Travel

Dispatches from Antarctica: South Shetland Islands

  • Jan 06, 2013
  • 672 words
  • 3 minutes
Expand Image
Advertisement

Elephant Island fills my camera’s viewfinder — the legendary island reaches up to the sky with its dark precipitous mountains. An eternity of snow and ice clings to what seems like impossible angles. We scan the shore looking for Point Wylde — the spit of a beach where Shackleton’s men spent five months waiting to be rescued. Hope was their only salvation; could Shackleton, a.k.a. the Boss, reach South Georgia and come back for them? I have just sailed from South Georgia on a 300 ft expedition ship to this wild inhospitable place. Its raw natural beauty is unmistakable, but to be left on that beach and think that someone could sail a 22 ft wooden boat, named James Caird, 1,250 kilometres over one of the roughest bodies of water on the planet is hard to fathom.

Expand Image
Photographers get close to chinstrap penguins at Turret Point, King George Island, South Shetland Islands. Photo: Rob Stimpson
Expand Image
Tourists on a hike at Turret Point, King George Island, South Shetland Islands. Photo: Rob Stimpson

That evening, we reach the top end of the Weddell Sea. It is frozen solid from east to west, an area of 2.8 million square kilometres! The winter ice has not receded since September, the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere. Our ship runs a course along the edge of the pack ice. The seemingly endless daylight hours of the polar summer are beginning; it is 10:30 pm and as bright as day. Penguins bask on an iceberg as we pass by, oblivious to our presence.

Antarctic Sound was our original destination, but the ice has choked our planned route. We set our sights for King George Island in the South Shetlands, an archipelago of islands that sits about 100 kilometres off the coast of Antarctica.

Morning brings large ocean swells and brisk winds on King George Bay — not the best ingredients for an outing. I am driving the zodiac with some photographers onboard. They do not care about the waves — they want images.
We make our way across the bay, riding up and over the waves, sliding down into the troughs — repeat process. Luminescent aquamarine icebergs don’t seem real. Cameras fire at six frames a second; it doesn’t take long for the photographers to fill their digital cards.

Then it is Turret Point, a rocky rise of land with nesting giant southern petrels, elephant seals and chinstrap penguins. Spring here is much like late winter at home: corn snow and many opportunities to leave a posthole as you break through the surface of the snow without warning, which I managed to do on a few occasions!

Our ship moves further south along this archipelago of islands through the Bransfield Strait, which is quite cooperative. The last time I was sailing here, 70-knot winds were sweeping in from the Drake Passage. We make our way towards Deception Island, an active volcano. On this trip, we arrive in the early morning and make our way through a breach in the caldera into the c-shaped island.

Expand Image
Hikers navigate through Neptune’s Window, a gap between rock pillars, on Deception Island, South Shetland Islands.
Expand Image
Storage at an abandoned whaling station on Deception Island, South Shetland Islands.

Travelling through the narrow opening, known as Neptune’s Bellows, we are greeted with sun and calm winds. This is a total change from the usual Deception weather: high winds and low-hanging cloud. It seems the sun never likes to shine here, but today we are being thrown a bone. Whalers Bay is our landing spot. It is here where we find the ruins of the whaling station abandoned in the 1930s. This is a desolate place; one wonders how the whalers fared here. The photography is a change from what we are used to — buildings, graves and black volcanic sand are the subjects of the day.

Rob Stimpson is a professional photographer onboard a cruise to Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions.

Advertisement

Related Content

Ten years after the release of her seminal book Sea Sick, Alanna Mitchell again plumbs the depths of the latest research on the health of the world’s oceans — and comes up gasping

Environment

“There’s no coming back from this:” Why the global ocean crisis threatens us all

Ten years after the release of her seminal book Sea Sick, Alanna Mitchell again plumbs the depths of the latest research on the health of the world’s oceans — and comes up gasping

  • 4426 words
  • 18 minutes

Environment

Slaughtered and skinned: The disturbing truth about South Africa’s captive-bred lion industry

Lord Ashcroft’s new book Unfair Game: An Exposé of South Africa’s Captive-Bred Lion Industry describes shocking revelations from a year-long investigation into captive-bred lion farming in South Africa

  • 1294 words
  • 6 minutes
Canada's 75 biggest islands

Mapping

Mapping Canada’s 75 biggest islands

Canadian Geographic's cartographer Chris Brackley shares insights into his process in charting the country's largest islands for an exclusive wall map

  • 1341 words
  • 6 minutes
Two caribou silhouetted against a dark, rainy landscape

Wildlife

Caribou are vanishing at an alarming rate. Is it too late to save them?

After more than a million years on Earth, the caribou is under threat of global extinction. The precipitous decline of the once mighty herds is a tragedy that is hard to watch — and even harder to reverse.

  • 4558 words
  • 19 minutes