Antarctica, Day 11: Elephant Island, and back toward Chile through the Drake Passage

March 13, 2022 • 9:30 am

I’d recommend your reading my post of Nov. 24, 2019, when I was here before and had more time. It has more pictures of the surrounding region as well as photos from the Shackleton expedition.

As I noted in yesterday’s Hili dialogue, our ship spent an hour or so standing off Elephant Island, the island in the South Shetlands where, during the the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition, 22 of Shackleton’s men from the crushed ship Endurance sheltered for four months under two connected lifeboats. They waited 4.5 months for Shackleton and five other men to make the perilous but ultimately successful sea journey in an open boat to South Georgia Island. The journey, in a modified lifeboat dubbed the James Caird, took 17 days and covered 800 miles, or 1300 km. But there was more trouble to face: Wikipedia tells more:

Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley crossed the island’s mountains to a whaling station on the north side. Here they organised the relief of three men left on the south side of the island and of the larger Elephant Island party. Ultimately, the entire Endurance crew returned home, without loss of life. After the First World War, in 1919, the James Caird was moved from South Georgia to England. Since 1922 it has been on regular display at Shackleton’s alma mater, school, Dulwich College.

(As you know, the remains of the Endurance were found a the bottom of the Weddell Sea jus about a week ago.)

Getting the men off the small spit of land shown below was no easy task, either.

Below: a map the ship’s own screen: at that time we were just north of Point Wild Beach, where Shackleton’s men bided their time hoping for rescue. It was on this narrow spit of land (see photos later today) where they spent 4.5 months, trying to keep warm and eating penguins several meals per day. I’m sure that nearly all of them thought they were going to die, particularly as nobody had shown up by the Antarctic winter. But then: rescue!

There was much work for the stranded men. Because the island had no natural source of shelter, they constructed a shack and wind blocks from their remaining two lifeboats and pieces of canvas tents. Blubber lamps were used for lighting. They hunted for penguins and seals, neither of which were plentiful in autumn or winter. Shackleton instructed Wild to depart with the crew for Deception Island if he did not return to rescue them by the beginning of summer, but after four and a half months, on August 30, 1916, the artist George Marston spotted a ship. The ship, with Shackleton on board, was the tug Yelcho, from Punta ArenasChile, commanded by Luis Pardo, which rescued all the men who had set out on the original expedition.

Because of rough seas, the low light of early morning, and our standing far offshore, the closer photos are taken with 30x zoom and thus are crappy. The earlier post has better ones.

Elephant Island in dire weather (not a rare condition!)

Point Wild. The men sheltered on the strip of land between the mountain at left and the hill at right. It was sufficiently above high tide that it didn’t get inundated. But it would surely be boring to be restricted to such a small bit of land for 4.5 months!

A telephoto shot of the penguins that swarm the point. Without these birds, Shackleton’s men would have died from starvation.

Here, though the misty and dark morning yesterday, is the statue of the tugboat captain Luis Pardo. The penguins seem to pay homage to it. After all, he took away the men who were killing and eating them!

The party of Shackleton’s men left on Elephant Island:

Pardo (1882-1935), the Chilean tugboat captain who braved the ice to save the men. Since it was Antarctic winter (the rescue was on August 30, 1916), there was a lot of ice to navigate, much less the roiling waters of the Drake Passage.  Wikipedia says of Pardo:

Pardo retired from the Navy in 1919. The British government authorized a large monetary award, which he turned down, stating that he was simply fulfilling a mission assigned to him by the Chilean Navy.

In 1930, he was appointed Chilean consul at Liverpool, where he served until 1934.  He died of bronchopneumonia on 21 February 1935, aged 52.

And Pardo’s rescue boat, the tug Yelcho (it was built in Scotland):

The prow of Yelcho is preserved in Puerto Williams, Chile, as a monument:

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition was a miserable failure, as it didn’t even begin its proposed journey: to entirely cross the Antarctic continent. But it was also a kind of success for Shackleton, who organized perhaps one of the greatest polar adventures in history: surviving the wreck of his boat, drifting with sea ice, landing on Elephant Island, taking a lifeboat 1000 km on the slim chance of actually reaching South Georgia, crossing the mountains of that treacherous island without equipment, and ultimately finding other humans men and organizing the rescue of his own crew. Not a life was lost, except of course those of the dogs they shot before leaving the Endurance, as well as the ship’s cat, Mrs. Chippy. But we won’t speak further of that.

To see the story of Mrs. Chippy, go here. All cat lovers should know this story. If you’re in Wellington, New Zealand, a cat-loving city, go see the grave of ship’s carpenter Harry McNeish, who was the staff of Mrs. Chippy before she was shot. (McNeish never forgave Shackleton for giving that order.) The New Zealand Antarctic Society had a bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy placed on McNeish’s grave:

Food: As I did on the last trip, I dined (breakfast yesterday morning) at a table overlooking Point Wild, the small spit off of Elephant Island where Shackleton’s men holed up for 4.5 months awaiting rescue. As our ship’s historian told us in a lecture, much of what they ate was penguin. Someone I know who ate penguin on one of Scott’s expeditions (an old man who told me this years ago) told me they taste like very fishy chicken.  Yech! At any rate, I contemplate, during breakfast, how happy the men would have been to see our ship appear, and how much they would have appreciated the breakfast I was eating. But they all made it back alive.

On this trip I’ve eschewed omelettes while others have chewed them), but decided to celebrate or mourn our early return by ordering one with mushrooms, ham, and peppers. They make it to order and deliver it hot to the table. It was good.

Point Wild on Elephant Island from the breakfast table.

Last night I had no lunch, but a hearty dinner: dumplings followed by a steak. But I was too full for dessert, and eschewed my usual milkshake.

Don’t worry—I removed the butter. (No comments about my diet, however!)

And here’s me an hour ago, watching MSNBC and the sea going by my cabin as I wrote this post.

13 thoughts on “Antarctica, Day 11: Elephant Island, and back toward Chile through the Drake Passage

  1. No comment about your diet, Jerry. Your photo just reminded that everything tastes better with butter. Bon voyage et bon appétit!

  2. An amusing anecdote, if anybody is interested, regards the original Shetland Island. It’s a small, rugged island about 400 miles off the north coast of Scotland with a population of 22,000 hardy souls.

    I was dating a girl from there whilst living in Bristol, south western England, and her parents came down to visit. Both very typical Scots/Shetlanders. The mother, in particular, was quite fiery. A hospital matron called Morag, need I say more?

    We all went out for lunch at a fairly exclusive restaurant in Bath and we’re sat in its basement. To our amusement the table of four next to us were talking about Shetland. Two were a younger couple, likely late thirties, and the other two were one set of their parents. The younger couple had spent some time on Shetland for work (there are a lot of FIFO workers for the North Sea oil business).

    As we listened in we heard the older couple ask the younger what Shetland is like and the gentleman reply; “well it’s just 22 thousand alcoholics, clinging to a rock.”

    Now I can’t say that he’s wrong, but I can say that he must have been one of the unluckiest men in the United Kingdom to find himself, almost a thousand miles away and in the heart of civilisation, on a table next to three of those alcoholics. The main hospital’s matron no less, a woman called Morag.

    Morag let them have it and the back peddling was something to be admired. They started waxing lyrical about how beautifully remote Shetland is, how unspoilt and private the beaches are. The mood was lightening and we were all becoming more friendly. In fact so private were the beaches, they said, that they and their children would run around naked on them and take pictures.

    Now, unfortunately, I didn’t hear them say children and, jokingly, asked if I could see a copy of the pictures.

    The mood darkened once again and we all returned to our separate lives. Having had a few glasses of wine by this point I didn’t realise I’d put my foot in it and just thought the conversation had come to a natural conclusion.

    The penny dropped much later that night, walking home from the train station with my Shetland family, and I turned to my girlfriend, in a state of mild horror, and asked, “did I ask that couple at lunch if I could see naked pictures of their children?” I am yet to live down the shame.

    1. Ha! Have you returned to the Shetland Islands since then? The one good thing to have come out of them is the Shetland Sheepdog.

  3. I posted this below the line of Thursday’s Hili, but just in case anyone is interested and missed it:

    According to the BBC:

    As his ship was sinking through the Antarctic pack-ice, Ernest Shackleton allowed each member of his expedition to take 2lbs of possessions with them as they abandoned ship. One exception was made; Shackleton saved Leonard Hussey’s banjo saying, “We must have that banjo. It’s vital mental medicine”.

    In recognition of the recent discovery of Endurance at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row played a short clip yesterday of Hussey playing on that very instrument and talking about the crew’s activities on Elephant Island whilst they were awaiting rescue (about 41:15 minutes in):

  4. Jerry, as well as consoling you for the truncation of your trip and hoping the ill are going to be OK and fully recovered by the time you dock, I just have to say I can’t imagine why anyone would be criticizing the food being offered or, more particularly, your choice to eat it. (It seems you are still fielding sniffs about your diet this late into the trip.)

    The portions are modest and sensible, especially of obesity-inducing carbohydrates.
    Toxic industrial chemicals once thought to be good for you, like trans-unsaturated fats and high-fructose corn syrup seem nowhere in evidence.
    The items are carefully and attractively prepared to make eating them a sensual pleasure and not just to slake the appetite by inducing satiety. A little goes a long way.
    You have managed to stay lean into your emeritus years, which means you will probably stay lean and free of inflammation for the rest of your life. The likelihood that anything you eat on this trip will do you harm is remote. Food is life.

    This comment is not directed at you, since you don’t need my validation. It is directed at your readers: leave Jerry alone and let him eat in peace!

  5. … they spent 4.5 months, trying to keep warm and eating penguins several meals per day.

    Low carb and gluten-free. Sort of the ur-Stillman diet, I suppose.

    1. Perhaps somewhat analogous to Nansen and Johannsen about 40 years earlier, near the North Pole and struggling to return safely. They ate between 10 and 15 polar bears, not hunting but warding off attacks. They both weighed more after the 16 month (IIRC) ordeal than when they had set off. The walrus seemed more dangerous than the polar bears, but maybe would not have been had the explorers run out of ammunition.

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