And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
We sailed for the south coast of South Georgia in the night, and by morning,
we were in another world. Here the austral winter lingers, with subfreezing
temperatures and damp, chilling winds. The surface of the water glitters with
glassy shards of forming pack ice. Through the entire coastal journey,
the ship threaded its way through a lane of icebergs more massive than any we
had seen before. It is treacherous here, because the waters are still partially
uncharted, and the depths not fully known.
The view from the Shuleykin as we sail around to the island's south side.
For Ernest Shackleton,
Tom Crean, and Frank Worsley,
the task was infinitely more difficult. Their charts showed blank stretches
bounded by inaccurate observations. Unaccountably, they had sailed nearly
800 miles and 17 days in the James Caird and were now in sight of land.
Their food was nearly gone, their water supply now brackish from leaking
saltwater, and their strength ebbing away. Reefs and islets barred the way.
Pelting them with snow and sleet, a sudden gale escalated into a hurricane
and vicious swell that threatened to dash them against the rocky cliffs.
Tacking away from the longed-for coast, they battled the storm until nearly
dusk, when a shift in the wind allowed them to slip into a tiny cove near
Cape Rosa. Landing on the stony beach, they slaked their thirst with water
from a stream and collapsed in a bordering cave. They had barely averted
disaster for themselves and the men marooned on Elephant Island; Shackleton
later wrote, "I think most of us had a feeling that the end was very near."
We arrived by zodiac in Shackleton's haven today with Tim and Pauline Carr,
South Georgia's longtime residents and protectors. We know this cove already,
Shackleton and Worsley having described it so well. To the left of the beach
is the shallow cave, fringed with icicles just as Shackleton noted.
The clear stream still flows down the hillside, clumped with the same
tussock grass the men cut to sleep on during their first night of rest
after their ordeal.
Worsley navigated the James Caird into this tiny cove, which Shackleton subsequently named Cave Cove, near Cape Rosa in King Haakon Bay.
Fur seals watched us warily from the beach and the bay. With their compact,
silver-furred bodies, they are elegant creatures, flippering sleekly in the
water searching for krill. Then one emits an unearthly low growl and bares
its long, needle-sharp teeth, taking on a more sinister aspect. The teeth are
for chewing air holes through pack ice, but during mating season, the fiercely
territorial seals use them to defend against all comers, seal and human alike.
One can almost imagine their jarring hostility to be a response to
long-remembered injustices of another generation. When Captain James Cook's
journals of his Antarctic wanderings were published, his tales of thriving seal
colonies in the subantarctic islands unleashed a rush of seal hunters to the
Southern Ocean (see Mapping Terra Incognita).
The sealers visited wholesale slaughter upon the creatures of each newly
discovered locale; invariably, within a season or two, the once-thronged seal
beaches were deserted. In 1821-22, explorer James Weddell estimated that sealers
clubbed or shot to death 320,000 seals in the South Shetland Islands alone. His
call for conservation and hunting limits was a voice in the wilderness. By the
1820s, the fur seal was nearly extinct. A brief lull allowed the seals to slowly
win back a foothold here, but another spell of extermination in the late century
hit them hard, and they are only now rebuilding their numbers.
Appearing deceptively small and benign, a fur seal stands sentinel over Cave Cove.
Rising steeply from the beach is a slope covered with mounds of tussock grass. As
we climb, we're careful to avoid invisible gullies that sometimes drop as much as
two feet lower. We are wary: A musky, skunkish odor announces the presence of more
seals hidden in the dense grass. They sprint faster than humans on land, and their
painful bites invariably become infected.
Cresting the precipitous incline at the top of a ridge, we see below us Queen
Maud Bay, choked with icebergs, and King Haakon Bay, bounded by brilliant
blue-shot glaciers. Before us is a dazzling sight absent from the island's
north side: The sky is filled with wheeling petrels, prions, and albatrosses.
Here on the south side of the island, dainty fairy prions have found a home.
Burrowing their nests underground, the prions on the north coast have been
rooted out by the rats disembarking there from whaling ships earlier in the
century. Safe enough to prosper here, these dainty petrels are still vulnerable.
As we pick our way through the tussock grass, we notice several pale wings
strewn on the ground. After a day of feeding
at sea, the prions must flutter back into their burrows by dusk, for predator
skuas attack the latecomers, eating them whole but for the wings.
Hidden amidst a sea of grass, a wandering albatross chick nests above King Haakon Bay.
At the crest of a hill, the Carrs point out a wandering albatross nest and caution
us to keep still. There is a sudden flapping in the nest, and a pair of wings, spanning
about six feet, elbow tentatively out. Then, focusing on the occupant, I see that it is
covered with downy fluff. This sizeable bird is just a fledgling, which the Carrs guess
to be about three months old. As an adult, its wingspan will stretch over 11 feet.
Once again, we are retracing Shackleton's footsteps: "...Crean and I climbed the
tussock slope behind the beach and reached the top of a headland overlooking the
sound. There we found the nests of albatrosses and, much to our delight, the nests
contained young birds." Starving, they took several birds for their first substantial
sustenance in months. Worsley was conflicted, writing later, "The first time I killed
one I felt like a murderer." But with life flowing back into his body, he allowed
that "we were then transgressing under the sterner law of necessity."
Their respite was brief. For ahead of them lay another journey, one for which
again they were ill-equipped, into the uncharted interior of South Georgia.
Largely unexplored, its mountains and glaciers were thought to be uncrossable.
Yet barely returned from the brink of death, Shackleton and his men had to cross
them to secure rescue at the whaling stations on the other side. In the next few
days, we will take a closer look at some of the very areas they traversed.
Answer to November 3 Question of the Day:
You're navigating the modern British naval icebreaker, HMS Endurance. You've got to pilot the ship through brash ice or passed a tabular berg. Which do you choose?
Sailing through pack ice is all in a day's work for the icebreaker HMS Endurance. But
close encounters with a tabular berg possibly weighing millions of tons is to be avoided.
Before it started breaking apart, a berg floating off the coast of Tierra del Fuego was the
size of Rhode Island. It's still so big—and dangerous - that authorities have instructed
the Shuleykin and all other ships to steer at least 15 miles clear of it.
Check out Kingdom of Ice and know your ice, so
you'll be in for smooth sailing. (Requires Flash Plugin)