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What visiting a polar shipwreck taught me about Antarctica’s dark history

It’s delightfully easy to think of Antarctica as a completely pristine environment, untouched by humanity. Maybe it’s the vast blankets of snow that encourages you to think that yours are the first footsteps ever to leave a trace there. It’s an innocent enough fantasy when you’re on an expedition cruise, indulging your sense of personal adventure. But people have been coming to Antarctica for two centuries now – and an encounter on my most recent trip south offered a useful reminder that not all visitors in the past came with such benign intentions. 

Lonely shipwreck

I was on a zodiac cruise in Foyn Harbour, on the northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a pretty bay whose steep shores are banked high with snow, and it’s a popular place for expedition cruise ships to call thanks to the proximity of both the popular continental landing site at Portal Point and the sublime beauty of Wilhemina Bay. There aren’t any penguin rookeries here but it more than makes up for this with its one great trump card: the wreck of a large ship, with its long rust-red bow rising straight out of the shallow waters at a desperate angle. 

Approaching the wreck of the Governoren by zodiac

Without our guide, it would have been impossible to understand anything about the history of the wreck. It had been lying there for over a century, battered by wind and waves until there wasn’t a flake of paint left on it to even reveal its name. But we were introduced to it as the Governoren, and the story of how it came to be wrecked there spoke of one of the darkest periods in Antarctic history. The Governoren had been a whaling factory ship.  

Looking for whales

Before calling in at Foyn Harbour, our ship had sailed through the Gerlache Strait. It’s a gorgeous stretch of water that’s celebrated as a great location for whale watching. When we slowly made our way through it, I stood out on deck with the other passengers, binoculars in hand, looking for the spouts of passing whales. We didn’t have to wait for long. We were sailing in February, one of the best months of the year for whale watching in Antarctica. Humpbacks blew all around us in a joyful scene. Off the coast of Enterprise Island, just a few miles from Foyn Harbour, we even saw a pod of orcas swimming among the humpbacks. Our guide thought they were probably teaching their young how to hunt. 

Humpback whales in the Gerlache Strait

It was incredible to see such behaviour, but the wreck of the Governoren told us that the waters here had been witness to a far different sort of hunting: the harvesting of whales on an industrial scale. 

It was back in 1915 when the ship had sailed from Deception Island to the Antarctic Peninsula. Whaling in this frozen landscape was a tough business, but at the time it was a perfectly respectable one as well. The demand for whale oil was high. The First World War was raging far to the north, and there was a great hunger in countries like Britain for oils that could be turned into margarine to feed a population facing wartime shortage of edible fats. Whale oil could also be sent to the munitions factories where its glycerine could be used to make explosives.

A whaling factory ship at work during the 1912/13 Antarctic season (Image: Salvesen Archive/University of Edinburgh)

The Governoren was a factory ship. It sailed with a group of catcher ships, who would head out each day with an arsenal of explosive harpoons and return towing as many as half a dozen dead whales, their bodies inflated like sad balloons, to be turned into barrels of oil. 

After two weeks of bloody work, the holds of the ship were full. In total it was carrying 16,500 barrels of oil. That’s a hard number to visualise -e had seen around nearly two dozen humpbacks in the Gerlache straight, but the Governoren was carrying the oil rendered from 58 of them, plus 49 blue whales and a staggering 244 fin whales. I checked the numbers when I got home and they were truly shocking: that season alone, 4431 whales were killed around the Antarctic Peninsula, to be turned into barrels of oil. 

Up in flames

For the crew of the Governoren, these whales represented a successful season and a happy pay. On January 27, they decided to hold a party before turning north to head for the Falkland Islands to unload their precious cargo. Somehow, a fire was started. While the exact causes remain unknown, it was almost inevitable that as the ship was loaded with highly flammable oil, it rapidly spread out of control. 

Official tally of whales killed in the 1915/16 Antarctic season (Image: Falkland Islands National Archives)

All 85 men on board were rapidly evacuated onto the catcher ships that were moored alongside and the Governoren was abandoned. To prevent it exploding, the catcher fired two explosive harpoons below the waterline, sinking it in the shallow waters and causing what was left of the fin, blue and humpback whales to wash across the bay in an oily slick. 

Memorial

When I visited Foyn Bay, its waters had a glassy calm, and the massive bulk of the ship made a terrific centrepiece to a zodiac cruise. Antarctic terns skimmed like fairies across the surface of the bay. Back on board, our guide showed us photos from earlier in the season, with its decks buried in soft, pillowy snow. It was a surreal and strangely beautiful sight. 

Zodiac cruise around Governoren wreck at Foyn Harbour in Antarctica
The snow-covered shipwreck in early spring

The first visitors to Foyn Harbour, calling in when Antarctic whaling was still in its heyday, lamented the sight of a ship that was once vibrant with life and motion and had now been reduced to a helpless mass of rusting steel. I saw it rather differently. It was a poignant monument to a period of Antarctic history that we’ve happily left behind.  

Two days later, our ship called in at Paradise Bay, where we were treated to the great sight of a humpback lazily showing us its flukes at close quarters before diving below the surface. We watched it from a safe distance, but it was a delight to see how unbothered it was by our presence, as if it knew it could come to no harm while we were there. Commercial whaling was banned in 1986 and the waters around Antarctica are now fully protected. Even our own vessel was subject to wildlife watching rules from the regulatory body IAATO, to prevent us disturbing whales as we passed through their domain. 

As we watched the last ripples from its tail disappear, I thought of the helpless wreck of the whaling ship again, and how extraordinary nature can be when humanity is prepared to step out of its way. 

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Kate Higgs

Polar specialist

Kate is a Polar Specialist at Swoop looking after our group bookings. Before turning her sights towards Antarctic she worked in the luxury safari industry in her native South Africa, but has now swapped out the 'Big Five' safari species for a love of leopard seals and humpback whales.