January 4, 2015, Elephant Island, Antarctica — Most people who have heard of Elephant Island know it as the first place Shackleton and his men landed after spending more than a year adrift on ice in the Weddell Sea in 1914. Almost exactly a hundred years later, the Akademik Ioffe pulled up to the south side of the island today and dropped zodiacs. It was a beautiful, relatively calm morning, and we were able to land at Cape Valentine—the very spot where Shackleton reportedly sank to his knees and kissed the cold rocks. We were greeted by leopard, weddell, elephant, and Antarctic fur seals on a tiny cobble beach, with Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins nesting nearby.
Elephant Island is a tough place to access—I’ve visited three times before, but today was the first time I’ve managed to set foot ashore (the first three times, crashing waves prevented a safe zodiac landing, so we stayed in the boats). It’s a freezing, windswept, exposed island ringed by forbidding cliffs and dangerous glacier faces, with only a couple spots you might stand on a level. So I was excited when the weather cooperated beautifully today—a brisk 25-mph breeze with snow flurries! The bird highlight was a colony of about 150 Macaroni Penguins—my only new year bird today (#16).
Standing on that rocky beach, surrounded by Antarctica, it was easy to lose sense of time. It’s hard to comprehend that I’m beginning an international big year of birding, and how fortunate I am to be visiting Elephant Island for fun instead of survival (things would have been a bit different a hundred years ago). The world is a funny place. Tonight, we sail north into the Drake Passage, leaving Antarctica in our wake.