South Georgia to Antarctica

Tags: Antarctica, Elephant Island, Leith Harbour, South Atlantic, South Georgia

Date: December 10, 2022

There are many old whaling stations in South Georgia. This is Leith Harbour:

As we left South Georgia on December 7, we saw our first sea ice from the ship:

After South Georgia, we headed straight for the Antarctic Peninsula. On the first full day at sea we saw this large iceberg:

It was an impressive 4 km long. That was, however, nothing compared to this one that we saw the day after:

It was the iceberg known as A76A. It was about 135 km long and 25 km wide. For seven hours of sailing, we could look at this wall of ice. What we could see was probably around 100 meters tall and you have to remember that it is only a tenth of a floating iceberg that sticks out of the water. It fell off the Ronne Ice Shelf in Antarctica in May of 2021 and depending on where it goes, it may survive for over a decade. It was the longest iceberg in existence at the time, but even larger icebergs have been observed before.

We arrived to Elephant Island on December 10. The shape of the island looks like an elephant head with a long trunk. It is located at the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands 240 km north-northeast of the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, so it's not quite a part of mainland Antarctica.

We stopped for a short while at Point Wild on the north coast of Elephant Island:

Point Wild is very much a part of the story of Shackleton's "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition" (1914-1917).

The expedition was an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. Ernest Shackleton's plan was to sail his ship, the Endurance, to the Weddell Sea east of the Antarctic peninsula and to land a shore group of men near Vahsel Bay. This group would then proceed to cross the continent and finally join the other expedition ship, the Aurora, in the Ross Sea.

However, due to exceptionally large amounts of pack ice during the Antarctic summer of 1914-15, the Endurance was unable to get anywhere near the planned landing site in Vahsel Bay. Instead, the ship became stuck in the pack ice, drifting slowly along with the ice until it crushed the Endurance in October 1915. This left Shackleton and his 27 crew members stranded on the ice but at least they had time to salvage a lot from the Endurance, including its three lifeboats. After many hardships, including hauling the heavy lifeboats over the ice floes, the ice broke up in April 1916 so the 28 men could row the lifeboats out to sea. They landed on Elephant Island on an narrow shingle beach which was not safe during high tide. Instead they relocated to a safer place and named it Point Wild after Shackleton's second in command, Frank Wild.

Shackleton quickly realized that there was no chance of being rescued by passing ships. He decided to outfit one of the lifeboats (the James Caird) with a deck and rigging and attempt to sail to South Georgia, where he knew there were several manned whaling stations. He brought only five of his crew with him while the remaining 22 men were left to build a primitive camp out of the remaining two lifeboats. 16 days and 700 nautical miles later, the James Caird and the six men arrived at King Haakon Bay on South Georgia.

They were now on an inhabited part of South Georgia and Shackleton still needed to get help to rescue his crew on Elephant Island. He and two of the James Caird crew took off over land to get to Stromness, where he knew there was a whaling station. Without a map they crossed mountains and a waterfall before reaching Stromness after two days of walking non-stop. Shackleton's first task was to rescue his three men stranded at Peggotty Bluff in King Haakon Bay. Then he worked relentlessly to rescue his remaining crew from Elephant Island. In August 1916, after three unsuccessful attempts, the Chilean navy lent him the ship Yelcho, captained by Luis Pardo, and finally all 22 men were rescued from Point Wild.

So here we were, looking at the little spit of beach where 22 of Shackleton's crew were stranded for four months waiting and hoping against the odds for rescue. A bust of the Chilean captain, Luis Pardo, has been erected at Point Wild (not really visible in the photos) mimicking the Luis Pardo and Yelcho memorial we saw in Punta Arenas.

A smal, steep island just off Point Wild:

View of the nearby Endurance glacier from M/V Fram: