Though I’m now about 800 miles north of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula I’m paying attention every day to news from the seventh continent. I’ve been traveling there nearly annually for the past twenty years and it’s a place like few others on the planet that truly gets into your blood once you’ve seen it. Which is a good thing in regard to its future protection. More and more people are seeing the Peninsula up close each year, creating those ambassadors and evangelists that are part of the key to keeping it pristine.
Here’s are a few things that have been going on since we sailed away from the seventh continent a few days ago:
I saw an Internet photo yesterday of the landing of the downed US Airways plane that coasted to safety on the Hudson River, not far from my home in the Hudson Valley. Early suggestions are that the crash was due to birds being sucked into the engines. Apparently pilots are enduring a similar problem all over Antarctica, though here it’s 20-pound skuas not 12-pound geese that are the hazards.
On a slightly less fortunate note, the other day a small plane - Twin Otter – delivering supplies to a research expedition crash landed on a mountainside. All four on board – 3 Brits, 1 Russian – survived and were quickly rescued by a second plane.
I’ve been gone from the States for nearly two months but have heard rumors of a ratings boom for the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars,” which follows my colleague Paul Watson and his Sea Sheperd gang as they “fight” against continued annual whaling by the Japanese. Apparently Watson announced last week that his ship – the bizarrely named “Steve Irwin” – returned to mainland Australia for fuel and the Japanese suggested (hoped?) it would not return. Watson claims otherwise, vowing the ship would return, and denying that his team was culpable for a Japanese whaler missing from a ship, apparently drowned.
Prince Albert II of Monaco – the man, not the Silversea expedition ship named for him, which has been prowling the Peninsula this season, its first – arrived at the South Pole by means somewhat unusual for a head of state: By ski. Apparently he joined South African explorer Mike Horn, who has spent the past couple months skiing solo to the pole, for the final couple days of his journey. While it would be easy to mock the Prince for joining in for only the last few miles, assumedly accompanied by a phalanx of protectors, his stated goal for coming to Antarctica and for joining Horn was to draw attention to the continent as it continues to change and evolve, which is exactly what politics and celebrity should be used for here, so I’m all for this particular stunt.
On a different level, three Canadians have arrived at the South Pole in what they are dubbing ‘record time,’ 33 + days. You know my thinking about how Antarctica and how it should be a place far removed from ‘firsts’ and ‘records.’ That said, I still admire their physical feat; it is a cold, arduous place for expeditions of any kind.
In the whaling museum here the most fascinating thing to me – after the touch-me-feel-me penguin skin – are the trophies and sports uniforms worn by the different South Georgia whaling station teams which competed against each other in rugby, track and field, ski jumping and more during the heyday of whale killing here.
Grytviken was South Georgia’s first whaling station/factory, set up by Norwegian explorer C.A. Larsen in 1904. Initially only blubber was taken and the carcass discarded resulting in beaches of bones along the coastline which I can still see lying in the shallows off what remains of its main dock. By 1912, seven whaling stations had been established and South Georgia became known as the southern capital of whaling.
That heyday was during the early 1900s, when a variety of whales (blue, fin, sei, humpback and southern right whales) were abundant in South Georgia’s waters during the austral summers, feeding on the massive quantities of krill found on the edge of the island’s continental shelf.
By the late 1920s such shore-based whaling factories on the island declined due the scarcity of whales around the island, followed by a boom in whaling on the high seas. The stations on South Georgia then became home base for repair, maintenance and storage. It was the uncontrolled whaling on the high seas followed – up to two hundred miles off shore – and led to significant reductions in populations of exploited whale species.
Whales were harpooned with an explosive grenade, inflated with air and marked with a flag, radar reflectors, and latterly radios. A catcher would then tow them to a factory ship or shore station. The whale was hauled to the flensing plan. The blubber was removed and boiled under pressure to extract the oil. Meat and bone were separated and boiled. The results were dried and ground down for stock food and fertilizer. Baleen whale oil was the basis of edible, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical products. It was also an important source of glycerol to manufacture explosives.
Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region a low estimate suggests one and a half million animals were taken between 1904 and 1978. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was processed here at Grytviken in 1912, more than one hundred feet long, weighing in at nearly two hundred tons. This intensive hunting reduced the Southern Ocean stock, once the largest in the world, to less than ten percent of their original numbers and some species to less than one percent.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the International Whaling Convention agreed to protect the few remaining species in the Southern Ocean, and whaling here was mostly stopped in 1978. Paul Watson and his Sea Shepard – now Animal Planet heroes apparently, though that has happened this season while I’ve been in Antarctica – are still attempting to dissuade the Japanese from their annual hunt. Today. On occasion, you can spy whales close to shore at South Georgia, as they make a slow recovery, in particular southern right whales and humpbacks.
THE BOSS IS BURIED HERE
On top of the sense of history left at this beach by its whaling history, Grytviken is famous in Southern Ocean lore too for being the burial site of Ernest Henry Shackleton.
In 1921 – six years after successfully rescuing his men off Elephant Island, thanks to the help of the Chilean naval vessel “Yelcho” – he sailed south for what was to be his third Antarctic expedition. Its vague intention was to survey the coastline and carry out somewhat ill-defined science. You get the sense he was just itching to get back down south.
This time out his sailing ship, “The Quest” barely made it to Grytviken and in the early hours of January 5, 1922, he suffered a fatal heart attack here. His body was on its way back to England when the ship carrying him home stopped off in Uruguay and learned that his widow wished her husband be buried on South Georgia. His grave is still the focus of the Whaler’s Cemetery at the end of the beach.
It is tradition to toast “the Boss” – no, not the bard of New Jersey! – with a shot of rum poured onto his grave, which I happily did. Unlike the rest of those buried in the small, white picket-lined cemetery, Shackelton is interned with his head pointing south, towards Antarctica.
Photos, Fiona Stewart
Ernest Shackleton had an intimate relationship with South Georgia. He stopped here for a month in 1914 before sailing the “Endurance” to its crushing fate in Antarctica; a year and a half later with five others he sailed the gerry-rigged lifeboat “James Caird” 800 miles across the Scotia Sea to King Haarkon Bay, arriving on May 9, 1916; and in 1922 he returned, died and is buried here.
On a warm and sun-filled morning we land at Fortuna Bay, to repeat the last chunk of Shackleton’s legendary and unprecedented climb across South Georgia. A steep and muddy tussock hill leads to fields of broken slate, which climb gradually to 3,000 feet. The higher we get, the more stunning the landscape grows: tall, spiky, far off peaks covered in snow, clear mountain ponds, tufts of soft moss scattered among the shattered scree, waterfalls tumbling off nearby walls.
It was the whalers of South Georgia who first warned Shackleton that his route to the northern edge of the Antarctic continent was likely to be barred by unusually heavy concentrations of ice that had arrived the year he sailed for the Weddell Sea in December. He went anyway; we don’t know what he was thinking when he left South Georgia then nor what exactly when he thought when returned via the “James Caird.” In retrospect would he think it had been a mistake to take the “Endurance” down that season?
Exhausted by the 16 days it took from Elephant Island in the tiny boat, they narrowly negotiated a landing and crawled ashore on the southwestern side of the island, at Cape Rosa. But ultimate safety lay on the north side of the island, at the whaling station called Stromness. Leaving three of his crew under the upturned “James Caird,” Shackleton along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley set off with minimal equipment (stove, binoculars, compass, an ice ax and ninety feet of rope).
Shackleton wrote of the beginning of the climb: “The snow-surface was disappointing. Two days before we had been able to move rapidly on hard packed snow; now we sank over our ankles at each step. High peaks, impassable cliffs, steep snow-slopes and sharply descending glaciers were prominent features in all directions, with stretches of snow-plain overlaying the ice-sheet of the interior …. The moon, which proved a good friend during this journey, threw a long shadow at one point and told us that the surface was broken in our path. Warned in time, we avoided a huge hole capable of swallowing a small army.”
At one point they had detoured badly and had to drop down to Fortuna Bay, which is where we picked up their trail.
Standing at the crest of the hill, the point at which Shackleton would have seen the sea on the eastern side of the island and possibly evidence of the whaling station at Stromness, it is hard to imagine what must have gone through his mind, after a year and a half being lost. One big difference is their journey in May was through deep snow; we see barely a snow patch on this mid-summer day. What told them they were in the right place after thirty-six hours of climbing, across twenty-two miles of previously unexplored and inhospitable terrain, was the very civilized whistle of the whaling factory’s wake-up call.
“Men lived in houses lit by electric light on the east coast. News of the outside world waited us there, and, above all, the east coast meant for us the means of rescuing the twenty-two men we had left on Elephant Island.”
Clambering downhill, past the tall waterfall Shackleton allegedly rappelled down, we cross a wide, wet plain of saw grass and glacial melt. Rusted remnants of the whaling station still stand, though today it’s tumbling down and off-limits due to being filled with asbestos and flying sheet metal. Thousands of fur seals wait on the beach to greet us; they have taken over the place, aggressively chasing us down the beach as soon as we step onto the sand.
Photos, Fiona Stewart
When we left Elephant Island midday yesterday we formally left Antarctica behind. I’ve been to Antarctica many times since 1989 and every time I leave it in my trail, whether by C-130 cargo plane, small sailing boat or expedition ship it is with no small regret. It is a spectacular corner of the world that gets in your blood like no other I’ve experienced. Remote and foreboding it can also be intimate and fragile. The only good thing about leaving is that I am already looking forward to my next return.
We have endured a remarkable stretch of good weather these past six weeks, and the luck continues. Strong winds were expected during the night, which never arrived. As a result, the Scotia Sea – lying just east of the Drake Passage, sharing a similar reputation for wind and storm – is rolling but not rough.
We are now following directly in the traces of Shackleton’s sail for freedom in the twenty-three-and-a-half foot long “James Caird” and I stand on the aft deck for a long time this morning trying to imagine being out here in such a small craft. The eight hundred miles took the six men in the wooden lifeboat cum sailboat sixteen days; we’ll do it in about two. They had no idea what they’d find when they arrived, though they knew there was an active whaling station at Stromness and that the prevailing winds would (hopefully) be at their back. We know pretty much where we are headed and what we’ll find.
They had sailed due north from Elephant Island in hopes of quickly finding warmer temperatures, which did not work so well, though the winds out of the southwest did push them at a sixty to seventy mile a day pace. But the cold continued. “The sprays froze upon the boat and gave bows, sides, and decking a heavy coat of mail,” Shackleton wrote about what he described as “the boat journey.” “This accumulation of ice reduced the buoyancy of the boat, and to that extent was an added peril … we could not allow the load of ice to grow beyond a certain point and in turns we crawled about the decking forward, chipping and picking at it with the available tools … the weight of the ice that had formed in her and upon her was having its effect and she was becoming more like a log than a boat.”
Fifteen days after leaving Elephant Island, they sighted South Georgia. Reduced to straining the last of their fresh water through gauze to clear it of hair from their caribou sleeping bags, they spent one last night just offshore, unable to land due to giant seas. When they finally did land, in a cove that ultimately did not give them access to the rest of the island, they crawled into a cave and slept … though Shackleton stayed awake as long as he could that first night to watch over the “James Caird,” still their lifeline, as it bobbed in the surf just off the rocks.
Just as Elephant Island lives large in history due Shackleton link, South Georgia – for all its magical allure of big animals and grand landscape – is part and parcel of “the Boss’s” myth. I’m sure while we are here these next five or six days we’ll catch sight of his ghost on several occasions.
Photos, Fiona Stewart
Six a.m. and the sea is clouded by a morning mist, making the always mysterious-looking Elephant Island appear evermore … mysterious. Its sharp rocky peaks climb out of the Southern Ocean in inverted Vs; the tide is high, washing out the few shallow beaches that ring it. Just off Point Wild – named for Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right hand man – penguins feed near the surface of the gray sea and a solitary Weddell seal curls up in the rocks. Just around the point we watch a leopard seal rip a penguin to bits for breakfast, flopping it around on the surface like a rag doll.
I wonder how Elephant Island would have fared historically if this weren’t the very beach where Shackleton and the twenty two men from his crushed “Endurance” had pulled and sailed to back in 1916. It is impossible to land on the beach this morning, due to the high tide, but I have been here before. Even when the seas are calm and the tide low it is a narrow, rocky, inhospitable place. That they managed to sail their trio of tiny lifeboats here, to the far eastern end of the South Shetland Islands, at all is a miracle. That they survived for many months on this thin sliver of rock is testament to … well … I’m not sure what exactly. Fortitude? Patience? Belief in myriad higher powers?
Minus the Shackleton quotient, I doubt many around the world would have ever heard of this rocky lump. But today it holds a historical context far larger than its minute circumference. Bobbing in the rough seas just offshore, I can make out the monument built by the Chileans who sailed to the rescue aboard the “Yelcho” to rescue Shackleton’s men.
As we rock in the morning mist I try to imagine the scene as Shackleton and his crew prepared the small, twenty-three foot, six-inch lifeboat “James Caird” for its last-gasp, 800 mile sail to South Georgia. I envision them chasing down seals as they slid up onto the rocks, both for the sustenance they would give and the warmth their just-slit bellies held for the men’s long-frozen hands. I can imagine the men gathering in small groups to discuss among themselves the wisdom in the choices made by “the Boss” of who would go … and who would stay behind.
Today the pack ice is far from Elephant Island, but in April 1916 it was threatening to return any day, trapping the entire crew for another winter. They’d already been “lost” for fifteen months and were nearing the end of … everything … food, health, sanity. Which meant as they pounded nails straight, gathered provisions (matches, paraffin, extra socks) and filled the bow of the small boat with rocks for ballast there was an urgency that we cannot imagine from this vantage point. They all knew the risks of trying to sail a gerry-rigged lifeboat across the stormiest seas in the world with the scantest of navigational tools and a tiny, homemade sail. In the quiet of this morning I can almost hear their last conversations as they readied to push the “James Caird” off into the rising seas.
Photos, Fiona Stewart