A Detailed Telling of my Antarctic Journey – Part 4 – Elephant Island

January 1st was gorgeous! It was mainly sunny and as I got used to the rhythm of the water around noon I began to feel a little less sick. The leaders had allowed the use of my MP3 Player as seasickness medication (it works… seriously!!!) so long as the music was kept quiet enough I could hear everything, and I think that was a big part of getting better. The odd iceberg started bobbing by the ship as we headed for our first Antarctic destination: Point Wild at Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.

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Elephant Island, or more precisely Point Wild, is where the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew found themselves shipwrecked during the Endurance Expedition (1914-1916). Their ship Endurance became trapped in sea ice on the Weddle Sea and the crew was forced to abandon the ship when it began to sink. They had enough time to prepare for departure and gathered enough supplies off the ship to survive in Antarctica for a while, but the feelings and emotions of loss and fear must have been unbearable as they watched their mighty ship disappear into the water beneath the ice, cracking and groaning the whole way. After a long, difficult, and extremely dangerous walk, Ernest Shackleton and his crew eventually reached Elephant Island and set up a camp at Point Wild. Leaving his second-in-command Frank Wild in charge, Shackleton sailed with five of his men in an open lifeboat they had taken from the Endurance across a whopping 1287km stretch of ocean to South Georgia, seeking aid in rescuing the rest of his crew. Frank Wild (the point’s name-sake) could not have led the remaining men better. In order to survive, they built shelters and hunted seals and penguins. Despite their hard work food was scarce in the winter they all began to starve. Their health was already very poor due to the harsh conditions they were being forced to live in, but amazingly they all survived to be rescued by Shackleton in a new ship commanded by Luis Pardo four months later. A bust of Luis Pardo was later erected on Point Wild as recognition of the men of the Endurance Expedition who were shipwrecked there and in celebration of their rescue.

As we closed the distance between us and the island, the icebergs concentrated, whales began surfacing, and our anticipation grew. We saw Humpbacked Whales, and a Finn Whale – the second biggest whale in the world after Blue Whale. This was a pure stroke of luck, especially since they are endangered and not often seen – and a great start to our adventures in Antarctica.

Humpbacked Whale

Humpbacked Whales

We travelled full speed ahead until we reached Elephant Island. The sighting of land was announced in the late afternoon on the speaker system throughout the ship, and those who were inside came boiling out. It was mystical; the fog and wind from the last part of the day on the drake Passage died down and dissipated as we entered the sheltered area provided by the black, snowy, rugged cliffs and slopes of Point Wild. The sight inspired such a combination of words and feelings – relief, awe, majesty, harsh, cold, bleak, inhospitable, beauty, starkness, more awe. Was this really the place where the crew of men from the Endurance Expedition had lived – and survived – for four winter months? Though it was summertime it was a harsh and unforgiving looking place, but beautiful and new to gaze upon.

Elephant Island

Elephant Island

Coming out of the fog-shrouded rocks and sitting at the water’s edge was a glacier, the face ragged and different shades of blue and white. The bust of Luis Pardo stood alone and aloof on a finger of land reaching from the main island. Alone, but not completely. Hundreds or thousands of Chinstrap Penguins swarmed the exposed rock of the island.

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This is where we took our very first zodiac cruise; our first water-based excursion in Antarctica! The zodiacs are rubber boats that can seat about 14 people if they squeeze together, and are loved due to their high maneuverability, surprising durability, and comfortable size.

Zodiacs

Zodiacs

We did not attempt a landing or get too close to shore due to the difficult and treacherous shoreline. It made the difficulties Shackleton and his crew experienced trying to get on land very real to us. The stark landscape encircled the bay we were in, and the penguins looked like salt and pepper thickly covering the exposed rock. The snow through the penguin rookery was stained in orange from their guano, and the sounds of their trumpeting and groaning calls formed a constant background noise that was brought to our ears on the wind. You could faintly smell the rookery, but not much. There actually is not much ‘smell’ there, I guess mainly due to the cold air and wind. Still, the faint smells of sea water, snow, and penguin guano mixed together to form a scent that was distinctly Antarctic!

We were lucky to find a Leopard Seal swimming beside one of the icebergs we decided to cruise around; a first for many of us. Sailors and explorers of old had sometimes referred to them as being sea monsters and serpent-like. It was easy to why; they have long, sleek, dark bodies with massive heads and seemingly no neck, and move with a serpentine grace. Their head is mainly mouth, a mouth that can open into a dark never-ending cavern lined with wickedly sharp teeth. They regularly hunt seals, and are considered the most dangerous seal we would encounter on the expedition as they are skilled, aggressive predators. The Leopard Seal rose up with the swells, watching us with a curious, fixed gaze before disappearing. A minute later it would resurface again in the exact same position. The zodiac felt awfully small and breakable. We named it Leslie the lucky, lovely Leopard Seal, in hopes that it would be flattered enough not to jump in the boat with us.

The M/V Ushuaia

The M/V Ushuaia

On the way back to the ship one of the zodiacs broke down and wouldn’t start, so we stayed and held onto it while a tow line was attached. We started towing them towards the ship, being intercepted along the way by Geoff with an empty zodiac. He helped transfer half the students from the broken-down boat, then the motor got going again. After we boarded the ship we had a meeting, then a bit of time to write in our online journals and wind down before curfew fell for the high school students. After following in nearly the exact footsteps as Shackleton, our first incredible evening in Antarctica came to a close.

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Tabular Iceberg amongst Sea Ice and Smaller Ice Chunks

Tabular Iceberg amongst Sea Ice and Smaller Ice Chunks

During the morning of January 2nd, whales became very plentiful. Mainly we saw Humpbacked Whales (with many fluking!) but a few more Finn Whales surfaced too, causing much uproar on the ship as everyone rushed to get out their cameras. At some point after that, a new and unique iceberg came into view. Known as Tabular Icebergs, they are formed when a piece of ice breaks off an ice shelf and are distinctive by the perfectly flat top-surface. The one we approached was estimated to be about one kilometre across the side we faced, and several hundred meters high. This was where we took our first zodiac cruise of the day.  Despite being on such deep, cold water the boats felt very safe and our leaders/drivers had years of experience driving them. It had looked pretty small from a distance, but up close the sheer mass of ice was jaw-dropping. Considering that icebergs are typically 75% hidden below the ocean surface, it was easy to picture it scraping the ocean floor.

The Tabular Iceberg Up Close

The Tabular Iceberg Up Close

Our Zodiac Driver Bianca Perren

Our Zodiac Driver Bianca

Later on in the morning once we had resumed travel onboard the Ushuaia we saw Adele Penguins! A few could be seen here and there resting on the ice chucks drifting by. They looked tiny and adorable as they stretched their stubby wings to each side in wonder as we sailed past. One small group was sharing an iceberg with a Fur Seal, gathered around it as though in conference.

Adele Penguins and a Fur Seal

Adele Penguins and a Fur Seal

Our Photographer, Mike

Our Photographer, Mike

One of the most incredible wildlife sightings as we crossed the Antarctic Sound was a pod of about fifteen Killer Whales (Orcas) hunting in a bay formed by sea ice. The ship slowed right down to let us watch the amazing spectacle of these beautiful whales teaching their young ones to hunt, flipping a live seal into the air for practice. It was too far away for me to spot at the time, but when the pod became bored with the seal and swam off for other sport, they came closer to the ship and began hunting (in earnest!) a Minke Whale. We could see many of the Orcas surfacing at once, and lots of splashing  as they attacked the Minke.

Orcas

Orcas

The dominant male Orca of the pod was easily spotted by its huge pectoral fin, about twice or more as tall as the fins of the females in the pod. We were treated to rare close-up views of these animals in action as they approached the boat. At one point, in a desperate attempt to escape the persistent Killer Whales, the Minke surfaced right beside the boat – so close it brushed against the side directly below where I was leaning over the rail – before disappearing back into the ocean depths. After that the pod began moving back down the bay, still chasing the Minke, and we picked up speed to continue our journey. This made our whale tally four species for the day, an absolutely mind-blowing number for Antarctica that had everyone shaking their heads in wonder and some of the leaders admitting it to be a first for them.

An Orca 'spy-hopping', something they do to get a better look around at the surface.

An Orca ‘spy-hopping’, something they do to get a better look around at the surface.

In between these exciting events we attended a variety of slide shows and workshops, including an interesting and detailed presentation given by Olle on Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition, and a second on another inspiring Antarctic explorer, Otto Nordenskjold. Thankfully, I was feeling completely better and was able to attend the presentations and meal times. It was a great day!

Olle Giving His Shackleton Presentation

Olle Giving His Shackleton Presentation

In the late afternoon we were told over the ship speakers to dress warmly and grab our life jackets in preparation for a zodiac cruise around our next stop: Joinville Island, Kinnes Cove.  I stood with the other ‘Team Gentoos’ in line waiting to board, and watched the people ahead of us take off towards the amazing snowy island that lay ahead. The driver of the zodiac I was in was Santiago, who told us some of the biology of the penguins and we came up to them, and pointed out some lifer birds for me such as Wilson’s Storm Petrel and Snowy Sheathbill. The petrel did not look the way I had expected – it was very small, completely dark from our distance, and it flew in a manner similar to a swallow in that it flapped rapidly with quick turns just above the surface of the water.

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Icebergs and chunks floated by and we weaved through them, spotting some with brownish-green discolouration caused by a growth of tiny microorganisms called diatoms. As we got closer to the island the water became shallower, but there was no suitable place to actually land and disembark. We had an amazing cruise around the cove instead, floating by masses of penguins who gathered at the edge of the rocks to watch us.

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A Portion of the Adele Penguin Rookery

A Portion of the Adele Penguin Rookery

It seemed as though the more curious they were, the further away from their plump bodies they held their tiny wings. Their way of walking was both clumsy and endearing: they leaned forward as though pushing through strong headwinds, lifting their huge ungainly feet in clumsy steps that resulted in a bit of a waddling gait, and stretched their wings straight out behind them. On they trudged like this, occasionally tripping and falling, sometimes getting tired and sliding on their bellies, other times just stopping to flop down on their stomachs to sleep. They travelled like this all over, but mainly along well-used ‘penguin highways’ which were easily told from the landscape by the long packed trails stained orange with guano.

Adele Penguins

Adele Penguins

Three Penguin Species in a Row! From Right to Left: Adele, Gentoo, Chinstrap, Gentoo.

Three Penguin Species in a Row! From Right to Left: Adele, Gentoo, Chinstrap, Gentoo.

In the shallows below us we could occasionally spot penguins – black and white blurs – rocketing through the water on their way to or from the shoreline. In movement, they were nearly unrecognizable. How could creatures that seemed so clumsy and helpless on land transform into these graceful and efficient beings in the water? The feet that seemed so ungainly are extremely useful in the water as strong propellers, and their ‘useless’ wings acted as an effective mode of steering in the sea. They are able to reach high enough speeds to propel themselves right out of the water and up onto banks 1-2 meters high, as one of the students most avid in photography was lucky enough to capture. This is an interesting link on their speed and swimming habits.

Photo By Cameron Aplin

Photo By Cameron Aplin

Penguins were not the only creature we saw; Crab-eating Seals lolled on the shore like massive blobs of blubber. One had just enough energy to lift its head a moment to watch us go by before falling back into a peaceful slumber. My zodiac was lucky enough to spot a young Leopard Seal in the shallows – it floated with its sleek dark head above the surface to watch us carefully before diving and disappearing from view. A few Weddle Seals were also seen on shore.

Crab-eating Seal

Crab-eating Seal

The icebergs in the cove were breath-taking. Once we got in behind the largest ones the water became glassy, glowing turquoise and light blue where ice had covered the shallow seafloor.

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Everything seemed to glow in that soft light, sounds became subtly muffled, and we began to speak in whispers without realizing it. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I had ever seen. I could not stop looking down in the water; the ice and water made strange patterns on the snow-white floor, but it was mainly the clearness of the water and the colour that struck me.

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The icebergs reflected that same light near the water surface, but turned into softer whites, grays, and light blues as you went further up. Patterns formed by melt and wind were etched into the sides, sometimes changing abruptly and contrasting sharply. Words simply don’t do it justice. Never will I forget being in such a wondrous, soul-cleansing, beautiful place.

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It was the end of a truly amazing and memorable day, possibly my favourite day of the trip though that is extremely difficult to judge; every day was memorable. Our expedition leader Geoff Green said it was all due to our good karma, our great energy and ability to adapt to changes and enjoy every moment. Without a doubt I would happily go through the stress of fundraising all year, preparing for the expedition, and the violent seasickness just to experience that one evening again. Another day gone, the M/V Ushuaia was back on the sea en route for Halfmoon Island, where we would make our first landing.

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Students on Ice!

Students on Ice!

Students on Ice!

Students on Ice!

Our Zodiac Driver, Santiago

Our Zodiac Driver, Santiago

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2 responses to “A Detailed Telling of my Antarctic Journey – Part 4 – Elephant Island

  1. Pingback: Birding News #55 | Prairie Birder·

  2. Pingback: This Week in Birding 55 by Charlotte Wasylik | Nemesis Bird·

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