Chapter 8: Elephant Island

The wind hauling ahead about 6.30 A.M. on March 25th we took in sail and under steam proceeded south-west by south in the direction of Clarence Island. We got a sight of it at 7.35 A.M., but snow flurries obscured it again. About midday the weather cleared when both it and Elephant Island showed up distinctly. It is hard to describe the memories which these two islands revived for those of us who took part in the Endurance expedition. Readers of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “South” will find a description of our arrival and landing—the first landing to be made on Elephant Island. We stood gazing through binoculars picking out old familiar landmarks, each one reminiscent of some incident that came rushing back to the memory. There was Cornwallis Island, the shape of which was so familiar, and beyond it Cape Valentine, where we landed eight years ago, a haggard, worn-out and bedraggled party, rejoicing at the sight of firm, solid land, the first we had seen for nearly two years. We had just spent eight days and nights in the boats battling with ice, darkness and storm, toiling unceasingly at the oars with brief spells of the most fitful slumber. There our old Boss, whose indomitable will had overcome every obstacle and surmounted each difficulty as it arose, lay down on the shingle and had his first sleep for eight days—slept for eighteen hours without a wink!

In the distance we could see Castle Rock, unmistakable from its peculiar shape, and beyond it we knew lay Cape Wild, though invisible just now. There I wintered with my party while the Boss went for help, living hand to mouth on penguins, limpets and seaweed. From a sentimental point of view this was the place I wished to visit more than any other, but I knew only too well that it did not provide a good anchorage, and I was anxious while the weather was favourable to find a suitable place for ballasting the ship and obtaining sea-elephants for their blubber. We therefore set course to pass between the two islands and along the south-eastern side of Elephant Island.

As evening approached there was a wonderful mirage. Looking to the south-west we saw a number of large icebergs poised high above the horizon in a sky of the purest gold, whilst all about and in between them were numerous whales spouting. These mirages are by no means uncommon in these latitudes, but this was by far the most extraordinary I have ever seen in any part of the world, and certainly the most beautiful. Later on the sun sank with a peculiar effect—both Clarence and Elephant Islands seemed to be afire, a rosy glare rising from each of them to the sky. Over Cape Wild lay a reddish-golden glow and the whole appearance of the island was beautiful, giving an impression of the most peaceful calm. Any ship passing the island on that evening would have carried away a very wrong idea of the place, and I am sure that many of our party who had listened to our unqualified, or perhaps I should say much qualified, descriptions of our sojourn here must have thought we were rather drawing the long bow. However, they were soon to learn differently.

During the night we had kept a safe margin between ourselves and the shore, but with the advent of daylight we stood in more closely and kept a sharp look out for possible anchorages and suitable spots for our purpose. We saw none on this side of the island, which presents nothing but steep mountainous rocks and sheer glacier faces. As we approached Cape Lookout at the southwestern end of the island we saw a small spit lying between two high rocks. The wind was blowing from the west-north-west and this seemed to offer a shelter. We approached cautiously, sounding continuously with the hand lead. As we drew near I looked carefully through binoculars for signs of sea-elephants. Penguins were present in large numbers, but I saw no sign of larger game, and I was not altogether pleased with the place as an anchorage. I therefore decided to turn round Cape Lookout and look for a better place on the western coast. Once round, however, we met strong head winds against which we could make little headway, and the coast did not promise anything better, so we returned to the spit and came to anchor in five fathoms. The surf boat was lowered and I went ashore with Wilkins, McIlroy, Macklin, Carr, Kerr and Douglas. As we approached the spit I saw several seals and sea-elephants ashore, but they did not seem to be in sufficient numbers for my purpose. There was little surf on the beach and landing proved easy. Wilkins and Douglas went off on their respective jobs, and I landed Macklin and Kerr with instructions to reconnoitre and look for seals and sea-elephants, but on no account to scare away those which were present. I went back with McIlroy and Carr to the ship to bring off more hands. On the return trip I landed on a narrow strip of beach overhung by a large glacier which abutted on the north-west end of the spit, and with McIlroy and some others walked along it to where the sea-elephants lay. This is a practice I do not often adopt, for one never knows at what moment these glaciers may calve, sending down masses of many tons’ weight on to the beach below. However, nothing happened and we crossed safely.

The landing-place in its essential features closely resembles Cape Wild, being composed of a narrow low-lying spit connecting the main island with an outstanding rock. This, again, is separated from another higher outlying rock by a channel through which the seas surge with some force. At the inner end of the spit is a high shoulder of rock which bounds the glacier on this side, whilst on the far side of it is another similar shoulder. The main part of the island seems to be much more accessible than it is at Cape Wild, but the place seemed to be no more suitable as a site for a permanent camp, for there were signs that the spit is at times sea swept, and it is equally unsheltered from strong winds.

Penguins were present in large numbers. There were two varieties, ringed and gentoo, which had segregated into two camps, the ringed occupying the outer rock whilst the gentoos collected together on the inner buttress. The former, which derive their name from a thin but clearly defined ring round the throat, are quaint, deliberate little animals which show not the least fear of man. They are the most wonderful climbers and form their rookeries in the most inaccessible places, often on the faces of steep and precipitous rocks where the footing is very precarious. After coming in from their fishing it often takes them hours to reach their final positions, but they show extraordinary patience and perseverance as they hop from ledge to ledge and from one small foothold to another. They are often to be seen on the slopes of large icebergs out at sea. The gentoo is a larger, more brightly coloured bird, with orange beak and legs, and has a small white patch over each eye which gives it a curiously inane expression. It is more shy of man than any other of the Antarctic penguins, and when chased can travel at quite good speed and dodge cleverly. As we came up a number of both kinds were stalking slowly and solemnly along the beach. Amongst them moved little pigeon-like paddy birds (Chionis alba) which look very pretty at a distance, but at close vision are seen to have very ugly heads and beaks. They darted about with little quick steps and, like the penguins, watched us curiously, no doubt wondering what strange new creatures we might be. Dominican gulls, skuas and Cape pigeons flew all about the place, and numbers of blue-eyed shags perched on rocks close to the sea or, with necks outstretched and stiff as ramrods, flew with an intent air to their fishing in the bay.

I walked across the spit to find a beach on the other side leading down to a small bay. My mind was immediately set at rest regarding our blubber requirements, for, lying about in the shelter of rocks and large pieces of stranded glacier ice, were a number of seals and sea-elephants, including three enormous bulls, each of which weighed many tons, whilst on a strip of beach on the far side of the little bay was a large harem of cows. I shot those on the spit and set all hands to the flensing. I have a mind-picture of my men: McIlroy, Kerr, Carr and Macklin busily plying their knives, arms bare to the shoulders and red with blood. Soon the place resembled a shambles. I loathed having to slaughter all these creatures, but the matter was one of the direst necessity, and I had to put aside any feelings of sentiment. I have never at any time countenanced the unnecessary taking of life, and whenever it has been necessary to kill I have always insisted that it should be done in the most humane way possible, and that steps would be taken to ensure that no wounded animal should escape.

The blubber was removed in large strips from the carcasses, and a party led by Jeffrey dragged it over the beach to the edge of the water. Another party secured it to lines and towed it out to the ship.

Whilst the flensing was in process a curious incident occurred. I had given orders for a dozen penguins to be killed. One gentoo, in taking flight, had splashed through a small pool of blood and came out with white waistcoat dyed a vivid red. He went to rejoin his fellows on the hill, but they, failing to recognize him in his new colourings, pecked at him so viciously that he at last drew away and went off, to stand disconsolate and solitary at the head of the beach. Some little while later Watts, who had not witnessed the incident, suddenly exclaimed with much excitement, “Look, there’s a new species of penguin! Quick! Somebody help me to catch him!” Taking pity on the penguin’s outcast condition I drove him into the sea, from which he returned clean and white, once more a normal penguin. This time his friends received him without comment.

Shackleton’s Last Anchorage | Photo: Wilkins
Mcleod and Marr Clearing Up After a Blizzard | Photo: Dr. Macklin
Sugar Top Mountain—part of the Allardyce Range, South Georgia | Photo: Wilkins

I pushed on energetically with the work, for I feared a change of weather, my previous sojourn here having taught me never under any circumstances to trust Elephant Island. In the late afternoon the wind came round to the south-east, and a swell began to come into the anchorage. I kept the men at it as long as possible, but at last such a surf started running on to the beach that I was compelled to take them from the flensing and put all hands to getting the blubber aboard. Before leaving I took off also a load of glacier ice for melting down to water. It was as well that I stopped the work when I did, for the surf increased so rapidly that we had the greatest difficulty in getting away the last few boatloads, and in assisting to push out from the shore I got soaked to the waist with the icy cold water. Some hours elapsed before I was able to change into dry clothes and my legs became absolutely benumbed.

On returning to the ship I found that Worsley was growing very uneasy and was anxious to get away before darkness set in, so as soon as the boat was up we heaved anchor and proceeded out to sea.

Just as we were leaving the glacier fired a salute in the form of an enormous mass of ice, which fell with a reverberating crash on to the narrow beach below and, entering the sea, caused a large wave to come out towards us. I was glad that it had not happened earlier in the day whilst we were walking underneath it. This was the source of the pieces which we collected from the spit. Some of them are of great bulk and weight, and, with the erratic boulders which also are of great size, give an indication of the force of gales which blow in these regions, and show clearly that at certain seasons of the year the spit is so sea-swept as to be untenable by any temporary structure which might be set up there. These pieces of ice, except when salt encrusted, are crystal clear in appearance, and when melted down form the purest of water. When we were living at Cape Wild we used to be very fastidious about our ice. It was the one thing about which we could afford to be particular.

During the night of the 26-27th we kept well out from the coast to avoid outlying rocks, of which we had seen a number when we rounded Cape Lookout. When morning broke we stood up for the north-westerly point of the island, keeping a close look out for Table Bay or any other harbour which would afford a good anchorage. The reports of whalers speak of a large bay in this locality with safe anchorage, where the landing is good, where seals, sea-elephants, penguins and all sorts of seabirds abound, and where tussock grass grows luxuriantly. It was a common expression amongst the marooned party at Cape Wild to say: “If we could only reach Table Bay!” We talked of the things we would do when we got there. I remember that one man (Greenstreet[9]) had sketched an elaborate plan which made all our mouths water. He was going to kill a seal and, having removed its entrails, fill it up with penguins similarly prepared. The seal was to be covered with stones and a blubber fire kindled on the top. The cooking was to last a whole day, at the end of which we were to eat not the seal but the penguins, which had thus lost none of their own juices but received those of the seal as well. Can you not imagine us sitting with tightened belts listening to the proposal, with our mouths watering at the very prospect?

We were never able to make the attempt to get there, and it is perhaps as well that we did not do so, for on this occasion we saw no signs of anything resembling the paradise we had so fondly pictured. There are places at the north-west end of the island where a landing could be effected, but the coastline is composed largely of rocky bluffs and sheer glacier faces, some of them of immense size.

We started, therefore, to cruise in a north-easterly direction, and sighted a narrow beach some miles in length running along the foot of steep mountains. On the beach were several harems of sea-elephants, each containing as many as forty cows. Jeffrey, Wilkins and Douglas wished to go ashore to carry on their scientific work, and I thought this a good chance to get some more blubber. I had contracted a chill as a result of my prolonged soaking in the cold water, so I sent Macklin ashore with McLeod, Marr and Young to deposit the scientists and bring off in addition to the blubber some meat for cooking. I gave Macklin a revolver with which to dispatch the seals, and he took with him also a B.S.A. airgun in the hope of obtaining some paddy birds, which make very dainty fare.

Shortly after midday I noticed a change in the weather and with the steam whistle signalled to the party to return. This they did, bringing a small but useful addition to our supply of blubber and some paddies.

We killed in all nine sea-elephants and about the same number of seals. There were many hundreds which we did not molest. I found on my return to England that a report had been published in which it was suggested that we had slaughtered all the sea-elephants on Elephant Island. As a result some alarm was felt by the directors of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington that these animals were in danger of extinction, and without any reference to me a protest was published to that effect.

I can only repeat what I have already said: that I have always set my face against unnecessary killing. In all the expeditions in which I have taken part I have never seen a case of wanton destruction of any animal. I believe that amongst explorers as a class there is much greater sympathy for animal life generally, and especially for those types which they have known in the natural state, than exists amongst those who know them only as stuffed specimens. I may add, however, that had it been a matter of saving the life of any one member of my party I would unhesitatingly have ordered the slaughter of every sea-elephant I could find. Without wishing to labour the point I think the following taken from Macklin’s journal may be of interest:

I do not know how to explain the attraction of this life … it is certainly more primitive … one meets Nature on more familiar terms and learns to love her and all her works. One feels drawn into much closer companionship with the lower animals, though I am not sure that the word “lower” is always correct…. I have no doubt that what I have written is so much Greek to the town-dwellers. One cannot explain—these things are “felt” and are not to be learned from a book…. The English natural history museums are such hopeless failures; at any rate, in so far as they attempt to instil a love of Nature. They are so gloomy, and the stuffed, unnatural creatures in glass cases are to me positively revolting. I believe every healthy boy gets the same impression and comes from them into the fresh air with a feeling of “escape.” This surely is bad.

My first visit to the Natural History Museum of New York brought me a revelation. The building itself is a bright, well-lighted place and contains things of the most absorbing interest beautifully set up. In the hall the whole history of polar exploration is set out on two immense half-globes; there is the sledge taken by Peary to the North Pole and the one used by Amundsen in his race for the South Pole. The specimens are wonderful and the setting of them is the work of artists who know their job, for everything is lifelike and natural. In a snow-covered forest glade there are timber wolves on the prowl after game, flamingoes stand amongst the reeds in a swamp where the muddy ripples seem almost to move, one can gaze into tree-tops and see monkeys on the swing from branch to branch, reptiles swarm about a pool of water in a tropical forest, and there are other examples too numerous to mention. It is a place where boys stand fascinated, and one to which they return again and again….

Space forbids the full entry, though much of which he writes is interesting and very true, for once wedded to Nature there is no divorce—separate from her you may and hide yourself amongst the flesh-pots of London, but the wild will keep calling and calling for ever in your ears. You cannot escape the “little voices.”

They’re calling from the wilderness, the vast and god-like spaces,
The stark and sullen solitudes that sentinel the Pole.

I now set off along the coast in the direction of Cape Wild, and about 4.0 P.M. came in sight of the large rock lying at the end of the spit. We picked out many old familiar marks about the place. The weather was looking very unsettled and I decided not to attempt a nearer approach before darkness, but to lie off for the night. Just before dusk the wind increased, blowing up strongly from direction north-west by west, and many nasty willy-waughs came gustily down the glaciers from the hills. Worsley suggested spending the night under the shelter of Seal Rocks, to which I assented, and we crept up under their lee, feeling our way carefully with the hand lead, finally coming to anchor in eight fathoms.

Seal Rocks is the name given to a group of very barren islets lying about a mile from the northern coast of Elephant Island. They are covered on the northern side with lichen, the only form of vegetable life which exists in these regions. They are the resting-place of a number of seabirds, and penguins go there after their fishing to sleep and digest their food. Our berth was by no means a comfortable one, for the rocks are not large and give a very imperfect shelter from the winds, whilst in addition there are round about them a number of small ledges and submerged rocks, the proximity of which caused me no little anxiety. I was very anxious, however, to revisit Cape Wild, as were all those who had wintered with me there, and I hoped that the weather might moderate by daybreak.

I was feeling a little feverish as a result of my chill and turned in early, having arranged that a careful watch was to be kept, and having given instructions to be called in the event of anything untoward happening. Macklin relieved Jeffrey at midnight, the latter telling him that both wind and sea were increasing, and advising him to call me at once should he get the least bit uneasy. This he did at about 12.30 A.M., to say that we seemed to be dragging anchor and asking me to come on deck. I got up at once. The wind had come round to the south-west, so that we were no longer in a lee and the sea had risen considerably. The rocks showed up indistinctly as black masses against scudding clouds. I perceived that we could not stay there any longer, so at once called out the hands and rang the engine-room telegraph for full steam in the boilers.

We started to get up anchor right away, but as we shortened cable the ship began to drag more rapidly, and as there was little sea room I began to fear that we might foul some of the rocks or ledges before we could get clear. I kept her going ahead with the engines, but to add to the awkwardness of the situation the cable fouled in the chain locker, so that the incoming links would not enter the spurling pipes but, piling on deck, jammed the winch. I ordered Macklin and Carr to jump below, taking with them a heavy maul and a chain hook to break open the chain locker and free the cable. Worsley had by this time joined me on the bridge, and we had some anxious moments as we waited for the signal that all was clear, peering through the darkness to where a seething line of breakers indicated sunken rocks and reefs. From the darkness we heard the weird “jackass” call of the gentoo penguin, like a wild lament for a ship in peril—fitting properly the stormy environment.

At last the cable was freed, we brought home the anchor and were able to steam away without damage from our unpleasant neighbours. All the time the wind rose. For a while I steamed east, hoping to be able to hang on, for I was loath to give up the landing at Cape Wild and we were not yet properly ballasted. In a short time, however, the gale had increased to hurricane force and such a steep sea started running that I could think of nothing but the safety of the ship, and so ran away before the storm.

Dawn broke on a stormy scene, and our last view of Elephant Island, seen through the driving spume astern of us, was a very different one from the calm and beautiful appearance with which we were greeted on the day of our arrival. I had hoped with the coming of light to be able to get under the lee of Elephant Island, but to have attempted to put our now light and unballasted ship across these seas would have been fatal.

I had to make up my mind at once as to what course to adopt. We had in the bunkers sufficient coal for one day’s steaming which, mixed with sea-elephant blubber, might be made to spin out three or four days. To beat back to Elephant Island was therefore out of the question. My chief object in making for Deception Island had been to obtain the coal necessary to take the ship to South Georgia, and, even under the most favourable circumstances, I should have had against me the strong current which runs out of Bransfield Strait. The hurricane, though driving me away from the desired landing at Cape Wild, was fair for South Georgia, and under single topsail, with fires banked and the engines stopped, we were making better progress than the Quest had ever accomplished before. McIlroy reported that he could see no sign of change of wind for some days, though a falling off in force might be expected. This was just what we required. I decided, therefore, to make direct for South Georgia under sail, reserving the fuel to enable me to steam round the island and take the ship into harbour. I called all hands to set the squaresail, which was coiled in a frozen mass on the top of the deck-house. This was covered with a thick, smooth coating of ice on which no one could keep a footing. We were compelled to clamber up the stays and seize the right moment to let go so that the roll would shoot us across to the foresail gaff, to which we clung desperately with one hand while we used the other to free the sail. The Quest rolled and pitched in the liveliest manner. Wilkins, in casting off a frozen lashing, lost his grip and I saw a form shoot to leeward and disappear. A voice behind me shouted in my ear, “Wilkie’s gone!” and indeed there seemed no doubt that he had fallen overboard. No attempt to pick him up was possible, for no boat could have pulled back into these enormous breaking seas, and in any case to have broached the ship to would have meant losing the masts and probably the ship as well. It was with tremendous relief that I saw Wilkins appear some minutes after and go to the halliards. He told me later that he had shouted that he was all right, but the sound of his voice was swept away by the violent wind. He had grabbed the backstay and fallen to the deck, fortunately without damage.

We swigged home the squaresail and felt the ship lurch and stagger under its influence, but it increased our speed and enabled us to put the miles behind us. We tore through the water, which bore down on our stern as though to overwhelm us and passed sizzling and hissing along our sides. We were swept continually. One heavy sea, coming over our stern, fell with a smash on the poop, carried away the after-scuttle, broke the skylights and filled the after-cabin with several feet of water. Dell, McLeod and Marr immediately set to to repair the damage with temporary structures, which would at least be watertight. Dell and McLeod were required for another job, and Marr carried on alone. The work was difficult and extremely unpleasant. The seas kept coming over the stern, compelling him to grab some support to prevent being swept forward with the wash. He was soaked from head to foot, the water freezing and casing him in a solid suit of ice. I kept a watchful eye on him. He stuck gamely to his work and made an excellent job of it. If he is a product of Boy Scout training it says much for the organization. I warn Sir Robert Baden-Powell that he will find himself hard put to it to “skin alive” this hefty young seaman.[10]

We continued running all day and kept the sail on throughout the night.

On March 29th the wind abated a little, but it still continued to blow a full gale. The seas had not gone down and the Quest was thrown about like a plaything of the ocean, so that the man at the wheel had his work cut out to maintain the course and prevent her from broaching-to. I hung on, however, for we were making good progress in the right direction and saving coal.

We had irrevocably cut ourselves off from any chance of seeing our old winter quarters at Cape Wild, which was a great disappointment to us all, especially to McIlroy, who in the excitement of the rescue had left behind his diary. It was wrapped up in an oilskin covering and he had great hopes of recovering it. One writer says in his diary:

This is a great disappointment, but one meets many in this kind of work, and it is no good making a moan about them…. I would like to have got there all the same (he adds irrelevantly).

The rest of the run to South Georgia was not marked by any outstanding incident. On the 30th we saw a school of piebald porpoises, and Worsley reported seeing a “blackfish” about four feet in length, which leapt several times out of the water. Numerous birds tailed in our wake, increasing daily in numbers till we reached South Georgia. The winds dropped a little, but continued to blow freshly from the west-south-west on to our port quarter, enabling us to set all sail. The noon observation on the 31st showed a run of 197 miles. This was the Quest’s record, and was made without use of the engines. On the same day we were struck by an enormous breaking sea which almost broached us to and half filling the foresail dropped in a deluge on the deck-house, pouring in through the ventilators and flooding the cabins and wardroom. Much of it found its way through the main hatch, which is in the wardroom, and wetted many things in the hold. As we approached South Georgia we noticed about the ship a number of small seabirds somewhat resembling puffins, with short tail feathers and a very quick movement of the wings in flight. Worsley recognized them as “the same little flippity-flip-flop short-tailed birds that flew round the boat and annoyed the Boss so much,” referring to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s historic boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia during the last expedition.

On April 3rd we were in the vicinity of South Georgia and expected to make a landfall about dark. Worsley, who had not been able for some days to get an observation of the sun, was unable to pick up the island and we lay off all night. A number of soundings was taken. A large school of whales surrounded the ship and we could hear their “blowing” all about.

April 4th was also thick and hazy, and Worsley made a traversing cruise looking for the island, the proximity of which was indicated by the presence of birds, which we saw in hundreds with many young ones. In the afternoon the fog cleared and we caught sight of land, which we made for under steam. Night coming on, however, we stood off till daybreak.

At dawn on the 5th we recognized Anenkov Island, and decided to make for Leith Harbour round the north end of South Georgia.

During the afternoon we saw several steam whalers, a welcome sight after having had the world to ourselves for so long. At night there was a fine sunset, and outlined against the rosy horizon to the westward these little steamers made a very pretty picture.

We entered Leith Harbour at daybreak on April 6th and moored to the buoy. Scarcely had we made fast when we saw the motor-boat coming off with the familiar figure of Mr. Hansen and another smaller one wearing a white yachting cap. It proved to be Hussey, whom I had imagined back in England long before this. Mr. Hansen gave us a most cordial welcome, and I learned from Hussey all the news he had to tell.

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