Day 12 |
Jan 18, 2011

Point Wild, Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctic 

By Peter W. Damisch, Historian and General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 61o 05’ S, 054o 52’ W
Weather: Overcast with calm seas in shelter of Elephant Island
Air Temperature: 2o C / 35 o F
Pressure: 987 HPa
Wind: 40 km / hour

Today was very special. The Silver Explorer and Expedition Team accomplished a first in the ship’s history, landing our guests at Point Wild, Elephant Island. This is the location where survivors of the Shackleton Expedition of 1914 – 1916 lived under two lifeboats for more than 4.5 months while hoping for rescue. Not only is this one of the historically most significant locations in the Antarctic, but it is also one of the most difficult sites to land at due to its very exposed location, which is usually subject to high winds and heavy seas. In fact our Expedition Leader had been trying to land at this very small spit of land just barely above the ocean for the past 10 years without success . . . until today!

I was up a bit early with anticipation, on the Bridge and in the Observation Lounge to observe this rugged, craggy and glacier-laced island come out of the mists along the horizon. Multiple huge icebergs could be seen dotted around the seas surrounding this large and remote island. It was a joy and privilege to observe this famous place once again while at the same time answering many questions from guests about our intended destination.

Fortunately the weather conditions began to slightly improve as we approached Elephant Island, then our experienced Captain was able to tuck the Silver Explorer into a small and slightly sheltered bay just to the west of Point Wild. This historic place is literally one of the most desolate and isolated places in the world. This small patch of land seems as if it would be the worst possible place to attempt survival at the end of the world. In fact it was surely the worst choice except for all other available locations since most of Elephant Island simply cascades down cliffs of steep glaciers directly into the sea.

Partially holding our breath to ensure continued good weather, we launched our fleet of Zodiacs to accomplish a combined brief landing and lengthy Zodiac cruise. The Assistant Expedition Leader carefully took in the first group of guests through a maze of rocks just offshore and I followed soon after, as we were only able to land one Zodiac at a time, hemmed in by shallow water on side and a large Chinstrap Penguin colony on Elephant Island.

After a short time ashore at this unique site, I was able to board guests back onto my Zodiac to continue a long duration cruise in the local area. We first started offshore on the east side of Point Wild, observing the 100 meter x 30 meter strip of land (at low tide) where Shackleton’s determined shipmates made a home during the winter of 1916. Nothing remains of their emergency shelter but we were able to discuss how they achieved bare survival in this land of ultimate cold and limited food.

Moving towards a small offshore island, we were able to more closely observe a nesting Chinstrap Penguin colony along with their careful ballet required to enter and exit the stormy ocean from tall ocean cliffs. They don’t always ‘get it right’ but it did give me a chance to discuss the surprising strength of penguins, which is much greater than most people imagine. In addition, we were able to chat about nest positioning, especially regarding nest sites that are quite far up the sides of steep, rocky terraces. This position provides some protection from chick or egg hypothermia due to snow melt.

Next, we cruised slowly past several male fur seals and one Weddell seal relaxing on an exposed beach platform at this lower tide portion of the day. Of course we had seen tens of thousands of fur seals during our sojourn at South Georgia Island, but this was our first chance to see and discuss the difference between the two species.

Now we passed through a small channel into West Bay, which provided us another view of Cape Wild along with many more photographic opportunities. The other attraction in this area is the long and tall exposed face of Furness Glacier, which cascades into the ocean. Fortunately in both my first and second Zodiac cruises we were able to observe large calvings where literally millions of kilograms of ice could be seen crashing into the sea, creating a large but manageable tsunami. This amazing environment gave us a chance to view and interpret the differences between white ice and the blue variety. In addition, the crevasses across the top of the glacier reminded me of a quite challenging historical story about explorers traveling across similar glacial terrains, always in constant danger.

Just offshore was a nearby iceberg, which also had a small group of penguins taking a rest. Of course they too were traversing to / from the sea and the ice. It was quite humorous and offered fantastic photo opportunities to see both the successes as penguins slid down into the sea and the occasional failures when a penguin attempted to leap free of the ocean, only to strike the side of the iceberg and slide back into the water. It’s a difficult life to live as a penguin in this uniquely beautiful but cold and challenging place on Earth.

All too soon it was time to come home and ‘put our toys away’. Everyone that I spoke with was so enthusiastic to have had such a wonderful opportunity to both visit and land at this wonderful location. The atmosphere on the ship was simply buzzing with excitement.

Soon the Silver Explorer departed, then cruised east along the northern shore. This course allowed everyone to observe the jagged coastline faced by Shackleton and his crew as they rowed along these same cliffs, searching for any place of even modest shelter. One particularly large iceberg was passed during lunch and we could see the blows of whales out the windows of The Restaurant.

Reluctantly we watched Elephant Island recede as we continued south across the Bransfield Strait from the South Shetland Islands towards our intended operations in the Antarctic Peninsula tomorrow.

This was a very difficult ‘act to follow’. Fortunately our expert Expedition Team had planned out a series of excellent presentations during our afternoon at sea. First up was our superb ornithologist, Will Wagstaff, with his lecture titled “Antarctic Penguins, An Introduction to This Most Charismatic Family”. We have been extremely fortunate to already observe a variety of penguin species on this voyage including Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, Macaroni, Magellanic and Rockhopper. We’re hoping to see Adelie penguins in the days ahead along with additional Chinstrap and Gentoo colonies. Will provided a comprehensive review of breeding and living behaviors, which was perfectly timed to send us into the main portion of Antarctica, home of the penguin.

Next up was Shoshanah Jacobs, one of our Naturalists with extensive scientific research experience with bird populations. She provided a complementary follow-up titled “Birds are Fowl”. This presentation discussed a wide variety of evolutionary, mating, vocalization and living behavior throughout the avian world. We now know that even a large number of dinosaurs were adorned with feathers rather than reptile skin as had been suspected in the past. Knowledge continues to expand as people continue to ask questions and pursue research throughout the world.

Recap & Briefing, towards the end of this spectacular day, gave the Expedition Team a chance to preview tomorrow’s events on the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as to reflect on what had been such a unique and special day for everyone on board the Silver Explorer in this magical place of snow and ice.