Revisiting South Georgia (15) - Stromness Bay, Leith Whaling Station
Stromness Bay, Leith Whaling Station
As I wrote earlier St. Andrews Bay is not a protected harbour but is open its entire length to the Southern Ocean. The waves were bumping us up and down as they came in. Jerome returned from his trip to the BBC camp and it was only about 45 minutes after sunrise that we motored into the deep ocean and 50 plus knot winds. It snowed and blew the 40-45 kilometers to Stomness Bay and our next “safe” harbour in the continuous wind and the charging storm that was still behind us when he entered our expected anchorage. The trip took all morning and we had no idea we would be here for three nights avoiding the raging storm that came stomping, tossing and howling from southeast past the mouth of the Bay.
I have been in Stromness Bay many times before and only had memories up to this arrival of sunny days and calm, cloudless weather. The wind, snow and clouds had gotten ahead of us before the Golden Fleece rounded the headlands point into Stromness Bay. One of the beauties of weather is that it can make the familiar completely new and unknown. From my standard perch, holding on to the wheelhouse captain’s chair, I was giving thanks for all the modern technologies that make it possible to know exactly where you are on the earth’s surface, as well as all the rocks and shores and things you cannot see but want to avoid in socked in conditions. Jerome, the wonderful Captain he is, took us directly to Leith Whaling Station, one of the three whaling industry sites in the Bay and the largest of the seven sites on South Georgia, where he felt we could have a calm anchorage. As we motored past the Leith Station we could clearly hear the many ghosts, human and animal, who had died here. Jerome said it was “no ghosts,” only the wind in the numerous cables that had been thrown over each building in the old days to keep them on the ground and from blowing away in the often arriving katabatic winds coming down the mountains. Someone said that ghosts shriek and howl, but to their ears these pitches sounded like singing, maybe the calls of mermaids luring sailors to their embrace. That started a round of descriptive imaginational accounting for the passing of our little craft before this ghost city of the whalers and whales.
We dropped anchor just after we passed the sunken whale catcher with its crow’s nest sticking above the slightly tossing waters. Jerome put us in the most protected waters of the Bay and we went about having a slightly late but calm lunch…in fact the sun came out shortly after lunch. The sun must have only shown in this arm of the Bay because the radar indicated the storm was still blasting its way up the coast on the other side of the low coastal mountain range we were anchored behind. I decided I wanted to land and hike up behind the station to a Gentoo Penguin colony that might be active this early in the season. I had been there before and the Gentoos had by then staked out their nests and started egg and chick rearing. This year I was two or three weeks early.
We started the trek up the hill to where we hoped to find the Gentoo Penguins. It was bright, sunny and a light breeze. I think Hunter and I were less than half way to the nesting area when we got hit with a huge gust that turned into a solid wind front and we could barely stand…Jerome’s safety lecture had said in such circumstances follow the local life, lay down face into the wind and put your hand and arms over your head. “Don’t give the wind any catch to make a sail out of you.” One might just get blown over a cliff. We saw and quickly got behind a large rock where we sat for a long time while the 60-70 knot wind worked out its energy over the next hour or two. While sitting there we did see Gentoo Penguins. There were four of them laying in a snow patch not too far to our left. We also saw three hunkered down in a small stream coming off the mountain. One was laboring up the football field in the direction we were going. After the wind dropped off we decided it would be pushing things to try and go higher and farther as the wind might come up again and then we could be trapped up here with no safe way back to the Golden Fleece. As soon as the wind dropped the four Gentoos in the snow were standing and moving up the mountain toward the suspected Gentoo Penguin colony up higher.
There were several accounts of Leith’s history aboard the Golden Fleece. They all record winds reaching 110 km per hour as not that unusual. In order to build and maintain the facilities it was necessary to tie the buildings down with steel cables thrown over the roofs and attached to enormous cement anchors buried in the ground…stories of large ship main masts being snapped and unsuspecting novices sailors to the region being killed by the falling timber…mud slides killed some of the first men to land at Leith…and avalanches killed others as they worked the station. Upon returning we were both exhausted from fighting with the wind, even though we tried to avoid the fight by sitting it out for the most part. During the next three days we had variable winds, snow and overcast conditions. At night it seemed that the winds were stronger and made the rigging hum through the darkness.
On our last mid season visit the harbour’s beaches were filled with thousands of fur seals. There were Elephant Seal harems and bachelor groupings now and only one or two fur seals here and there. I am fearful when walking through Fur Seal packed beaches but only cautious when walking between Elephant Seal harems.
Each day we found we had the time to explore inland places unseen before with the wind and cold setting the limits out in the elements. The old football field had Reindeer grazing around its perimeter and several Gentoo Penguins hiking across the middle of the playing area. Further along near the dam were some more Gentoos all heading inland and presumably to a colony further up the mountains. On the other side of the Station was another large open field that contained station debris and the beginnings of a King Penguin colony. I got very few digital images on these three days. All of the seven whaling stations of South Georgia Island are off limits.
After three nights in Stromness Bay that next morning we began securing the Golden Fleece for what the weather map and radar promised could be an exceptionally rough crossing to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. We knew that lunch might be the last hot meal we would be able to enjoy around the table. After lunch we secured the table and chairs. We sailed down to Stromness Station for one last pass by and about 3 pm headed for the open sea.
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