Tag Archives: Shackleton

True Gryt

Tuesday March 5 2024 – Even as we were leaving Pippa’s recap yesterday, we could feel the sea getting rougher.  During the night there was quite a lot of pitching and rolling; talk this morning was of gusts of 50-knot winds, which, if memory serves (because it has to; our expensive internet has given way to an entirely non-available one, which means Googling is now impossible) is bordering Storm Force 10.  There were no injuries, but suffice it to say that the rocking and rolling was sufficient to a) cause a slightly mysterious but weighty de-ioniser device to jump off its shelf in our cabin with a considerable thump at 3 in the morning; and b) tip over the cup of milk we had kept in our fridge for the purpose of making tea. A slightly disturbed night, then, but not too uncomfortable otherwise – we both managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep.

It was clear that the captain had had to do a lot of careful navigation; there were a lot of very large icebergs around.

However, as we entered Cumberland Bay, at the back of which the settlement of Grytviken lurks, the waters reverted to millpond stillness, and we could start to see the Grytviken government buildings on King Edward Point

and the settlement itself.

As I’ve said before, Grytviken is the centre of government for the island of South Georgia, which was the first whaling station on the island, established in 1904 by Carl Anton Larsen, a Norwegian who realised there was an enormous fortune to be made from whaling.  Up to that point, the island, which was claimed for King George III in 1775 by James Cook, had been a centre for sealing – fur seals were killed for their pelts, and elephant seals for their blubber.

As I’ve already mentioned, South Georgia operates a very stringent biosecurity policy, and Grytviken is the centre of government for the island; the already-high focus on biosecurity is particularly keen here.  So we experienced an iron fist in a velvet glove.  The glove was operated by Deidre

a nice Scottish lady from the South Georgia Heritage Trust who spent 15 minutes extolling the wonders of South Georgia and particularly the work of the Heritage Trust, whose fundraising has been critical to transforming the area from an ecological disaster to an ecosystem in recovery. And it was, indeed, fundraising for this very worthwhile charity which was clearly to the fore in her messages to us. We took away a sponsorship form from her colleague Bodil (also Scottish) and a determination to support the Trust in some way or other (see later).  The iron fist was the inspection we underwent before we were allowed on to the Zodiacs.  To be as sure as possible that this would not reveal any shortcomings in Hondius’s biosecurity measures, there were staff performing extra checks on people before the inspector got to them.

All of us disembarking on the first Zodiac were checked (we don’t know if those disembarking from the second shell door were also checked). The inspector was cheerful, but brisk, and raised no alarms in checking us over as we went through (and in fact, Pippa revealed later that we had had a 100% clear record, meaning that future inspections would need only to check a smaller sample of passengers).

Off we went to the shore where we were able to wander around some areas of the settlement – not all; some areas were closed to us because of the risk of avian influenza. But we were able to see a lot, and to note the extent to which nature was Taking Back Control over the years.

One had to be careful in walking around, as there were fur seals everywhere, including on the paths.  I nearly stepped on one little one as I was taking a photo; vigilance was very necessary.

So, what’s in the settlement?  As you can see from the above, there’s an old whaling ship, and, on the right is the museum, which used to be the station manager’s villa, with its fragments of whalebone and other items on the lawn outside.

Just behind the flagpole are some pots.

These are the old “trying” pots which were used for boiling up seal blubber, and were what Larsen first saw when he made ground here. It is these pots which give the place its name; Grytviken is the Norwegian for “Pot Cove”.

This nugget, and many others, were provided on our short but informative guided tour, which was led by yet another Scottish lady, whose name, shamefully, I have forgotten. (It seems that there’s some kind of a morphic resonance between South Georgia and Scotland, possibly because of similarity of climate?)

The old machinery used for processing the whales is a major presence across the site,

but regrettably we weren’t allowed to wander around amongst it.  Our guide pointed out that originally these machines would have been housed in buildings, but the preservation work on the site had them removed, as they were (a) unsafe and (b) toxic, particularly riddled with asbestos.

Other surviving buildings include the post office and shop

where one could buy all sorts of things, including, unsurprisingly, stamps, both ornamental, such as Platinum Jubilee or Coronation sets, or functional, to be put on the postcards that one can also buy there to send home or wherever. (“Next post”, a sign proudly announced, “March”).

The museum

has all sorts of items of interest, both historical, to do with whaling and that Shackleton chappie, and also the wildlife.

Above you can see an example of a leopard seal’s skull with its canines and filtering molars.  There was also a pleasing variation on the “Do Not Touch” you see so often in museums the world over:

a seal skin, stroking which gives a very good idea of why they were so sought after.

There were also some quirky exhibits in the museum’s retail area

and both post office and museum gave us the chance to donate to the island and its trust by buying a couple of things as well as making an explicit donation on the “Tap to Donate” pad so thoughtfully placed by the exit.

Another important building is this

which houses a replica of the James Caird, the little boat that you’ll have read about in previous posts, so I won’t bore you again with its story; it also, importantly, houses

the only public toilets on the island.

Inside the James Caird hut

gives an impactful insight into the stuff of which Shackleton and his men were made.  Remember, there were six men on this boat, which means that five had to be below decks

alongside ballast rocks and other supplies.  On the wall are Shackleton’s makeshift crampons

amid a plethora of other items pertinent to the momentous journey this little boat undertook.

Finally, there is the church

constructed in Norway, then dis-assembled, transported and reconstructed here.  It wasn’t apparently, used so much as a church as a cinema.  Inside

it’s well-maintained, and includes the lending library that was in use at the time.

It has two bells, which punters can ring.  I did (I have the video) and it gave me quite an insight into the skill of church bell ringing.

Outside the church, the guides from Hondius were organising a toast to “The Boss” (yes, Shackleton – difficult to get away from the man), led by Saskia

using his own blend of whisky (now made by Mackinlay’s according to an original recipe specified by the man himself, apparently).  Normally, this toast would have been conducted at his grave in the cemetery, but we were not allowed to go there.  Instead, we took a look from the shore as part of the Zodiac ride back to Hondius.

Shackleton’s headstone is the big grey one in the centre of the cemetery.

For all its dark past, the Grytviken settlement makes for an emotional visit, possibly because it shows that humans are beginning to pay more respect not only to the past but to the environment.  In any case, it was an absorbing morning, and we feel privileged to have been able to visit the site.

In the afternoon, the skipper took Hondius gingerly towards the afternoon’s site – gingerly because of the care with which he had to navigate.

The location for the afternoon was a nearby cove called Godthul.  Ursula was our guide for a cruise which was to be followed by a landing.

The cruise took us by more thundering great lumps of ice

some of which had penguins on.

It was engaging watching them leap out of the water on to the ice – not always, it has to be said, successfully. (Yes, I have video.)

The cruise didn’t reveal too much in the way of new wildlife, except for one fur seal which was leucistic – a very pale colour, but not albino. They’re apparently known as “blondies”.

After the cruise, we landed at a cove whence we could wander along the beach and/or take a hike to either a penguin colony or a freshwater lake.  The hike was through tussock grass. The lower part of it was up a steep bank (for an idea of scale, the tussocks are 2-3 feet in diameter and rather taller than they are wide).

It was at times difficult to see where to put one’s feet, the tussocks concealed some unsuspected deep gaps and holes, and there were some large steps to be scrambled up. Once you’d conquered the first, tough, part, the going got easier as it went across mossy ground.

We eschewed the penguin colony on the basis that we’d already seen quite a few gentoos by now, and instead headed to the glacial lake

where there were just a couple of penguins loitering nearby.

I’m not quite sure what penguins make of fresh water, but there they were.  On the way down, we got a decent view over the cove and Hondius.

As usual we were enjoined to follow the track laid down by the guides, who set up red poles to guide visitors.  Even so, to avoid stressing the local wildlife, one still had to extemporise occasionally.

And so ended the day’s entertainment, apart from the usual daily recap from Pippa, which was, as ever, well-attended by everyone, agog to see what was planned for the next day.

That plan turned out to be a bit of a gamble, since the lack of an internet meant that even she and the ship’s crew didn’t have an up-to-date wind forecast.  The dice were loaded in favour of decent weather, but, as with all random events like weather and dice, there was the chance of an unexpected outcome. But the plan was to go to Fortuna Bay, the place where (him again) Shackleton actually reached the coast after crossing the island from Peggotty Bluff – it’s next to Stromness so he could hear the whistle from the whaling station there to guide him to what passed for civilisation in those days in these parts. In order to reduce the chance of birds choosing to land on the ship, something which requires a special procedure to be followed to ensure that they take off safely again, we headed out to sea to make the short hop northwards along the coast from Godthul. There is the chance of rougher seas, therefore; with luck, it won’t be too rough, the conditions will stay calm and we’ll have a good final day on South Georgia at Fortuna Bay.


King Haakon Bay

Monday 4 March 2024 – The overnight transit from the eastern side of the island to King Haakon Bay on the western side went smoothly.

So it was that we found ourselves in a place where, almost always, the weather is wild and woolly.  The forecast that Pippa and the team had been working on – for fairly quiet conditions – appeared still to be correct when we awoke, so their non-traditional itinerary gamble appeared to have been a good one.

Plans accordingly continued for two expeditions during the day.  However, we had some excitement even before our first excursion – blue whales spotted off the starboard bow.  Frustratingly, I had just stepped into the shower when this was announced; by the time I could get myself on deck there were no signs of the whales. But Jane had managed to grab a couple of shots from the cabin – just enough to show that a) there was at least one very large whale, and b) that it’s small (relatively) dorsal fin showed it to be a blue, rather than a fin, whale.

In truth there wasn’t much for anyone to see, so Jane did a great job to get these images.  I just wish I’d caught a glimpse myself.

The two expeditions of the day continued the Shackleton thread running through recent days.  In seeking a rescue for the men he’d left on Elephant Island after sea ice destroyed his ship, he and five of his expedition crew sailed a small boat, the James Caird, across the (potentially very stormy and dangerous) Scotia Sea, using dead reckoning, to South Georgia – an extraordinary feat of navigation.  We would first visit the place where they first made ground, at Cape Rosa, and then moved slightly further in to King Haakon Bay to Peggotty Bluff, whence Shackleton and two of the others made their hazardous journey on foot over the mountains to the other side of the island – Stromness – where there was a whaling station whose men could help initiate a rescue operation.

The scenery at Cape Rosa is, as usual, spectacular, and, once again, very different from the other South Georgia locations we’ve so far seen.

As one can infer from the colour of the water, the bay has glaciers pouring into it.

Our first expedition was a Zodiac cruise with a short landing.  The cruise enabled us to potter about the islands that are adjacent to the shore, and the caves that the sea has carved out from the cliffs.

This one had a little beach in it, with some seals relaxing there.

We actually went deep into another one

but it was dark inside – not a rewarding photographic location.

As we cruised on, there were a couple of icebergs in what looked like a really incongruous location

but it soon became clear what the situation was.

There was quite a lot of wildlife, but nothing that I have not regaled you with lots of photos of already, apart from a native bird, the South Georgia pipit, the island’s only songbird.

The central, and one might say main, point of the cruise was to land at Cave Cove.  On the face of it, it’s not at all spectacular.

Its significance is historical and a matter of some ecstasy to worshippers at the Shackleton shrine; this is the sprt where he and five others first made ground on South Georgia in their small boat, the James Caird.  In those days, there was a stream running down into the water, and this was a lifesaver for them, as their reserves of water had turned brackish.  The stream is not very obvious today.

The whole cove is small (so small that only two Zodiacs were allowed in at any one time)

and the six men only stayed a short while before moving to a different location in King Haakon Bay (see later).  We stayed an even shorter while before decamping back to Hondius for lunch.

During lunch, the ship moved a right up into the bay so that we could explore the other locations of Shackleton-related interest – Peggotty Bluff and the Shackleton Gap. We had Adam, Pippa’s no. 2, as our guide and he made the afternoon very interesting, aided in no small part by the wonders of the natural world going on around us.

At the far end of the bay are two glaciers, Morris and Murray.


I was sorely tempted to ask if there was a third glacier called Mint. I manfully restrained myself.

We approached the right-hand one, and if you look closely, you can see an arch or cave towards its right hand side.

As we neared it, we went into a mass of brash ice, and we could hear it fizzing and crackling as bits of it practically exploded in the sunshine.  Adam fished out a lump of it

in which one could see different strata – very clear ice which had formed under great pressure, a well-defined border to a different formation, made under less pressure at the top, and, at the bottom, recently formed ice which still had air bubbles in it, which (a) makes it les transparent and (b) provides the fizzing and popping as it melts.

At this point, things got really interesting.

We could hear the rumblings of the sort that glaciers make when calving, and Adam could see that the arch/cave was home to a lot of ice decay.

Increasingly large chunks of the area started dropping

and before too long a whole great mass came crashing down.

Leaving scant evidence that there had ever been that arch in the first place.

Very exciting!

I have video, of course. Sorry, as ever, that I can’t share it here and now. I’m beginning to think that I will include a page dedicated to some of the video footage that we’ve garnered over the trip; but I’ll need a large amount of unlimited internet data to provide that, and I haven’t got that right now.  Watch this space….

After all that glacier excitement, we pottered over towards the areas of historic Shackleton-type interest.  Peggotty’s Bluff

shields a cove

(the bluff is on the right, above).  This is the second place in the bay that Shackleton and his five companions landed on the island. In the background of the picture you can see that the moraine rises gently to meet a glacier.  That area is called Shackleton’s Gap. Here’s the view from the bay itself.

That is the glacier over which Shackleton and two of his men walked, some 35 kilometres as the crow would fly if there were any crows here, over some 36 hours, to reach the whalers at Stromness, on the east coast.  (They left the other three sheltering under the upturned James Caird.) Apparently there is an appetite among a certain type of foolhardy courageous person for recreating this journey; these days, to preserve the environment better, a permit is needed to undertake the journey.  It’s a very strenuous, demanding and dangerous expedition even dressed in and using today’s advanced technical gear. Shackleton’s party had none of the fabrics and materials available today, and even had screws (from the James Caird) put through the soles of their boots as improvised crampons to enable them to walk on the glacier ice.  Ridiculous, but utterly heroic. And, happily, successful.  He got within earshot of the Stromness factory just as they were blowing the shift start whistle, which enabled him to find the station. The rest is history, with a fair bit of geography entwined in it.

There was more interesting wildlife on this afternoon cruise.  I managed to get satisfactory pictures of a couple of birds in flight: the Wilson’s Storm Petrel

and Antarctic tern.  A whole bunch of juveniles came out and flew around and over our Zodiac, checking us out; it was lovely to see them.

It was a great afternoon’s cruising and so we headed back to Hondius very happy with our afternoon’s experience.

As we waited to go down to dinner, Jane caught a great shot of seals porpoising by the ship, a sight we hadn’t really seen thus far.

And so ended a good day’s Shackletoning.  There’s a final morsel of Shackletoniana promised for the morrow.  If all goes well, we’ll get to Grytviken, where there are the preserved remnants of a whaling station – not the biggest, but probably the best-known on the island. The others are merely disused; Grytviken has had restoration work done in the settlement, and, further, is the seat of the island’s governance group and an important location for the South Georgia Heritage Trust.  We will get to hear more from the Trust – and the government – before we set foot on Grytviken, and between now and then is a journey back out into the wild and woolly waters around the north of the island as we make the journey.  We’ve been cosseted over the last several days with light winds and calm waters.  Tonight promises to change all that.



Three Elephants in One Day

Thursday 29 February 2024 – After a spell of weather sufficiently wild and woolly that one chap we know actually lost his glasses on the expedition that we decided not to participate in, and which has kept us all on board ever since, the day dawned bright and sunny, and there in front of us (well, actually to port, if you’re being picky) was the first of our three elephants.

Elephant Island is probably most famous as being the place from which Sir Ernest Shackleton launched his renowned and ultimately successful rescue attempt, by striking out in a 22-foot boat with two other men, aiming for South Georgia, where he knew there was a whaling station.  There, he hoped, the whalers would be able to help him stage a mission to rescue the 16 he’d left behind (see later).  He was ultimately successful and is therefore regarded as a hero*; and in his honour, today was being referred to on Hondius as “Shackleton Day”: an opportunity to review his exploits and then to follow in his tracks towards South Georgia.

Our captain took Hondius around Elephant Island to the north side, where we would be able to see Point Wild, the place where Shackleton’s men sheltered whilst he struck out heroically to rescue them.  From that side, the weather was less clement,

but merely overcast and breezy, a nice change from the horizontal rain of the previous days.

Whilst we’d been taking this circumnavigation, we had our second elephantine encounter, something which was actually quite magical, but very difficult to capture photographically; a huge pod of fin whales, feeding.  Fin whales are huge; second only to blue whales in size, and growing up to around 25 metres in length. There were, according to some estimates, as many as 40 of them, swimming around, blowing and feeding on the krill and fish that were disoriented by their antics.  As ever, I have some video, but the various stills Jane and I managed to get between us didn’t do justice to the sight, which was truly majestic.

If you look at the photo below, you can see that there are spouts right across the frame. It’s not a perfect image, but I hope it conveys the scope of what was going on.

Of course, all this disturbance in The (Oceanic) Force brought out all sorts of other creatures to feed on the fallout from the whales’ feeding.  There were porpoising penguins,


Black-browed albatrosses

and even a stormy petrel on a stick.

OK, it wasn’t on a stick. Or even a petrel.  We think it was actually a light-mantled sooty albatross. But I didn’t want to let the truth get in the way of a cheap laugh.

Eventually, we reached Point Wild, named, not because of any weather conditions, but after Frank Wild, one of Shackleton’s men, who had found it and deemed it a suitable place for the rest of the men to shelter whilst Shackleton was off doing his heroics. In the end they were there for 4 ½ months… It doesn’t look all that inviting, to be honest.

There’s an area between the large rock on the left and the smaller one in the centre which is a sort of cove.  The smaller rock was absolutely covered with penguins (the tiny flecks you can see below).


I should pay tribute to the navigation skills of the captain at this point, because, in order to give us passengers something extra to see, he gently let Hondius drift on the wind towards Point Wild, something that must take some nerve, as it’s probably expensive to get it wrong.  Anyway, that’s what he did, and we were able to get an eyeful of this special sight.

You have to look rather carefully to see it, but there it is;

a bust of Luis Pardo, who was the captain of a Chilean ship, Yelcho, which was the vessel which actually performed the rescue of the stranded men.

So, Kudos to the captain for his skill and daring, and it was out with the rum and hot chocolate as we passengers celebrated the memory of the kind of derring-do which marked out the heroic age of Antarctic exploration**.

Shortly after setting off again, we had our third and final elephantine encounter.

Can you see it in the photo above?  A thin grey line stretching from  horizon to horizon?

It’s an iceberg.

One, single, iceberg. A23a. The biggest iceberg currently extant.

It broke away from the ice shelf in 1986, was grounded and therefore stationary for some time, but is now floating freely at a speed of around 3 miles per day.

It’s unimaginably vast.  If you were to pick it up and pop it back down centred on Charing Cross (the middle of London as far as signposts are concerned), then I, for one, would be very cross, because it would crush my house. My house is in Surrey, 25 miles (40 km) to the south west.  So A23a is bigger than Greater London, covers a greater area than the M25.  Of course you can’t capture that in photos.  But here are a few, anyway.

It varies between 20 and 40 metres tall above the sea, which means that there’s some 300 metres of it below the water.

Mesmerising. Mind blowing. A privilege to see it.

What a day we’d had! Such sights and experiences!

There was some light relief available in the evening, as the staff staged a Film Night, with popcorn an’ everyfink.

The film was, of course, “Shackleton”, starring Kenneth Branagh, sporting a particularly heroic hairstyle.

And that was it for the day.  We’re headed along a similar track to Shackleton’s rescue mission, and so will eventually reach South Georgia. We have one stop en route where, conditions permitting, we’ll make landfall for the first time in a couple of days.  I’m hoping for benign weather conditions, and time, as ever, will tell…



* His rescue mission was, indeed, a heroic exploit and totally admirable.  Both Jane and I, however, regard the whole thing as an exemplar of How To Get On In Corporate Life: cock something up quite badly and then move mountains in a very obvious way to rescue the situation.  Management only remembers the heroics, not the cock-up.  Frankly, in our humble opinions, Shackelton should never have left South Georgia in the first place; the whalers there – and they knew this stuff – told him not to because of the dangers of particularly bad sea ice that year. He went ahead anyway, and that sea ice destroyed his ship, the less-than-ideally named Endurance.

** Less well-known was the other half of the Shackleton expedition.  Shackleton’s original objective was to cross the continent from one ocean to another (the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, actually).  He could take with him sufficient supplies to get him to the Pole, but needed further supplies for the other side of it.  To this end, a party of men set out from New Zealand to the Ross Sea end of Antarctica, to forge south towards the pole from there to drop supply depots for Shackleton’s second half.  This mission, although apparently successful in that it did drop three supply depots totalling a couple of tons of food, was a disaster – poorly-led, badly-planned and resulting in the deaths of three men. And, of course, ultimately pointless because Shackleton barely even got started before losing his ship. Such was the stuff of which men were made in those days.