We awoke to find ourselves approaching Elephant Island in thick fog and swells, but the fog soon lifted to reveal Cape Valentine and the towering cliffs of this island made famous by the 1914-1917 Shackleton Expedition. Captain Lemaire brought us right into view of historic Point Wild where twenty-two crew members from the Endurance spent four and a half months until Shackleton’s welcome return upon the Chilean navy cutter Yelcho. Zodiacs were launched and, although the swells prevented a landing on the narrow spit where the men survived under their overturned boats, we enjoyed a tour of the coastline complete with dramatic metamorphic rocks, chinstrap penguins, and even a lone macaroni penguin on the cliff. Once back on board, our historian, Scott Pearson, revisited the expedition story, taking us from beginning to end and helping fill details “in between the lines” of this dramatic adventure.
In the afternoon, we attempted a visit to Cape Lookout on the island’s south coast, but were thwarted by strong winds and swells. Our disappointment in not making this landing soon faded, however, as we were joined by fin whales, swimming right alongside and lunge feeding. Thanks to JD and the captain for slowing Le Diamant, we had a magnificent “bonus afternoon” of whale watching.
Our next morning was spent at Paulet Island, the site where 21 men from the 1903 Nordenskjöld expedition wintered over after the loss of their vessel, Antarctic, to sea ice. The walls of the stone hut that once provided shelter to Captain Larsen’s party now shelter fuzzy Adelie penguin chicks, part of a colony of more than 100,000 breeding pairs.
Scott recounted the story of the expedition’s field parties while other leaders explained the geology of this volcanic island and guided walks to the penguins and nearby Antarctic shag colony. Before returning to Le Diamant, a Zodiac cruise along the berg-littered coastline revealed Weddell seals hauled out on the beach.
Back on board, we headed for Devil Island and Prince Gustav Channel in search of some serious ice. With snow on its way, a cloudy sky provided the perfect backlighting to crystal blue and white icebergs that filled the channel. Our ice tour in the Zodiacs was made complete by crabeater and Weddell seals, not to mention Adelie penguins that porpoised and leapt from the water onto artistically sculpted bergs as we wove in and out of a fairyland of ice. The late evening found us well fed and on watch as we cruised even further south in the Weddell Sea for the elusive emperor penguin. So far, the majesty of this southern realm is beyond even our grandest expectations.