Grytviken: Key information

  • Raise a glass to 'the Boss' at Shackleton's grave
  • Explore the remains of South Georgia's whaling industry
  • Send a postcard home from your trip on the Southern Ocean
  • Latitude 54°15'S, Longitude 36°45'W

About Grytviken

Grytviken

An abandoned whaling ship at Grytviken

Grytviken was home to the first permanent whaling station in South Georgia and was founded in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, the father of the island's whaling industry. It sits in King Edward Cove at the head of Cumberland Bay, in what the explorer Frank Wild called 'the finest natural harbour' in South Georgia. Sealers in the 19th century had long known this: the name Grytviken is Swedish for 'pot bay' referring to the old trypots for rendering blubber that found here.

In the first season of whaling at Grytviken, humpack whales were so plentiful that the whalers didn't even need to leave the bay to fulfil the season's catch. By the time that whaling ceased here in 1964, more than 54,000 whales were processed here, including a female blue whale caught in 1912 that measured 34.1m – the largest individual ever recorded.

In 1992 the South Georgia government took on full responsibility for the site. A two year project in 2005 made the site safe for visitors by removing hazardous waste and some of the ruined buildings.

King Edward Point, at the northern mouth of the bay is home to a large British Antarctic Survey base. When you sail past, look for the memorial cross on Hope Point, erected in Sir Ernest Shackleton's honour after his death here in 1922. 

Shackleton's Grave & the Whalers' Cemetery

Toursits in red jackets stand in the snow around the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton in Grytviken on South Georgia island

Toasting 'the Boss' at Shackleton's grave in Grytviken

Sir Ernest Shackleton died of a heart attack on board his ship Quest moored in Grytviken harbour on 5 January 1922. At his widow's request, he was buried here in the whalers' cemetery. It's central part of any landing to pay your respects at his grave: expedition guides lead the group in a toast to 'the Boss'. His grave is alone in the cemetery for pointing south – to the Pole. After toasting the great man, be sure to view the reverse of his gravestone to read a verse by Robert Browning, his favourite poet. The ashes of Shackleton's right-hand man Frank Wild were interred next to him in 2011.

The oldest grave dates from 1838. The simple white cross near the gate is of Felix Artuso, an Argentinian submariner who died during the 1982 occupation of the island. 

The cemetery is enclosed by a fence to prevent the gravestones being damaged by seals.

The Whaling Station & Norwegian Church

Grytviken

The Norwegian Church amid the ruins of Grytviken whaling station

Many of the whaling station buildings have been removed for safety reasons, exposing a mass of rusting machinery to tell the story of Grytviken's days as a charnel house. Action centred on the flensing plan, where carcasses were winched ashore; to either side are the remains of the meat plant and blubber cookery.

In February 2023, the Main Store building was reopened for visitors after a long restoration. Built around 1920, it contains harpoon grenades, blubber hooks, flensing knives and other terrible paraphernalia of the whaling industry – a haunting time capsule from Grytviken's darkest days.

On the jetty facing the Main Store is the beached whalecatcher ship Petrel, its harpoon gun still in situ. Two further ships, Dias and Albatros are run ashore facing the museum.

The open area behind the station works was once home to the workers' living quarters: barracks, bathhouses and even at one time a cinema.

The whitewashed Norwegian Church, sent prefabricated to Grytviken in 1913 sits on the edge of the whaling station beyond the rusting oil tanks. The whalers themselves were famously ungodly, but regular services are still sometimes held for both residents and visiting cruise ship passengers. Weddings are even held here from time to time. Shackleton's body lay in state here in 1922, and the church walls are lined with fascinating memorials.

South Georgia Museum & Post Office

Grytviken

Shackleton's bust in the South Georgia Museum

The South Georgia Museum opened in 1992 and is housed in the old manager's villa of the whaling station. Shackleton and his officers were frequent visitors here in 1914 at the start of the Endurance expedition.

The museum has some excellent exhibits covering all aspects of South Georgia's history and wildlife. Many people love to take their photo next to the taxidermied wandering albatross – it's a rare opportunity to see how massive they really are. A side building houses a replica of the James Caird, while outside on the museum's 'lawn' there are various outsized items of whaling paraphernalia, including the terrifying blade of a steam-driven bone saw.

There is a small post office next to the museum, offering a chance to send a postcard from one of the most far-flung places on earth. Both the museum and post office have small shops with great souvenirs.

Walks around Grytviken

Grytviken

Hiking up Mt Duse above Grytviken

A popular short guided walk in Grytviken is to follow the rough track in the shadow of Mount Duse past the Norwegian Church to a scenic viewpoint overlooking King Edward Cove. The views are superb, looking down over the whaling station and your cruise ship looking like a tiny bath toy in the bay. Behind the cemetery you can see Gull Lake – a small dam here generates hydroelectricity for the settlement.

Depending on the schedule and the weather it's not unknown for some ships to land their passengers by zodiac in neighbouring Maiviken bay, to take an extended 3.5km walk (around 2–3 hours) over the hills to the Norwegian Church. It's a great way to approach Grytviken, with the added bonus of seeing the small gentoo penguin colony at Maiviken.

Wildlife at Grytviken

Grytviken

Antarctic tern in Grytviken

Wildlife is far from the main draw at Grytviken but the most charismatic species seen elsewhere are represented here: fur seals, elephant seals and the occasional group of king penguins.

The attraction here is seeing them against the incongruous setting of the abandoned whaling station: seals sleeping among the rusting machinery, penguins coming ashore next to the abandoned catcher ships and Antarctic terns nesting in knots of chains once used to haul whale carcasses ashore.

Everywhere you look, nature is reclaiming this site of such bloody exploitation. Grytviken may not be the most dramatic wildlife viewing place in South Georgia, but this fact alone makes it one of the most hopeful. 

Visitor Guidelines for Grytviken

Grytviken is the only location in South Georgia that visitors are guaranteed to call at, as all ships call here to undergo mandatory immigration and biosecurity checks. 

All visits to Grytviken must be made in accordance with the site visitor management plan produced by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

Visitors may enter the church, post office, museum and main store – all other buildings are out of bounds. Climbing on any of the old whaling station structures or the beached whaling ships is forbidden. An invitation is required to visit King Edward Point, where the government buildings and British Antarctic Survey research base are housed.

Biosecurity checks are particularly stringent in Grytviken.Thanks to its long human history, the site is home to many invasive plant species, making extra checks essential on depature to prevent the spread of non-native species. Do not sit or place bags on the ground at Grytviken, and avoid any areas marked with orange posts: invasive bittercress and procumbent pearlwort may be found here, although efforts are being made to control it.

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