Friday, 21 November 2014

A refuge in the middle of nowhere

After almost two days at sea we had crossed the Drake Passage relatively unscathed and approached the iconic Elephant Island. The island plays a central role in the Shackleton saga. There’s not enough room in the blog to go over all of this but the short story is that “the Boss” and 27 of his men made it to Elephant Island after losing the Endurance to sea ice much farther south.

The trip was unbelievably arduous but forms only one of several monumental accomplishments that is the Shackleton saga. Their first landing on Elephant Island was on Cape Valentine but it was clear that they could not stay there. The next morning four men under Frank Wild set out in one of their small boats to find a better landing. They returned in the evening with news they had found such a place just 7 miles farther down the north coast of Elephant Island.

That place we visited today! About it, Hurley, the expedition photographer wrote “such a wild and inhospitable coast I have never beheld”. The exact location where 22 of Shackleton’s men spent 4 months on Elephant Island is now called Cape Wild in honour of Frank Wild, who was left in command of the shore men when Shackleton and five of his men sailed to South Georgia in the James Caird.

Our plan was to land on Cape Wild. This was a particularly exciting prospect, even for the seasoned Antarctic travellers amongst us, as few had ever done so before. Alas, our plans were thwarted by a heavy swell, which pounded the Cape. Instead, Fram heaved-to long enough for us to fully contemplate what it might have been like to live there for 4 months. The conditions of heavy swell onshore, overcast conditions, low ceiling and snow flurries really helped this contemplation.
Waves pound the "Gnomon", the rocky bluff protecting the cape seaward
Nearby breeding Chinstrap Penguins
Cape Wild with the Pardo monument to the right
Cape Wild today seemed surrounded by breeding Chinstrap Penguins, as it probably was in Shackleton's days, almost 100 years ago. And lucky for the men who stayed there too, because had it not been for the penguins they would likely have starved to death. What is curious is that the men were left on Elephant Island at the very end of the penguin breeding season (April) and they had another 4 months to wait before they were rescued by Capt. Pardo in the Chilean tugboat "Yelcho". Penguins normally leave for sea at that time of year. However, luck must have been on their side for they were able to kill penguins during the winter and survive, one and all.

Cape Wild