I knew that the ice had come far north that season...
Three hundred miles north of South Georgia Island, we sailed through a
corridor of icebergs to arrive here. In stately procession, they appeared like
translucent channel markers in the open sea. As we drew close to them, I could see water lapping their shores and forming turquoise pools, as if they were
immoveable islands. But those ramparted towers of ice are transient and
only appeared in the region weeks or even days ago.
South Georgia appears in the distance beyond one of dozens of icebergs we passed en route to the island.
Our Antarctic filming coordinators, David Rootes
and Nick Lewis, were
amazed. "I've never seen an iceberg north of South Georgia," Rootes said. "It's quite extraordinary."
It was an extraordinary year, too, in 1914, when Shackleton arrived in
Grytviken, his last port of call before sailing south to be the first to
cross the continent of Antarctica. That year, bergs and pack ice were rumored to be farther
north than in recent memory. As we sail into South Georgia's Cumberland Bay, we see
Grytviken nestled at the base of the iced peaks of Mount Sugartop and Duse
Fell. At Grytviken, Shackleton sought out the whalers, the prospectors of
the oil trade who knew these waters better than anyone. It was they who
flocked to the subantarctic islands in the early 19th century, along
with seal hunters, fired by accounts of wildlife in the journals of Captain
The first to explore South Georgia, Cook was sufficiently
disillusioned by his quest to name a northwestern outcrop Cape
Disappointment and declare the island "doomed by Nature to everlasting frigidness and never
to feel the warmth of the sun's rays, whose horrible and savage aspect I
have not words to describe." Failing to sight Antarctica, he also failed to
see the beauty of this stark island.
By the time Shackleton arrived, on the eve of his great odyssey, the whaling
station at Grytviken had been in operation for ten years. The whalers and
sealers had vastly reduced numbers of their quarry but in the process had
sketched in the map of the Antarctic.
If anyone knew what the Weddell Sea held in store, it was surely the
The whaling factory at Grytviken, where whalers stripped or flensed carcasses and rendered oil.
"What welcome was the Weddell Sea preparing for us?" wrote Shackleton in South, his
book recounting the expedition. "The whaling captains at South
Georgia were generously ready to share with me their knowledge of the waters
in which they pursued their trade, and, while confirming earlier information
as to the extreme severity of ice conditions in this sector of the Antarctic,
they were able to give advice that was worth attention." The whalers warned
that the pack ice was farther north than they had ever seen it before and
impenetrable farther south.
On our first foray onto South Georgia, it is clear that these days the population of
elephant seals is greater than that of people. Battle-scarred bull
seals occupy the low shoreline with their harems of cows and pups,
lounging languidly until roused to fend off interlopers. The only permanent human
residents are the dedicated curators of the South Georgia Whaling Museum and
a British army garrison.
Closed in 1964, the whaling station stands
derelict, rusted hulks decaying both on land and in water. We are cautioned to
stay clear of the ruins. Nick Lewis recently completed an environmental
study of the island's whaling stations and found that they were chock full of asbestos and loose sheet metal, which high winds can turn into lethal flying objects. Reclamation of the sites would pose immense problems with safe
containment and disposal and would cost South Georgia's tiny government a staggering sum. So here the stations stand, untouched, monuments to a bloody trade.
Its kind once prized for oil, a bull elephant seal dozes in the shadow of the derelict factory.
By contrast, the backdrop of soaring Duse Fell is magnificent, though katabatic winds, rushing colder air to the bottom of the mountain, gust and rattle the ship menacingly. In the days ahead, we will have a chance to explore this legendary place—and try to picture for ourselves the Endurance leaving the harbor on its fateful journey into the Weddell Sea.
Answer to October 24 Question of the Day:
You hope to be the first explorer to cross the continent of Antarctica.
Where does your trip start and end? What time of year will you travel?
I have skied across Antarctica along the same route as Shackleton intended
to take: from Berkner Island via the South Pole to McMurdo Sound. This is a
good route but hard, because the use of windpower is limited. The other
option is from Queen Maud Land, which I probably would choose if I were ever
to do it again. It's longer, but winds are more favorable almost all the way
to McMurdo (except the first part up through the mountains). The route would
be via the South Pole and down either Beardmore or Axel Heiberg glaciers to
There's no point starting too early. It's cold in October; best to start in
the beginning of November. But I would not like to start any later than 15th
November, if I planned to finish in about three months, which should be
sufficient. If you start too late, you'll run into bad weather and low
temperatures at the other end, which is not good when you're worn out.
take the bad weather at the start.
—Borge Ousland crossed Antarctica unsupported along Shackleton's intended
route in 1996-97.