Discover the extraordinary wildlife and landscapes of South Georgia and Antarctica, as bewitching now as they were in the days of the early explorers. In this photo story originally published in Lonely Planet Magazine, we take you deep into the icy heart of these spectacular landscapes. Words by Angie Butler and photographs by Pete Seaward.
Sealers first saw these forbidding snow-capped mountains on Half Moon Island, part of the South Shetland Islands, spliced by glaciers and riven with crevasses, in 1819. Yet it is the extraordinary courage displayed by the explorers of the ‘Heroic Age’ of 1901-1922 - their stories of triumph and tragedy - that still draws us to this unfathomable continent. Driven by desire for fame and fortune, and the honour of planting the flag for king and country, men like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen faced unimaginable hardship. Those that survived the hazardous four-month journey by ship into the pack ice were often ignorant of the perils that awaited them. And, of course, there was no guarantee of a safe return. Yet many of these men - like Shackleton’s right-hand man, Frank Wild - returned to the white continent. Wild said of Antarctica: ‘Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices’.
The massive Transantarctic Mountain range divides the continent into east and west, and a vast ice sheet surrounds the South Pole. In the winter, Antarctica’s landmass is doubled in size by sea ice. The highest, coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth, there is nowhere else like it. Here, on a ‘balmy’ spring day of -3°C, icebergs calved from ancient glaciers float on a cobalt-blue sea off the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of Antarctica. Spring, a five-month window of comparative calm, will ultimately close and the sea will slowly freeze, holding fast everything in an iron grip. This was how, in 1915, Shackleton’s ship the Endurance came to be trapped for 10 months and ultimately crushed, leaving his men stranded. Watching his vessel go down, he called his second-incommand, Frank Wild, to his quarters. ‘The ship can’t live in this, you had better make up your mind that it is only a matter of time. It may be a few months, and it may be only a question of weeks, or even days... but what the ice gets, the ice keeps.’
Stepping onto Salisbury Plain, on the northern coast of South Georgia, it takes several minutes to absorb the scene that greets you. As far as the eye can see are a quarter of a million king penguins, the second-largest species of penguin after the Emperor. The adults - silvery-grey, with brown heads and flashes of bright golden-orange around the ears - nest, preen, moult and shriek. Thousands of chicks in ‘nurseries’ huddle together against the sharp wind, waiting for their fluffy brown overcoats to develop into black and white dinner suits. Adults stand goggle-eyed and motionless, waiting for their old moulting feathers to be renewed. The rest of them waddle about, minding everyone’s business.
The spring sun has laid bare the mountains, exposing the brown-shingled moraine. These placid-looking peaks are part of the range which Shackleton navigated on foot in one of the most audacious rescue missions ever undertaken in these territories - or, indeed, anywhere. In August of 1914, Shackleton set out from Plymouth in Devon in his ship the Endurance. He planned to be the first explorer to traverse Antarctica from coast to coast via the South Pole. Before he could even set foot on the continent, the Endurancebecame ice-bound in the Weddell Sea. After months of drifting in the pack ice, the ship was crushed and sank in November 1915, leaving 28 crew members and three small lifeboats stranded on the ice. Leaving his men on Elephant Island with Frank Wild in charge, Shackleton and five others crossed the Southern Ocean in a terrifying 800-mile journey to South Georgia. Reaching the island, they were separated from the safety of the whaling station at Stromness by a precipitous mountain range. A 36-hour scramble of extraordinary bravery, good judgment and a little luck resulted in the half-starved, half-frozen men finding sanctuary, leading to the rescue of their comrades on Elephant Island - more than four months after they’d left them.
The name is taken from the animal’s large proboscis, which resembles an elephant’s trunk. At around three times the size of females, bulls can grow to almost five metres in length and an astonishing three tonnes in weight – the equivalent of two family cars. Weapons of mass destruction in the water, these blubber and fur fests are able to hold their breath for more than an hour while hunting for the likes of penguins, small sharks and squid. Their demeanour may be sluggish and doe-eyed, but they can move with alacrity on land - particularly during mating season, when they are prone to mock-charge any creature that gets too close.