Elephant Island, Antarctica


Our first stop on the epic trip to Antarctica was Elephant Island.

Our path to Point Wild (Photo: Becky Kagan Schott)

When I asked the expedition team “why is it named Elephant Island,” I got a funny look and then they said that is is likely either (1) because Elephant Seals used to live there and were sighted or (2) that it is shaped like an Elephant. That aligns with Wikipedia, so we’ll go with it.

By NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kasha Patel. – https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/147696/elephant-island, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106395141


Elephant Island is a key location in the amazing story of Shackleton’s Endurance voyage. After having their ship first frozen in place in the Weddell Sea, it then sank when it was crushed by ice.

They saved three of the lifeboats and, after spending months on the ice floes of the Weddell Sea, they rowed 150 miles across open ocean to Elephant Island in an attempt to self-rescue. The island has a lot of steep cliffs and there are only a few places you can actually land a boat. They first landed at Cape Valentine but then moved two days later to a location which offered better protection. They named it Point Wild after Frank Wild who was one of the leaders in Shackleton’s team (points are noted below on the map – Cape Valentine is on the far eastern tip and Pt Wild is a bit to the west).

Shackleton made the decision to take a team of 6, leave Elephant Island, and set sail for Georgia Island in search of help. He left behind the other 22 sailors who stayed on Elephant Island — with no idea if Shackleton had successfully crossed the Drake Passage or not. They were there for 4.5 months, by themselves, completely isolated, and having no idea whether or not (or when) they would be rescued.

Map from Wikimedia Commons

Below is a map from Britannica that displays his epic journey and his stop at Elephant Island.

Our Visit

Point Wild

We arrived at Elephant Island near Point Wild on the morning of 17 Mar 2023. The sun was out but it was very windy and the swells were too large to effect a safe landing. It was a bummer since I really wanted to go ashore and see the Endurance Memorial Site which is a bust of Captain Luis Pardo who rescued the 22 sailors from Elephant Island. Given the conditions, we also had diving canceled which was the safe thing to do.

We spent time motoring around the north end of the island and saw a number of fin whales in the water along with penguins, bids, seals, etc. They were all getting their final fill of food before the winter set in.

Rocky Peak at Point Wild
Interesting glacial formation
Point Wild “beach” with a penguin colony – You can barely make out the statue in the middle of the frame (I’ve increased the exposure level to help)
Penguin colony on top of the bluff at Point Wild
We rounded the point and you can see the bust statue from the other side. It is to the left middle of the frame with penguins to the right.

Below is a closeup of the bust from Wikipedia:

By Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46735089

Fin Whales & Wildlife

After spending some time at Point Wild, we headed back around the north / east side of the island and headed through the Prince Charles Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula.

Departing Point Wild
Sun breaking through the clouds on a cold day as we head south

We then started to spot some penguins in the water and also started to see fin whales feeding.

Fin whale surfacing
An abundance of wildlife on the way to the Weddell Sea

There were groups of penguins in the water searching for food as well. Unfortunately, the photos are a little out-of-focus but worth showing:

As we headed south towards our next stop at Devil Island, we passed a few other islands that really give a sense of the remoteness and wildness of Antartica.

Next Up…

In the next post, I’ll detail our visit to Devil Island and my first dives in the Weddell Sea.

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