There are no elephants on Elephant Island. I know because I checked.
The odd name derives from the huge populations of elephant seals–giant marine mammals that are so fat and round they make any plus-size human feel great about their weight. Honestly, male elephant seals look like giant bags of blubber and weigh up to 4 tons. They spend most of their lives at sea but come to breed on land and flop around the beaches of Antarctica in the austral summer.
Forgive a short bit of history: the first human ever to set foot on Elephant Island was Perce Blackborow, the youngest member of Shackleton’s crew on his ill-fated Endurance expedition. I am such a big fan of Perce–when the 18 year-old Welshman was rejected for Shackleton’s 1914 expedition he stowed away and only came out of hiding when they were well on their way to Antarctica. I guess I’m not the only one who wanted to get to Antarctica, no matter what.
Perce was accepted as a member of the expedition and was soon tested as they lost their ship and camped out on the floating Antarctic ice. The crew finally reached land in April 1916 and Shackleton insisted Perce Blackborow be the first to go ashore so that he could be the first man ever to land on Elephant Island.
Almost a century later, I sailed to the very same spot and got to witness the impossibly sharp mountains of Elephant Island. No wonder it was so difficult for the men of Shackleton’s crew to make a landing–they had to sail further up the shore in order to find a small piece of land where they could build a long-term camp. That place turned out to be Point Wild, named after Sir Ernest Shackleton’s right hand man, Frank Wild. We followed suit and visited Point Wild.
What’s most remarkable is that the Shackleton’s original description of that very point–taken from his memory and the notes from his logbook–are still spot on. The glacier is still there, albeit having receded back a good deal–and the rocky coastline littered with penguins and seal pups is exactly as he described it back then. To see the old explorer’s words come to life in real life, especially after having recently read Shackleton’s own book–well, it made for some pretty extraordinary travel.
Our Lindblad Expedition spent the entire day exploring Elephant Island. The geography and wildlife were outstanding–I especially loved the thousands and thousands of chinstrap penguins that hopped about the rocks and sipped seawater from tidal pools in the rock. Sometimes nature is incredibly cute–other times it’s incredibly cruel.
While visiting the chinstrap colony, we also witnessed a leopard seal nab a chinstrap penguin and tear him, literally, to bits. It was a very violent display with blood and feathers flying, yes, but we also realized that this was nature up close. It was interesting to observe that treacherous penguin-killers like leopard seals are still cautious and very picky eaters. They don’t want to get feathers into their mouths, and so they take little careful bites out of the penguin–like a small child making bite-size semi-circles in their peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carefully avoiding the crust.
After the leopard seal was done, a swarm of storm petrels and great petrels tumbled down into the water and took their own pecks at the floating penguin carcass. Pretty soon there was nothing left–only wet feathers in the water. A whole cycle was evident.
Zooming around in our black zodiacs, we were dwarfed by the walls of ice around us, made minuscule by the sheer rocks that feel straight down to the sea. Knowing the history of the Shackleton expedition–that most of the men survived on tiny Point Wild for over four months, living off of whatever they could catch from seals to limpets (small barnacle-type shellfish)–well, it made me feel an awe for the location and an even greater respect for that band of men who made Antarctic history.
I am still in disbelief that I was able to travel to this exact same spot–this wild Point Wild at the bottom of the world, unknown by most except for a handful of humans and the collective conscience of so many penguins. Elephant Island is not likely to feature in any mainstream vacation brochures anytime soon–there are no palm trees and again, no elephants.
So what? It’s still worth stowing away for.
Andrew Evans traveled 10,000 miles–by bus–from Washington D.C. to Antarctica for National Geographic Traveler and tweeted about his travels at @Bus2Antarctica. His story will appear in an upcoming issue of the magazine. Follow the map of his journey, bookmark all of his blog posts, watch videos, and get the full story on the project here. Photo and video: Andrew Evans.