3 November, Fortuna Bay, Stromness, Grytviken

Shackleton's lifeboat, the James B. Caird, came ashore, as we did a week ago, on the west side of the island at King Haakan Bay. When they struggled over the central ridge of 9000 ft. peaks, they found they had come down into Fortuna Bay – the next fjord over from the whaling station at Stromness that was their only hope of survival. They had to make one more crossing of mountain and glacier to get there.

Fortuna Bay is our destination this morning, where the plan is for those hardy souls who have signed up for it to follow in their footsteps, while the ship sails around to the Stromness side to pick them up. It is only 4 miles or so, but it is steep, muddy, and difficult. When we enter the fjord, however, we can hardly make out the shore through the fog. Some of the staff head over to check whether the fog is only low-lying, but discover that it remains thick and that the pass is still covered in ice and snow. We decide not to put the hikers off in these conditions, but to head on over to Stromness now. Even the hardiest among them agrees that this is probably best.

At Stromness, Captain Skog runs our 367 ft., 6,500 ton ship right up onto the beach by the old whaling station, so that her nose is resting on the black sand! We can hardly believe it – they could drop a ladder off the bow and we could climb down onto dry land. They don't of course; he has left just enough room for the zodiacs to run us around from the side, around the bow bulb, and onto the beach, in what has to be the easiest and shortest landing of all time. Although it is a “wet landing”, the water and air are dead calm, and we don't even wet our boots.

The ruins of the old whaling station loom out of the fog, huge rusting tanks and crumbling buildings, which seem to be haunted by the ghosts of dead whalers and dead whales alike. Visitors are no longer allowed within 200 ft of the buildings. They say that in a high wind, chunks of metal can be blown that far. Just within the posts that mark the boundary, there is a female elephant seal and a group of king penguins.

After taking a few pictures, we set out across Shackleton Valley, toward the waterfall where he came down, and where we would have met our long hikers if they had been able to make the trek. This is a broad valley around the river that comes down off the end of the glacier. The river meanders through broad gravel beds, with wide meadows on either side of wiry short grass and mosses. There is a herd of reindeer on the other side, and this landscape is pretty clearly of their making. There is virtually no tussock grass.

As we hike up the valley, the fog begins to lift and the sun comes out. We had put on all our layers in the below-freezing morning, and we are soon shedding them in brightly colored red piles that can be seen from miles away. It won't be any trouble recovering them on the way back. As we arrive at the waterfall, the long hikers are already returning from atop the pass – they left earlier to attempt it from this side. We're running late, so the whole group heads back towards the ship with the staff encouraging us along so that we can meet our scheduled immigration check at Grytviken in another hour or so. As we arrive back from the walk, we discover that the non-walkers have witnessed the birth of a new Elephant Seal! The seal we passed on the way out gave birth, and the pup is just a few minutes old. The schedule is strained yet again as we all crowd the boundary of the restricted area to see and photograph pup and mom. About this time a Skua also discovers the pair and descends to consume the placenta. Where there is one Skua feasting there are soon dozens; mother seal puts herself between the birds and the pup and keeps them at bay. The birds fight fiercely over their find, and in a remarkably short period of time they depart, leaving a clean beach behind them.

Finally the staff manages to get us all on board and we steam for Grytviken, a station that no one except the captain and Judy are able to pronounce correctly. Enroute, our schedule is completely blown when those of us on the bridge spot a pod of Orcas in the distance. The ship stops to follow the pod for awhile. They conveniently lead us towards Grytviken while providing numerous photo ops.

At Grytviken we're met by the immigration officer (one of the dozen or so inhabitants) and more stamps are added to our passports. We haven't see those passports since coming on board, but they are now full of stamps from everywhere.

We muster at the old whaling station cemetery where Shackleton himself is buried. He died here of a massive heart attack just as he was embarking on another Antarctic voyage. His body was being returned to Europe when the ship received a cable from Shackleton's wife saying “leave him there, that is where he belongs.” All the other graves here are aligned east/west, but Shackleton lies with his head to the south. We toast “The Boss” with rum, then pour the remainder on his grave.

There is a museum here, a post office, and a gift shop. The museum gives us a fascinating look into whaling operations and life at Grytviken. It is a hard life as the short years on the gravestones attest. A replica of the James Caird is here and it seems impossible that such a tiny boat could have made such an epic journey. The remains of the whaling station provide many opportunities for industrial photography, but 120 people with bright red coats make the process somewhat difficult. We stay until most the the guests have gone back aboard the Explorer to take our images.

Back on board we meet a woman from the base who was serving with the British Antarctic team as a diver on the peninsula. It turns out she is from Mill Valley and we give her a tour of the Explorer. Before dinner, members of the base give a presentation on the rat eradication program and answer questions about the scientific programs being run there.

After dinner, we up anchor and head for tomorrow's destinations; Salisbury Plain, Prion Island, and Elsehul. Sadly, that will be our final day on South Georgia Island.