Exploring Elephant Island, Antarctica

July 20, 2021

Mention Elephant Island, Antarctica, to a polar history fan or an admirer of famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and they’ll be able to tell you why the remote island so significant—long before they’ll answer your most basic question, “Where is Elephant Island located?”

In short, Elephant Island, Antarctica, is the rugged, basically inhospitable island in the outermost reaches of the South Shetland Islands that became a refuge for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s crew in 1916. That was prompted by the destruction of their ship HMS Endurance in the ice-covered Weddell Sea. The loss of that ship and the ultimate rescue of Shackleton and his men are among the reasons Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 occupies its special place in polar history.

Remote, hard-to-reach Elephant Island turned out to be an unexpected "safe place"—despite its harsh terrain and inhospitable climate—for Shackleton's crew after the tragic loss of their ship

Remote, hard-to-reach Elephant Island turned out to be an unexpected "safe place"—despite its harsh terrain and inhospitable climate—for Shackleton's crew after the tragic loss of their ship. Photo: Nicky Souness

The 28 exhausted but courageous men reached Elephant Island, Antarctica, after a harrowing time spent adrift on ice floes, their very survival hanging in the balance. And it’s on Elephant Island, Antarctica, where Shackleton left most of his crew while he and five of his team set off to South Georgia in the 22.5-foot open wood boat, the James Caird. That perilous small-boat journey became the focus of modern-day explorer Tim Jarvis’s 2018 courageous challenge when he recreated the courageous voyage in the James Caird replica equipped only navigational equipment from a century ago. 

That’s the prized position Elephant Island, Antarctica, claims in the annals of polar history. 

Where is Elephant Island located?

But where is Elephant Island located geographically? A crucial question for those exploring how to visit Elephant Island.The ice-covered, mountainous island is approximately 245 kilometres (152 miles) northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, about 1,250 kilometres (780 miles) southwest of South Georgia. 

Elephant island, mired in ice and rock, has very little flora or native fauna, which has prevented any type of permanent human settlement. Migratory gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins and seals are seen here, particularly elephant seals, which inspired the name of the island.

Another way of answering the question, “Where is Elephant Island located?” would be to place it in relation to the Falkland Islands, one of the closest populated destinations. Elephant Island is 935 kilometres (about 580 miles) south of the Falkland Islands.  And yet another way of answering the question, “Where is Elephant Island located?” is to explain that Elephant Island is 900  kilometres (550 miles) southeast of Cape Horn.

Why is Elephant Island called Elephant Island?

So, why is Elephant Island called Elephant Island? Some believe Elephant Island got its name from the sighting of elephant seals along its shores. Others insist the name was inspired by the shape of the island – an elephant’s head. A much more entertaining way to answer the question, “Why is Elephant Island called Elephant Island?” is the description from Shackleton’s captain, who, upon viewing Elephant Island for the first time, declared, “Hell-of-an-island.”  

One of the earliest recorded sightings of Elephant Island was in 1821 by explorer Captain George Powell, who oversaw three sealing expeditions to the Antarctic region between 1818 and 1822. Interestingly, Powell died in much warmer climes—Tonga in the South Pacific.

Why is there such a strong connection between Elephant Island, Antarctica and Shackleton?

hackleton and his small crew depart the rugged shores of Elephant Island

Shackleton and his small crew depart the rugged shores of Elephant Island  in a last-ditch effort to reach
South Georgia in a courageous attempt to save the entire expedition team.

Shackleton’s courageous polar feats have enthralled students of history and polar travelers for decades. As mentioned above, Elephant Island is where Shackleton and his five-man crew started their 17-day journey in 1916 (leaving the rest of the crew behind) as they sailed the damaged 22.5-foot open wood boat, the James Caird,  to South Georgia, battling  gale-force winds, unforgiving sub-zero temperatures and 60-foot (18-metre) waves.

With the most rudimentary of navigation instruments, the exhausted, frost-bitten crew succeeded in making the voyage in their small boat from Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands through the Southern Ocean to the shores of South Georgia. Shackleton and his crew were driven in their task: they had to rescue the remaining 22 members of their mates who were left behind on Elephant Island with few rations. Polar historians regard this feat as one of the greatest small-vessel journeys of all time.

Rarely does a mention of Elephant Island not instantly conjure up memories of Shackleton’s epic Antarctic feat.

How to visit Elephant Island

So, you’re probably wondering how to visit Elephant Island. It’s certainly a lot easier (relatively speaking) for polar enthusiasts today to reach Elephant Island compared when Shackleton’s crew (and subsequent polar explorers) embraced the challenge. But, if you’re keen to figure out how to visit Elephant Island, understand it’s not as easy as hopping on a plane. Elephant Island must be reached by a polar vessel that’s designed for the ice-land waters of the Antarctic. That requires a polar expedition company with experience – and one that actually visits Elephant Island, such as Quark Expeditions.

Guests traveling with Quark Expeditions get to spend time exploring the historic settlement of Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).

Guests traveling with Quark Expeditions get to spend time exploring the historic settlement of
Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). Photo: Acacia Johnson

Quark Expeditions offers a special voyage to Elephant Island in celebration of Shackleton’s life as a polar explorer – and especially of his feats, which includes reaching Elephant Island after the destruction of Endeavour, and then setting off from the rugged, remote Island (leaving most of his crew behind) while he and a handful put off from Elephant Island to reach South Georgia, in the small wooden vessel.

You’re in luck if you’re currently exploring how to visit Elephant Island. In December 2021//January 2022, Quark Expeditions will host a special voyage to mark the century celebration of Shackleton’s death. The 20-day voyage, Celebrating Shackleton: Journey from Antarctica to South Georgia, will salute Shackleton, whose death in 1922marked the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the ideal voyage for those researching how to visit Elephant Island and totally immerse themselves not just in the wildlife and polar landscapes of the Antarctic, but to thoroughly explore the connection between Elephant Island, Antarctica and Shackleton.

The 20-day itinerary not only honors one of Antarctica’s greatest heroes—but also his unwavering spirit of exploration. Guests will cross the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, visit the Weddell Sea (where the ill-fated Endurance met its tragic end), then onto Elephant Island and, ultimately, wildlife-rich South Georgia, where, if conditions allow, guests will pay homage to Shackleton at his grave at Grytviken.

Guests traveling with Quark Expeditions get to spend time exploring the historic settlement of Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).

Guests traveling with Quark Expeditions get to spend time exploring the historic settlement of
Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). Photo: Michelle Sole

The expedition team hopes to visit Point Wild, located on the northern shores of Elephant island, where Shackleton and his men were able to come ashore. This was the location where Shackleton launched his epic 650-mile (1,046 km) boat journey aboard the James Caird, and where his men waited for his return. If conditions are ideal, guests will be able to board a Zodiacs to get as close as possible to land, where guests can appreciate the immensity of the Shackleton feat.

More Fun Facts about Elephant Island

  • Much like the Falkland Islands, Elephant Island, is claimed by multiple countries: Argentina (Antartida Argentina), Chile ('Territorio Chileno Antartico)  and the United Kingdom (Elephant Island). 
  • Elephant Island, Antarctica, and the South Shetland Islands are inextricably linked to Shackleton, and this is reinforced by the various historic markers on Elephant Island.
  • At Point Wild, where Shackleton and his crew came ashore on Elephant Island, visitors can visit the Endurance Memorial Site, an Antarctic Historic Site (HSM 53), with a bust of Captain Pardo and several plaques.
  • Along with Elephant Island, the other islands in the South Shetland chain include Clarence Island, King George, Nelson Island, Robert, Greenwich, Livingston, Snow, Deception Island, Smith and Low Island.
  • Elephant Island has little significant flora or native fauna, except for migratory gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and elephant seals of course.
  • Elephant seals are the largest of all seals (males can grow to over 20 feet long).
  • There are several small scientific research centres on Elephant Island, overseen by respective teams from Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom. Brazil has maintained a shelter on the island during summer months. 

And one of my favorite facts connected to Elephant Island? When recreating Shackleton’s 1916 journey in 2018, modern day explorer Tim Jarvis did so in a replica of the original James Caird. He named his small wooden vessel the Alexandra Shackleton, in honor of Ernest Shackleton’s granddaughter. Polar history lives on!

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