Elephant Island is a non-welcoming rocky island in the South Shetland Islands in the Southern Ocean. Devoid of plant life it would just be another island among many had history been made there.
In 1916 Elephant Island played a crucial role is the survival of Ernest Shackleton’s crew after the loss of his ship, The Endurance, during an antarctic exploration. Twenty-eight men landed there in open lifeboats. Shackleton and five others left the other 22 on the island to travel to a known whaling station. It took almost two weeks for Shackleton to arrive in South Georgia at the station. It took more than four months before he was able to return for the remaining men.
Those 22, who were left behind, lived on the rocky island under over turned lifeboats during the arctic winter of 1916. Living on seal and penguin meat, somehow they survived. All the while dealing with snow and winds that could reach up to 100 miles per hour.
The Elephant Island part of Shackleton’s adventure is truly a tale of survival of iron men and wooden ships. For a more complete telling of this heroic tale, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing is highly recommended.
In January 2012 we were lucky enough to visit Elephant Island while on an Antarctic exploration cruise. Tourism in Antarctica is limited. According to our ship’s Expedition leader, Robin West, estimates are that only about 40,000 tourists visit per year. It is also estimated that only a few hundred set foot on Elephant Island in any given year. We did. It was the first landing our ship had made in the ten years of sailing there on a regular basis. They had tried on each and every prior trip with no luck.
Landing on the island is difficult due to the tides, currents and a harsh coastline of rocks. No humans live there, which is, one would assume, to the liking of the seals and penguins who do.
Although the conditions were as kind as possible, landing was still difficult. The rocks in the water were coated with a slippery growth and there was no beach to land upon. The surface was a hard surface with no soil available. A pink coating of penguin droppings covered much. The harsh reality of how these men lived for over four months was driven home.
Were these men made of tougher stuff than men of today? Were they truly iron men? Or was it, as one fellow traveler put it: They survived because they had to.