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The Last Continent: Endurance tested at Elephant Island

Postmedia columnist Daphne Bramham crosses the notoriously rough Drake Passage from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia — known as the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean — to Antarctica. Her daily reports from the 18-day expedition cover issues from climate change and micro plastics in the ocean to Japan’s continuing whale hunt, the antics of penguins and the world’s wild race to tour, and exploit, this last frontier.

ELEPHANT ISLAND, Scotia Sea — South of 60, we passed through the Convergence, where the sub-antarctic water gives way to the colder Antarctic Ocean.

But for hours and hours, there is nothing to see. Fog hangs low over the water and clings close to the ship. Because of that, for the first time, the bridge is closed to everyone but the sailors.

There are almost certainly whales, penguins and seabirds out there, but we can’t see them. But, close to noon, comes the call over the loudspeaker: “Land ho!”

The fog has lifted and suddenly, there is Elephant Island, with its mag..

Postmedia columnist Daphne Bramham crosses the notoriously rough Drake Passage from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia — known as the Serengeti of the Southern Ocean — to Antarctica. Her daily reports from the 18-day expedition cover issues from climate change and micro plastics in the ocean to Japan’s continuing whale hunt, the antics of penguins and the world’s wild race to tour, and exploit, this last frontier.

ELEPHANT ISLAND, Scotia Sea — South of 60, we passed through the Convergence, where the sub-antarctic water gives way to the colder Antarctic Ocean.

But for hours and hours, there is nothing to see. Fog hangs low over the water and clings close to the ship. Because of that, for the first time, the bridge is closed to everyone but the sailors.

There are almost certainly whales, penguins and seabirds out there, but we can’t see them. But, close to noon, comes the call over the loudspeaker: “Land ho!”

The fog has lifted and suddenly, there is Elephant Island, with its magnificent glaciers and Point Wild.

Dozens of chinstrap penguins porpoise out of the water alone or in groups of up to a dozen. Fin whales blow, their backs and fins break the surface of the grey sea.

It is cold and damp out on the deck, even though it’s summer here. Colder still when we take to the Zodiacs to look for colonies of Gentoo, chinstrap and macaroni penguins, as well as fur seals and elephant seals.

Imagine what it must be like in the winter when there is only darkness and no ship to come back to.

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Chinstrap penguins jump as they swim through the Scotia Sea near Elephant Island, where 22 of Ernest Shackleton’s crew spent four months waiting to be rescued.

For four months, that was the fate of 22 men from Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition camped on an isthmus connecting Point Wild to the island. It was the only place on the island large enough for all of them. There is no real shoreline. The rock rises straight up to spiky peaks.

The point is named after Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second-in-command, who stayed with the 22 men while Shackleton and six others went off to get help.

Elephant Island was never on the itinerary. Shackleton set out from Grytviken, South Georgia in early December 1914 with two ships — Endurance and Aurora — and the goal of completing a transcontinental march across Antarctica.

Endurance would take them through the Weddell Sea. From there, they would go by foot across the mountains, past the South Pole to the Ross Ice Shelf.

Aurora went halfway around the continent to the Ross Sea. The crew would relay supplies from the ship to depots along the way to the pole so that Shackleton and his men would have food to eat.

But Endurance was beset in sea ice in the Weddell Sea. It drifted north for months.

Finally, on Nov. 1, 1915, Shackleton and his 27 crew abandoned ship and set up camp on the ice. By April, any hope of rescue was gone, and so too was the summer. With nothing to lose, they set out in the three open lifeboats. Miraculously, all of survived that journey, even landing the same day at Elephant Island.

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But Elephant Island is as inhospitable as it is beautiful — all mountains and glaciers.

There were and still are thousands of penguins, which meant they had food. But everyone knew that they would all eventually die there unless some other heroic measure was taken.

Shackleton boldly chose to make a run for South Georgia in an open, 6.9-metre boat, jury-rigged with a sail, even though it is 1,300 kilometres away. It took our modern ship nearly three days to cover the distance. Shackleton and his four crew took 16 days.

The fact they arrived at all is testament to the extraordinary skill of navigator Henry Worsley. It has been described as one of the greatest, unsupported, open voyages in history.

Still, they landed on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station where they hoped to get help. It took Shackleton, Worsley and Tom Crean 36 hours to traverse that island’s mountains. They arrived at Stromness whaling station on May 20, 1916. A whaling ship rescued the two others the following day.

It took three tries and three months before the 22 men on Elephant Island were rescued.

Those are the bones of the Shackleton story, which cemented his reputation as a hero and a great leader.

But recently, British historian John Dudeney, who is travelling with us, has challenged the veracity of some of the accounts. He has even questioned the wisdom of many of Shackleton’s choices.

Using documents found at the British Museum, Dudeney contends that Shackleton knew that the Weddell Sea was clogged with sea ice and that Endurance would likely be iced in. Yet, he went anyway, rather than setting up a base camp on land and stockpiling food for the winter.

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Other documents indicate that while the 22 men were on Elephant Island, far from doing all he could to rescue them, Shackleton refused several offers of help to retrieve them. Why? Because he wanted to command the ship, and he also wanted to ensure that his expedition sponsor, a British newspaper, got the scoop.

Regardless of the reasons, the men on Elephant Island shivered through the darkness and despair until Aug. 30, 1916, when they were finally taken off this god-forsaken island.

dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/daphnebramham

Daphne Bramham is travelling as a guest of One Ocean Expeditions, which has neither approved nor reviewed her stories.

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