Dispatches from Antarctica: South Shetland Islands

  • Jan 06, 2013
  • 672 words
  • 3 minutes
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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.

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Photographers get close to chinstrap penguins at Turret Point, King George Island, South Shetland Islands. Photo: Rob Stimpson
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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.

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Hikers navigate through Neptune’s Window, a gap between rock pillars, on Deception Island, South Shetland Islands.
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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.


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