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Wilhelmina, Whale-mina!

5 min read

By: Nicholas Engelmann

In the frozen amphitheatre, the iron skeleton rose before us. My Zodiac glided over the still water with the engine tilted up, carefully navigating the shallows of Foyn Harbour on Enterprise Island.

We were not alone. Several other Zodiacs with passengers clad in Quark-yellow were also circling the wreck. But the experience wasn't any less eerie with the rust-red of man's intent to conquer nature, and ice-blue of Antarctica's firm “No”.


In the austral summer of 1915/1916, the Guvernøren arrived in Foyn Harbour, set anchor and established its floating base. It was a factory whaling ship, evocative of man's next step in killing efficiency. The development of floating factories meant that whaling could be done in remoter areas on the Antarctic Peninsula no longer relying on permanent shore based operations like those on South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands.

Whaling first began with force in Antarctic waters in 1904 with the establishment of the factory town, Grytviken on South Georgia, and then spread southward. In the 1914/1915 season there were seven shore stations, sixteen floating factory vessels (including the Guvernøren), and 61 whale catchers. As their name implies whale catchers were hunters. Smaller steam powered vessels with bow-mounted harpoons that could kill as many as twelve to fifteen whales to drag back to their ship. In that season, 9,864 whales were slaughtered.

Early on, the most successful whalers in Antarctica were Norwegian. They brought their knowledge and experience from the North Atlantic to plunder the unspoiled riches of the Southern Ocean. With the advent of steam power, ships no longer depended on wind or human strength and now even the fastest whales were within reach. In the late 1800s, Norwegian Svend Foyn advanced the whaling industry further with the invention of the exploding harpoon, bringing the great beasts to an efficient death. Foyn Harbour carries his name.

Whale oil was a prized commodity. It uses included unglamorous margarine, as well as soap and cosmetics. But in the year of 1915/16 when war raged in Europe, the Guvernøren was doing its effort too. Blubber was a source of glycerin used in explosives.

Then, in the early hours of January 27th, 1915 she mysteriously caught fire. Her tanks held over 16,000 barrels worth of whale oil and the flames soon ran out of control. In desperation the captain ran the ship aground and ordered one of the catchers to harpoon it with the hope of partially sinking it and saving his quarry. But to no avail, at least $US 2,000,000 (current value) of oil went to waste along with the lives of hundreds of whales, lost in vain.

Fortunately for the crew, all 85 men got off safely. Unfortunately for the whales, their populations have never fully recovered. While floating factories like the Guvernøren were far ahead of their predecessors, they were essentially floating boilers where whales were flensed alongside. It wasn't until 1926 when the real slaughter began with the arrival of modern pelagic factory ships.

Nearly 150m long and with a flotilla of fast catchers and a slide to pull enormous leviathans up their stern, whaling soon reached an uncontrollable rate, such that by 1986 all commercial whaling was banned indefinitely. Formerly abundant blue whales in the southern hemisphere dropped from at least 200,000 to a few thousand today.

When we returned to the warm confines of our ship, the M.V. Ocean Diamond pulled anchor and travelled further south into Wilhelmina Bay, which was discovered by Adrian de Gerlache during the Belgica Expedition (1897-99) and named after Queen Wilhelmina of Holland. The bay itself is enormous and surrounded by peaks overwhelmed by snow and ice. Its pseudonym is “Whale-mina Bay”.

In the introductory briefing when we left Ushuaia behind and navigated east through the Beagle Canal, our expedition leader Shane, outlined the itinerary for the next nine days. We would cross the Drake, land in the South Shetland Islands and then continue across the Bransfield Straight to the continent itself. From there we would do two excursions a day, where we would see penguins and seals and hopefully whales. However, after summarizing these carefully laid plans he punctuated this with a notable “but”.

“But, then again, nature may decide for us. This is an expedition, not a cruise. And if we have a BBC documentary in the itinerary and there are ten humpbacks outside, we'll scrap the movie and get in the water. How does that sound?”

True to his word, as we passed through Wilhelmina with Danco Island on the agenda, we were suddenly confronted with a “but”; Wilhelmina was a mirror and at least a dozen humpbacks were bubble-net feeding off our bow.

One minute we were squeezed around the rails among “oohs” and “aahs” and camera snaps as humpbacks were popping up in every direction and the next we heard Shane's radio call, “Launch time in 10 minutes. Everyone on the water.”

In seconds us guides were back in our rooms wrestling on our gear that we had just taken off and remarkably within 20 minutes we were on the water picking up passengers. Only when we were in the Zodiacs did we realize how many there were as blows and backs surfaced in all directions. There was no need to pay overdue attention to one individual and we all paired up and took off in different directions.

Some humpies were sleeping among the brash ice barely getting their backs out of the water, others were travelling, some were feeding and then remarkably, something I'd never seen before in Antarctica, one began to breach repeatedly, lifting its entire 30 tons clear out of the water before thundering down.


Why it was doing this was anyone's guess. It may have been getting rid of parasites or calling the attention of the others. Either way it was a fantastic site.

In spite of apparent profusion of whales I told my passengers that after 80 years of commercial whaling in Antarctica most of the great baleen whale populations were annihilated; in many cases killing over 90%. What we were seeing was just a drop of what it used to be. In this “whale soup” it was hard to believe that the Guvernøren and its descendants had driven them to near extinction.

But even if many Antarctic populations are far from full recovery, we were witnessing one of the success stories. Pre-whaling figures of humpback whales in the Southern Ocean range from 75,000 to 100,000. After being reduced to just a few thousand, estimates put their numbers as high as 60,000 today. With a grim rusty reminder of the human greed around the corner, we savored the peaceful leviathans as their exhalations echoed across the bay.

About Nick Engelmann

Nicholas Engelmann was born and raised in Vancouver, BC. During his childhood he spent much of his time with his family at their cabin in the Gulf Islands. It was here that he first developed his love and intrigue for biology. Following graduation from high school he attended the University of Victoria, attaining his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Geography. Several years later he received his Bachelor of Education from the University of British Columbia.

During his university summers he worked as a naturalist and nature guide in a variety of areas including the Vancouver Aquarium, Manning Park, Maui, and Victoria, BC. Most recently he has worked as a Marine Mammal Observer and biologist aboard seismic exploration vessels in the Canadian Arctic (Beaufort Sea), Newfoundland, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Throughout his life he has travelled widely to areas including Australia, Southeast Asia, Europe, as well as Latin America. Most recently he has moved to Cordoba, Argentina to live with his partner Fernanda.

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