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Honoring Sir Ernest Shackleton in South Georgia

5 min read

The year was 1914. Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, along with a crew of 27 men, took to the high seas on an Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in hopes of becoming the first group of explorers to traverse the Antarctic continent.

Along the way, things took a turn for the worse.

Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, was surrounded and trapped by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, where it eventually sank. He crew jumped aboard their lifeboats, eventually landing on Elephant Island, north of the Antarctic peninsula.

However, with no help on the way, the legendary explorer and a select few men were forced to continue on for 800 miles in a smaller boat to eventually land near the whaling stations on South Georgia Island. The rest of the party stayed behind with Shackleton's second-in-command, Frank Wild.

South Georgia
An early 19th century Norwegian whaling settlement, South Georgia Island, South Atlantic Ocean.

From there, 20 miles of glaciers and mountains awaited. After a 36-hour struggle, Shackleton and two others reached their destination on the other side of the island: the Grytviken whaling station.

Here is what makes Shackleton a true hero: he didn’t forget about those he left behind on Elephant Island. Instead, he returned to rescue them. All 27 men survived the Endurance expedition.

Where is Ernest Shackleton Buried?

The harrowing tale of Sir Ernest's Shackleton's fateful trans-Antarctic expedition will live on in history through books, films and even a graphic novel about his explorations.

Each year, a select few people partake in a moving and memorable ceremony in South Georgia, to celebrate the life and work of a legend of Antarctic exploration.

They gather at Shackleton's grave site at Grytviken Church on South Georgia Island and pay their respects.

Poetry on Shackleton's grave in Grytviken Photo by Wayne Purcell
Poetry on Shackleton's grave in Grytviken Photo by Wayne Purcell

Life on South Georgia

Since the days of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic exploration has become more accessible. Even so, you cannot visit the incredibly remote and wild Polar Regions without refining your appreciation for exploration as it must have been decades and even centuries ago. As stewards of these regions, Quark Expeditions is thankful for those who blazed trails for us.

South Georgia is a spectacularly mountainous, crescent-shaped island east-south-east of the Falkland Islands. Quark Expeditions doctor Sam Crimmin spent a year on the island as a medical officer of the British Antarctic Survey and describes life on the island today:

"My home for that time, the research base at King Edward Point (KEP), houses 35 people in the summer and 12 in the winter. There are no roads so travel is limited to places accessible by foot or by small boats. There is no television and very limited internet access. Food is delivered once a year with fresh supplies every 10-12 weeks. In the summer there is the occasional night out on a visiting cruise ship and the odd holiday on a type 42 British Navy Destroyer. For residents of KEP the majority of time is spent in Cumberland Bay and the surrounding area."

In Shackleton's day, there would be no visiting Antarctic cruise ship, nor were fresh supplies delivered as regularly. Even so, the fiercely driven explorer fell in love with the place. It's a sentiment echoed by nearly all who visit here to this day.

Shackleton's grave
Shackleton's grave located at the abandoned Grytviken Whaling Church, South Georgia

In fact, Shackleton so loved South Georgia that after his death, when his body was taken back to South America to be repatriated, his wife, Lady Shackleton, insisted it be returned to Grytviken for burial.

The Shackleton Ceremony at Grytviken Church

Each time Quark Expeditions passengers visit the Grytviken Whaling Church, those interested in paying their respects to the great explorer can do so.

Weather permitting, visitors gather at Ernest Shackleton’s grave site for a ceremony, including a short speech and a toast in which passengers and expedition staff raise a glass in his honor (whiskey and non-alcoholic beverages are available for toasting).

Shackleton ceremony
Shackleton ceremony

We are careful not to disturb the approximately 40 other graves in the cemetery. Passengers may be interested in paying their respects to Shackleton's second-in-command, Frank Wild, as well; his ashes were recently returned to Grytviken and buried beside those of his leader.

What to Expect of the Shackleton Ceremony

Alex McNeil, a Quark Expedition Leader who has visited the cemetery on several occasions, tells us, “I still enjoy and appreciate it every time I'm there.”

While it is not mandatory to take part in the Shackleton ceremony, McNeil discusses why it remains such a popular choice among most who visit Grytviken:

"It's an interesting energy of reverence, appreciation and excitement to be in the presence of such a well-known explorer. It's a very significant component of a trip to South Georgia and the Grytviken whaling station."

As you stand in the cemetery, he explained, the weather, smells, and sounds provide an emotional connection to South Georgia, as well as to Shackleton and his crew. It is not difficult to identify with what explorers to the area faced more than 100 years ago.

Visiting Sir Ernest Shackleton's Gravesite

Visiting the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia is an emotional stop on an enjoyable Antarctic holiday. It is a wonderful experience and one that passengers tell us helps them feel truly connected to the epic history of the places we visit.

Quark Expeditions has named our loyalty program after Sir Ernest Shackleton, a man we consider one of Antarctica’s greatest explorers. Membership is free and the benefits run deep, ranging from savings on future expeditions to a commemorative patch and much more.

You can visit Shackleton's gravesite on our Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings expedition, or any of our Antarctic expeditions to South Georgia.

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