Bucket List: South Georgia Island – King Penguins and Ernest Shackleton’s Resting Place

Photo by Liam Quinn from Canada

Despite nearly three years of round-the-world travel, there is still a long list of places we would love to visit. You would think our “bucket list” would be getting shorter, but if anything, it just keeps getting longer! The world may be small, but there is always some other place to discover.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be writing about some of the places we still want to visit. And hopefully, someday, we actually will make it there!

First up: South Georgia Island.

Our last-minute decision to join an expedition cruise to Antarctica during our visit to Argentina remains one of our top travel experiences. There are two primary routes these cruises take: 1) trips to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Towards the Antarctic Circle (like the trip we took); or 2) voyages further east to the Falklands and South Georgia Island.

We saw lots and lots of penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, but unfortunately we were not able to see the gigantic King Penguin – the second largest penguin species after the Emperor Penguin. The best place to see these guys is the South Georgia and Sandwich Islands, a chain of small islands about 860 miles (1,400 km) east of The Falkland Islands.

King Penguins on South Georgia Island, by Pismire, Wikimedia Commons

King Penguins on South Georgia Island, by Pismire, Wikimedia Commons

South Georgia was the first Antarctic territory discovered, with the first confirmed sightings dating back to the late 1600s. The first landing was made in 1775 by Captain James Cook on the HMS Endurance, who claimed the island for Britain and named it in honor of King George III.

In addition, this was the setting of one of the most epic chapters of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s failed Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After losing his ship, Endurance, which had been trapped in ice during the harsh Antarctic winter, Shackleton bravely led his men and sled dogs across the ice and into lifeboats to Elephant Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula.

Shackleton's ship, Endurance, trapped and sinking in the Antarctic ice.

Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, trapped and sinking in the Antarctic ice. Royal Geographic Society, Public Domain.

Realizing they would never be rescued there, he brought a small group of men on a 16-day, 800 nautical mile voyage across the world’s harshest ocean in a tiny open lifeboat to South Georgia Island, home to a Norwegian whaling station. Unfortunately, a storm forced them to land on the wrong side of the island, and with a crippled lifeboat, they were forced to cross the island’s mountainous glacier-covered interior.

Launching the James Caird lifeboat from Elephant Island for it's journey to South Georgia Island.

Launching the James Caird lifeboat from Elephant Island for it’s journey to South Georgia Island.

Without proper climbing gear, the men fashioned crampons by hammering nails into the bottoms of their shoes and using spare tools as ice axes. Thirty-six hours later, they had made it to the whaling station at Stromness. The next person to attempt this crossing was British explorer Duncan, who after following Shackleton’s route in 1955 wrote, “I do not know how they did it, except that they had to–three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them–and a carpenter’s adze”.

Rugged South Georgia Island. Image by NASA in Public Domain.

Rugged South Georgia Island. Image by NASA in Public Domain.

After reaching the whaling station, Shackleton got to work rescuing his men from Elephant Island. A few months later, he reached the island and rescued his men. Miraculously, after surviving two Antarctic winters, not a single man had died.

Panorama of South Georgia, photographed by Frank Hurley a year after Shackleton's crossing. Public Domain.

Panorama of South Georgia, photographed by Frank Hurley a year after Shackleton’s crossing. Public Domain.

Shackleton loved Antarctica and South Georgia Island. According to his wishes, he was buried here, and visitors can pay their respects at his gravesite in the Grytviken cemetery.

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