NOVA Online (see text links below)
Home Shackleton's Expedition Surviving Antarctica Explore Antarctic Islands Classroom Site Map
Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Arriving in South Georgia
October 27, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Grytviken, South Georgia Wind: 17 knots, N
Latitude: 54 degrees 17'S Air Temp: 50°F
Longitude: 36 degrees 30'W Water Temp: 42°F
I knew that the ice had come far north that season...

        —Ernest Shackleton
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.

Iceberg 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 James Cook.

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 whalers.

Grytiviken 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.

Bull elephant seal 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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Question of the Day
If you were Shackleton, what kind of people would you choose for your crew? What kind of training would you give them?

Watch the next dispatch for a response from our guest commentator, celebrated explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

    Previous Questions

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 McMurdo.

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. Better to take the bad weather at the start.
Borge Ousland crossed Antarctica unsupported along Shackleton's intended route in 1996-97.

Sound of the Day
The Akademik Shuleykin's anchor being dropped in Grytviken Harbor.
    RealAudio: 28.8 | ISDN | Get RealPlayer software

View Expedition Maps


Survival Training (October 19, 1999)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)

Photos: (1-3) Kelly Tyler.

Printer-Friendly Format   Feedback

Shackleton's Expedition | Surviving Antarctica | Explore Antarctic Islands
Classroom | Resources | Transcript | Teacher's Guide
Site Map | Shackleton Home

Search | Site Map | Previously Featured | Schedule | Feedback | Teachers | Shop
Join Us/E-Mail | About NOVA | Editor's Picks | Watch NOVAs Online | To Print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated March 2002

Shop Teachers Feedback Schedule Previously Featured Site Map Search NOVA Online Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance Sound of the Day Question of the Day Now