One of my favourite places in Grytviken in South Georgia is somewhere overlooked. Tucked into an anteroom the Norwegian Church is the old whaling station’s forgotten library. After browsing the shelves, you can flick through 1950s registration books to discover which whalers were the most avid readers. It’s a gently moving experience: while nature rightly reclaims the industrial ruins outside, this tiny space remains one of the few places where the lives of the men who worked here still feel tangible.
With this inspiration in mind, I’ve raided the shelves in the Swoop Antarctica office to pull out my favourite books about South Georgia to get you excited about a trip there.
The Two-Headed Whale
While shelves groan with the number of books about Antarctica, South Georgia has a rather more select booklist. The Two-Headed Whale by Sandy Winterbottom was released in 2022, making it the most recent addition to our library – and a very welcome one.
The book is inspired by the author’s visit to the cemetery at Leith Harbour in South Georgia and her discovery of a grave of Anthony Ford, a Scottish whaler who died while still in his teens. The narrative unfolds in two ways. The first is Winterbottom’s account of her trip to the island and onto Antarctica in a sailing ship. It’s a strong narrative that will appeal to anyone planning a trip to this part of the world and is infused with a strong reverence for the natural world. In the second strand, the author narrates a well-researched and deeply sensitive reconstruction of the life of the dead whaler, from Scottish poverty through his short life on the icy seas. While whaling has rightly been consigned to history, it’s impossible not to be moved by the hard lives that the whalers lived, exploited by an industry that cared as little for them as the whales they killed. A powerful read.
Shackleton at South Georgia
‘Whose island is South Georgia?’ asks the foreword to this slim volume, before concluding that while technically a British Overseas Territory, for many people it will forever be the island of Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Written by the late Robert Burton, a leading light of South Georgia Studies, and published by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, Shackleton at South Georgia is the definitive recounting of the polar explorer’s time on the island. Four chapters tell the story: his first visit to the island in 1914 with Endurance, the return in the James Caird and the forced march across the mountainous and unmapped interior, the time spent arranging the rescue of the men stranded on Elephant Island, and then his final passing in 1922 in Grytviken harbour and his burial in the whaler’s cemetery with his grace facing forever south.
Packed with archive and contemporary photos, this is an essential read after you’ve toasted the Boss in Grytviken or to help you get inspired for a pilgrimage of your own.
A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia
From king penguin colonies of almost unimaginable scope to beaches thronged with seals, South Georgia’s wildlife is one of its biggest attractions. It’s no accident that it’s dubbed the Serengeti of the South. With this in mind, it’s well worth packing a copy of A Field Guide to the Wildlife of South Georgia for your trip.
Produced by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, this is the only dedicated wildlife guide to the island (some regular Antarctic wildlife guides omit South Georgia altogether). As well as providing a comprehensive identification guide, the book is an excellent primer on the island’s entire ecology, with valuable sections on flora and even invertebrates. There is expanded coverage of key species, while the keenest ornithologists are catered for with sections on non-breeding visitors and vagrant species. Even when the guide is out of date it’s for a good reason: the section on human-introduced species has become redundant since the successful rodent eradication programme and the removal of the reindeer brought by Norwegian whalers.
Island at the Edge of the World
South Georgia has some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world. At times, the island appears like nothing more than a half-submerged Himalayas, with snowy mountain peaks rising straight out of the ocean. Few people have ever explored much beyond its coastline, but climber and author Stephen Venables takes readers deep into the interior in his book Island at the Edge of the World.
Venables (the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen) took part in an extended mountaineering expedition to South Georgia in 1989. At this time, memories of the brief occupation by troops of the Argentinian junta were still fresh: this was a time before expedition cruise ships called on South Georgia, and half the challenges involved the logistics of getting there. Once on land, the travelogue unfolds like so many mountainous first ascents, leavened by wildlife encounters, a light-touch approach to South Georgia’s history, and tips on how to build the perfect ice-cave. The final chapter covers the Venables’ return to South Georgia to recreate the 1916 Shackleton Crossing.
When it comes to Antarctic literature, written accounts are overwhelmingly dominated by men, very often wearing frozen beards as if to highlight their polar authority. Antarctic Housewife by Nan Brown is a refreshing counterpoint to these narratives.
Brown lived in South Georgia for two years in the late 1950s when her husband worked as a radio operator at King Edward Point near Grytviken. While much of the book is an undoubted period piece that leans heavily into gendered stereotypes, a fascinating story emerges from her attempts to create a domestic life in restricted circumstances. The author was no shrinking violet (her account of spending a week on board a whale catcher ship is unsparing), but from penguin rescues to the local winter ‘olympics’, the book is a fascinating piece of social history documenting daily life on South Georgia when the whaling stations ruled the day. It’s sadly out of print, but well-worth tracking down if you can find it.
The Maritime History of South Georgia
Since Captain Cook made the first landing in Possession Bay in 1775 to the expedition cruise ships of today, every visitor to South Georgia has arrived by sea. With this in mind, The Maritime History of South Georgia provides nautically minded readers with an introduction on the most significant vessels that have called in on the island since Cook’s day.
All the major polar expeditions that visited South Georgia get an honourable mention (Shackleton’s Endurance gets its due, along with the James Caird, a replica of which is on display in the South Georgia Museum). It’s not just a dry history though. There is plenty to engage visitors today, with information on the many wrecks than can be seen on its coastline. If you find yourself curious about the old whaling catcher Petrel and Dias beached at Grytviken, or the old wooden boats abandoned to the fur seals and tussock at Godthul, this is the book for you.
South Georgia (with the Shackleton Crossing)
This pick from the shelves is a bit of a cheat, but it’s a good one. What better way to daydream about a trip to South Georgia than poring over a map?
When Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean made their desperate trek across South Georgia from King Haakon Bay to salvation at Stromness, the interior of the island was famously unexplored. This is the map that they would have wished they had, produced in fantastic cartographic detail by the British Antarctic Survey. Indeed, one side of this map is dedicated to plotting out their route over the mountains, with a detailed route presented for expedition teams and armchair travellers alike to follow their course.
On the other side is a larger scale map of the entire island, with historic sites and modern research bases clearly mapped. It’s a delight to pore over and follow the dramatically crinkly edges of the island to pick out safe harbours where an expedition cruise ship might take, and the sweeping bays waiting to be explored by zodiac.
If you find yourself heading to South Georgia without glancing at a single one of these books or maps, there’s no need to worry. My final choice is a book that’s not available to buy but is offered free to all visitors.
Specially produced for the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, the South Georgia Handbook, written by Robert Burton is an excellent primer to the destination, and its 64 pages make it slim enough not to trouble your luggage allowance.
Well-illustrated throughout, its covers almost everything the visitor might want to know about the island, from its discovery and history through the years of sealing, whaling and Shackleton, to its wildlife, ecology and climate and through to contemporary issues like biosecurity and the management of its fishing waters. It’s a brilliant primer to the island – no one should leave the island without one.
Want to graduate from armchair traveller to polar explorer? Swoop Antarctica are the South Georgia experts: Get in touch today and let us help you plan your polar journey.