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Castle of Ice
When Ernest Shackleton’s boat crash landed on the western shore of South Georgia Island in 1916, his team faced an impossible scenario. They had reached the end of a journey through the world’s stormiest seas, and now the hard part was just beginning: a traverse across the mountain island’s completely uncharted interior.
South Georgia Island’s west coast is uninhabited. From above, the island looks like a spine of shattered vertebrae. The Southern Ocean’s storms blast against ice-caked mountains that rise from the sea.
Considering the island sits in the path of such fabled storm tracks, you’d think there would be plenty of surf to be found on South Georgia. But finding photo evidence of waves is nearly impossible. A government representative from the island notes:
“There is really not much interest here in South Georgia for surfing I’m afraid. It’s unlikely that the waves here would be particularly great for surfing anyway.”
First of all, most of the western side of the island—that is, the swell facing coast—drops steeply into the ocean. There’s not a lot of sea bottom for swell energy to grab ahold of. Instead, waves surge over rocks and explode against cliffs. It’s the same reason why it can be tough to find waves in fjord-riddled coasts like the Faroe Islands and Greenland.
And besides, even if there where waves to be found, the chance of finding photo evidence is slim. The west coast is rarely traveled. Visiting photographers focus their lenses on calm waters, and tourists flock to the penguin agglomerations along the protected inlets of the east coast.
Yet this blog excerpt offers some insight:
“A storm system sliding past the northeast side of the island would be washing all the traditional landing beaches on the northeast coast with heavy surf for a couple days…As we set our sights on Peggoty Bluff, eyes grew wide with anticipation for its storied but seldom seen shores.” —source
Shackleton and crew did eventually make it across the island and to the safety of the Stromness whaling station. In the process, he no doubt encountered more waves than he wished. The crew landed in King Haakon Bay, an inlet where glaciers creep down mountain sides and push fine sediment into the water. It’s over these shallow berms that swells can properly stand up, break, and peel.