by Tim Johnson
A full century after this English explorer’s miraculous open-boat voyage, South Georgia still beckons explorers.
We landed our Zodiacs on the rocky beach at Fortuna Bay, a windswept, desolate place, fit for explorers. Fringed by velvety green tussocks and hemmed in by forbidding, frosted peaks, we strode up on shore, where a sea of kings confronted us. Predatory skua circled ominously overhead, riding the winds in search of eggs to steal, while soft brown “oakum boys” came toward us, a sort of ersatz welcoming party, running out and flapping their furry wings in excitement and anticipation. Steve Bailey—the chatty, ridiculously knowledgeable resident bird expert on board our ship—explained that these juvenile penguins are both happy to see us, and taking the opportunity for a bit of exercise. “They’re getting ready to be active, and swim on their own,” he observed.
Then Bailey outlined the significance of this spot. Pointing high into the gray range behind us, Bailey noted that the turn-of-the-century, intrepid polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton traversed that glacier before making his way through those peaks, eventually making his way to the very beach where we now stood. Baily then gestured ahead. “And then, he hiked on, over that saddle, all the way to Stromness.”
Adeline Heyman/Courtesy One Ocean Expeditions
I was sailing on the MV Akademik Sergey Vavilov along the coast of South Georgia, a 165-kilometre-long, sub-Antarctic island that’s home to zero permanent residents, stunning scenery, and millions of fur seals and penguins. Exactly 100 years ago, this island etched an indelible mark in the history of seafaring feats when Ernest Shackleton, along with five companions, sailed the James Caird, a glorified lifeboat, 720 nautical miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia. In so doing, he saved dozens of his crew stranded back on Elephant; less than six years later, Shackleton himself would pass on a separate, later voyage, making this remote place his final resting place.
David McEown/Courtesy One Ocean Expeditions
Setting sail in 1914 on the Endurance, Shackleton and his crew embarked on the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition, seeking to achieve the first land crossing of the continent, but things went wrong in October 1915, before they reached Antarctica. Locked into the infamous, treacherous pack ice of the Weddell Sea, the ship was ultimately lost, leaving the men to face months of surviving on the frozen sea, living off the meat and blubber of seals and penguins, before making their way in lifeboats to Elephant Island. Shackleton’s 1916 voyage in the James Caird was a journey of desperation, at best. With just a sextant and a rarely-seen sun, Frank Worsely managed to land the party at King Haakon Bay on the far side of the island, with an epic journey still ahead—36 hours of hiking to reach the whaling stations on the leeward side.
Making our way through the roiling waters of the Southern Ocean, we set sail from the Falkland Islands. After two days at sea, we landed—like Shackleton before us—at King Haakon. It was a wet welcome, rain pelting us mercilessly as ploughed through the whitecaps in zodiacs and heavy all-weather gear to reach dry land. First striding over the beach to Peggotty Bluff – where Shackleton’s men recovered under their upturned boat after sixteen terrible days at sea – we found that corner guarded by a massive elephant seal, its incredible size and strange noises and movements like something from an alien planet. We then followed in the steps of those explorers, hiking inland as far as the toe of a massive glacier, stopping and turning back where Shackleton, Worsley and the mighty Tom Crean had put their heads down and surged forward, into terra incognita, the first to cross this island on foot, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated for another half-century.
Over the next eight days, Shackleton would be our shipmate. We learned more and more of his (mis)adventures from lectures and literature as we cruised from anchorage to anchorage, up and down the lee of the island in the sturdy, stable Vavilov, a 117-metre Russian research vessel chartered by Vancouver-based One Ocean Expeditions. Carrying a maximum of 92 guests, “the Vav,” as we affectionately called it, offers comfortable cabins that provide the essentials, plus a briefing room, quiet library, outdoor hot tub and top-deck bar. Our ultimate goal: to hike the final five kilometers of his traverse, from Fortuna to Stromness.
David McEown/Courtesy One Ocean Expeditions
At Grytviken, a Norwegian whaling outpost that served as a way station for Antarctica-bound explorers and sealers in the first two decades of the twentieth century, we visited Shackleton’s grave. The crew of the Endurance spent a month here before sailing to the ultimate south, and Shackleton returned to the island on a third and final expedition in 1921. He suffered a heart attack and was laid to rest in a picturesque graveyard that’s now surrounded by fur and elephant seals. Taking a nip of Scotch, we shared a drop with the grand, rough-hewn marker, and the humble, nearby stone marking the grave of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s right-hand man. One of the expedition staff, John Dudeney, who spent more than five decades in the employ of the British Antarctic Survey, shared a small speech: “Shackleton was not a man who did small things,” he intoned. “He was a man who reached for his dreams.”
We spent the rest of the day at Grytviken, touring the abandoned station’s excellent, small museum and its rebuilt model of the startlingly small Caird, as well as King Edward Point, where we braved a gauntlet of aggressive fur seals to visit a cross erected in honor of Shackleton. From there, we proceeded up and down the coast, sometimes battling the weather, but always finding a place to drop anchor and explore. It quickly became clear why South Georgia is sometimes called the “Serengeti of the Southern Ocean.” We Zodiac-cruised past high-up colonies of macaroni penguins and at Prion Island, got close to the world’s largest bird—the wandering albatross—on nest. At Salisbury Plain, we saw hundreds of thousands of kings, and at St. Andrew’s Bay, even more, one of the largest rookeries of king penguins in the world, penguins literally as far as the eye can see in almost every direction.
In the end, we couldn’t complete our five-kilometer Shackleton hike. As it so often does in this part of the world, the weather turned suddenly; a sunny day quickly becoming cloudy, then snowy, with whiteout conditions and winds gusting to 70 knots. We finished the journey aboard the Vav, pulling into Stromness Bay, the bridge fighting to keep her steady as we snapped photos of the now derelict whaling station, with sustained winds of 45 knots, gusting to 80, buffeting the ship. “You have to picture them coming down the valley, into town,” Dudeney narrated, pointing out the front windows, noting the explorer’s wild appearance after months of living in harrowing circumstances. “On the way, they encountered two children, who were so frightened to see them that they ran away.” Soon, we returned to the relative luxury of our cabins, dinner cooking downstairs, sailing back out to sea, more wonders—and three days’ voyage back to the Falklands—ahead.
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2016 issue.