Meeting Report: Antarctica: in the wake of Shackleton

11 January 2019
Ian Wilson

At a recent meeting members and guests enjoyed a very interesting and informative talk by Ian Wilson about a trip that he and his wife made to Antarctica.

Embarking at Ushuaia in Argentina, with about 100 fellow passengers, they sailed across the notoriously rough Southern Ocean to the Falklands, a collection of 420 islands. The capital, Stanley, has a population of less than 3,000. The Islanders are British and fiercely patriotic, displaying the Union Jack at every opportunity. Following the locally named ‘conflict’ of 1982  there are still areas of minefields which are out of bounds and being slowly cleared. The 14th of June is celebrated as Liberation Day, otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher Day. The Anglican priest from Christchurch Cathedral joined the ship here to visit her Parish, which extends to South Georgia and Antarctica.

While sailing between the Falklands and South Georgia, passengers were ‘hoovered’ to prevent any alien invasive species being imported to this very important wildlife habitat. Although South Georgia is small (100 miles by 20 miles) it is home to 30 million breeding bird pairs, as well as aggressive fur seals and enormous elephant seals. These can weigh 5 tons and were previously hunted almost to extinction. Gold Harbour hosts a colony of 20,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins.South Georgia is also the scene of Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 coast-to-coast trek, the finale of his heroic and successful mission to bring rescue to the crew of his expedition ship Endurance, which had been crushed and sunk in the ice. Shackleton is buried at the cemetery in Grytviken, having died during a later expedition in 1922.

Leaving South Georgia the ship continued to Elephant Island, where 22 of Shackleton’s crew spent 3 months in 1916, in the shelter of two upturned lifeboats, with no certainty of the rescue that eventually came.

Ian’s own journey continued down the West coast of Antarctica. This is the fifth largest continent, the highest, coldest, windiest and perhaps unexpectedly, the driest of the continents. Visits were made to several sites. At Half Moon Island passengers were greeted by chinstrap penguins. Deception Island is the Caldera of a collapsed volcano and steam rises from the seawater. At Paradise Harbor passengers were fortunate to experience the blue ice of glaciers and the weird shapes of huge glacial formations under a clear, blue sky. Their tour ended with a two-day voyage back through the rough seas to Ushuaia.

Ian’s talk was illustrated throughout with his excellent photographs of the unique Antarctic landscape and its major inhabitants — penguins and seals.