in a different time, but I can’t stop thinking of the fact that many of these whales breathed their last moments in utter fear and agony. I know this is terribly unpleasant thought, but I believe it is a key thought for us all to consider here and reflect upon about this whole story and our future actions upon the natural world. Humans are a masterclass in resourcefulness, industriousness and skill but we are also very often a masterclass in sheer and utter cruelty. Let us try to make amends.
I spent almost the whole day walking around the site taking it all in. No doubt it’s a sad place but as Captain Gerry remarked during the tour he gave me; it contains both the worst and the best of man. Through the patina of rust and flaking paint I can see a bustling community of people all working here and supporting one another in difficult and dangerous conditions. I strongly sense the camaraderie there would have been here. The echo of that community still resounds to me.
One of the things which strikes me most is the quality of everything, the steel, the structures, the tools. This was the very best of equipment made with the very best of materials and likely accounts for it surviving this harsh climate. The whaling industry would have been the equivalent to a high-end industry like the oil industry is today. High profit margins and therefore no expense spared. The remoteness also explains the quantities of everything they had. Hundreds and thousands of everything to hand in supply sheds such as plate steel, bolts, washers, nails, rope, light bulbs, pipes, wire, valves and of course rivets.
The Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen first saw the potential of whaling in this part of the world and with some Argentinian financial backing set up the ‘Compañía Argentina de Pesca’ in 1904. He built the first whaling station here at Grytviken on South Georgia. In fact, what we all call Grytviken today was simply known as ‘Pesca’ by everyone back then.
I set about measuring the Flensing Plan in the afternoon. I have its measurements sent from South Georgia Heritage Trust already but it’s always good to measure a site nonetheless, not only to double check things but it also helps me to get a feel for a place. The thoroughness of measuring seems to focus my mind when I’m faced with a chaotic site.
This is most definitely a chaotic site with the most chaotic of subject matters.
Image: Michael, centre-right behind the whale bone, investigating the area of the Flensing Plan.
My daily routine now will be walking around the cove from KEP to Grytviken, dodging Fur Seals on the path, and then spending as much time as I can familiarising myself with and understanding the site. This will involve compiling drawings, measuring, taking photos, filming and recording sound… I now have a wonderful little Zoom H6 digital sound recorder for this project to capture my thoughts surrounding the project. The producer from Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ is keen I make some recordings to track my progress with the project with a view to following the project.
I’d forgotten how much fun it is capturing sounds and without the awful hiss of tape. I’m still a little bashful about talking into the machine though. I feel bit of an idiot if I’m honest. Also, when I start thinking about exactly what might happen to these recordings (i.e. put before the huge listenership of Radio 4) I tend to dry and/or witter.
Today Grytviken will be receiving visitors; its second cruise ship full of tourists since things have started opening slightly after pandemic…So today, I’m going try to interview some tourists and see what they feel about South Georgia, why they chose to visit here and in particular what they feel about the whaling station. I’d like to know what these visitors bring to the site themselves, what they know about whaling and if indeed they know what happened in the area which comprises the Flensing Plan and where the artwork will be…If I’m ever unfortunate enough to see anyone with a microphone I will frankly walk in the opposite direction so I thought it might be difficult to get anyone to talk. How wrong could I be… It seems standing looking exotic with a large hairy microphone and headphones on is like catnip to some people. I literally just hung around on the Flensing Plan and people made a bee line for me. It was wonderful. I had some really interesting conversations with them. Ranging from the beauty of the surroundings to the acute sadness of the site. They were all remarkably well informed about the whaling story… this is partly down to the hard work of the expedition staff who introduce the subjects during lectures on their voyage.
These visitors…are given roughly 3 hours to walk around the site. Their tour usually takes in Shackleton’s Grave at Grytviken cemetery, Grytviken church, South Georgia Heritage Trusts Museum and the whaling station itself. Some also go to the South Georgia Post Office, whilst some appear to just walk around taking photos of seals and penguins (incidentally, I cannot ever blame anyone for doing this). It’s a lot to fit into 3 hours and emphasised again just how fortunate I am to be here for this long…Some visitors will end up being South Georgia enthusiasts indeed for the rest of their lives.
So, today was productive as I had my first chance to see how visitors might interact with my artwork. It was fascinating, if a little exhausting, talking to so many people. I lost count of the number of times I was asked whether I lived here or not. This was very amusing. I decided after the umpteenth time of being asked this that I must somehow look as though l do.
I guess haven’t shaved in a few days now.
Image: Michael recording the sounds of South Georgia with his sound recorder.
I offered to help Curator Jayne Pierce today to document and photograph some of objects in the South Georgia Museum collection. I invested in a fairly good digital camera some years ago and being a sculptor I’m fairly adept at photographing inanimate objects. Essentially, inanimate objects are my thing.
The museum was set up in the 1990’s by Nigel Bonner. Nigel lived and worked in South Georgia in the 50’s and 60’s and recognised the value in saving its industrial heritage. It’s probably worth noting here that after the station closed in the mid 1960’s, Grytviken lay abandoned for years and was effectively then looted and damaged by various visitors. For instance, non-ferrous metals were stripped for scrap value and more significant objects taken as mementos. Captain Gerry told me for instance that the “Petrel’s” wheel succumbed to such a fate. Probably it’s in someone’s shed or loft now or even an antiques shop somewhere.
The museum was set up to preserve what was left. The collection is wonderful and if the museum were in a more accessible location, I would most definitely still visit it. The natural history section alone is stunning. Many casts made by Steve Massam (Taxidermist based in the Falkland Islands) of various fish such as Toothfish and parts of a Colossal Squid. His bird taxidermy is beautiful too. is relatively new to her role with South Georgia Heritage Trust but her experience in museums is seriously impressive. She worked for many years with the collections at University College London and the Natural History Museum in London. She’s passionate about museums, stewarding their collections, but also enabling people to see and interact with the very best held in their collections. Her enthusiasm is infectious and quite often we’ve had long and fascinating discussions about all sorts of weird and wonderful objects.
I set up a makeshift repro stand for my camera outside from a ladder I found in the store and some gaffer tape. Jayne handed things she needed documenting from the stores to Connor who then brought them to me where I set them up as best as I could for photographing. A conveyer belt system.
As someone who’s been commissioned to research, understand and then respond to this world, to spend time with the objects in this collection is incredibly useful to me. I documented dozens of things for Jayne but the most notable were the original blueprint for the “Petrel” whaling ship (which is moored just outside). It’s a copy of the original plan which was hand drawn in Norway in 1910. It’s beautiful and meticulously drawn. The other notable thing was a massive Compañía Argentina de Pesca flag which would have been flown above the whaling station here during the whaling stations heyday. A reminder to all of the whalers…that they were all indeed working for ‘the company’ and its financial interests beyond these horizons. These objects, although peripheral, are all part of this world and it’s a privilege to handle them and have such intimate time with them all.
We all finished late and walked back to Discovery House counting newly born Fur Seal pups along the way.
Image: Michael documenting a ships plan using his makeshift repro stand.