Published: December 2006

Underworld

Penguins Candlemas Island

South Sandwich Islands

By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Maria Stenzel

The South Sandwich Islands are nature's solo act. Volcanic eruptions roughed out their shape; ice, wind, and waves still hammer and carve them. Birds and seals alone find refuge here. Captain James Cook, on his search for a rumored southern continent, discovered the islands in 1775. Confronted by "Thick fogs, Snow storms, Intense Cold and every other thing that can render Navigation dangerous," he quickly tired of the region and, without apology, left the South Sandwich Islands behind forever.

But what repelled Cook is what makes the 240-mile (390 kilometers) arc of 11 islands extraordinary. Isolation. Exposure to the Southern Ocean's furious moods. Pack ice that holds the islands in a vise grip most of the year. The roar from crowded bird colonies and the reek of their guts and waste coating rock and ice. Exploding waves that beat surfing penguins bloody against the cliffs and block ships from shore. And beneath it all, one of the Earth's fastest moving tectonic plates keeps the young volcanic archipelago—only some three million years old—expressive and unpredictable. "The place has a pulse," says photographer Maria Stenzel. "It's spooky and spiritual and immensely powerful."

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