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Elephant Island: Five Facts You Need to Know

Elephant Island, Antarctica, is named after the elephant seals that make their home there (as well as for its elephant-like shape). The island is located 150 miles off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, in the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands. Covered in ice and towering above the surrounding Southern Ocean, it’s truly a sight to behold. Here are five notable facts.

1. Elephant Island was charted by the Russians

The island was discovered in February 1820 by the British Navy’s Edward Bransfield and charted in January 1821 by the first Russian Antarctic expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev on two ships — the Vostok and the Mirny. These explorers named it Mordvinov Island, in honour of eighteenth-century Admiral Nikolay Mordvinov of the Imperial Russian Navy.

2. Ernest Shackleton and his crew took refuge on Elephant Island in 1916.

Shackleton and 27 men set off on the Endurance in August 1914 for the Weddell Sea, but they got stuck in the ice. Months later, they abandoned ship with their lifeboats when it flooded and sank. When the ice finally melted, they headed for Elephant Island on their lifeboats. Stranded upon arrival, Shackleton was determined not to fail his crew. He and five men took a lifeboat and finally landed on South Georgia Island on May 10. There, Shackleton and his two strongest men hiked over treacherous mountains before reaching a whaling station. They were then able to rescue the three others on the other side of South Georgia. Finally, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton’s rescue ship — the Yelcho, commanded by Luis Pardo — arrived at Elephant Island. Shackleton’s entire crew survived.

3. Elephant Island has two historical sites

Elephant Island has two historical sites. The first is the Endurance Memorial Site, commemorating Shackleton’s fateful journey, with a bust of Captain Luis Pardo, who together with Shackleton saved the men. The other is the wreckage of a large wooden boat in Hampson Cove (in the southwestern part of the island), possibly the SS Hampson. Because of this wreck, the site was designated a historical monument and is now a feature of the island.

4. A joint services expedition landed on Elephant Island in 1970.

The expedition lasted six months, from 1970 to 1971, and was led by Commander Malcolm Burley. Burley and his party carried out scientific research on Elephant Island and climbed several of the island’s peaks. This expedition followed an earlier one, also made by Burley, to South Georgia Island.

5. Elephant seals are everywhere on Elephant Island.

The adorable elephant seals that give the island its name are one of a kind. Their large hanging noses resemble elephants’ trunks, and they’re known for making loud, roaring noises, particularly during mating season. Don’t let their cuteness fool you — when giant males fight for mates, things can get ugly.

Elephant Island is worth your time

There aren’t any plants or permanent settlements on the island, apart from some Brazilian researchers at the Goeldi shelter during the summer . Despite this, Elephant Island in Antarctica has an incredible history and plenty of stories to tell.

Other stories

Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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