The Most Remote Museum on Earth

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
May 16 2014 9:09 AM

The Most Remote Museum on Earth

A century after Ernest Shackleton set sail from this unforgiving island, his disastrous voyage remains a lesson of the power of nature—and man’s ability to survive.

The glaciers, though receding, still define the topography of South Georgia.
The glaciers, though receding, still define the topography of South Georgia.

Photo courtesy Bert Archer

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GRYTVIKEN, South Georgia—One her last day as intern-curator at the South Georgia Museum, Suzanne Paterson, a 30-year-old Scot who attends St. Andrew’s University, stands on a blighted beach as the cold wind picks up. The roughly 20 of us listening to her speech dig our hands into the pockets of our double-layered waterproof coats. “It’s beautiful here,” she says, as if speaking to her herself. “I’d stay longer if I could.”

The wreck of an old whaling vessel called the Petrel is beached behind her, its bow-mounted harpoon gun pointing at the small white church at the foot of the mountain in the distance; the church was barely used after it was built 101 years ago, and is completely abandoned now. Off to her left are the skeletal ruins of the Louise, the ship that brought the first whalers here from Norway in 1904.

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Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, is a full five days’ sail northwest of here at 14 knots. South Georgia is an unforgiving place, and its museum—which preserves the memory of whalers who once lived here, the 175,250 whales who died here, and the final chapters in the life of one of history’s most celebrated explorers—is at the literal end of the Earth.

This December will mark the 100th anniversary since Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail from this very spot on his ship, the Endurance. Along with 22 men and 69 dogs, Shackleton was trying to cross Antarctica. He failed spectacularly. Though exploration of the southern continent continues today—much of it done by people stationed with Paterson in South Georgia—Shackleton was the last in the line of the great terrestrial explorers that began with the Vikings, men who set out into the genuine unknown to fill in the planet’s blank spaces.

Shackleton is a hero of perfect ambivalence, a man filled with enough hubris to prompt him to take his men to meet almost certain disaster, but possessed of such extraordinary leadership skills to pull off a victory of mythological proportions in a story of man versus nature that ranks with the best tall tales. When I found out that South Georgia—the place at the beginning, middle, and end of Shackleton’s odyssey—was a place you could actually visit without the sort of hard-tack bona fides that are still required to go to Antarctica proper, I knew I had to see it for myself.

There are hundreds of thousands of penguins on South Georgia of the sort that provided much needed protein to Shackleton.
On South Georgia, there are hundreds of thousands of penguins of the sort that provided much needed protein to Shackleton and his crew. Apparently, they taste like fish.

Photo courtesy Bert Archer

Approaching from the west, over the sedimentary mountains that form this sub-Antarctic archipelago, you walk through a rusted orange skyline of partially collapsed whale oil tanks to get to the harbor where Shackleton set off. The museum, housed in the villa built for the founder of the whaling station, Carl Anton Larsen, and his wife, three daughters and two sons, has bits of seal fur to feel, harpoon heads, and a snapshot of a smiling bearded man in a sweater who killed 6,000 whales.

It gets a few hundred visitors a year, mostly people on outlandish once-in-a-lifetime cruises, some on private yachts on extreme journeys. Suzanne and her boss, Sarah Lurcock, mostly hang out with the staff at King Edward Point, run by the British Antarctic Survey. Lurcock, who has lived here for eight months of the year since 1989, is married to the officer in charge. Most of the rest are bearded bachelors, here because life in London, Glasgow, or Bournemouth is boring or intolerable for one reason or another. They live on semi-annual “human packs” that are shipped in. “You wouldn't believe what they can put in cans,” Suzanne says, riddling off a list running from asparagus to water chestnuts. Occasionally they eat a seal that gets caught in an outboard motor. The mail comes every six weeks.

The museum, run by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, bears witness to what happened from 1904 to1964, when South Georgia was whaling’s last gasp. The museum’s centerpiece is a replica of the James Caird, one of the Endurance’s two lifeboats. Twenty feet long, about 8 feet wide, it manages to look big in the small room. But it is small—too small to carry six men 800 miles for 15 days in the world’s most violent open seas during a hurricane that sank a 500-ton freighter.

But that’s just what it did, of course, after the Endurance hit the ice of which the whalers often spoke. Shackleton had been warned.

The team set sail Dec. 4, 1914. By Jan. 19, they were stuck. They used the Endurance as a station, supplementing their rations with the occasional penguin and sea lion and, as the situation deteriorated, dog, hoping that the thaw would free the ship. But as Shackleton wrote on Oct. 24, after his entire crew survived an Antarctic winter in the ship’s belly, a living quarter they nicknamed the Ritz, “The Endurance groaned and quivered as her starboard quarter was forced against the flow, twisting the sternpost and starting the heads and ends of planking. The ice had lateral as well as forward movement, and the ship was twisted and actually bent by the stresses. She began to leak at once.”

Any thought the men might have had of completing the expedition was dashed. Success, now, meant survival. A camp was struck on the ice, and a month later, the Endurance sank.

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