Mention Elephant Island, Antarctica, to a polar historian or admirer of Sir Ernest Shackleton and they’ll be able to tell you why the remote island so significant.
In short, Elephant Island, Antarctica, is the rugged, inhospitable island that became a refuge for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s crew in 1916 after the destruction of their ship, the 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.
Photo: Nicky Souness
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.
The 28 exhausted but courageous men reached the shores of 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 others set off to South Georgia in a small (22.5-foot), open wood boat, the James Caird, for help.
Thanks to the determined Shackleton and bravery of his handful of sailors, the entire crew survived.
Shackleton's famous and perilous small-boat journey became the inspiration of modern-day explorer Tim Jarvis’s 2018 Courageous Challenge. Equipped with only navigational equipment from a century ago, Jarvis recreated the voyage in a James Caird replica.
Where is Elephant Island located?
For those considering visiting Elephant Island: the ice-covered, mountainous island is located in the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, approximately 245 kilometres (152 miles) northeast of the tip of the beautiful Antarctic Peninsula, and about 1,250 kilometres (780 miles) southwest of South Georgia Island. Check out the Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent expedition and see how you can to get the best of amazing Antarctic peninsula, including the South Shetland Islands, on an 11-day voyage.
Elephant Island, mired in ice and rock, has very little flora or native fauna, which has prevented any type of permanent human settlement. But it's not an island without inhabitants - migratory Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins and seals are often seen here, particularly Elephant seals, which may have inspired the name of the island.
Elephant Island is located 935 kilometres (about 580 miles) south of the Falkland Islands, one of the closest populated destinations, and 900 kilometres (550 miles) southeast of Cape Horn.
Why is Elephant Island called Elephant Island?
So, where did the name Elephant Island come from? 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 that resembles an elephant head.
A much more entertaining history of the Island's name is the description from Shackleton’s captain, who, upon viewing the island for the first time, declared it one “hell-of-an-island,” which said out loud, sounds a lot like Elephant 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?
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.
From the shores of Elephant Island, Shackleton and his five-man crew started their 17-day rescue journey in 1916 (leaving the rest of the crew behind). The brave men sailed in 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 through the Southern Ocean to the shores of South Georgia and saved the lives of the entire crew.
Shackleton and his small rescue crew were driven in their task: they had to rescue the remaining 22 members of their crew who stayed 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 recollections of Shackleton’s epic Antarctic feat.
How to visit Elephant Island
It’s certainly a lot easier for polar enthusiasts today to explore Elephant Island compared to when Shackleton’s crew embraced the challenge.
Yet, visiting Elephant Island is not as easy as hopping on a plane. Elephant Island must be reached by a polar vessel that’s designed for the ice-laden waters of the Antarctic. That requires a polar expedition company like Quark Expeditions with experience that offers amazing expeditions to Antarctica, including opportunities for solo cruises for seniors.
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
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
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 arrived on Elephant Island, visitors can visit the Endurance Memorial Site
- Along with Elephant Island, other islands in the South Shetland chain include Clarence Island, King George Island, Nelson Island, Robert Island, Greenwich Island, Livingston Island, Snow Island, Deception Island, 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 also maintains a shelter on the island during summer months.
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!