Grytviken is the capital of South Georgia. In its Whalers’ Cemetery is Sir Ernest Shackleton, who died here in 1922 and was buried on a hill facing South, the direction that dominated his entire adult life. We gather for a champagne toast to this explorer extraordinaire. Having read several books on Shackleton, and his unfortunate rival Robert Falcon Scott, I am in awe of their achievements. Joining in our toast is fellow-shipmate Mr. John James, son of Physicist Reginald James, one of Shackleton’s men on the ill-fated Endurance expedition of 1914-1916. In the days ahead, we will hear a lecture by Mr. James about his father’s experience and visit the scene of his survival.
At Gold Harbour in South Georgia, I hike among thousands of King penguins. In the afternoon, the ship cruises into Drygalski Fjord up to a glacier face. It is awesome and a little frightening as the immense ice floes and icebergs dwarf our ship. There is pack ice, lots of fog, and the hidden growler out there.
To go South is a unique experience. We have 82 people aboard the Ocean Nova, probably the best-traveled bunch I have known. The putting on – taking off of layers of clothes and boots 2 to 3 times a day is tedious but necessary. Hikes are strenuous, especially when wearing heavy rubber boots, dressed like a Pillsbury Dough Girl with a life vest around my neck. The Zodiac drivers like to goose it over the seas and most landings are in water on beaches. The Fur seals were here first so our leaders do their best to convince them to voluntarily move – no easy feat. We are visitors – sometimes welcome sometimes not. Our landings have brought us to a variety of beaches from peat moss to huge rolling stones that sing in the surf, shale, volcanic cinder beaches (still warm an inch beneath the surface), small pebbly beaches and various sandy beaches. The continent’s geologic formations are from millions of years of plate movement, wind and volcanic eruptions. We walk nesting grounds and primitive areas in close proximity to wildlife that has seen few humans. I climb, somewhat less agile than the average penguin, over fields and mountains. The views are great but I wonder how penguins do it day in and day out.
Friends asked, “Are you going to see anything but penguins?” I sometimes wondered. Penguins have adapted to this challenging environment. Penguins shoot like torpedoes underwater, bob like ducks on the surface, and upon the ground waddle and strut with their wings outstretched and short legs and big feet pumping confidence. They cavort in the water and love to bathe, dive and jump for the fun of it. Thankfully penguins are lots of fun to watch and commune with for I have seen over 5 million of them.
I closely watch my step. Beaches are pristine but so crowded I constantly detour to avoid seal pups, inquisitive penguin chicks, rampaging bulls challenging other males, and the ever-present penguin poo (pink for krill eaters).
Huge tabular bergs grace the ocean at irregular intervals, becoming more numerous as we proceed south. It is hard to estimate size as everything is dwarfed by the immensity of the ocean. Many bergs are bigger than the ship, ranging 40-60 feet
out of the water (another 2/3 is below the surface) and many are longer than our 240’ vessel. We give them the wide berth and respect they deserve. As the travelers on the ill-fated Explorer can attest, a ship will loose its battle with an iceberg. I get a sense of isolation and risk– if something happens we are far from help, warmth and safety. In fact, we are told if anything happens to a larger ship carrying 1000 passengers and more, there are not enough large vessels in the area to rescue those numbers.
Weather is changeable. Sunny one moment and driving wind pushing dry snow pellets perpendicular into my face the next. Wait 10 minutes and it can be clear and relatively calm again. The harsh terrain grants endless views but the fog can come back in seconds to steal everything from sight.
Temperatures are generally 38-42, dropping to 25-30 further south when surrounded by more ice and snow; wind affects temperatures exponentially and quickly. Interestingly, this is an arid region and very dry. Water stays about the same, a cold 32-34 degrees. Each time we dress we layer – 2 sweaters, ski coat, 2 layers of pants and waterproof pant, hat, scarf and gloves, 2 wool socks, heavy boots and a life vest. It is always a relief to return aboard to a more maneuverable existence. I understand better how a penguin must feel when returning to the sea.
December 18-19 is at sea among huge icebergs. We are below the 60th latitude and officially in the Antarctic! Conditions range from mild and foggy to windy with rolling seas. Even the Bergy Bits could sink a ship. Albatross with 11’ wingspans follow us, capable of soaring over 2000 miles just for a meal. The Captain changes destination as the South Orkney Islands are inaccessible for ice. Morning of the 20th finds us beside an iceberg some 60’ high and 38 miles long. After sailing alongside for hours, the ship is forced to retreat as the berg is grounded near Clarence Island and blocking our forward path. Turning to circle the iceberg we achieve a very rare landing at Point Wild on Elephant Island. Here is where Shackleton left his 22 men while he attempted to cross 900 miles of the worst seas in the world to find assistance on the island of South Georgia.
One of the greatest stories of survival and courage is Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the Antarctic Continent. Arriving at the Weddell Sea aboard the Endurance in Dec 1914, he was met by thick ice conditions and by Jan 1915 beset in pack ice for 10 months. He and his men were forced to abandon ship in Oct 1915 (the Endurance sank in Nov) and set up camp on ice floes, drifting with the currents for the next 5 months. In April 1916 he and his men launched three open 21+’ boats and reached Elephant Island six days later. Had they missed Elephant Island, there was not another landmass in their future. Elephant Island provided a narrow strip of beach and limited seals and penguins for food once winter set in but very little hope of a ship finding them. So, departing on 24 April, Shackleton and 5 other men set sail in a 23’ open boat, ballasted with rock, and hopeful for enough sun and horizon to use a rather worn sextet to sail over 900 miles of the roughest seas in the world. Crossing the Drake Passage in 50-60’seas, facing rogue waves miles long, dense fog, and hurricane-force winds, they reached an isolated beach in South Georgia 16 days later. He and two other men then crossed the uncharted interior mountains and glaciers for a 36-hour walk to Stromness Harbour. After 17 months the journey was not over. It took Shackleton 4 attempts and another 4 months to rescue his men on Elephant Island. Not a man lost his life.
It is an emotional landing on Elephant Island. Not only is it rare for something other than Chinstrap penguins to land here, but John James, son of Reginald James, who survived here awaiting uncertain rescue in 1916, accompanies us. Most of Point Wild is now underwater. Glaciers flow from the mountains into the Sound and we slowly Zodiac among the brash ice and bergy bit and try to imagine what life was like to be stranded here for 4 months. In winter even the penguins leave! My landing on Elephant Island is an experience I will cherish.