Elephant Island

Feb 22, 2019 - National Geographic Orion

Elephant Island. The name is synonymous with Sir Ernest Shackleton and one of the greatest survival stories of all time. Our ship anchors under the jagged ramparts of one of the most forbidding islands in the Antarctic—a single glance is enough to chill the marrow. The thought that 22 men spent an entire winter here hoping for rescue brings the nightmare prospect of either freezing or starving to death into stark reality.

We are at Lookout Point, a name from the 1820’s sealers: Look out for dangerous rocks and tide rips! Undaunted, we launch Zodiacs and explore up close, finding in a narrow, sheltered inlet a new species for us: the Macaroni penguin. Its crazy yellow eyebrows and stout red beak are features of this group called crested penguins. We all make it safely back on board, our chilled, thrilled shipmates jumping back onto the Marina Deck like lively red penguins. We are getting good at this amphibious lifestyle, but a hot drink and a warm lounge are precious luxuries.

The ship follows the southern shore of the island, passing the eastern tip where Shackleton’s three tiny whaleboats made their first precarious landing. This was their first contact with solid ground for 497 days: they spent 10 months with Endurance trapped in the frozen winter sea, four and a half months camping on sea-ice, still drifting north, and finally six horrendous days sailing and rowing before making landfall on Elephant Island. From this barren beach they moved to the only raised spit they could find to camp beyond the reach of the freezing surf. This headland was called Point Wild after Shackleton’s second-in-command, Frank Wild. Our Captain maneuvers gently into the bay to see if a Zodiac trip is feasible. But 45 knot winds and a freezing blizzard is Elephant Island’s emphatic answer, showing us just how wild Point Wild can be.

When Shackleton set off from here to seek a rescue ship, he left the remainder of the crew between a rock and a hard place. Their camp faced an implacable ocean, a sheer rock cliff on one side, and on the other a giant glacier with its own freezing katabatic winds. Just 20 minutes on deck, thinking about the second winter they endured here, left us with our own pinched faces and ice-cold hands.

As we pulled away to start our next leg to the east, we suddenly found ourselves among a jumping jamboree of feeding fin whales. Everywhere we looked whales were surfacing with bursting blows of spray and vapour, racing to and fro to gorge on a krill bonanza. The naturalists estimated 50-100 animals, including calves, at times racing under our bow, oblivious to our presence. The throng was intensified by a crowd of weaving albatrosses, petrels, prions, and storm-petrels all eager to join the feast. Fired by this exceptional event, we all descended on the back deck for our own feeding frenzy, falling remorselessly on a spread of ice cream, crumble, nuts, and nuggets as backup against our own heroic survival story. Heaven forbid we should have to row this ship to South Georgia…

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About the Author

Ian Bullock


Ian Bullock is a British biologist who lives in St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, on the south-western seaboard of Wales. He grew up in Cambridge but was always drawn to the rugged cliffs of the west coast, from childhood seaside holidays in Cornwall to his university training as a zoologist in Bangor, North Wales.

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