Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paying Our Respects To Shackleton

Map picture

Since I last wrote, Lisa and I have experienced two absolutely spectacular days continuing our visit to the South Georgia Islands. We are now en route to the Antarctica Peninsula; a trip of around 800 miles which will take two days of sailing.

At the end of my previous blog because of the weather, the Captain had decided to seek shelter in Cumberland East Bay which offers one of the best shelters on the Island. As a result, we had a calm and restful night; when I awoke in the morning, I opened the curtains on an absolutely beautiful day with sunny skies, and nearby was a rather large iceberg and also nearby I could see King Edward Cove which is where the principal settlement of Grytviken is located.

While we enjoyed breakfast, the Captain moved the ship into nearby Cumberland Bay which is home to the immense Nordenskjold Glacier. This glacier offers one of the largest walls of ice sliding into the sea anywhere in the world. Even though it was quite windy, the ship determined that it was safe to operate the zodiacs, and so we were treated to a 90 minute zodiac ride up to and along the glacial wall. DSC00030The temperature of course was around 35F, but with the strong winds it made for a cold ride. However, all of us had been properly prepared by the cruise ship before coming to this region, and we had each been given new parkas that were more than capable of keeping us safely warm.

As we approached the towering ice shelf, we could clearly hear the popping sounds of air being released from the warming ice. We had to weave our way around a sea of floating ice, which ranged all the way from a floating mixture of slush and seawater, to large icebergs. Occasionally there would be a loud noise as if a gun had been fired, but it was only the sound of a large chunk of the ice wall calving off and falling into the water. At one point, the driver of our zodiac moved us into the slush filled water and cut the motor on our boat so that we were floating soundlessly. Even with my poor hearing, I was aware of the popping sounds which filled the air, and the ever present swish, swish of the floating icy slush; amazing. Before we knew it, our time was up and we returned to the warmth of the ship.

I might mention here that sometimes the large swells make getting into and out of the zodiac a real challenge, particularly for someone like me who has developed balance issues. The seamen and expedition staff manages to pull off some of the most amazing feats in this regard. The seamen are hanging on a moving platform in cold conditions and no matter how rough the situation; they are real professionals at insuring our safety.

During lunch, our ship back tracked to Cumberland East Bay and this time entered King Edward Cove, which is where the little community of Grytviken is located. At one time Grytviken was home to a whaling station. Later it also became home to a meteorological station. When whaling died out, a ship repair facility was established, but it, too, was closed. Today the little community is home to the South Georgian Government and is a very popular destination for cruise ships visiting the Antarctic.

More important is the fact that it is here that the remains of Ernest Shackleton are buried. His story is so classic and enduring as well as being such a significant part of the history of Antarctica that I really must take just a moment to briefly outline the highlights of an incredible exploit. Shackleton was a famous explorer of Antarctica. In 1914 he set out on yet another expedition in his ship the Endurance. However in January, 1915, an early winter captured his ship in the pack ice and in spite of the heroic efforts of her crew to free the ship, it steadfastly refused to become free. The ice sheet, in which they found themselves trapped, was floating around in a clockwise rotation in what is known as the Weddell Sea. Shackleton reasoned that they would be trapped for the winter, but that when spring returned his ship should be returned to the approximate location where they had become trapped, and they would simply continue with their expedition at that time. The challenge of spending the winter on the ice was huge, but at least they had the safety of their ship and plenty of supplies.

All that changed when on October 27, 1915, the ever moving ice closed in on the ship and actually fractured the hull. There followed a race against time to remove as many of the supplies from the ship as possible before she sank; in the end, this left the crew stranded on the ice with little protection. The story which follows is one that deserves to be read in detail, but in short, Shackleton and 28 of his men managed to reach the shores of Elephant Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. Here they were at least on land, but their prospects for rescue were basically zero and their supplies were becoming exhausted. In an absolutely daring attempt to save his men, Shackleton and five other men managed to make the approximately 800 mile journey all the way to South Georgia Island in a fortified lifeboat, where they knew there was a permanent whaling station in Stromness Bay. They managed to make landfall on the southern side of the island. However, the whaling station was located over the mountains on the north side of the island. Having just barely survived the raging seas around the Island, he and two other men took the unprecedented risk of attempting to climb over the glaciers and mountains to the other side. No one in history had ever attempted that feat. By some miracle, they arrived at the Stromness administration center, and requested help in returning to get the remaining men on the other side of South Georgia Island, but more importantly, Shackleton wanted to launch a rescue mission to save his crew still in Elephant Island. I do not have the entire history in front of me, but it took several months to mount a rescue. Even then, all he was able to commandeer was the assistance of the Chilean government who dispatched an ocean going tug for the attempt. Eventually, Shackleton rescued all of his men, and the history of his achievement is one of the great legends of Antarctica.

Our afternoon outing from the ship was a visit to Grytviken, but first the zodiacs transported all of the passengers, along with a number of the crew, to a landing site just below Shackleton’s grave. From there we all walked up the hill into a well maintained, but very small graveyard, where his tombstone and his remains are buried. Shackleton actually returned to Antarctic exploration. However, he died of a heart attack while on a cruise in 1922.DSC00104 His family elected to have him buried on this island; so in a moving tribute, the ship had hauled up champagne glasses to the site so that all of us could take part in a toast to Shackleton’s memory and his heroic achievements.

From the graveside up on the hill, we all made our way into the small community. There was located a restored church from 1813, and a large number of buildings from the site’s past. The former manager’s house has been turned into a well done little museum and gift shop. It was with some sadness that we departed this little community, but not before some members of the community came onboard to give us a wonderful presentation about the efforts to restore the island to its pristine shape, and afterwards the party joined us for dinner.

Before leaving the issue of Shackleton completely, I feel compelled to relate an incident which occurred on our cruise to the Arctic in June. At that time access to the bridge of the ship was not restricted so that at any time we were free to go forward to observe operations. To reach the bridge, you first walked through a small foyer which is surrounded by the rooms for the ship’s officers. At the end of the foyer is the door leading to the bridge itself. I was mesmerized by the photographs placed all around the foyer. There are copies of many of the surviving prints from the Shackleton adventure including a picture of him and a picture of the Endurance stuck in the ice. Their ship carried a photographer; however, when the ship had to be abandoned; only a very small fraction of the glass plates on which this history was recorded could be saved. Here in this small area are many of those surviving prints. While I was standing there a young officer passed by and I commented on how historical these prints were. He looked at me with a blank expression, and so I asked if he was familiar with the Shackleton story. His reply absolutely floored me. He had never heard of Shackleton, and even though he went by these pictures every day, they meant nothing special to him. I am sorry, but if you are going to be an officer on a ship headed to the Arctic or to Antarctica, I would almost think that it would be required reading to know this story – just my opinion, mind you.

The next day Saturday, Nov. 24, dawned clear and sunny. We could see that out to sea there was a dense sea fog just offshore, but for our landing into Gold Harbor, the conditions were favorable with the exception of the winds again. Our Captain managed to expertly maneuver the ship into the lee of the surrounding hills where we had enough shelter to commence landing operations. I was curious as to why he selected a really small area of beach at the end of a much longer run. When I asked him about it, he smiled, and asked me to look closely at the beach. Then he asked, “Where else could we land?” Well, in looking closer I saw that every square inch of space was taken up by wildlife across the entire stretch of beach with the exception of the one small area he had chosen. Can you imagine a stretch of beach so populated with animals that there was quite literally no space left to land? That fact combined with the fact that the location he had selected offered the best shelter from the strong winds, and it was once again obvious that he knew what he was doing. Gee, I guess I best leave it to him to navigate the ship!

We went ashore to what our Expedition Leader calls her most favorite location in the entire world; Gold Harbor is regarded as one of South Georgia’s most beautiful sites. It is an amphitheater of hanging glaciers, large descending waterfalls, and vertical cliffs rising straight out of the sea.DSC00230 The towering snow covered peaks of Mt. Paterson create an unforgettable vista. The area is home to an abundance of seabirds and seals. King penguins rule, but we also find Gentoo penguins and a large number of albatrosses. The most unforgettable creatures occupying the beach however are the huge Elephant Seals. These creatures spend upwards of 80% of their life in the ocean, and come ashore only to bred. A large male can reach a length of over 16 feet and weigh almost 8,000lbs. They have been known to hold their breath for more than 100 minutes and can dive to over 7,000ft. They are excellent swimmers; however, on land they look to me like giant slugs! After our wet landing, Lisa and I walked the beach, being careful not to get too close to the wildlife, but in fact the wildlife came to us. The animals are not afraid of humans and many are naturally curious. At the water’s edge there was a constant stream of penguins going to and from the water. They would walk for large distances to reach the beach, then go and find food, only to return and walk back to their nest to feed the chicks. We saw some penguin colonies at what seemed like impossible heights up the steep cliffs, and wondered in amazement at how these cute little animals could make the trip up and down.

After our journey ashore, the Captain moved the ship back to sea, where we entered the fog for our short journey down the coast to Cooper Bay. As we entered the Bay, the fog lifted to a mostly overcast sky, but the winds were howling at a steady 35kts, gusting to 40kts. The ship will not, for safety reasons, launch zodiacs with winds exceeding 30kts, so an outing was in question. Once again our Captain managed to position the ship such that the winds were within safe limits, and even though it was windy, and the swells were a little rough, we launched for a one hour zodiac cruise into the many little coves around the Bay.DSC00265 Nestled on the rocks within the coves, and nesting among the large tuffs of grass were the Macaroni penguins. Actually more fun than the cute little penguins were the seals which found our little zodiacs almost irresistible to play around. For an hour we were ceaselessly entertained, and while we never got ashore, we got a lot of good photographs, before returning to our ship.

At this point, we all thought that we were saying our “goodbyes” to South Georgia and heading off to Antarctica; however, around 7pm our evening briefing was stopped, and we were told to grab our coats and cameras so that we could go outside for a little surprise provided by the Captain. As we all ran to do as suggested, I looked outside to see some stunning scenery. By the time I got on deck, it was raining, but I could see that the Captain was taking our ship through a narrow passage. Macaroni penguins were swimming in the sea and up on the cliffs. After we got through the small opening, the ship was surrounded on all sides by high ice-capped mountains with a glacial front right before us. There was not much room for the ship to maneuver, so after reaching the middle of the little bay, the Captain slowly rotated the ship and returned out to sea, as we all sat in awe at what we had seen. What a wonderful farewell to South Georgia.

Today and tomorrow we will be at sea on our way to Elephant Island.

Tomorrow I hope to have time to work on my photographs, but in the meantime I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.


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