Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Elephant Island

Map picture

We Came, We Saw, It Conquered

For the last 2 ½ days our ship has sailed south towards Antarctica, finally crossing the 60 degree south parallel. The weather has been very favorable, in fact it has been about as good as you can expect in these waters. As is normal, storms develop in the west and rush to the east, passing through the Drake Passage south of Ushuaia about every 3 to 4 days, but as if by some miracle, after making the passage, they have been turning northward slamming the Falklands, and leaving the area in which we have been sailing enjoying pretty good conditions.

Our destination of course is Antarctica, but initially we will start our journey at the northern tip and then sail southward. Our first stop is Elephant Island which is actually at the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, and which lies just off the coast of Antarctica itself. We stopped at this destination because it is famous for being the location at which Shackleton and his men first reached land after losing their ship the Endurance to ice in the Weddell Sea.

Elephant Island must be one of the most desolate locations on the planet. The island supports no significant flora or native fauna. The sides of the islands are sheer rock which reaches an elevation of around 2,800feet, and the prominent feature of this small landmass is a huge glacier, the Endurance Glacier, which discharges directly into the sea. There is no safe anchorage on the island, and the normal weather is foggy with snow and howling winds which can reach speeds of 100mph. Shackleton and his crew managed to establish a camp on a small spit of rocky land off the northern tip of the island, today known as Point Wild. DSC00666The area that they eventually called home is hardly big enough to walk on, and offers no shelter from the elements. Eventually the crew used their upturned lifeboats, surrounded by boulders and canvas as makeshift shelters. Once they realized that there was no hope of rescue, Shackleton and five other men set out on an incredible risky voyage in one of the lifeboats in a desperate attempt to reach South Georgia. The 21 remaining crew had to live and survive in these horrible conditions for four months before Shackleton returned to rescue them. It is one thing to read about this experience or even to watch a film about this epic story, but quite another to actually see firsthand how absolutely impossible their survival seemed. Then we ventured out from the boat into the elements, and at that point, I was overwhelmed at what they had achieved.

Conditions upon our arrival were a rather dense fog, a pretty good swell, and with what seemed to be strong winds. It was snowing, or more correctly, the sky was spitting grapple, small ice balls. Our ship maneuvered into the lee of the surrounding cliffs, and conditions improved considerably. The fog lifted a little, and the winds died down to around 25mph. The temperature was -4C or 24F. The ship sent out a scouting party to see if it was possible to actually land on Point Wild, the actual location of Shackleton’s camp, but they reported that the swell was too great to permit a safe landing. Therefore, we were going to be treated to a one hour zodiac ride around the area which would include a close-up view of the monument erected by Chile to Shackleton on Point Wild, and a ride along the glacial front.

As I prepared for the ride, I stuck my nose outside our sliding door, and I don’t care what they said conditions were, the “feel” was altogether different than South Georgia. So, for the first time I climbed into “all” the gear with which we had been outfitted, and literally waddled down to Deck 3, our departure point. Once there, the Hotel Director, himself, gave me an inspection, and when I was done, I felt like a little kid having been dressed by my parents to go out and play in the snow. The problem was that I was so dressed that I could hardly move. I did make it into the zodiac, and once we left the lee of the ship, I got to experience just a small fraction of what Shackleton’s men endured every day. I had to insure that every area of exposed skin was protected.

We were the first zodiac, and so our tour started with a visit to Point Wild and the monument. As we approached closely, I was amazed to see just how little land was open and what there was, was simply rugged rock outcroppings. The little spit of land was filled with penguins in large numbers and a few fur seals. In fact, one of the real joys of our zodiac ride was the constant stream of little penguins darting along and in front of our zodiac. DSC00688Clearly they were enjoying our company. As we left point wild for a ride along the glacial front, I begin to notice that my hands were becoming cold. On my left hand, I had the really heavy glove that we had been issued, and inside of that, I was wearing an additional silk glove liner. So the left hand, while becoming cold, was really OK. My right hand was another matter. I was also wearing the silk liner, but this glove was one that we had found on the internet that offered a slit in the forefinger and thumb which allowed me to extend these digits in order to operate my camera. I quickly learned two things; first, the glove was in no way up to what I needed for this weather, and second, my extended fingers were quickly becoming painful. As time progressed, I no longer had any feeling in my finger, the hand was also becoming painful, and I realized that I was in trouble. Fortunately, I had a good hand warmer with me, Lisa’s armpit! I forgot taking pictures, and for the last half of the ride, I kept my right hand in her arm pit; all the while I prayed that our little trip was quickly going to end. With her help, I made it back without incident, but I will not use that glove in these conditions again.

It is pretty easy to go cruising along in a nice warm ship wondering at the amazing scenery outside, and occasionally opening a sliding glass door to quickly snap a picture or two. Today was my first real exposure to conditions in Antarctica, and it was a lesson quickly learned – this place can kill you. Later in this trip, we will make actual landings on the continent of Antarctica itself. This brief experience has really made me realize even more what a fantastic achievement the eventual rescue of Shackleton’s crew really was.

So, welcome to Antarctica – and hang on, there will be more on the way.


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