The third paradox is historical. In bay after bay the backdrop is pristine—the trackless peaks, snows, and glaciers that form the spine of the island—while the foreground is tarnished by the wreckage of a whaling station, one ruin after another, rusting away above a pebbly beach reclaimed by penguins and seals. South Georgia is a virgin wilderness that lost its virginity yet is becoming virginal again. Here paradox verges on miracle: The island, epicenter of one of the worst marine mammal massacres in history, now teems with multitudes on the scale the planet knew before the invention of the spear, the bow, and the gun.
Captain James Cook, after exploring South Georgia in 1775, dutifully reported an "island of ice" that he briefly mistook for the southern continent he had been sent to find. Then, fatefully, he went on to mention the extraordinary abundance of seals. Scarcely a decade later the first sealing vessels arrived. In the sealing season of 1800-1801, a single ship, Aspasia, out of New York—just one of 18 American and British sealers then working the island—brought back 57,000 pelts. The Antarctic fur seal, Arctocephalus gazella, would be hunted to the verge of extinction. The southern elephant seal too would be brought low, killed in great numbers for the oil rendered from its blubber.
Next came whalers. First they chased down slower whales such as rights, humpbacks, and sperm whales. Then, early in the 20th century, with the invention of fast, steam-powered catcher boats and explosive harpoons, they built whaling stations on South Georgia and turned their attention to the big, fast baleen species, the fin and blue whales. The largest whale ever recorded, a female blue more than 110 feet long, was hauled ashore at South Georgia's Grytviken whaling station in 1912.
The 1920s saw the introduction of factory whaling ships that could catch and process whales on the high seas without needing shore stations. Grytviken and South Georgia's other whaling bases slowly declined. For me, these ghost towns of rusty flensing platforms, boilers, chimneys, and whale-oil storage tanks were poignant. The year before, on assignment for this magazine, I had spent a month in the tropical Pacific with the largest remnant population of blue whales (see "Still Blue," March 2009). I had come to understand the blue whale slaughter intellectually—that in just four decades we nearly extinguished the largest creature ever to live—and now I grasped it viscerally. Here was the hard evidence in oxidizing steel that rang dully under my knuckles. The blue whale had disappeared into these giant tanks, arranged in long rows as at any refinery.