Antarctica (Day 4) King George & Elephant Islands (2019)
We awoke on February 6 in Admiralty Bay at King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands. It was cold, overcast and hazy.
King George Island is the largest of the South Shetland Islands, sitting about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Discovered in 1820, it was named after British King George III. Today it is claimed by Argentina, Chile & Britain (all suspended by the Antarctic Treaty). It is host to the annual Antarctic marathon. We also visited here briefly in 2012 before the captain hightailed it north to avoid a storm, and the weather then was much worse:
Ten countries have science stations on King George Island, four of which are in Admiralty Bay. We think we saw all of them, but are not 100% sure that all the pictures here are correctly identified. But they probably are.
The first one we encountered was Arctowski Station, operated by Poland. When we passed this station in the fog in 2012 the name of the station was painted in big letters on the side of a building, but we didn’t see that this time. Established in 1977, it is named for Henryk Arctowski, a Polish scientist who was a member of the first expedition to winter over in Antarctica in 1897. It houses some 40 people and the area around it is full of wildlife and whalebones left over from the whaling operations that were here at one time. The base welcomes visitors and maintains a tourist information center where you can purchase souvenirs. Of course, we couldn’t go ashore so no souvenirs for us.
Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station is operated by Brazil. It was first opened in 1984 on the site of an earlier British outpost. But in 2012 most of it burned down in a fire that started with an explosion in the building housing the electricity generators. Two people were killed in the fire and the Brazilians carted away what remained of the base. They have been rebuilding the station, larger than before, ever since. It was scheduled to become operational in 2018 and perhaps it did, but the pictures below show that quite a lot of construction activity is still going on. It is now powered, at least in part, by an array of windmills installed a little way up the hill from the station. Nearby is a graveyard with five crosses, most of which contain the remains of British citizens associated with the old British station that was once here.
Near the station is a skeleton of a Blue Whale. We have read that it was pieced together by a Jacques Cousteau expedition, but aren’t sure about that. Also nearby some Gentoo penguins were hanging around.
We passed two other bases. Peru operates the small Machu Picchu Base, established in 1989. The United States maintains the tiny Captain Pieter J. Lenie Base, situated on Copacabana beach about a mile from Arctowski. It is open only in summer and is devoted to monitoring penguin populations.
We finished sailing around Admiralty Bay before heading out to sea.
About six hours later we caught sight of Elephant Island in the distance. It was originally named by seal hunters in the 1820’s who saw a lot of elephant seals on the island. But today the island’s name is also thought to refer to its shape, which looks a lot like the head of an elephant (with big ears to the west and a long trunk to the east). We think these pictures are all Elephant Island from a distance.
But before reaching Elephant Island we encountered another mile long iceberg. If you look closely at the first picture of the iceberg as we approached from a distance you can make out four extensions on the other side enclosing three bays. Our route to the big iceberg took us through a field of floating ice with a perfectly defined border, all ice on one side and none on the other.
We sailed around to the other side of the iceberg for a close look at the three bays. Pretty impressive; you could definitely sail a pretty good sized boat into those. One of the ship’s penguins was captaining the ship in the window of the bridge one level above us and another of them was assisting in another window. This iceberg may have been anchored on the bottom, as it was taller than the ship and must have extended down quite a way. One of the dining room staff told us he remembered seeing it the last time he was here, three or four years ago. Notably, the pictures here do not really convey how BIG this iceberg was in person.
There was wildlife near the iceberg (not just stuffed penguins). We saw skuas, pintado petrels, southern giant petrels and what we think was a wandering albatross. There were also a few whales nearby and another large iceberg, but nowhere near as big as the one we had just passed.
And so in late afternoon we headed toward Elephant Island. This is where Ernest Shackleton finally found refuge after a harrowing winter spent on floating ice after their ship was crushed. They made the long journey across treacherous Antarctic seas in three of the ship’s lifeboats. The island looks pretty forbidding from the sea.
Shackleton’s party first made land at Cape Valentine, at the tip of the elephant’s trunk. As you can see below, this wasn’t much of a place to set up camp, with little land and mostly rocks jutting out from a mountain. But at least they were on land, after surviving more than a year floating on the seas. Dusk was beginning to fall as we reached this point and the air was pretty hazy.
So Shackleton sent his second in command, Frank Wild, to look for a better place. He found one about seven miles further up the elephant’s trunk at a spot now called Point Wild. There was enough of a land shelf here in front of a mountain to set up camp. Most of the crew, 22 men, spent almost five months on this spot, eating seals and penguins and waiting for Shackleton to return to rescue them . . . if he survived the almost impossible 800 mile journey to South Georgia Island in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird. They made a shelter by overturning the other two lifeboats supplemented with tent canvas. They had no idea whether Shackleton had survived the trip or whether anyone in the world knew they were there until on August 30, 1916 they spotted the Chilean Navy boat Yelcho approaching. This was Shackleton’s fourth try at a rescue, the first three failing because of impassible ice or engine trouble. Amazingly, Shackleton’s entire crew survived the entire ordeal.
By the time we reached Point Wild the sun was setting and the skies were hazy. It would be hazardous for a ship Prinsendam’s size to get too close to this rocky shore and really we could hardly see much when we were there. But happily the pictures turned out a little better so you can see Point Wild in them. We have read that the beach has mostly eroded away during the last 100 years, but the rocky outcropping is clearly visible in front of the huge glacier behind. In 1987 the Chileans erected a bronze bust on the rocks of Luis Pardo Villalon, the captain of the Yelcho which finally rescued the men. This is a breeding area for chinstrap penguins and the small white objects you can see around the sculpture are them. The beach, we think, is behind the rocks to the right of the bust.
So that’s it for our four day Antarctica adventure, although we still have South Georgia Island to go. So we will leave you with the traditional towel animals on our bed and a beautiful sculpted watermelon in the Lido.