JAN 18: Elephant Island

Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Pt. Wild, Elephant Island, Antarctica

Jan 18th, 2017: Elephant Island
• Tom Sharpe Lecture: The geology of the Antarctic Peninsula

We have now been graced with some great additional photos from two of our wonderful companions on this trip: Paul Norris and Laura Pasik [THANK YOU PAUL & LAURA!]

We motored through the night with relatively calm seas; easy sleep. Awoke to scattered icebergs along the way and at 5am arrived at the north end of Elephant Island (see close-up of Blog map), which is a relatively large island, but it has very few flat coastal areas that are not constantly awash in waves. As we approached this island we could just make out in the distance, Point Wild (the dark rocks in the foreground), the site where the 22 remaining men in Shackleton's party spent 4 months eeking out a crude existence waiting desperately for Shackleton to return and bring them back to civilization.

As we approached the island, the weather turned vicious. On board the Ocean Diamond, we could barely stand up straight on the deck without being blown over. The strong gusts created mini-tornados on the ocean called "williwaws" created by winds that slam down from the top of nearby glaciers. (Note the glacier to the immediate right of Pt. Wild). These fierce winds, called katabatic winds, rise up to near hurricane force in just minutes as they roll down the face of glaciers. Tom and Roger experienced these same types of winds when they worked on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Alaska in 1989.

The intention of our expedition leader at this site today was for the guests to pop into Zodiacs and make landfall on the tiny beach where Shackleton's men camped, Point Wild. That possibility was quickly discarded because the weather was kind enough to give us a GREAT example of what these men really had to endure. Today's weather is a lovely 0 degrees C with sustained 45 knt winds gusting to 70 knts, resulting in an apparent temperature of -16 degrees C (3 degrees F). Since Roger was the only one BRAVE enough to venture to shore, we sent him off in a Zodiac of his own to Pt. Wild... He scouted out the Point, killed a couple of penguins for dinner, and when he returned, this is what he looked like! Check out our dinner menu later on...
Lots of the usual birds were out today such as Giant Petrels, Black-Browed Albatrosses, Cape Petrels, Prions, and Wilson’s Storm Petrels. Joining them today were two of the most astonishing flyers in the avian world, Arctic Terns and Wandering Albatrosses. These two species are on the opposite end of the size and wingspan spectrum, but share the crown for the most amazing long-distance flyers. The giant Wandering Albatross weighs in between 15-25 lbs. and with a wingspan of up to 11.5’ possess the longest wings of any bird flying today. These amazingly graceful flyers have been known to fly over 10,000 miles in a single foraging trip (10-14 days) to provision their growing chick. In contrast, the tiny Arctic tern weighs a mere 3-4 oz. and with a wing span less than 3’. These amazingly tireless flyers are known to fly annually from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to feed in the nutrient rich waters of the Antarctic, a distance of 12,500 miles each way. By documenting that this fluttery little bird travels 25,000 miles in their annual migration biologists have crowned the Arctic Tern’s trip the longest migration of any species. While that is quite an honor, recent data from micro-transmitters attached to one of these little birds documented that its route is quite circuitous and in its round trip it actually flew 78,000 miles in the course of a single year!
Today we observed about a dozen or more Fin and Humpback Whales, which are by far the most numerous cetaceans down here, with a couple Sei Whales mixed in the sightings. These are both baleen whales, which means they have a set of "brush-like filters" called baleen that filter out small food items like krill and small fish, as opposed to the Orcas which are members of the "toothed" whales having very large and sturdy teeth for capturing and chomping down on fish, seals or even much larger baleen whales (especially sick individuals or juveniles), which they hunt in packs (like wolves). The Fin (baleen) whales, measuring up to 80’ are the 2nd largest animal (to the Blue Whale) to ever live on this earth and a part of their identification is based on the observation of their blow (exhalation) followed by a long view of their back, followed by their dorsal fin. In contrast, the very similar looking but smaller Sei Whale (max size around 60’) the blow and the back with dorsal fin appear almost simultaneously. Humpbacks are the easiest to ID with their unique knobby spine grading into a very small hump of a dorsal fin. Typically, after blowing a few times at the surface these whales arch their caudal peduncle (the narrowed area just in front of their tail), flip their tail (the fluke) into the air and dive deeper for 3-5 minutes. Showing their tail is known as 'fluking’ and pictures of the fluke have allowed scientists to individually identify humpbacks wherever they occur. Humpbacks are also well known for their singing while in their tropical breeding grounds. Lastly, these whales are often identified by their huge fore flippers which are typically white and occasionally waved around and slammed onto the water's surface for possible communication reasons (their scientific name: Megapetra novaeangliae means great winged one from New England). The next two shots are from Paul and Laura (Thanks!) and the next four are from Julia Brown, a shipmate that had an ENORMOUS lens! Thank You Julia!

The sighting that generated the most excitement today was another pod of about seven Type A Killer whales (members of the toothed whales). This pod repeatedly surfaced off the bow, often in very tight formation, for several minutes. A large male was also observed swimming about 100 meters away from the tight knit female and young male group. It was really exciting and fun to get such a great close up view of these powerful and beautiful whales for such an extended period of time. These southern ocean killer whales are not as well studied as those that occur in Alaska and Puget Sound, but so far biologists have not observed any traits that are inconsistent with their northern cousins. The data from the north indicates that each pod is organized around the oldest female, the matriarch, who likely lives in excess of 60-80 yrs. 

The male(s) in the group, which are known to live at least 40-50 yrs, are usually the offspring of the matriarch and some marine mammalogists refer to him (sometimes them) as "momma’s boys" as they are very deferential to the matriarch and stay with her throughout life. We learned that wherever Killer whales occur they are divided into different groups (Type A, Type B, and Type C or Type 1, 2 and 3) based on their primary diet. Type A’s feed on baleen whales, Type B’s feed on fish, and Type C’s feed on pinnipeds (seals). None of the Types seem to feed on birds very much, perhaps in part because a mouthful of indigestible feathers makes the small amount of meat obtained not worth the effort. Gestation is very long, 15-18 months, and it extends over 2 winters with the calving normally occurring in spring. Our onboard naturalists have noted our good luck in seeing numerous Orcas whereas on many cruises these whales are never observed.

Recent studies on killer whales in the Antarctic indicate that they are anemic and appear very thin, with rib lines showing. Some scientists are now using drones to fly down just over the whales and suck up blow hole air to do genetic analyses on the microorganisms found in their blow which might give them clues as to their health and what may be causing their poor conditions.

Because it was way too rough to launch the Zodiacs today and certainly no kayaking in these monstrously rough conditions, we are continuing south to the Antarctic Peninsula (Yippee!... the 7th Continent!). The staff of bird, mammal, geological, and historical experts continue to feed us more and more information which helps keep the days interesting as we spend many hours each day moving from one site to another.

• The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17):

April 14, 1917:
As previously mentioned, Shackleton's men set-up camp on the only space that appeared to be free of wave action, in the middle of a smelly penguin colony. That being said, it became readily apparent to us as we approached that this site is not what one would call "protected"....

As these men tried to hang on in winter, most days were probably similar to the "balmy" (NOT!) summer conditions we were experiencing (ferocious 70+ mph winds and sub-zero temperatures).  The men also must have wondered if a boat could ever get close enough to shore to rescue them as the winds made for insanely rough seas and pounding surf at their camp site and all along the adjacent shorelines; this place seemed like hell on ice to us.  How they kept sane and alive is beyond comprehension! These issues will plague them in the future... so keep these problems in mind... Since Roger captured some penguins for dinner, like Shackleton's men would have done... here is a comparison of how he (Roger) is eating during this trip, vs those men on that rock they call Elephant Island...

 And… while Roger likes to eat LAMB (poor little baby sheep)… On Elephant Island, Shackleton’s men would have been eating… you guessed it, PENGUIN!


Elephant Island was an inhospitable place, far from any shipping routes; rescue upon chance discovery was very unlikely. As crazy as this sounds, after realizing that their food stores (including penguins) would not last through the winter, and rescue from others was unlikely, Shackleton decides to make a hard choice -- to take one of their 23 ft life boats to sail another 800 miles through the Drake Passage (labeled the worst body of water in the world!) and the Scotia Sea to the whaling stations on South Georgia Island (remember that place??) to get help and charter a boat to rescue his stranded men. 

April 24, 1917:
Shackleton chooses five men (with essential skills, like navigation, etc.) to accompany him, loads a boat with lots of ballast and a month’s supply of rations, and takes off to their last hope of salvation. He refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks, knowing that if they did not reach South Georgia within that time, the boat and its crew would be lost. The men wave their fearless leader "goodbye", with heartfelt hopes that he will be successful and return to rescue them!

 South Georgia was only a tiny speck of an island in a vast ocean, and with the smallest mistake in navigation, the men would be swept out into the Atlantic Ocean, where the nearest land was thousands of miles away. For 16 days, crossing the Drake Passage and Scotia Sea, the men are battered by high seas, monstrous waves and wind, fierce gales, the constant spray of freezing ocean water, which chills them to the very marrow of their bones, and in constant peril of capsizing. Water makes its way into nearly every nook in the boat, including their moldering sleeping bags, and has to be continually pumped and bailed out by hand. The men cannot stand or sit up straight, and with the ship violently pitching back and forth, they must crawl over the stones serving as ballast to move from one part of the boat to another. Their bodies grow sore and bruised; exposure leaves their mouths cracked and swollen.

THEN: On May 5th, the eleventh day out at sea, the sea became much rougher, Shackleton was at the tiller:

"I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic.It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted 'For God's sake, hold on! It's got us.' Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us".

As the men near South Georgia, water rations grow low and have to be cut; desperate dehydration sets in. Land is spotted on the 14th day, but there is nowhere safe to put in. Hurricane-force winds rocks and floods their boat and prevented the possibility of landing; they are in constant danger of being dashed against the rocks.

They would later learn that the same hurricane had sunk a 500-ton steamer bound for South Georgia from Buenos Aires. Their drinking water is now completely gone. The men fear the end is near. But the next day they finally find a bay in which to put in.

May 9, 1917:
THEY HAVE LANDED: But their journey is far from over. They find themselves on the opposite side of the island from the whaling stations. Shackleton decides to make an overland journey to reach them, an expedition never before attempted, and one that would take the men over a 5,000 ft mountain range, steep snow-slopes and crevasse-ridden glaciers, jagged mountain peaks, and impassable cliffs. But first another delay—bad weather keeps the men from starting the march for ten days, an anxiety-filled time as their thoughts continually turn to the men left on Elephant Island...

                                                                As Usual.... STAY TUNED.....

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Laura Pasik

You forgot to mention Type D killer whales. Their primary food source: tourists foolish enough to take the Polar Plunge!

Another great entry--Point Wild is well-named indeed. I don't think I managed more than a few minutes out on deck in those high winds. I can't even imagine being marooned there for months, with no nice warm Club serving hot drinks and pastries to retreat to!

McClanahan, Pamela

Oh my gosh, I am loving this adventure… Especially from the warmth and comfort of my living room. Thank you!