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.
The climb up from Fortuna Bay
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).
Three thousand feet above sea level
A summer day midway through the Shackleton Route
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.
Fur seals guard the rusting whaling station at Stromness
A parade of penguins outside Stromness
Photos, Fiona Stewart
I spent a fair amount of the morning looking over my shoulder for romping – and nipping – fur seals. Given that they were everywhere on the beach and in the shallows this morning it’s amazing to think they were nearly wiped to extinction by voracious sealers during the early 19th century. The population boom – there are estimated to be three million fur seals on South Georgia now, and growing – has to be one of the most remarkable wildlife regeneration stories of the last century.
Fur seals romping
This beach boasts adult males and females but the feistiest of the fur seals are the young pups, just several months old, aggressively chasing anything that walks. They don’t seem to be overly worried by the several-ton elephant seals they share the beach with … though they probably should be, since one mistimed flop as the big guys move up from the sea to their resting spot and the pups won’t make it to wiener.
Though its surrounding seas and wilderness are protected today, when South Georgia was discovered by Captain Cook, his reports quickly brought the British sealers over from South America in 1788, followed a few years later by those from the U.S. A period of intense slaughter followed. Secrecy of early sealing activities and new discoveries was paramount due to intense competition, thus the full extent of what happened here will never be known. In 1800, a Captain Fanning from New York recorded taking 57,000 fur seal skins, probably the largest haul from the island, by club or lance. Further south, Antarctic fur seals were hunted to virtual extinction and sealing thus became uneconomic. In 1825, James Weddell, a sealer whose name now graces the Weddell Sea, estimated 1,200,000 fur seal pelts had been taken.
It was a highly profitable enterprise. The skins were washed in salt water and salted before being packed into barrels for shipping to Europe, North America and China. The English took their pelts to the London fur market while the Americans supplied the Chinese market where the hair was removed and turned into felt for winter clothing and the skins tanned.
Fur seal in the tussock
Many of the bays around South Georgia still boast remnants of the sealing and whaling trades, which were discontinued only as recently as the 1960s, when British law forced all the protection of all breeding grounds of the fur seal in the south Atlantic, enabling them to mount an incredible recovery. Looking up and down this dark sand beach on a warm grey morning, swarming with life, it’s impossible to imagine the place without the little buggers. Though just as I was thinking how great it was to see them here cavorting, another of the little guys latched onto the back of my boot.
Tussock grass covers the hillside overlooking Gold Harbor
Elephant seals doing what they do best, lying about
Photos, Fiona Stewart
I saw South Georgia Island for the first time from about ten miles out, on a gusty, windy, blue-sky morning. Though we’d just sailed eight hundred miles east and north from the tip of Antarctica, giant tabular icebergs greeted us, nearly blocking the entryway to Cooper Bay. These big icebergs had broken off the Larsen Ice Shelf since 2002 and slowly made their way here, where they now sit grounded, sentinels placed as welcome mats or warning.
Antarctic icebergs rimming the southern tip of South Georgia have floated more than a thousand miles
I love seeing a place for the first time, convinced – like falling in love at first sight – that it is that very first glimpse that makes its biggest impression. My expectations were vast. While I’d heard about South Georgia for years – that its steep mountain peaks were covered by year-round snow, that more than one hundred and fifty glaciers filled its valleys, that tussock-covered fields spread up the hills from the sea, that it’s wildlife was out of this world – I had no mental images.
Now I have them. Big ones.
There are only a couple hundred volcanic islands in the South and Mid-Atlantic. Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and South Georgia are the best known.
South Georgia definitely has the most exotic reputation, in part thanks to Shackleton, in part due to its whaling history, but largely for its otherworldly menagerie.
Strong morning winds kept us trolling off the rocky coast for several hours searching for the appropriate approach. When we rounded the southeastern corner into Cooper Bay the gusts diminished as if with the snap of a finger. While the tall mountains and hanging glaciers were astonishing, the best part for me – after more than five weeks among the whiteness of Antarctica – was the green grass running down the hills to the sea. But it was when I raised binoculars to my eyes that I got the biggest jolt.
Something we haven't seen for awhile: Green grass
The beaches were, well, how do I put this. I’ve never seen such a mass of giant living, breathing sausage and blubber amassed in one place outside of a crowded East Coast beach on the 4th of July. Thousands of fur seals, hundreds of Weddell seals and hundreds more of the giant, two-ton female elephant seals, spread over the rock and sand beach … everywhere. And this is nothing. As I stare, mind-boggled, my friend Pete Pulesten tells me he first came here twenty-five years ago, and a couple months earlier in the breeding season, when thousands of horny, multi-ton male elephant seals line the beach like bratwurst. “That is when this place is truly wild,” says Pete.
South Georgia was first seen in 1675 by a Brit named Antoine de la Roche, who’d been blown far off course while rounding Cape Horn; the next time it was sighted was nearly one hundred years later, by the Spanish ship “Leon” who named it Ile de St. Pierre after the saint’s day (July 1) on which it was seen. It wasn’t until British explorer Captain James Cook, on his second voyage around the world in 1775, that South Georgia was mapped. Unfortunately for Cook, he thought he’d discovered the southern continent, Antarctica. When he rounded the southern tip of South Georgia, in the opposite direction than how we’d arrived this morning, and discovered he was looking due west, he named the point Cape Disappointment. He claimed the island for his homeland, sent home a report on the island’s “rich seas” and continued on his way.
Rich seas? That’s an understatement even today. In just a couple of hours, here’s what I saw: Penguins (Kings, chinstraps, Gentoo and Macaroni). Wandering and black-browed albatross. Southern and northern Giant petrels, as well as snow, white-chinned, the common diving and Wilson’s storm petrels. The South Georgia (Imperial) Shag. Hundreds of sheathbills and kelp gulls. Special terns and a pipit found nowhere else on earth. The south polar skua. Thousands and thousands of seals (fur and southern elephant). And, bizarrely, roaming in the background, sizable herds of reindeer (it’s a long story, but they were introduced by whalers more than one hundred years ago and they’ve not yet been exterminated).
Lounging female elephant seals
That’s all in just a couple hours. The sky was filled with flying critters, the shallows swimming with seals and the beaches chockablock with giant meat. (Lunching? Giant petrels literally disappear inside a dead fur seal, ripping its guts out with its sharp beak, such that the cadaver seemed to be flopping up and down on the beach on its own accord.)
My first impression? Walt Disney must have visited this place during his most productive years and created all of his magic kingdom’s based on South Georgia’s reality. Rugged mountains, covered by glacier and lush green tussock, rimmed by tens of thousands of flying, swimming, snorting, feeding, wrestling, playing critters. Everywhere.
A giant petrel, afloat
Photos, Fiona Stewart