No figure towers over the history of polar exploration than that of Sir Ernest Shackleton. On polar expedition cruises, it’s a rare voyage there that doesn’t include a lecture about Shackleton’s life and the epic survival story of his Endurance expedition. It’s a story in which South Georgia plays a central role, and many visitors today are drawn to the island because of its connection to the great man. We visit the locations in South Georgia most associated with Shackleton, and what today’s explorers can expect to find when following in his footsteps.
The old whaling station of Grytviken has indelible ties with Shackleton. At the start of his ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, the crew of Endurance spent a month here. Shackleton was a frequent guest at the station manager’s villa, which is better known today as the South Georgia Museum. Grytviken was only ten years old at this point, but its whalers were experienced enough to warn Shackleton not to attempt to cross the Weddell Sea that season, due to particularly heavy sea ice. Had he listened, the Endurance story would have had a far different outcome.
Grytviken today is the one place in South Georgia that tourists are almost guaranteed to land, as ships have to undergo immigration and biosecurity checks here. Even before you arrive, Shackleton’s presence is immediately felt. Standing on deck as you approach the whaling station, you can see a white cross at Hope Point on the righthand side of the bay. This was erected by the crew of the Quest – Shackleton’s final polar expedition. Shackleton died of a heart attack in this very bay on 5 January 1922, aged just 47 years.
It was on the suggestion of Shackleton’s widow Emily that he was buried exactly two months later in the whaler’s cemetery in Grytviken. Raising a toast to ‘the Boss’ is an essential part of any visit here; expedition zodiacs often make their first landing on the beach below the cemetery for precisely this reason; after paying tribute it’s a pleasant 10-minute walk into Grytviken proper.
The cemetery’s spectacular setting under the curve of the mountains makes a fitting resting place for an explorer. If the surrounding fencing looks a little rustic, rest assured that it’s needed to stop fur seals damaging the graves: they’ll often be snoozing outside while you raise your glasses to the great man. On the back of the monumental granite headstone, look out for the quote from Robert Browning, Shackleton’s favourite poet: ‘I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.’ To the right as you face the grave, there is a memorial stone to Shackleton’s faithful lieutenant Frank Wild, whose ashes were interred here in 2011.
In Grytviken proper, there are plenty of traces of Shackleton to be found in the South Georgia Museum, from the bronze bust in the Fullerton Room to the new exhibition dedicated to the final Quest Expedition that saw Shackleton’s death in Grytviken. The exhibition opened at the start of the 2022/23 season and has already proved highly popular with visitors.
Do not on any account miss the Carr Maritime Gallery housed in a separate building next to the museum. This houses a modern replica of the James Caird, the lifeboat that Shackleton and five of his men sailed to South Georgia in the 1916 in their desperate bid to raise a rescue party for the men of the Endurance who were stranded on Elephant Island. Make sure you climb the steps to look inside the cramped interior, packed with its rocky ballast. No matter how many times you’ve read the story, you will still be astonished at just how small the boat is. When think of the voyage you made to get there in your comfortable ship, your mind will boggle at what a tiny piece of flotsam it must have felt like alone on the stormy Southern Ocean, and the heroic achievement to sail 1300km in 16 days with navigator Frank Worsley barely able to take a bearing.
The Shackleton Walk
Sailing to South Georgia in the James Caird was only half of Shackleton’s battle to save his men. With luck you might be able to attempt a recreate part of the epic walk across the island that Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean made after landing to raise the alarm at one of the island’s whaling stations.
The full march can only be attempted by trained mountaineers, but the 5km Shackleton Walk from Fortuna Bay to Stromness Harbour is a great hike for casual walkers and a great opportunity for some exercise after several days at sea. Attempting the hike is always high on the priority list for expedition guides, but it is very weather dependent. As well as conditions on the hike itself, walking between two locations requires some nimble piloting from the ship’s captain to relocate to Stromness after dropping you in Fortuna Bay, as well as perfect zodiac landing conditions in both locations.
If you are only able to visit Fortuna Bay but not attempt the walk, cast your eyes south east to the craggy gap in the mountains. This is Breakout Ridge, where the three men first heard the whistle of Stromness station and knew that salvation was near. ‘Never had any one of us heard sweeter music,’ (the beach where you’ll be dropped is called Whistle Cove in commemoration). From here, they descended to the plain – now so busily occupied by a king penguin colony – and began their final push to the whaling station.
If you are able to make it, the walk climbs from the tussocky west side of Fortuna Bay 300m up a scree slope with gorgeous views to sea and then down to Crean Lake. Beyond the lake, the path takes you to a notch between two rocky knolls from where you can see Stromness whaling station laid out beneath you like a rusting model village. The descent here is relatively straightforward for fit hikers. It avoids the icy waterfall that the three exhausted trekkers had to negotiate on the final leg of their walk, though it can be seen when you’ve reached the valley floor. From here, it is a pleasant stroll along the plain to the beach, taking care to give the gentoo penguin colonies a wide berth.
For safety reasons it is illegal to approach with 200m of the decaying remains of whaling station, but when you’re cruising in your zodiac back to your ship from Stromness, you can clearly see the manager’s villa where Shackleton, Crean and Worsley raggedly presented themselves at the end of their trek.
King Haakon Bay
The final location associated with Shackleton is generally only visited on longer trips to South Georgia. King Haakon Bay is where the James Caird made landfall but it lies on the wind-battered western side of the island, so many ships don’t visit here. When Shackleton’s men arrived here, a rough seas and high winds prevented them landing for two terrifying days, and they were nearly fatally dashed against the rocks on several occasions. It’s a salutary reminder of why expedition guides are so strict about when zodiac landings can be attempted.
The James Caird first landed at Cape Cove (also known as Cape Rosa), where its occupants were so fatigued that they could barely haul the boat safely ashore. Cape Cove is very narrow with a tremendous swell, making it a dangerous place to visit in all but the rarest perfect weather. Only 20 people including guides are permitted to land here at any time, due both to the changeable conditions and the risk of disturbing the large number of burrowing petrel nests here.
Cape Cove had a freshwater stream and plenty of albatross chicks to help the boat crew recovery from their voyage, but after five days Shackleton relocated his mean to the safer head of King Haakon Bay, a further 10km sail. In season, it is popular haul-out spot for elephant seals. Nothing remains of Peggotty Camp, the base they made on the north side of the bay, but if you land here it’s likely that you’ll be able to walk up through the tussock to the foot of the glacier, where Shackleton, Crean and Worsley’s rescue march began. If you manage to do this as well as the Stromness hike then congratulations are in order for doing both ends of the Shackleton Walk – a real rarity.
As the majority of South Georgia trips combine the island with the Antarctic peninsula, there is the strongest possibility that while sailing between the two your ship will pass close to the South Shetland Islands. For Shackleton fans, this can mean only one this: the chance to spot Elephant Island.
Elephant Island looks like South Georgia in microcosm but if anything it appears altogether harder, colder and more unforgiving. Under good conditions your ship may try to visit Point Wild, where the men of the Endurance camped patiently for nearly five months while the James Caird made its dash for help.
It’s hard to imagine a bleaker spot to make camp. The thinnest of sandy beaches sits above the tide line, punctuated by a rocky outcrop sticking into the sea that some of the men dubbed ‘Penguin Hill.’ You can often see chinstrap and gentoo penguins here, but they almost all left for the winter after the arrival of the Endurance survivors, causing a constant fear of hunger. Behind the beach, snowy cliffs prevent access to the interior of the island, while at either end the blue tongues of glaciers stand like ramparts, washed by brash ice that persists even into summer.
Reefs, rocks and its open aspect to the sea all combine to make landings or even zodiac cruises at Point Wild extremely rare. For once, you’re likely to be happy to remain on board your expedition ship, observing it all from a safe distance. That anyone could survive here, and that Shackleton was able to rescue all his men without loss suddenly seems utterly unfathomable. And yet the proof is there to see: on the thin spit between the beach and Penguin Hill, you can just make out with binoculars bust on a plinth, dedicated to Captain Pardo of the Yelcho who captained the rescue ship in 1916, which was erected by the Chilean Antarctic Scientific Expedition in 1987.
Shackleton might indeed never have made it to the South Pole, but as your ship pulls away from Elephant Island, his epic boat journey, the survival trek across the unmapped mountains of South Georgia and the poignancy of his final resting place in Grytviken make his achievements more astonishing. They feel more tangible for being witnessed and yet somehow even more elusive. At the ship’s bar that evening, you’ll surely raise a glass to the Boss one final time in tribute.
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