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Yet so few have been here. After Cook named the islands for the fourth Earl of Sandwich and fled, nearly 45 years passed before Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen battled sleet squalls to discover the three northerly islands his predecessor had missed. Commercial sealers and whalers hunted the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries but found their task less daunting elsewhere. So they, too, went away.

Unlike the well-traveled Antarctic Peninsula, the islands see no tourism, and even intrepid volcanologists rely mainly on aerial surveys to study them. There's only a four-month window for a boat to dodge the hull-crushing pack ice, and few sailors are up to the task.

Then there's Jérôme Poncet. The veteran Antarctic sailor has been testing himself against the Southern Ocean for three decades. In the late 1990s he lent his skills to making detailed bird and seal counts on the South Sandwich Islands.

He documented mind-blowing numbers of animals on those journeys. Penguins, most obviously: three million chinstraps, more than 52,000 pairs of macaronis, 50,000 pairs of Adélies, and thousands of gentoos. Plus the soaring seabirds: 1,500 pairs of southern giant petrels on tiny Candlemas Island alone; 100,000 pairs of Antarctic fulmars; Cape, snow, and storm petrels; shags, skuas, gulls, and terns. And the seals: fur seals (with some 500 pups on Zavo-dovski), leopard, southern elephant, crab¬eater, and Weddell—all nourished by the Southern Ocean's krill-based food chain.

Piloting his 65-foot steel-hulled yacht, Golden Fleece, the sun-creased and thickly mustached Poncet is one of the few sailors audacious enough to sail to the South Sandwich Islands—a place he admits can offer “nowhere to hide, no safe mooring, just ice and sea and big waves and a pessimistic forecast." Setting out from the Falklands with Maria Stenzel and a crew of four, he skirted icebergs and bucked foul weather last January for a three-week survey down the island chain, a territory of the United Kingdom (also claimed by Argentina).

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