A Journey To Point Wild, Elephant Island – Antarctica


No remote place has captured my imagination more than Point Wild on Elephant Island. As the sheer walls of rock and ice that line the coastline come into focus through the fog for the first time, I can start to sense why. 

Where Is Elephant Island?

One of the most remote islands in the world, its position leaves it open to the full force of Antarctica’s ferocious weather system. Situated at the north end of the South Shetlands, a chain of desolate volcanic islands that flank the north-west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, Elephant Island doesn’t get many visitors.

The rough waters make landings there notoriously challenging. The people that do brave the elements to come here do so for good reason. It is the unsuspecting home to a chapter taken from one of the greatest survival stories ever told, and why I have made the journey myself.  

As we approach the coast, a light snow begins to fall. The island looks like an impenetrable fortress of glaciers and black spindly rocks rather than a place a group of shipwrecked men would seek refuge from an Antarctic winter.

Glaciers and Rocks On Elephant Island Viewed From The Coast 

To describe it as anything other than the most inhospitable place on earth feels like an understatement. And that is what Shackleton and his men thought as they approached the island in their open boats in 1916.

The Impenetrable coast of Elephant Island

Having lost their ship The Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea over one thousand miles to the south, Shackleton and his men were desperate for rescue. Their journey in open wooden boats had already taken them across some of the harshest conditions known to man.

Everything had taken its toll, from the sea ice that collapsed under their weight to the tempestuous seas they had to cross to reach land. Their health was suffering and they were dangerously low on supplies. When they reached Elephant Island, Shackleton would have a tough decision to make that could spell life or death for the men.

Elephant Island Antarctica

The Approach To Point Wild, Elephant Island, Antarctica

As we approach Point Wild I can sense their desperation. It is late in the day and the light is beginning to fade. The air is a little above freezing with a chilling wind. There is a break in the snow clouds and light momentarily illuminates the steep rock face above where the men made their camp. From the distance it seems to stretch right down to the sea.

Approaching Point Wild Elephant Island

Point Wild With The Glacier Visible To The Right

White surf breaks along the coastline. We are informed by the Captain that the conditions are too dangerous for a landing, but we can get closer. The sky darkens. The Zodiacs (small, inflatable motor boats) are hastily launched. The weather was described by Shackleton and his men as simply appalling, with no sunshine, snow drifts and wet to the skin. Today is no different.

Lanidng At Point Wild Elephant Island in Antartica

The Weather deteriorates as a Zodiac Heads Towards Point Wild

We motor towards a gap between two foreboding rocks that tower above us, guarding the entrance to this other world. As we pass between them the waves churn up, rocking the Zodiac. I can see the mythical Point Wild for the first time.

Heading Towards Point Wild On A Zodiac

View From The Zodiac Approaching Point Wild

This tiny strip of rocks, flanked by a vertical glacier on one side and an impassable cliff on the other, looks more like a prison than a place for refuge. Hemmed in with no room for escape, the men were in constant threat of being swept away by a breaking wave.

I had seen photos of Point Wild taken by the expedition’s photographer Hurley, but these were mainly taken from the land looking out to sea. As we approached the narrow rocky beach I could appreciate just how small and exposed this plinth of land is.

Point Wild where shackleton landed on elephant island

Point Wild From The Zodiac

It was from this very place that on April 24th, 1916, that Shackleton would set sail with five of his men in an open boat in a daring attempt to reach South Georgia eight hundred miles away. Shackleton knew the chances of rescue were low since he didn’t attempt to get help alone.

For the twenty-two men left behind under the leadership of Frank Wild, it would be a tense time. With no radio contact they would have no idea if help would ever come. They would be left alone to fend for themselves, surviving on the penguins and seals that came infrequently to the shore. Their fate lay in Shackleton’s ability to reach South Georgia.  

Visit to elephant island

The Desolate Surroundings at Point Wild

Point Wild

Just off the beach the engine is put into neutral and we drift for a few moments on the choppy, confused water. The waves strike the shoreline followed by an eerie echo. I try to comprehend what it must have been like for the men with only the remnants of tents and an upturned boat for shelter on this stark shore. Seeing it now it was more brutal and deathly than I could have ever imagined.

Every morning Frank Wild would make the men pack up their belongings. “Get your things ready, boys, the boss may come today.”

Shackleton did indeed make it to South Georgia and wasted no time in facilitating a rescue. After three attempts that were blocked by sea ice he finally reached Point Wild on the 30th August 1916 on a Chilean tug called Yelcho. As he neared the shore he was overjoyed to see every man alive after having survived an Antarctic winter on Elephant Island.

The light has nearly gone. The visibility thickens. Snow starts to fall. The engine is started and we waste no time in heading back towards Europa. Her welcome lights are just visible through the fog, the only safe haven in this barren and desolate land.  

Bark Europa at Point Wild Elephant Island Antartica
Approaching Bark Europa in the snow

Approaching Bark Europa As The Weather Turns

As we step back onboard Europa the snowfall ups in intensity until there is more white than sky.  Point Wild disappears from sight. The visibility is down to meters. I stare out trying to catch one more glimpse of it, but there is now nothing but snow. Once again Antarctica has shown us that nature is in charge here and we are only visitors.   

Point Wild during a snow storm

Point Wild Disappears Into The Snow

You can read more about Shackleton’s account of the expedition in his book South.

If you would like to visit Point Wild yourself, Bark Europa do sailing expeditions every year.

If you would prefer more comfort on a cruise ship, Intrepid and G Adventures both expedition offer options with tours that include Elephant Island.

My blog is a self-funded labour of love. If you would like to support me in telling the story of the most remote places on earth please consdier signing up to my Explorers’ Club  for some great rewards.

andy marsh

Hi, I’m Andy, co-founder of Secret Atlas, currently on a personal journey to travel to the most remote places on earth.

If you are interested in visiting Svalbard or Greenland on a small ship expedition please check out our tours here.

Did you enjoy this page? If so please help me out and show your appreciation by sharing this page on your social media and commenting below.