The Island at the End of the Earth

Courtesy of Audubon

The Island at the End of the Earth

Just 800 miles from Antarctica, South Georgia intrigued Captain Cook, delighted whalers, and saved Ernest Shackleton. Today it has one of the greatest concentrations of marine birds and mammals on earth.

By Peter Matthiessen
Published: 06/25/2014

This story originally appeared in the September-October 1999 issue.

The ship sails from Ushuaia, Argentina, at 6 p.m., due east down the Beagle Channel. To the north and south, the mountains of Tierra del Fuego are dark, forested, forbidding, showing no light or other sign of habitation. Already, a soft swell tries the bow, and a gray-headed albatross planes away across the rolling wake. Next, a black-browed albatross appears out of the east, where high dark coasts open on the ocean horizon and the last sun ray glints on the windy seas of Drake Passage.

Across the strait lies Staten Land, a seagirt mountain ridge so windy, steep, and rugged that it would be difficult to find a place to land. Staten Land is land's end in South America, where the mountains slide beneath the sea. They will surface again 1,000 miles eastward, in the farthest region of the South Atlantic, as the icy peaks of South Georgia.

Night falls as the dark land disappears. In the wash of sea along the hull, the ship's diesels are strangely quiet, with scarcely a vibration. Toward midnight come the first hard bangs and shudders of the ship's adjustment to the open ocean, and when daybreak arrives at 5:30 a.m., she is out of sight of land in the toiling iron seas of the Cape Horn Current. 

The Akademik Ioffe is a 384-foot research vessel with a crew of 52. Built in Finland in 1989, she has been chartered to Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, the wildlife-safari company out of Austin, Texas, that organized this out-of-the-way voyage to South Georgia and Antarctica for 72 guests. The ship has a good small library and a sauna, but most of the passengers spend the day looking out to sea.

The coastal birds have now fallen away, and the powerful pelagic birds have found the ship, crisscrossing the waves on long and pointed wings as stiff as boomerangs. These ocean fliers, from the great albatross to the diminutive storm petrels, belong to the great order Procellariiformes (from the Latin procella, for "storm" or "gale"). All members of this large and varied tribe share external nostrils in the form of tubal structures on the upper mandible, which extract the salt from ocean water, a remarkable evolutionary adaptation that permits them to spend most of their lives at sea. Young wandering albatross may cruise the southern oceans for five years before returning to the breeding grounds, without once setting a webbed foot on land.

The wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans, is the greatest of its clan, with the broadest wingspan (11 feet) of any bird on earth. Arching down the sky to vanish behind a wave, curving high again like a white cross, it excites cries of wonder. "I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross"--surely, exulans is the species celebrated by Robert Cushman Murphy, whose two-volume classic, Oceanic Birds of South America, was published in 1936. A pioneer work on these little-known ocean wanderers, it filled me with a longing to journey to South Georgia, as it described the astonishing bounty of life on the shores of those white icy peaks lost in midocean, where one might have thought no life could exist at all.

South Georgia. First sighted in 1675 by a London merchantman blown off course, this 100-mile ridge at the farthest curve of the Scotia Arc was not reported a second time until nearly a century later, by the Spanish ship Leon, in 1756. In England, Captain James Cook would give no credence to the first report, very little to the second, at least publicly, but eventually he felt obliged to credit the Spanish captain Gregorio Jerez with inspiring its true discovery two decades later by a stouthearted Englishman, namely himself.

Though Cook would perish in Hawaii in 1779, his crew brought word back to England of the great companies of seals and whales around South Georgia, where the first sealers arrived in 1790. In 1800, 122,000 fur seals were slaughtered there. Twenty-three years later, the American sealer Captain James Weddell wrote of the fur seals that "these animals are now almost extinct." When the fur seals were exhausted, the sealers turned their clubs to the huge elephant seals, whose blubber was boiled down for its oil.

Today South Georgia has one of the greatest concentrations of seabirds and mammals anywhere on earth because of the astonishing abundance of the small marine organisms known collectively as plankton, on which virtually all species of petrels, penguins, whales, and seals depend. Why South Georgia is extraordinary in this respect is best described by the oceanographer Sir Alistair Hardy, of Robert Falcon Scott's 1900-1904 Discovery research expedition, which preceded his doomed trek to the South Pole:  

South Georgia is a long narrow island, some 100 miles long by some 15 across; it is placed almost at right angles to the main westerly drift coming up the Drake Straits ... Where the main ocean current from the west strikes the continental shelf of South Georgia [is] an upwelling of water rich in phosphate from the deeper layers on the west side of the island, and it is here that we get the densest growth of diatoms, which are carried round either end into the area behind the island ... This is, perhaps ... why South Georgia, so peculiarly situated, should be one of the richest whale-feeding grounds of the world.  

As late as the 1930s whales were still abundant all around South Georgia, where the industry was supported by rorqual, or baleen, whales--notably the blue whale, the humpback whale, and the finback, or fin whale. Only much later, when these larger species became scarce, did the whalers start hunting smaller species such as the minke.  Today the Antarctic Ocean is an international whale sanctuary, now that all its large whalers are gone. 

On January 24, 1998, in a bright dawn more than two centuries after Captain Cook's departure, the snow peaks and glaciers of South Georgia glisten under a clear blue sky, as the ship moves southeast along the coast past Stromness Bay. In the first full sunshine of the voyage, the mountainsides are patched with verdant greens. Black cliffs fall steeply to the water at the mouth of the great Cumberland Bay, and dead ahead, closing the eight-mile length of the blue bay, glittering ice walls form the leading edge of the Nordenskold Glacier, which soars away through thin and shifting mists to Mount Nordenskold, 7,725 feet above sea level. Like the Malvinas, these are true mountains, not volcanoes. The island's highest peak, Mount Paget, rises out of the sea from the ocean floor thousands of feet down to a white peak almost 10,000 feet above the ocean surface. 

Glaciers descending between towers of black rock rule this mighty and ferocious landscape, including tidewater glaciers that come right to the water and "calve" small, irregular chunks of ice into the sea. All alone here, a half mile off the cliffs, the white Ioffe seems strangely diminished, even humbled. Between ship and shore, the sea is a clear jade green from the sheer density of organic matter. At this time of the year, the seawater is supersaturated with high densities of tiny diatoms as well as high concentrations of hydrogen and iron, phosphates and nutrient salts, which in turn support the clouds of krill.

It is austral summer, and the coastal cliffs are broken by the grassy headlands, slopes, and benches used by the nesting seabirds. Below the cliffs are black-rock beaches, and here the white breasts of king penguins shine against the stones. Nearer, the sun catches the gold ear patches behind the eye of swimming members of this splendid species, as well as the yellow head tufts of the much smaller macaroni penguins, which surface here and there among the dark, round, shining heads of the Georgian fur seals. Antarctic prions go twisting past in their small scattered companies, like blown confetti, and overhead fly kelp gulls and Antarctic terns--the first coastal species seen since the ship left Tierra del Fuego. 

In King Edward Cove, under a snow peak, lies the rusty-roofed hulk of Grytviken, established in 1901 by the Norwegians as the first whaling station in the Antarctic. With a labor force of perhaps 300 men, the factory winched 60-foot whales--as many as 25 every day--onto its slippery platforms to be flensed and cooked not only for the whale oil in the blubber but also for bone and meat meal, and meat extract. Other Norwegian whaling stations thrived at Stromness until 1931, when the last South Georgia factories closed down for want of whales. 

Today the station grounds have been reoccupied by the king penguins, which have joined a few introduced reindeer in their sad wanderings through the old ruins. Huge elephant seals lie in groaning rows by the shed walls, and a lively nursery of fur seal pups rush about on the grassy slope, which rises toward the cemetery where the great Antarctic hero Ernest Shackleton is buried.  

Sailing from Grytviken on a new South Pole expedition in November 1913, the Endurance was best by the pack of ice in the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1914. Later that year she was crushed by the shifting pack ice after drifting northwest about 1,500 miles. In early November, Shackleton attempted a trek of 350 miles to Paulet Island, where an earlier expedition had left a hut. When this failed because of treacherous ice, the party returned to the ship, which sank on November 21. The men took to the ship's lifeboats, which they dragged and rowed hundreds of miles before reaching Elephant Island, named for the great lugubrious seals that would help keep the crew alive. Camp was made in a cave near a colony of gentoo penguins, and two days later, on April 24, 1915, leaving the remainder of the crew to pray for them, Shackleton and four companions set out in the remaining lifeboat for South Georgia.

Arriving there half dead from exposure, they were wrecked in the surf on the rocky and desolate windward coast. Soaked through, frozen, and exhausted, they climbed thousands of feet up the island's ice-bound central range and trekked southeast among the peaks for 18 miles, making a dangerous descent of rock and ice to reach the Stromness whaling station, where the Endurance had been given up for lost. Scarcely recovered, Shackleton took sail as rapidly as possible for Argentina, from which he made two desperate attempts to reach his stranded crew. He accomplished this in a third effort on August 30, 1916, bringing his crew back to Britain without losing a man. 

Shackleton died in Argentina in 1922, and his wife returned his body to South Georgia. At Grytviken, from which the Endurance had sailed in 1913, we drink champagne toasts at the hero's graveside to a chorus of deep groans and blarts from the lounging elephants. 

In 1901 the first whalers at Grytviken reported that so many spouts could be seen from land that the hunters had no need to leave the bay--174,000 whales are said to have been slaughtered out of that station alone. Last year a young member of our ship's staff trekked for a month across these mountains, keeping an eye toward the sea looking for whales, and never saw one. Tim and Pauline Carr, a British couple who tarried here to help establish a small museum in the course of a round-the-world adventure on a small sailboat, tell us they have spotted only two whales from the shore in the past five years. 

The Carrs are the first family to inhabit South Georgia since the whaling days. Their wooden vessel, a 28-foot gaff-rigged cutter without auxiliary engine or radio, celebrated its centennial last year. Still awaiting their departure, the pretty Curlew is tied alongside the half-sunken hulk of the old whale catcher Petrel, but the Carrs, who love this beautiful, austere place, are looking for a means that might let them stay. In the old days, South Georgia was enclosed by sea ice during winter, but for some years now no ice has formed, presumably because of global warming, so the small community they hope to found could be supplied by ship. 

South Georgia was the first place "retaken" by that old warhorse Mrs. Thatcher in the cynical and absurd Falklands War between Argentina and Great Britain--a less than bitterly fought campaign, since South Georgia at that time was uninhabited. A British presence was established by a postmaster and a small garrison of Gurkha soldiers who live in new red-roofed white barracks, west of the drab, cold, silent factory, and whose only enemies in this hostile landscape are homesickness and boredom. In a rare official action--the first and last one in its history, for all I know--the garrison (which represents "the South Georgia government," a ghostly body seated in the Falklands/Malvinas) forbids our young Argentine stewardess and her brother from setting foot on this lonely shore. 

That afternoon, duly registered with the South Georgia government, the Ioffe sails out past Barff Point and returns up the coast. At Fortuna Bay, carved out over long millennia by the Fortuna Glacier, the east wall of the bowl is brown with shale, but on the west slope, beneath an ice field dirtied by blown dust, soft green moss and high tussock grass have taken hold, and on a rise is a colony of gentoos. In a squadron of four trusty inflatables run by the expert boatmen, we are set on shore. 

Reconnoitering, I make my way uphill through the sprawled elephant seals. Despite their vast, jiggling avoirdupois, these huge creatures have hauled themselves high up into the tussock grass, 200 yards above the beach. This is a commendable feat for an animal that can reach a length of 20 feet and weigh two tons and must hump and haul itself on its belly using fore flippers alone, since the hind flippers serve only as a rudder, useless on shore. In the sea this giant among southern seals is powerful and agile, diving as deep as 4,000 feet in pursuit of squid and fish. The elephants open their jaws with weary sighs and cavernous yawns, peering through strange dark, lustrous eyes--blind-looking because no pupil is visible (and eerily reminiscent of the black moon eyes of the great white shark). Despite an equable nature, the elephants utter prodigious roars as well as barks and snorts to dismay intruders, but they are not aggressive unless a human gets too close; then they may rear up in protest.

Far away up a delta of small streams that descend from the glacier, a broad area of white turns out to be the snowy breasts of a large flock of king penguins--some 7,000 pairs, by a rough count. I walk down to the beach and make my way through feisty fur seal pups and strolling companies of kings, then walk up the gravel stream a mile or more to the great central flock, stooped on by the screeching terns most of the way. 

On this rare day of sun--the sixth sunny day in the past three months, as the Carrs informed us--most of the birds stand in the icy stream, and some have trekked all the way up onto the snows. The panting penguins are overheating and stand with their backs to the wind, lifting smooth flippers and even their small tight feathers to increase ventilation. (In severe cold, they tuck everything in, feet and bill, facing into the wind to hold the feathers closed, since feather oil provides most of their insulation.) Many of them are in molt, including the big fluffy brown chicks. These stand disconsolate, peeping and chirping in their sweet, rich voices; the parents distinguish them by voice, not by appearance. They trudge along after the adults, pills pointed down, eyes to the gravel, in a manner that says, "Well, this isn't much fun!" So fluffy are they that their short tail is scarcely visible; they look as if they cannot quite lower their wings. Even the chicks that are mostly finished molting have tufts of brown down on the breast or back, and one is clean and beautiful except for a last tuft on one side of the head, hopelessly foolish and appealing. As yet, they neither dive nor swim well, and in the salt water they may be preyed on by skuas and giant petrels, which harass and peck them until they are exhausted.

After a few days of rough weather and fierce williwaws, the morning of January 27 dawns with whales and sun. Three humpback whales blow off the starboard bow, and they do not sound as the Ioffe comes abreast but porpoise easily along in no alarm or hurry. When at last they sound, their great gleaming black flukes lined white beneath, they rise slowly and majestically against the mountains all around, curving in high, graceful arcs and sliding silently without a splash into the sea. 

Swirling snow mist shrouds Mount Paget as the ship edges her way into and out of the Stromness Harbor. There, the three old whaling stations lie decrepit, like small, remote military outposts left behind by war. We gaze awestruck at the long snow glacier down which Ernest Shackleton and his frozen, ragged band had staggered after crossing the ice peaks from the windward coast where their small boat had been wrecked upon their return.

On this brilliant morning, the first snow petrels are sighted, two pure-white vagrants from the southern continent, and the beautiful pintado petrels, painted in motley browns and whites, and the local breed of the blue-eyed cormorant. At noon the ship turns inshore past black-rock reefs into Gold Harbor, formed by two glaciers whose white ice cliffs are hundreds of feet high; the glaciers rise and rise to frosty horizons far away between black peaks. Along the edges of the bay, at the foot of the steep bare slopes of scree and grasses, are the shining browns of elephant seals and sea lions. In the shallows, oblivious of bathing penguins, the young fur seals play in galloping splashes and great flurries, chopping the surface white like feeding fish.

On shore, I negotiate an uphill path through a large herd of elephants, 40 or more. They lift their wide jaws in great gasps, starting sightlessly through those strange moon eyes. On the gravel beach, in the cooling shallows of a glacier stream, 14 are stacked side by side like fraternal two-ton loaves. For a mile upstream toward the glacier, the gravel bars are swarming with king penguins, an immense colony solid-packed at the far end of the beach and inland up the streams--in fact, uncountable, though we all agree on a minimum of 50,000 birds in sight at once. Many are still feeding their brown chicks, which are now a year old and still molting. With the king penguins are hundreds of gentoos, terns, gulls, ducks, and blue-eyed cormorants, with light-mantled sooty albatross gliding overhead in pairs. One scarcely hears them over the constant yawp and rumble of the mammals that are scattered the whole distance of the long beach and far back into the tussock grass behind. 

The fur seal congregation here includes a group of bull-necked adult males, or "beachmasters," growling and charging. At times, one must growl back, holding one's ground and, if necessary, jumping with arms spread, as our ancestral hominids are thought to have done to protect themselves against larger, faster, and better-armed animals. Such behavior will usually halt the charge, but one must be ready to leap sideways, and also to avoid a sneak attack once it has passed. One sees the dog relative in these animals--a dog of perhaps 300 pounds. 

The mammals rule for a considerable distance up the steep side of the headland, which we climb in search of the scattered ledge nests of the light-mantled sooty albatross. Eventually two are located and photographed, and also nests of skuas and the snowy sheathbill, which seeks nest sites beneath overhangs of the cliffs. A bird of the littoral, or foreshore, the sheathbill is one of only two species in its genus and family, occurring all the way around the world in austral latitudes. In size and general aspect, and even in its flight, it resembles a heavy white domestic pigeon, but at close hand one sees the bare skin on the face that is characteristic of many carrion feeders (which would otherwise have difficult keeping their head feathers clean). Everywhere, this species acts as a nest robber and a scavenger, preying upon the eggs and chicks of penguins and other birds.

Each little while, the din and cries of the marine mammals and the tidal whisper on the gravel of the beach are broken by the loud crack and thunder of a calving glacier, like dynamite resounding in a rock quarry, causing frozen dust to rise out of the icefall after each explosion. With the amphitheater of black peaks and the dark-blue wind-chopped glacier bay opening into the circumpolar seas, one is awed and astonished not only by the sheer biomass but by the urgency of life renewal in this habitat. In late afternoon, as we depart, I look back a bit wistfully at Gold Harbor, knowing how unlikely it is that I shall return in this life to this remote and magnificent island. 

Before departing South Georgia for Antarctica, the Ioffe enters the Drygalski Fjord, a narrow aperture that penetrates some eight miles from the open sea into the island's mountain heart, all the way to the great glacier under Mount Macklin. There are few birds in the narrow fjord, but far inland snow petrels come and go like lost white spirits between high, dark walls. Offshore, large rocks of white-chinned petrels cluster and dip on the rich plankton, and a few wandering albatross carve the twilight. In the growing darkness, I climb to the bridge to see Cape Disappointment at the east end of this mighty island, ringed by explosions of white surf. There is no beacon, nor any sign of man.

South latitude 54 degrees, 42 minutes. South Georgia, one of the most remote places on earth, is the last outpost in a great emptiness of ocean. Were this ship to proceed due east, circumnavigating the austral oceans of the planet, she would pass well south of the Cape of Good Hope, Tasmania, and New Zealand before making her first continental landfall near Cape Horn.

The ship rounds the rock islets that lie off Cape Disappointment, and the ghostly snows of South Georgia's windward coast come into view. The mountains fade in the starboard mists as the ship bears southwest for Elephant Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. The bow rises and falls on the long swells of the Scotia Sea, smote by the night wind and the stygian blackness of a fast-moving squall, crossing drowned mountains.

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