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What Is Elephant Island?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2014
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Elephant Island is an island off the coast of Antarctica which has become famous for hosting members of the Endurance expedition for four months in 1916 while Ernest Shackleton sailed for help. Today, people rarely visit Elephant Island, because the terrain and environment are extremely hostile, and it is difficult to sail to and land on the island. Some Antarctic cruises manage to make it to Elephant Island, primarily visiting the site for its historical interest more than anything else.

The island was christened in 1821 by a passing explorer who noted a large population of elephant seals and a passing resemblance to the head of an elephant. Elephant Island is rocky and rugged, and it hosts penguins in addition to the namesake seals, but little else. The island lacks a natural harbor, so people have difficulty landing safely, and once they arrive, there is little to do other than observe low-lying cloud cover and feel the buffeting of gale-force winds.

In 1916, Ernest Shackleton and his men arrived on Elephant Island as they slowly attempted to get out of Antarctica and seek help after this ship, the Endurance, was torn apart by sea ice. Shackleton recognized Elephant Island and realized that it was unlikely that a ship would pass and rescue the crew. Therefore, he decided to sail to neighboring South Georgia island, taking an open boat and a handful of men on an 800 mile (1,287 kilometer) journey to ask for assistance.

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The men left behind endured four months on Elephant Island, sheltering in their tents for the majority of the time and hunting seals for food. They attempted to keep their spirits up with singing and storytelling, but their time on the island was probably quite grim. All of the men survived to be retrieved by the rescue ship, however, a remarkable achievement considering the environment of Elephant Island and the history of deaths on Antarctic expeditions.

Researchers occasionally stop by Elephant Island to keep track of the local wildlife and to study microorganisms which call the island home, as do some travelers on cruises of the Antarctic region. For much of the year, however, Elephant Island remains isolated from human contact, making it a great habitat for the seals and penguins which have lived on the island for centuries.

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