Journey to the Ends of the Earth

Glacier face

No destination need be too far, no journey left incomplete.

My journey to South Georgia started in my imagination many long years ago. I was a teenager, browsing through my father’s collection of dusty hard-back books of travel and distant adventure when Sir Earnest Shackleton’s South practically jumped off the shelf. The spine was so broken that it opened in my hands like the wings of a moth.

I was instantly gripped by Shackleton’s lucid prose: His precise description of entrapment on splintering ice floes in the Weddell Sea, the last voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia and their desperate mountain crossing to the whaling station at Stromness. Most of all I was struck by the compassion he showed for his men.

Antarctica had hovered at the back of my consciousness ever since. A vast, alluring region that seemed too far for ordinary mortals like myself to ever actually reach. Until I watched a BBC documentary on Britain’s whale hunters on South Georgia in 2014. The programme’s backdrop of ice-blue ocean and white mountains caught my photographer’s eye and reignited an old longing for a seemingly forbidden land. I decided that somehow I would find a way to South Georgia.

The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) made this dream possible. Accepted onto their Artist in Residence program, I made the long journey via the Falkland Islands to Cumberland Bay, South Georgia in November 2015. After a six-day voyage across the Southern Ocean on the fisheries protection vessel the Pharos SGI I finally woke up to my first view of the island’s glaciers and ragged snow scarred peaks wreathed in mist.

South Georgia’s impenetrable wilderness gripped me with a strange mix of fascination and terror that stayed with my for my entire stay. I lived for seven weeks with SGHT staff running the island’s museum and shop in the rusting remains of the old whaling station at Gritviken in Cumberland Bay. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) base was only a short walk along the bay at King Edward Point. The population of the entire island fluctuates from around twenty to as few as eight over the winter months.

My brief was to explore the island as much as possible with a notepad and a camera. Joining BAS field scientists on multi-day expeditions to remote peninsulas, we were dropped off on beaches choked with glacial ice and crossed high-mountain passes to reach breeding colonies of birds and seals. Staying in small huts equipped with a primus stove, tilly lamp and emergency army rations I was able to reach and photograph incredible places like St Andrew’s Bay, home to some 160,000 breeding king penguins. 

South Georgia and Antarctica remain truly wild and a wonderful testament to the tenacious resilience of nature. Despite the harshest of conditions and centuries of over exploitation by both sealers and whalers the wildlife on South Georgia is now so abundant that I spent a lot of my time running away from it (Antarctic Fur Seals are very lively).

The recent eradication of the non-native rat population by SGHT is making a real difference to conservation efforts with ground nesting birds on the increase. But it is a still an incredibly fragile habitat and I was shocked and saddened by the sheer scale of glacial retreat, driven by climate change, around the island.

I came back feeling incredibly lucky to have had such a privileged experience and wanted to share my photographic journey in words and pictures. I am hugely grateful to Watermill Books in Aberfeldy for taking on the project and publishing Summer in South Georgia, a unique tale of wildlife, conservation and true wilderness at the ends of world.

Sometimes life throws up the strangest of gifts and I am still pinching myself that after so many years I finally made it to the Antarctica of my dreams. For me it is reminder that no destination need be too far, no journey left incomplete.

About Summer in South Georgia
Hardback containing 144 colour pages, 6,000 words
Author: Jamie Grant, http://www.jamiemurraygrant.co.uk
Publisher: Watermill Books, http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com
Published: Friday 22nd July, 2016

An exhibition of photographs is running at the Watermill Gallery from August 6th to September 11th 2016.

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