Antarctica: Retracing Shackleton's Journey travel blog

Tues, Feb 3

Day 8

Elephant Island

We sighted Elephant Island at midday, just a huge mountain of snow-capped rock rising out of the sea. Our southerly approach to the island showed us the first beach where the Shackleton party of 28 men first landed after spending over a year on sea ice during their ill-fated expedition in 1914-17. Not satisfied with the narrow beach, Shackleton sent a crew member named Wild to sail around the island looking for a more sheltered spot. So it was that the party moved to Point Wild on the northern shore, 10K east of Cape Valentine, and made camp there on a spit of land between the main island glacier and Penguin Rock. Viewing it today, we could hardly imagine how the men could have survived under two up-turned life boats on a diet of penguins and seal blubber. (SEal blubber, we learned, has scurvy-preventing vitamin C.) Shackleton and five other crew members took the third lifeboat, outfitted it with a canvas roof, and sailed it to South Georgia Island by dead reckoning, i.e., without the ability to see the sun and take latitude readings with a sexton, using a compass and a lot of guess work.

Surprisingly, there is a pedestal and bust erected on this forsaken rocky beach with the head, not of Shackleton, but of Piloto Pardo, the commander of the Chilean navy ship that Shackleton used to rescue his men on August 30, 1916.

It was extremely windy approaching Point Wild, up to 40 knots. But the wind calmed as our ship got closer and even the sun came out, so we mustered into zodiacs to take a tour. Waves were pretty high, but our boatman was unfazed. There were lots of fur seals sunning themselves on shore and a flourishing colony of Chinstrap penguins. We watched the penguins launch themselves from a wave and jump onto a rocky perch, some landed securely and hopped uphill, and some were caught by the next wave and washed to sea again.

Sailing away from Elephant Island was truly scenic, with intensely blue sea and dramatic skies. We started to see some whale spouts, and then we saw more and more. In every direction we saw ten, fifteen, twenty spouts. It was an explosion of Fin whales, and the ship was keeping pace with them. That naturalists on the bridge had never seen so many Fin whales feeding together like this. The captain kept seeing them go under the ship in front and to both sides. On the deck outside, the wind was whipping around us and knifing through our clothes, but the thrill of being so close to the whales, seeing their long heads, spouts, fins and churning bodies was like watching an orgy of gluttony. There were rafts of penguins, as many as a 1000 strong. And that’s just what we could see on the surface. The ship stayed with the whales for a good 20 minutes, and then we had to set course northeast, across the Scotia Sea to South Georgia Island, the whaling port where Shackleton’s lifeboat the James Caird landed after 16 days at sea and 1300 km away from Elephant Island.

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