Everything you need to know about visiting Grytviken, South Georgia.
As our ship gently cruised into King Edward Cove we were given our first sight of Grytviken, the largest settlement on South Georgia.
Nestled at the base of rising peaks carved out by the glaciers of yesteryear, Grytviken has a formidable appearance, with the rusted metal skeletons of the old whaling station dominating the town.
While the rest of South Georgia’s attractions are focused on the wildlife and landscapes, here it is the history of polar exploration, whaling and war that piques the curiosity of visitors.
With our vessel, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov anchored and the zodiacs ready, we left the ship and made our way into Grytviken.
Travel to Grytviken, South Georgia
South Georgia is one of the most remote places on the planet, located in the south Atlantic Ocean close to Antarctica, and fewer than 10’000 people travel here every year.
Almost everybody that visits South Georgia does so with a licensed tour operator, travelling by ship from Ushuaia in Argentina or Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
South Georgia is often combined with an expedition to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, giving travellers 2-3 days to explore the island.
Every single tour that visits South Georgia includes a stopover in Grytviken, the economic and political hub of the island, to officially stamp each guest into the territory and clear customs.
This also offers a perfect opportunity to explore the town, walk around the attractions and learn more about its history.
We travelled to Grytviken with One Ocean Expeditions on an in-depth South Georgia photography symposium, allowing us to spend extra time in the town and around the island.
While most people are focused on the king penguins, elephant seals and sea birds that occupy South Georgia, we found our time spent visiting Grytviken to be one of the most fascinating parts of the entire tour.
Here’s our guide to the history, attractions and sights of Grytviken, South Georgia, and to let you know what to expect on your next visit.
Whaling in Grytviken – A Tragic History
Grytviken was home to the largest whaling station in South Georgia, and it’s impossible to walk around the corroded ruins of its processing plant without feeling a sense of dread at the massacres that occurred here over decades.
On the 16th of November, 1904, the Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen established the first whaling station on South Georgia, and this would change the course of history forever for both the island, and the marine life in the Southern Ocean.
Whales were hunted for their high-value oil, which was used around the world for oil lamps and to make soap, as well as for their bones and meat.
They weren’t the only animals hunted in the region though. Elephant seals were also under attack, and over the decades millions of animals were killed here.
Larsen chose Grytviken to be his base because of the large, sheltered harbour, the easy access to fresh water and the steep surrounding mountains that provided shelter from harsh weather from the west.
Even though whales were being captured for years beforehand, the establishment of this whaling station in Grytviken allowed for processing and production to be ramped up severely.
Over the next 60 years the hunting was so aggressive that they essentially over-fished the seas around South Georgia, and the plant was forced to close in 1966 due to a lack of whales being caught.
Now that the station wasn’t in use it started to corrode and collapse, making it quite dangerous for anyone who ventured near it.
In addition it was constructed using asbestos, and as the fibres broke down much of Grytviken became a toxic hazard.
Years later the South Georgia government decontaminated the site, finally make it safe for people to wander without hazmat suits.
Today walking around the ruins of the old whaling processing plant is an absolute must when visiting Grytviken. With such a tragic history it can be quite overwhelming to be stepping through the site of slaughter, but it’s a very interesting place.
The Resting Place of Sir Ernest Shackleton
Grtyviken is also the place of burial for Sir Ernest Shackleton, arguably the greatest polar explorer in history.
His expeditions to the Antarctic are the stuff of legend, and South Georgia was a destination that was of great importance during his adventures.
It was in Grytviken in 1914 that Shackleton started his preparations of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the perilous attempt to cross the entire Antarctic continent by land via the South Pole.
His journey was not successful due to the abundance of pack ice his ship, the Endurance, encountered in the Weddell Sea.
The ship became trapped, and for the next 18 months his men lived in camps on the ice trying to make their way back to safety.
They eventually arrived at Elephant Island in April of 1916, and Shackleton took a small group of men on his 7m long life boat, the James Caird, on a 1300km journey back to South Georgia.
From here he launched a remarkable rescue mission back to Elephant Island, and despite all odds he managed to save the lives of every single one of his crew who had remained behind.
While his expeditions to the Antarctic had already made him famous, it was this dangerous rescue that forever cemented him in history books.
After Sir Ernest Shackleton died in 1922 on South Georgia during another one of his adventures, his body was being taken back to the United Kingdom when his wife sent through a telegram requesting that he buried in Grytviken.
His body was soon returned, and he was laid to rest in the Grytviken cemetery.
Today his gravesite is a popular place for all visitors to Grytviken, and it is common to toast the great man with a whiskey, as well as to his right hand man, Frank Wild, whose ashes are placed beside his ‘boss’.
The Falklands War in South Georgia
In 1982 Argentina invaded the British-controlled Falkland Islands in an attempt to gain control of the archipelago that they believed rightfully belongs to them.
The war itself was relatively short, lasting a total of 74 days when Britain successfully beat the Argentinians, forcing them to surrender.
While the Falklands War is quite well documented, few people realise that it was actually South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands where the first ‘strike’ was made.
On the 19th of March some Argentine merchants raised the flag of Argentina in South Georgia, prompting the UK Navy to dispatch a crew from Stanley on the Falkland Islands to investigate and defend their territory.
It was this act that was eventually considered to be the offensive manoeuvre by Argentina.
Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2nd, and took control of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands on the 3rd.
22 Royal Marines were stationed in Grytviken on that day, and they managed to shoot down an Argentine helicopter and kill 3 soldiers in the battle, but they were eventually defeated by the invaders.
Those casualties stopped Argentina from taking control of any other parts of the island, and the remaining Royal Marines hid in the mountains without detection.
On the 25th of April following an assault by the Brits on one of their submarines, Argentina surrendered Grytviken without firing a shot.
Today you can learn more about the brief history of the Falkland Islands war in the fantastic museum in Grytviken, and if accompanied by a guide you can hike to the remains of the Argentine helicopter, a short walk past King Edward Point.
5 Things to Do in Grytviken, South Georgia
There’s only a handful of things to do in Grytviken, South Georgia, but those things will certainly fill the hours up, and they are well worth doing.
Have a Toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton
The absolute first thing you should do once you arrive to the settlement is head over to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave, located in the cemetery just outside of town, and drink a toast to the great man.
When we travelled to Grytviken with One Ocean Expeditions, the crew dropped us off right at the base of the cemetery and asked everybody to gather at the gravesite.
They had brought mugs and bottles of whiskey along, and Jonathon, our polar historian onboard, gave a great speech about Shackleton’s journey.
After the toast was made we poured a bit of whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, had a sip, then poured a bit on Frank Wild’s grave, Shackleton’s right hand man, whose ashes are buried next to him.
Spend Time in the Awesome South Georgia Museum
The Grytviken museum isn’t large, but it is one of the most fascinating museums we have been to in a long time.
The rooms are dedicated to various elements of South Georgia, such as whaling, wildlife, polar exploration and more, and we were disappointed that we didn’t give ourselves much more time in there.
You can honestly spend at least two hours reading all of the bits of information, looking at the pictures (some are quite gruesome from the whaling era) and watching the videos on display.
Walk Around the Old Whaling Station
The most prominent feature in Grytviken is the ruins of the old whale processing plant, and the corroded structures occupy most of the space you can walk around.
If you’re into photography or just have a fascination with old engineering and construction, the station is a fantastic place to explore, even though the tragic history of animals being slaughtered here obviously brings about an emotional experience.
The entire plant has been cleared of asbestos so it is safe to walk around without respiratory protection, but be careful of any sharp bits of rusted metal, unsafe overhead hazards and of course fur seals that can be hiding behind any corner.
Send a Postcard at the Post Office
Have any friends or family at home that still love getting postcards? Well why not send them one from one of the most remote places on the planet!
The post office in Grytviken is run by the few staff that live on the island, and you can purchase cards and stamps to send them off to anywhere in the world.
When supply ships dock into town the staff will give the postcards to them to be delivered to Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
From here they’ll be shipped back to the UK, and then mailed out around the world. It might take a few weeks (or months) for them to arrive, but the joy your family gets when they receive it will be well worth the wait.
Check Out the Grytviken Church
Built in 1912 in Norway and transported to South Georgia in 1913, the Grytviken Church is the oldest construction on the island still in use.
This cute timber church is very picturesque, especially when contrasting against the striking mountains behind it and the corroded processing plant in the foreground.
Even though services are very rarely held here anymore, visitors are welcome to walk around the inside, sit and pray if they’d like, and even climb into the rafters to ring the bell over Grytviken.
Can You Stay in Grytviken, South Georgia?
Unless there is an emergency or prior arrangements have been made with the South Georgia Heritage Trust, it is not permitted to sleep on the island, and there is no accommodation in Grytviken available.
Almost everybody who travels to Grytviken sleeps onboard their passenger ship, with the exception of approved scientific researchers and explorers.
How Many People Live in Grytviken?
The official population of Grytviken is 8 people, but this grows to around 30 people in the summer, and fluctuates depending on the need for more personnel there.
Most people living in Grytviken work for the South Georgia Heritage Trust, are members of the British military, or are customs officers.
How Do You Get To Grytviken?
The only way to travel to Grytviken is to go by ship, and unless you have your own sailboat, the most common way is to join a licensed tour operator.
We travelled to South Georgia with One Ocean Expeditions, and loved their trip because unlike other companies they offer a much more in-depth tour of the island, allowing us to spend an entire 8 days there.
Freight ships do make the journey from the Falkland Islands, but it is almost impossible to secure a berth on one of these boats due to insurance and quarantine issues.
Travel to Grytviken usually happens from one of two ports – Ushuaia in Argentina or Stanley in the Falkland Islands. There is no airport in Grytviken, or on South Georgia at all.
Wildlife in Grytviken
While Grytviken doesn’t have the density of wildlife you find elsewhere in South Georgia, there’s still a healthy population of different species in the settlement.
You’ll of course find king penguins waddling about, and when we first landed on the shore one came right up to our zodiac to see what we were.
There’s a small number of elephant seals that can be found lounging around, although the harems aren’t nearly the size of other places like Gold Harbour.
The main animal you’ll have to watch out for when walking around Grytviken is the fur seals, who relax on the beaches and have started to move into the whaling station.
Male fur seals can be very aggressive, especially during the mating season when the females return to the island, so make sure you keep your distance.
More Photos of Grytviken, South Georgia
From a photographer’s point of view, we really enjoyed walking around Grytviken and taking pictures of the old whaling station.
The rusted tanks, pipes and sheet metal was extremely interesting to check out, and the deeper you looked the more curious lines and features could be found.
Being on a photography symposium we had the pleasure of learning from some of the world’s best professional photographers.
On this day we were particularly inspired by Gerhard ‘Guts’ Swanepoel, co-owner of Pangolin Photo Safaris in Botswana, who spent a few hours walking around with us and showing us what he looks for in a unique photo.
Here are some more of our pictures from Grytviken. 90% of these were captured by Alesha.