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Shackleton’s Odyssey: Triumphs and Perils in the Frozen Wilderness of Antarctica

(This is a multi-part article. Be sure to read the entire series of 2023 Antarctic Journal from the beginning of my adventure!)

Boarding and launching the James Caird from the beach, with snow-covered rocks in the background. Photo Credit: Shackleton casting off from Elephant Island, Apr 24, 1916. James Caird Society
[Photo: Shackleton casting off from Elephant Island, Apr 24, 1916. James Caird Society]

The Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 ended when Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was caught, then crushed, in ice in the Weddell Sea. After living on the ice for months, his crew rowed to bleak, isolated Elephant Island in three leaky lifeboats. Shackleton took 5 men in one 23-foot boat over a harrowing 910 nautical miles to find help at S. Georgia. They landed on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station at Stromness so had to hike over treacherous frozen mountains and glaciers laced with crevasses. No one had ever attempted such a thing; no one else tried it for another 55 years. Our expedition followed Shackleton’s route in reverse between S. Georgia and Elephant Island. Like our scrubbed landing at Stromness, rough conditions prevented our landing at Elephant Island, which only highlighted Shackleton’s incredible feat.

a huge floating wall of ice known as iceberg A76a
Iceberg A-76A

On the way to Elephant Island we got an up-close look at the world’s biggest free-floating iceberg, about the size of Florida. Iceberg A-76A broke free from Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf in May 2021. At 12 knots it took our ship 2 hours to pass it. It looked like the white cliffs of Dover. You can watch its progress online.

Snow and ice covered rocks of Anarctica
The “White Continent” of Antarctica

We finally made it to Antarctica. In summer (Nov-Mar) the Palmer Peninsula thaws. Landings to see Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie penguins require a trek through slippery goo made of mud and pink guano (from the reddish krill they eat). But at Paulet Island no one cared about the mess. We saw our first Adelie colony (100,000 breeding pairs). Adelie and Emperor live farther south than all other penguins and need an icy habitat. Most expeditions don’t see Emperors, which live mostly on the opposite side of the continent.

Adelie penguin standing on the sea shore with floating ice in the water in the background
Adelie penguin

Underwater, penguins are lightning fast. They don’t need speed to catch krill. They need it to outrace Antarctica’s monster. At Paulet Island our Zodiac was easing between ice chunks. Four feet off starboard a round, dark-brown head with flat black eyes and massive mouth poked above the water, eyed us, then slipped back under the surface. It repeated this from various spots around the boat. It was a leopard seal. (The explorers called them sea leopards because of their spots.) These dinosaur-like seals can be 11 feet long. Their 9-inch jaw gives them an eternal, wicked grin. They hunt anything but prefer penguins. After digging its teeth into a catch, the seal shakes the penguin so violently that the poor thing turns inside-out, exposing the penguin meat. You can’t make this stuff up.

We saw leopards patrolling the waters offshore from big penguin colonies. That’s why penguins never jump in alone. Before going into the waves, they gather into groups along the beach. Then the entire group dives in, putting faith in the tenets of “safety in numbers” and “you can’t kill us all.” But we saw plenty of victims bobbing in the water. One Zodiac group witnessed an attack. Penguins also exit the water as if shot out of a cannon. The leopard seals lurk around ice floes and rocky outcroppings. It’s vital to get out fast. Penguins burst out of the water and often land on a narrow ledge a few feet above danger. But they’re not nimble on land. Occasionally they lose footing and fall back into the water. You can’t help but hope there are no leopards nearby.

Gentoo penguin

Unlike other seals, leopards will chase prey, including people, over slushy ice floes as well as in water. But they are less dangerous hauled out on dry beach. It’s funny to watch a Gentoo stroll past a leopard two feet away without a shred of fear. (Photographer Paul Nicklen joined our North Pole expedition in 2017. He has dived in leopard seal waters to photograph their natural behavior.)

penguins standing on the shore of Antarctica with ice floating in the water behind them
Penguins on the shores of Antarctica

Next, we landed on the Antarctic continent itself at Brown Bluff. About 30,000 Adelies and 1,200 Gentoos greeted us. Gentoos make ground nests out of piles of small stones. It’s not unusual to see one penguin rob a stone from another’s nest, only to have a third rob the same stone for its own nest. It goes on forever.

We made our southernmost landing at Cuverville Island; 64.7 degrees South. The Falklands and S. Georgia visits meant the expedition lacked the time needed to reach the Antarctic Circle. At latitude 66.3 degrees South it was 100 miles away. At the Circle the South Pole remains 1,590 miles distant.

map showing our route from the southern tip of Chile down to Antarctica

The only thing left was to turn north and head for home. The problem is that home is on the other side of the Drake Passage.