Point Wild, Elephant Island

Leaving the Sub-Antarctic Island of South Georgia, we arrive at 61 degrees latitude and Elephant Island. Not the main continent yet, but oh-so close.

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Shackleton took this route in reverse in a rowboat, very desperate to save his men left behind at Point Wild. It took him sixteen days and a hurricane to sail 800 miles. The five men with him thought they would die– many times over.

It took us two days in spectacular comfort and a New Year’s celebration “The Boss” wouldn’t have believed. We are following Shackleton’s 1916 footsteps without a lick of discomfort.img_1845

After the Endurance sank, it took Shackleton’s crew 480 days  (1 year and 4 months!) to pull rowboats filled with supplies across contorted ice to reach the nearest land — Elephant Island.

We sailed past the first landing site at Cape Valentine, and immediately understood Shackleton’s anxiety for a more secure place. There isn’t a barrier for monstrous waves barreling across the Southern Ocean or protection from rock slides behind. They sailed westward, landing at Point Wild. This place is named for Shackleton’s second in command, Frank Wild, the officer who stayed behind to keep the men alive for 4 1/2 months. Frank died in 1939 with WWII raging. His wish to be buried next to Shackleton in the Grytviken cemetery didn’t occur until 2011 when his ashes were discovered by an author writing a book about him.

After I read the book Endurance, I imagined a wide glacial valley with room to roam. In reality, it’s a shocking, tiny spit of rock  hemmed in by an immense 4 mile wide glacier.  Mady–the dsc07359Endurance Glacier (named after the rescue) is a piedmont glacier. Do you know what that means? Did you know there are so many glaciers in Antarctica that many have never been named?  Maybe your class can petition to name one. See the blue ice? This means it’s old and compressed.

Winds often reach 100 mph. Being a Shackleton fan, it was important for me to see this island.  The agent told me, “Only one in nine ships get to offload zodiacs, because the water is too rough.” But we were blessed with a rare day, calm enough to be the first group in Shane’s 15 years of expeditions to allow guests to kayak.img_1735

The statue at the point is dedicated to Luis Pardo Villalon, the Chilean  captain who rescued the 22 men (on Shackleton’s 4th attempt) with his ship, the Yelcho.

The rowboats left behind were either washed out to sea or broken to pieces over the last 100 years. Chinstrap penguins and a lonely Weddell Seal were vacationing here this day.

I’m so happy to have been so close to where such a miraculous and inspiring historical event occurred. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how they all made it home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooper Bay and Drygalski Fjord

img_1581-2This is a juvenile blue-eyed Cormorant, still in brown plumage. A giant Petral takes off before me. img_1505

 

 

 

Cooper  Bay is a mountainous land carved by glaciers on the Southern end of South Georgia.
Here you’ll find the largest nesting site of Chinstrap penguins on South Georgia.  Can you guess why some of them have pinkish-brown staining? They eat mostly Krill and some Shrimp. These guys laid in guano and need to take a bath.

Cruising along the coast, bumping around kelp festooned boulders and jutting pieces of rock, we found a large group of Macaroni Penguins. Big, soft snowflakes began to fall, making the scene otherworldly. These birds weigh about twelve pounds and stand about 28″ tall. They get their unusual name from 18th century slang for a person who is flamboyant in their dress, rather than having cheesy-noodle crowns.

Just before leaving this large sub-Antarctic island (we aren’t at the continent yet), the captain sailed the ship through narrow (seven miles long) Drygalski Fjord. Glacier scoured mountains soar out of the ocean, blocking the sky. We floated through brash ice, and heard the shot-gun blast of calving ice falling into the water around us.

At the terminal end is  Risting Glacier, named for a Norwegian whaling historian. These pictures were taken from the ship, so try to comprehend the magnitude of the tidal face looming many stories tall and burying almost five miles of terrain.

 

Glowing Gold Harbor

Located on the Southeast side of South Georgia with the Bertrab Glacier hanging over soaring cliffs,img_1287 Gold Harbor is as beautiful as the metal, but not named for it. Instead, the moniker originated from sentimental sealers for the brilliant aura the sun casts on the cliffs in the morning and at sunset.img_1412

Waddling about in the bright green tussock grass are male Gentoo penguins searching for just the right color or shape of rock to offer his beloved(s). Some lonely females swoon with pleasure, when baby penguin daddy takes his turn to feed at sea. Pretty rocks are very tempting.

Drag your eyes from this telenovela, and listen to the crescendo of trumpeting King Penguins . Many stand tipped back on their heels with fur poofing over the egg balanced on their feet. Parents hatch one chick. It takes over a year (14 months) from egg to fledge, that’s a long time for a bird to be a parent. Usually long-lived animals are monogamous, but divorce for King Penguins is high. Time is of the essence when they return to breed. The survival rate for chicks is higher for early hatches. If last years mate is late–there ain’t no date.

Brown, fluffy juveniles hound their parents for food. Another interesting fact: in winter the juveniles live in “creches” and don’t eat when food is scarce, relying on their fat reserves. In spring, the parents resume feeding their young.

Molting makes the kid penguins look a wee rough. Too grungy. Strung out and seeking solace. Many act kind of goofy, running around in circles. Adolescence is hard on everyone, but flipper-flapping is exercise for when they can finally swim.

Closer to the beach, “weaner” elephant seals roar and wrestle, becoming strong too. They’ll be mature in four years, but it takes six to eight before they can fight hard enough to become beachmasters, and control an average harem of 70 cows. Being a ladies man requires hard work, resulting in a short life.

Patrolling the beach are bird predators: Skua (related to gulls) and Giant Petrals, with the illustrious reputation of  ‘vultures of the Antarctic’ for how they gorge on dead carrion.

 

 

St. Andrew’s Bay, “Weaner” Heaven

Are you lost? Check out this map . map_of_south-georgia-1We started in the Northeast of Georgia at Right whale Bay, followed by Salisbury Plain, Leith and Stomness whaling stations, and onward to Grytviken. Sailing down the coast, this stop is Saint Andrews Bay with the next submission from Gold Harbour. The final visits will be Drygalski Fjord and Cape Disappointment.

Our Quark Expedition itinerary states: “Thirty years ago, Cook Glacier terminated at the high water mark on the beach in a spectacular 30 meter (98 feet) high, 500 meter (546.8 yard) long ice cliff.” With recession and melting, we now see distinct glacier toes of Grace and Lucas glaciers between soaring ice-scraped rock. Saint Andrews Bay has the largest colony of King Penguins in the world (up to 500,000) and vast numbers of Elephant Seals. On this cloudy day, rougher waves made photography a challenge.

 

Imagine walking through a wide glacial plain, approached by the wildlife. The roar of sparring elephant seals echoes like distant thunder. There are so many animals and birds that I turn in circles, eyes and mouth open in wonder. img_0992

ELEPHANT SEALS:

Only the “weaners” (weaned young and some adolescents) remain on the beach this late December day.

Bull Seals are 13-16 feet long and weigh 4,500-8,000 pounds. These “beachmasters” left for a solitary ocean life as soon as mating was finished. Not good dads. The cows, a svelte 1,500 pounds and 10 ft long, only feed the pups for 28 days, during which time the youngsters gain over 300 pounds. Then they slink away, leaving too. Tough love at its finest.

Ten percent of (mostly male) weaners figure out how to steal milk, and become double-mother sucklers. They sneak in,  quietly push younger pups away until they are discovered.  The interlopers are promptly bitten, chased away and forced to live in juvenile pods where they nestle together for heat.

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Thermokinesis to keep warm

The weaners won’t leave the beach until after they molt— and hey—it gets chilly when skin  sheds, so thermokinesis is essential. This process can take two months and result in substantial weight loss, but it’s also when these hunky babes learn to swim.

Both males and females enjoy head-banging and pushing each other around. Mock fighting does involve biting and injuries do happen.

KING PENGUINS:

I got sucked into the mesmerizing vortex of watching these (second largest) colorful penguins.

 

They don’t build nests. Both parents take turns holding the egg on their feet, hidden under fur and nestled against bare skin. Average Kings weigh 33 pounds, average height is three feet. They raise two chicks every three years. Leopard Seals are the biggest predators ( more on them later) and Skuas eat unattended eggs or chicks.

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Skua, waiting for dining opportunities

 

 

“wooly” or “oakum”( named after caulking in old sailing ships) penguins appear larger than mature Kings. Once upon a time, researchers thought they were a separate breed, but they are juvenile Kings that haven’t molted yet. These guys relentlessly beg to be fed, but the parents have evasive maneuvers worthy of  Super Bowl contenders.

Once the juveniles get their plumage, they are waterproof and can fish for themselves. Molting makes them look like steam-punk rock stars, but behavior indicates a miserable process.

At St. Andrew’s, many weaners and King penguins aren’t afraid to approach. If you put down gear, they will climb on it. If you stand in one place too long, they will climb on top of your boots. They seem curious, checking us out. One of my friends thought a weaner tried to kiss her. I said, “Nope. It’s a test to see if you’ll lay down and breastfeed.”

Other critters on the beach: Fur seals above. Below: Petrals and Vladimir with a group of us reflected in his ski goggles (couldn’t resist). An amazing place to be, folks! Quite an honor.

 

 

 

 

 

Grytviken

img_0909Carl Larsen began this processing station in 1904 after discovering a whale-filled, sheltered  bay. The name in Norwegian means “the pot cove” from animal melting try-pots that sealers left behind.img_5307

The first year, Larsen’s company never had to leave the bay to harvest whales because there were so many. They took 183. (Keep note of this number.) In 1906, the Governor of the Falklands attempted to regulate the industry with laws requiring: no harvesting of females with calves, no rare Right whales, only two “catcher” boats per station, and mandatory use of every part of the kill. img_0918

The arrival of factory ships at sea destroyed any hopes for sustainable harvesting. What happens at sea, stays at sea. Fifty years later, Grytviken harvested 53,761 whales and many of those mammals were taken by unlicensed sources. (Quite an increase from #183!) Whale oil sold as high as 90 British pounds sterling for each metric ton. This was during WWII, when blubber was used in the production of nitroglycerin.

At one time, 500 men worked here rendering whales and seals into oil, meat, or fertilizer.   Senior officials and Larsen raised their families here. It would have been a rough place for children. Although Larsen had a church built, a Lutheran pastor made the comment, “Religious life among whalers leaves much to be desired.”

Potatoes were stored in the church for a time and movies shown there until the cinema was built. On our tour, we were told that alcohol was forbidden, but the commissary had a booming sale in perfume. At first, officials thought the men offset the stench of the killing field. Later, it was discovered the men drank the perfume to get buzzed.

Whaling continued here through 1964 ( by the Japanese), but the outpost became a victim of its own success. Without measures to protect what they harvested, the number of whales dropped. WW11 also saw advances in new products and technology, essentially making whaling obsolete. The Fur and Elephant weaners are quite at home here now.

Today, Grytviken is maintained by the South Georgia Heritage Trust with a terrific museum and the last post office before the seventh continent. You can buy liquor here now–a nice bottle of South Georgia  scotch in the gift shop.

When we returned to the ship, the 20-or-so summer residents of Grytviken joined us on deck for a fantastic BBQ

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8 Penguins Boil Down to 2 Gallons of Oil

6,000 Elephant Seals yielded 2,000 tons of quality oil per year.

Not just whales were harvested for oil used in margarine, transmission fluid, or for lamp fuel. This puts the disturbing abuse of natural resources for energy into perspective. Most of the hunted penguins were the animated Gentoo, with their cherry red beaks right out of a Max Factor makeup commercial.

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But a single whale produced 120 gallons of oil and therein was the bigger prize. All whales were taken, but the sperm whale produced an extraordinary high grade wax from the brain cavity that was worth three to five times more than any other oil.

Can we justify what our ancestors did? “They didn’t know the impact on the environment,” or “They didn’t have energy options.” Stop a moment and consider what  we may be accused of in the future, with excuses made to keep dirty or dangerous fuels?

Stromness and Leith were South Georgia whaling stations, now silent testimony of the bloody past . Imagine the stench in this place as whales were hauled by chains from the water and  dragged up the flat plain for processing. The area would have been slick with blood and smelled of excrement and rotting carcases. The lonely graveyards are testament of dangerous working conditions.

Fur seals were almost eradicated by 1910, but their numbers have rebounded. I think it’s poetic justice that the men are gone,but these hunted mammals populate the rusting ghost towns. (notice the blonde pup? Only 1 in 1,000 are born this color)

In 1916, Shackleton struggled to reach Stromness after enduring a hurricane in a rowboat and landing on the wrong side of this mountainous island that had never been circumvented before.  Hiking up, they reached an immense glacier and took a leap of faith by sliding down the icy precipice-the quickest way to their destination. Without survival gear, ropes,  or crampons, this was a huge risk. Falling into a crevasse would have meant death. But nothing was safe about Shackleton’s expedition from the first moment the Endurance got trapped in the ice.

What fortitude did it take to survive against such horrible odds?

Look back at Scott’s 1900-1904 expedition when Shackleton hired on as a third lieutenant. These two men were different breeds. Shackleton was every man’s friend and a merchant marine. Scott was elite Royal Navy and led a privileged life.  This expedition was a life of hard knocks for them both. Neither skied and both were inexperienced handling dog sledges.  Still, they went further south than ever before. When Shackleton collapsed with scurry and all the dogs died, it’s believed the rift between the two men exploded. Did Scott blame Shackleton, never letting him forget that he was a liability? Did Shackleton not respect Scott’s methods of authority?

Feeling himself the underdog,  Shackleton would have understood what it took to be a good commander.  This helps explain his unbending will to protect his men at all costs. He’d already walked in their shoes.

We also followed the last miles of The Bosses self-rescue, ducking screetching Antarctic Tern’s and visiting the station where the emergency rescue for his men began. It took Shackleton four tries and four months before conquering the ice and finding his team alive on Elephant Island. He’s not remembered for failing in life or his exploration bids. He’s honored for conquering insurmountable odds to become a hero and save lives.

Leith is close to Stromness and Japan used the facility through the 1960’s, long after baleen from whales wasn’t used for ladies umbrellas, corset stays, or riding whips.

In 2015, Japan agreed to stop hunting in Antarctica, after it was ruled illegal by the international court. But they found a loophole and harvested 333 minke whales for a “scientific program” that ended up on the dinner plate. Considering the overall amount of seafood harvested by Japan, this small quantity indicates lower consumer demand. Norway, Iceland, and Russia also have commercial whaling operations.

To play devil’s advocate, in our culture baby cows are killed as veal. Unless you are vegetarian, you eat mammals. Some cultures see whales as fish and a food source, while others see the emotional character from “Free Willy.”

The watchdog of populations and health of whales is the responsibility of the International Whaling Commission, which is a voluntary organization laying down bans.

Japan has stated they will resume harvesting whales in Antarctica. Personally, I don’t think ANY country should take ANY resources from this wilderness. This is our last pristine place, balanced in a delicate ecosystem. There are other places for controlled harvest (Example: around Norway and Iceland where historically whaling is part of the culture.)

What can you do, if you oppose harvesting of whales? Research your perfume, cosmetics, soaps and glue to be sure whale parts aren’t used. Let those companies know that you don’t support them and why. Support the International Whaling Commission and organizations that research these mammals and when you travel, do not eat whale meat. If companies don’t make money killing whales, the harvesting will stop.

Pictures below: Sei Whale, Humpback Whale and Minke. I cannot describe my excitement at being next to these giant creatures in a small zodiac boat.

 

 

 

South Georgia landings at Right Whale Bay and Salisbury Plain

We were supposed to land in the morning at Elsehul, on the NW of South Georgia Island but conditions weren’t favorable. This is part of traveling in this part of the world. One must be flexible. Patient.

Instead, Shane took a look at Right Whale Bay for our morning cruise. We couldn’t hike, because the beach was full of testy male fur seals making landing impossible but the cruise was fantastic.

After lunch, we headed to Salisbury Plain. Historically, this was a favorite hunting ground for sealers (both fur and elephant) in the 19th century. Easy access and landing sites with huge numbers of animals made harvesting quick. Today, Salisbury has the second largest King Penguin colony with up to 250,000 individuals during the molting period. We were able to cruise and hike.  It was an amazing experience, being in the minority and having the privilege of stepping into this animal kingdom.