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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
King Haakon Bay
November 5, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: King Haakon Bay, South Georgia Wind: 11 knots, NE
Latitude: 54 degrees 09'S Air Temp: 31°F
Longitude: 37 degrees 19'W Water Temp: 40°F
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.

Berg and South Georgia 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.

Cave cove 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.

Fur seal 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.

Albatross chick 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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Question of the Day
You're not feeling so well. You have a burning sensation in your eyes. What's wrong?

    Previous Questions

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)

Sound of the Day
Fur seal growling:
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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: (1-4) Kelly Tyler.

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