We spent February 12 visiting Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, about 300 miles east of the coast of Argentina. Stanley has a large harbor protected by a long jut of land and ships anchor outside, but from the top deck you can see the colorful corrugated iron roofs of the town beyond the harbor. A few days before reaching the Falklands we passed our last large iceberg, which we could see from our veranda on the port side of the ship.
We had signed up for a long excursion to an area where Rockhopper & Macaroni penguins roost, but it was cancelled a few days before we arrived. We were told that the landowner had decided that the penguins might suffer from too many visitors. We quickly signed up for a shorter excursion to another Rockhopper area, but the day before our arrival that one was cancelled as well. We were told later that both excursions had been cancelled because the penguins had already left their nesting areas, so there would be nothing to see. Big disappointment because we had never seen these little guys, who look like members of a tiny motorcycle gang.
Anyway, that left us with nothing to do but walk around the town. This is not a bad way to spend a day, since this is a nice little town, very English (it is a British possession). But we had already done that on our first visit here in 2012:
After breakfast we boarded a tender for the very long and choppy ride into town, the longest tender ride of the cruise. Weather and sea conditions often make tendering here too dangerous but we were lucky about that. Still, the weather wasn’t nice at all: cold and windy and drizzly. On our way into town we passed two other cruise ships, a small Hurtigruten expedition ship with around 100 passengers and a large Celebrity ship with about 2,000 passengers. Stanley’s population is about 2,500, so on this day there were more cruise passengers than residents. Antarctic terns were flying around the ship and the tender. At the tender jetty were six penguin on a sign welcoming us to the Falklands.
As we began walking the first notable place we came to was Jubilee Villas, near the jetty. These were built in 1887 and named for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee that year, commemorating the 50th anniversary of her coronation. They are unlike the rest of the architecture in this town.
Opened in 1892 on the site of an earlier church, Christ Church Cathedral is the southernmost Anglican cathedral in the world. It is built of native stone & has stained glass windows from the 19th and 20th centuries that are protected from the elements on the outside by wire mesh screens. It was undergoing some renovation when we were there.
The cathedral has a nice, though small, pipe organ. There is also a collection of dozens of kneeling stools for the parishioners to use, each covered by a scene from the town needlepointed mostly by the women of the church.
In a park next to the cathedral is the Whalebone Arch, a prime symbol of the Falklands. The arch consists of four actual jawbones from two blue whales and is very striking in juxtaposition with the church next door. It was first constructed in 1933 to commemorate 100 years of British rule. When we visited here in 2012 the bones had a beautiful patina but in 2017 it was treated to protect it from the weather and from moisture in the ground where the whale bones are buried to a depth of four feet. Unfortunately the epoxy that was used to coat the bones has left them very white and smooth, so they look almost like replicas. But apparently without this treatment they would not have lasted much longer, so it had to be done. Still a beautiful landmark, particularly if you don’t stand too close. The park also contains many colorful flowers planted in beds in the English manner.
Along the waterfront is a large park called Victory Green. Dating to the end of World War II, it has a nice open view of the harbor & the hills on the other side (over which we took the picture of the town from the ship). On the town side of the hills are the names of five ships that served in this area during the 19th & 20th centuries: Beagle, Endurance, Protector, Barracouta & Dumbarton Castle. The names are formed by rocks that are painted white every few years. The Endurance was due to be withdrawn from the area in 1982, but after the Falklands War broke out she was involved in the retaking of South Georgia Island by the British. She continued to serve in the area until 1991, then replaced by a new ship with the same name. In Victory Green is the mizzen mast of the ship Great Britain, the first deep sea steamship propelled by an iron screw. When launched in 1843 it was the largest ship in the world and also became the first iron ship to cross the Atlantic. Today the mizzen mast is in Victory Green but the rest of the ship is on display in the harbor of Bristol, England.
St Mary’s Church is the only Catholic church in the Falklands. It is made of wood & was built in 1899. Inside is a nice triptych painted by an artist born here showing the church in the 19th century. The town hall contains the post office and a philatelic bureau, where we bought and mailed some postcards. Although a British territory, the Falklands today are self governing with the exception of defense and foreign relations.
The Falklands Islands Museum is located at the historic dockyard in town, presumably opened when Stanley became the capital of the Falklands in 1845. The museum includes a cluster of buildings and has a small but crowded collection with very good explanatory signs. The collection includes a lot about the 1982 war with Argentina, the extensive maritime history of the area (which was an important ship repair station before the opening of the Panama Canal), birds and animals of the region, Antarctic exploration (including a hut used by explorers who wintered over in Antarctica) and a lot more. One item we enjoyed was a Symphonion, a large carved wood music box about 6 feet tall. Very much worth a visit, especially since cruise ship passengers are admitted without having to pay the usual admission charge.
For those too young to remember, Stanley was occupied by Argentine troops for 2.5 months during the Falklands War in 1982. The Spanish have claimed the Falklands, along with South Georgia, for at least 150 years. They call them the Malvinas Islands and in 1982 they decided to press their claim militarily. Possibly under the impression that Britain was losing interest in the islands and would not resist, they invaded and found that Britain did not take such aggression lightly. More than 900 people were killed during the conflict, almost 650 of them Argentines. In 2013 more than 90% of the electorate turned out for a referendum on whether to remain a British territory and 99.8% voted to remain. This shouldn’t be surprising since most of the folks around here seem to have British heritage. Despite all this, Argentina continues to claim sovereignty over the islands, as was proclaimed in Spanish and English on a sign we passed on the dock in Ushuaia that proclaimed the islands “are, since 1833, under the illegal occupation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Memory of the war is still vivid in the Falklands, not only in the museum but in a memorial along the harbor front dedicated to “those who liberated us” in 1982. There is a street named after Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister at that time, and a large bust of her near the road along the harbor.
Further along we came to Government House, the home of the British governor of the Falklands territory since 1845. Looking like a British country mansion, it also has some very nice flower gardens.
Stanley was the site of an important naval encounter early in World War I. After defeating a British squadron in the Battle of Coronel on November 1, 1914, discussed in our earlier post about Robinson Crusoe Island, https://baderjournal.com/2019/03/16/, the German commander, Vice Admiral Graf von Spee, sailed his group of ships eastward to the Falklands with the intent of destroying the British navy’s coaling station and radio station there. As they approached the Falklands on December 8 they encountered a larger British squadron coaling there, which had been sent to avenge the loss at Coronel. Unable to outrun the superior British ships von Spee’s squadron was destroyed. One ship, the Dresden, survived the battle only to be cornered and scuttled by its own crew at Robinson Crusoe Island a few months later. Some 2200 Germans were killed in the battle here, while some 1600 British sailors died at Coronel. We came upon a memorial, erected exactly 100 years later, to the British squadron that prevailed in this battle “thereby saving this colony from capture by the enemy.”
Not too far away was the Stanley community center, situated on a hill overlooking the water with the town soccer field in front. This building houses a school and the only public swimming pool. But we had sought it out because it also contains the public library. Unfortunately the door near the library was locked for a few hours at lunchtime so we didn’t get to see it. On the soccer field in front of the building a number of Upland Geese were browsing the grass for food. The males are white & the females brown & black.
Stanley is famous for its shipwrecks. There are some 20 of them in the harbor, more than any other port in the world. We passed a couple of them on our walk along the harbor. Ross Road along the harbor is lined part of the way with unique light poles, which have a boat through the pole as a decoration. And of course there were birds, including ducks and what we think were Kelp gulls. Sadly, no Rockhopper penguins happened by, but we did see a dapper one on a wine label in a gift shop!
We headed back to town & decided to stop for fish & chips before returning to the ship (British outposts always have excellent fish & chips). But you will recall that there were thousands of tourists ashore today with the result that all the pubs were full to overflowing. We finally found a nice little fish & chips place that wasn’t a pub and although it was pretty full we managed to find a table, where we ate some fine fish & chips & drank some ale imported from Britain. While we were there it started to rain pretty steadily, so after lunch we walked briskly to a gift shop across the street from the jetty (also very crowded). Our reward for sailing on a small ship was watching a long line of Celebrity passengers lining the street outside, waiting in the rain for space on a tender back to their ship. When we were ready to go we walked right past them to our tender, waiting for us on the other side of the jetty. So that was fun.
Back at the ship we took a couple of pictures of mountains near Stanley. The ship penguins were very excited to be visiting a British territory and were fully decked out for the occasion.
On the morning of February 9 we were anchored in King Edward Cove near the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken. There was a welcoming committee of King penguins on the beach nearest the ship.
Founded in 1904 by Carl Larsen (who also captained the ship Antarctic for the Swedish expedition discussed in “Antarctica (Day 3)”), Grytviken was the largest whaling station on the island until it was shut down in 1966 when whales had been reduced to an unprofitable level. Almost 175,000 whales were killed and processed at Grytviken during that time, producing some 9 million barrels of oil.
It is very unusual for a ship the size of Prinsendam (about 850 passenger capacity) to visit Grytviken, and the rumor was that this will be the last time it is allowed. This is due to the extreme environmental vulnerability of South Georgia Island to invasive species. The island has no native land mammals, just birds and sea life. But after publication of Captain Cook’s journal of his visit to the island, which mentioned the abundance of fur seals (some 95% of the world’s fur seals breed here), sealing ships headed there and virtually decimating their population between 1786 and 1802. At one time fur seals were thought to be virtually extinct, but they have made an amazing comeback in the 20th century and today there are literally millions of them breeding on South Georgia. Rats hiding on board these early sealing ships spread throughout the island, since there were no predators to control them, devastating the bird population. In addition, in 1911 Carl Larsen brought a few reindeer to be released on the island for hunting and increase the meat supply. But as they spread they caused a great deal of environmental damage to some of the best vegetative areas supporting bird and sea life, particularly after hunting came to a virtual standstill after the closure of the whaling stations in the 1960’s.
Today there are no rats or reindeer on South Georgia, thanks to very ambitious eradication efforts and continuing vigilance against new invasions. More than 7,000 reindeer were killed between 2012 and 2015, many providing meat for consumers. The rat eradication program has just recently been declared a complete success after follow-up efforts found no rats at all on the island. This was difficult because if even a few rats had been missed they would multiply and reoccupy the area quickly. Meanwhile, the South Georgia administration is anxious to prevent rats, or any other kind of invader, from entering. In our case, everybody intending to go ashore had to have their clothes checked for dirt or vegetation and their shoes washed a day or two before arrival. We were told that for several weeks before our arrival island representatives were onboard searching for hidden rats or mice. And to ensure minimal damage to the site from tramping tourists, everyone was allotted just a two hour interval that we could spend on shore. Also a number of crew members received training to serve as monitors to ensure no one went beyond the permitted area and to protect the wildlife from interference by the passengers.
We had been concerned after the extremely windy and cold weather the day before that we might not be able to tender ashore here. But it turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous day in Grytviken. We were told that they have only 2 or 3 days like this per year and that the day after our visit there was a snowstorm. So we were VERY lucky! We tendered to the whaling station in the late morning, passing swimming seals on our way to the tender dock.
There had been some disagreement among the team of Antarctic experts on the way here about whether the seals and penguins would still be here when we arrived. We were told that when Craig Franklin, the naturalist, arrived in the first tender he called out with relief: “They’re here!” (which he had predicted). The first tender carried only crew, to enable them to establish their perimeter positions before the passengers arrived. When we arrived, the area near the dock was teeming with fur seals and King penguins enjoying the rare sunny day.
When the whaling station closed for good in 1966 removing the equipment apparently was not worth the trouble and expense. So most of it is still there, rusting away, although an effort was made to cleanse it of any unsafe or toxic elements. Some areas are still too unsafe to enter (unless you are a penguin or a seal), but there was plenty of room to walk around and see everything. We will not go too deeply into the bloody processing of the whales, but the carcasses were butchered on the flensing platform in the first picture below, then the oil was extracted in boilers and pressure cookers. Twenty five whales could be processed each day, yielding tremendous amounts of whale oil.
Quite a few seals were in the water and a field near the rusting structures sleeping, playing and generally enjoying the sunny weather. There seemed to be a great deal of nuzzling going on, which we presumed to be friendly play. Most, if not all, of the seals we saw were females or pups. The males were pretty much gone by now (not the nurturing type). The pups tend to be darker and the females gray, often with a lighter color on their stomachs. The males are dark brown. The pups are born in November or December, so they were two or three months old when we visited. They are weaned at 4 months and head out to sea alone to fend for themselves.
Some seals were on a rusty girder in the water.
There are three must-see landmarks in Grytviken and we had only two hours total to spend on the island, so we set off for the cemetery. Guess what we saw on the way? If you said penguins and seals you were on the money. King penguins are funny to watch. Unlike most of the other penguins, they walk with their beaks in the air looking very snooty.
Many of the penguins were molting this time of year, which we were told consumes most of their energy. The chicks looked particularly sad, with a lot of their baby brown feathers still clinging to them, revealing the penguin coloring below as they fell off.
As we neared the cemetery we came upon a large group of elephant seals. These were all females, as the males had all left the island for the year. Like the penguins, they were molting. As mentioned above, molting takes a lot of energy and these seals were just lying around looking like they had no energy left at all. Unlike the more distinctive (and several times larger) males, the females do not have a disproportionately large nose. After being hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century by sealers, they have come back to a population of about 400,000 that breed on South Georgia island (more than half the world’s population), about a third of those breeding females. The females are up to almost 10 feet long and weigh up to almost 2,000 pounds.
The Grytviken cemetery contains some 64 graves. Most were whalers living at Grytviken and a few were probably sealers buried in this location during the 19th century before Grytviken was built. Situated on a grassy ledge above the water with a fine view of the whaling station, the cemetery is surrounded by a fence to protect it from seals. Felix Artiso, whose grave cross is in the pictures below, was an Argentine killed when they took possession of Grytviken at the beginning of the Falklands War
The most famous grave here is that of Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer we have discussed in several previous episodes. Of course, South Georgia is where his odyssey ended, after his harrowing trip in a lifeboat from Elephant Island. More about that later, but he died of a heart attack near here in 1922 on board the ship Quest, setting out for another go at Antarctica. While his body was on its way to England for burial Shackleton’s widow requested that he be buried instead at Grytviken. The doctor who attended him in has last days on the Quest wrote: “I think this is as ‘the Boss’ would have had it himself, standing lonely in an island far from civili[z]ation, surrounded by stormy tempestuous seas, & in the vicinity of one of his greatest exploits.” Just to the right of Shackleton’s grave are the cremated remains of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s longtime friend and associate, after whom Point Wild on Elephant Island was named. The small stone identifying him as “Shackleton’s Right Hand Man.” Wild died in 1939 in South Africa and was originally interred in a cemetery in Johannesburg, but were moved here in 201l with a service attended by descendants of both Wild and Shackleton.
Our shore time was beginning to run low as we left the cemetery and we still had two sites to visit. It will surprise no one the hear that as we walked back along the shore the penguins and seals were still there.
About halfway there we were stopped by the monitors at a penguin crossing. A number of penguins were ambling in leisurely fashion between the grass and the water. It was 10 or 15 minutes before we could go on, a big chunk of our remaining time ashore. But while we waited we took some pictures with the penguins. Two more things were near this spot. There is not much in the way of flowers at Grytviken; these Acaena Magellanica were the only ones we noticed. We spoke earlier of the indigenous birds destroyed on South Georgia by the rats. Some survived in small numbers on outlying islands and are now making a comeback on South Georgia. Among these is the South Georgia Pipit, a small brown bird found nowhere else in the world, which nests on the ground (thus the vulnerability to rats). One was wading in the water by the shore.
When we finally got back to the station we walked a little way uphill to visit the Norwegian Lutheran Church. Erected in 1913, it was originally built in Norway then shipped here for final construction. No longer Lutheran, it was given to the United Kingdom in 2013 and is now part of the Anglican diocese. The church had a pastor only from 1913 to 1914, but the community continued to hold meetings and ceremonies and celebrate holidays here. This is where Shackleton’s funeral was held in 1922. It was renovated in 1998.
Two other things to note on the inside of the church. First is the library, through a door to the left of the altar. Even out here people apparently liked to read. It is still stocked with the original books in Norwegian. And on the left of the main room are busts of Carl Larsen, the founder of Grytviken and of the church, and Ernest Shackleton (of course).
It was only a short walk back down the hill to the Grytviken Museum, which was originally built in 1916 to be the house of the whaling station manager, Carl Larsen. Sadly, our time was running out (actually had run out, but we decided that the 15 minutes we lost at the penguin crossing should be restored to our shore time). Thus we didn’t have much time to spend examining the extensive and interesting looking exhibits. The museum, which opened in 1991, also had a very nice gift shop. In the museum was an impressive stuffed (we think) Wandering albatross, a huge bird whose wings stretch from floor to ceiling. There was also a room apparently named after our son in law, Michael Jarvis.
But the best thing there was a full size reconstruction of the James Caird, the lifeboat in which Shackleton and four of his men sailed through rough seas and weather from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. You may recall from the last episode that our trip between those islands took less than a day, but the Shackleton party spent 15 days in that tiny boat in Antarctic waters before reaching land, having to wait an extra day off shore because of a hurricane. But they were on the wrong side of the island, so they had to hike over the treacherous snowy mountains, at one point sliding blindly down a steep incline in sitting position, before reaching the whaling settlement of Stromness, not too far from Grytviken. It is said that Shackleton refused to take more than four weeks’ rations along, because if they didn’t reach land by then they were goners. And what did they eat on the trip? One biscuit a day for each man. When you look at this boat it is hard not to doubt that it was even possible.
Leaving the museum we began heading back to the tender dock for the trip back to Prinsendam, with a few final pictures on the way. In addition to the rusting whaling station structures in this area there were some old whaling boats grounded near the water. One of them, the Petrel, was built in Oslo in 1928, spent three decades hunting whales, then was used in its final years to hunt seals along the shoreline of the island. The harpoon gun on her bow is now pointed inland, away from any whales that might happen by. Some of these pictures give a pretty good look at the snow capped mountains that surround Grytviken.
Our time was up so we boarded the tender back to the ship. Oddly, we had to have our shoes cleaned again before boarding the tender. We don’t know why, since it is hard to imagine how the island could be damaged when we were leaving it. Back on the ship we found that the local post office (it seems to be stationed in the museum) had sent people on board to sell stamps and postcards. We sent a few of those (they weren’t cheap), then went to a presentation. Right next to where the ship was anchored is a British Antarctic research station. This was a military barracks after the Falklands War but was handed over for civilian use in 2001. Ten or twenty people live there, including research scientists as well as the magistrate for the British territory that includes South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. A few of the researchers came aboard Prinsendam to tell us a little about their research and life at the station.
Late in the afternoon we sailed out of King Edward Cove and headed northwest along the coast of the island. The Captain wanted to take us into a neighboring bay to see the old Stromness whaling station, where Shackelton’s journey ended with a knock on the door of the first house he found. But the high winds and fog were back in force as soon as we left King Edward Cove, making this impossible. So this was the end of our amazing South Georgia Island adventure, and we will leave you here with a last look at Grytviken just before we sailed away.
February 8 found us sailing from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island, about 800 miles away. We were expecting this to be just a sea day since we weren’t scheduled to go ashore on South Georgia Island until the next day. But in the afternoon South Georgia Island came into view in the distance on the port side.
Although it was probably first sighted by Anthony de la Roche when his ship was blown far off course in 1675, the first landing and mapping of South Georgia Island was by the ubiquitous Captain Cook at the beginning of 1775. Landing at Possession Bay, Cook held a ceremony taking possession in the name of King George III and named the island after him “Isle of Georgia.” While mapping the east coast of the island Cook actually thought he had found the predicted great southern continent (Antarctica), but when he rounded the southeast corner and found himself heading west he discovered that it was just a large island instead. He named that corner Cape Disappointment, representing his feeling at the time, and Cape Disappointment is also where we reached South Georgia Island and turned to the north to follow its northwest coast. In the pictures above Cape Disappointment is on the left; the pictures below are from the vicinity of Cape Disappointment, if not the cape itself.
Just before we reached the island we passed the largest tabular iceberg we had seen. We were told it was some two miles long, and it certainly looked it. But we didn’t sail close to this one like we had to the earlier ones we encountered, but merely saw it in the distance.
It was a cold and windy afternoon as we sailed up the coast. The island is about 100 miles long and the mountains reach almost to 10,000 feet. The Captain tried to take us down a large fjord (probably Drygalsky Fjord), but the 80 to 100 mile winds made it impossible. Still, there was plenty to see on this island where the tall craggy mountains rise directly out of the water under the island’s own cloud cover, presenting a beautiful but forbidding countenance.
We sailed by another iceberg. It was big, but nothing like the one we saw in the distance when approaching the island. But it was very distinctive, with two tall towers reaching higher than the ship. It was interesting to see it change shape as we sailed past and the lowering sun cast dramatic shadows as we sailed by it (which actually took quite a while). Notice that as we sail by the tall squared off tower starts on our right and ends up on our left.
A lot of birds were flying around this area (very fast) and a few whales were to be seen as well.
We pulled into a bay (possibly Gold Harbor) to visit a colony of King Penguins. Bigger than the others we had seen, King penguins resemble Emperor penguins that you may have seen in movies, but aren’t as big. More than 900,000 King penguins live on South Georgia (along with more than two million Macaroni penguins) and it seemed like all of them were gathered right here (in actuality nowhere near that many). Like other penguins, they crowd the beaches looking like they are just hanging around with nothing to do. In these pictures you can also see a lot of tussock grass, which accounts for the bulk of native vegetation. There are no trees or bushes on South Georgia.
On a tiny island just offshore was a group of fur seals. It looked like a stage show being watched by a crowd of penguins.
Of course there were also penguins in the water, porpoising as usual. And Antarctic Terns were flying around, some carrying food in their beaks.
The sun was setting as we left the harbor and continued northeast. The spectacular scenery never stops in this place, and the sunset was particularly notable.
So the day ended on what turned out to be much better than the ordinary sea day we had been expecting. Apparently having little else to do while visiting Antarctica, two of the ship’s penguins were stationed on either end of the front desk. They had nametags that changed periodically, but during this period one of them had a particularly fine name tag on. We will leave you with a couple of pictures of that.
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.
The morning of February 5 found us in the Antarctic Sound, at the northeast corner of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Sound is not, as one might expect, named after the continent. Instead, it is named after the ship that transported the 1902 Swedish Antarctic expedition here. The six scientists were to winter over on Snow Hill Island, then the Antarctic would pick them up again in the summer. But the ship was prevented by floating ice from reaching the island the next summer. The ship was locked in by the ice, which eventually crushed its hull. The Antarctic crew was able to reach Paulet Island, where they spent the next winter, surviving by eating about a thousand penguins. The original group had no idea what had happened or why the ship failed to return, and had no option but to spend another winter on Snow Hill Island. The next Spring the two groups met by chance while exploring in Hope Sound. An Argentine ship was sent to find them when the Antarctic failed to return. We heard a slide lecture about this expedition while we were here; quite harrowing and the series of unlikely coincidences that led to the rescue would sound entirely implausible if set out in a novel. But it was real & the stone huts in which the groups wintered are still there, although we didn’t see them.
As we entered Hope Bay we passed a large Argentine science station.
Base Esperanza (“Hope”) was built in 1953 on a spot that had housed a naval post since 1930. Some 55 people live here year round (out of a capacity of 100) . What is unusual is that it is set up as a village, with about 10 families including children. This was part of Argentina’s effort to establish sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula (Chile has a similar settlement in Antarctica for the same reason). In 1978 the wife of the station’s leader was flown here when seven months pregnant to record the first birth in Antarctica, Emilio Marcos de Palma, and over the next few years there were seven more births. The community has a regular school, a radio station, an infirmary, a chapel, and a scout troop. There is a stone hut nearby where three of the Swedish expedition spent the winter of 1903, living on seal meat, but we didn’t see it.
The base also has a bust of General San Martin, the liberator of Argentina.
You probably notice a lot of penguins hanging about in these pictures. In fact, Esperanza Base was built in the middle of a large penguin rookery, so the penguins have a pre-existing claim to the space. Hope Bay is actually quite full of penguins, more than 200,000 according to what we have read (down about 17% over the last 25 years). They were everywhere, inside the base and out. Most of the penguins in this area seem to be Adelies. Given how bad penguin habitats smell, living in this settlement must take some getting used to!
In addition to the penguins, seals were lounging on the ice. We think they were mostly Weddell seals, but who knows for sure.
Apart from the wildlife, Hope Bay was full of icy scenery.
Leaving Hope Bay we passed Esperanza Base again. Yep, the penguins were still there, standing around waiting for something to happen.
As we headed out of the bay we spotted penguins in the water and Giant Petrels in flight.
The Antarctic Sound has a lot of floating ice, including large flat icebergs that have broken off from the Larsen ice shelf in the Weddell Sea. These are called tabular icebergs because they are flat like tables. Some are so big they run aground in the Sound, where the can sit for years until worn away by sea and wind forces.
You may wonder how the ship manages to navigate safely among the icebergs. Throughout the Antarctic portion of our voyage there was an experienced ice pilot on board to guide the way. During a Q & A following the Antarctic portion of the cruise he was asked just what his role was on the bridge. He said “I sit there and I say ‘See that iceberg over there? Don’t hit it.’” We are pretty sure he does a good deal more than that.
We approached pretty near that large tabular iceberg you saw above. We were told that it was about a mile long, and it was taller than the ship. That means it reaches pretty far down under the water, perhaps far enough that it was anchored in place on the bottom.
As the ship held its position by the iceberg a small boat was sent out with the ship’s photographer and some members of the Antarctic expedition team. Their mission was to take pictures of the ship next to the iceberg. At about the same time Rick went down to the platform in the very front of the ship to take in the view from that location.
After the photographs of the ship were done, the folks on the boat didn’t want to come right back. They spent some time at a nearby iceberg photographing penguins (who wouldn’t want to do that?).
While he was on the bow Rick took some pictures back toward the ship.
You might have thought we were done with wildlife for the day, but you would be wrong. Still lots of penguins out on the ice. We were told last time we were here that penguins out on the ice probably means there are Orcas or leopard seals in the water hunting. We didn’t see any of those, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there. We did see some penguins diving into the water from the ice, so maybe that wasn’t the case this time. You can tell when a penguin is about to dive because it first bends its neck far forward.
We also saw some penguins sharing an iceberg with a seal.
Birds — including Cape or Pintado (painted) petrels, giant petrels and what we think were Antarctic shags (cormorants) – were flying around the ship and hunting low over the water. We also saw some whales, although not nearly as many as we had seen on previous days. On grand voyages (ie. these long ones), HAL leaves presents on your bed on many of the gala nights. One that came in particularly handy was a set of matching grey gloves, scarf,, stocking hat and blanket. You can see Rick below sporting the hat, scarf & gloves in the cold & windy weather.
Our adventurous Captain wanted to take us through the Sound into the Weddell Sea. That would have been pretty cool, but it was not to be. I mentioned earlier that the Antarctic Sound is often crowded with floating ice. As we neared the end toward the Weddell Sea, the Captain & the ice pilot concluded that we might well be able to get through into the Weddell Sea, but that we might not be able to get back again through the gathering ice. So we turned around and headed back north as clouds began to close in and the sun fell toward the sea. So all that is left to show you for this day is some more of Antarctica’s never ending seascapes.