Published: December 2006
South Sandwich Islands
By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff

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."

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).

Getting onto islands so barricaded by wave surges and sharp walls is a jaw-clenching prospect. But Poncet eyes each coastline for a way to shore, and usually finds it. Piling crew and gear into an inflatable Zodiac, “Jérôme would time it so we'd ride the swell in," says Stenzel. “Then he'd gun the engine and pin the bow against the cliff face as we leaped to land before the wave, and the boat, fell from under us."

On Zavodovski, chinstraps let Stenzel walk their worn paths and sit among the growing colony. Each morning they filed past her tent to the sea like rush-hour commuters, then again on their return—battle-weary soldiers, dirty or bloodied from surfing waves into rocks or from near misses with predators. Knock-down 60-knot winds and squalls replaced bright sun in minutes, and it once rained for 24 hours, turning dry gullies into rushing streams. Sudden rivers and waterfalls whisked penguin eggs out of shallow, pebble-lined nests. “They're so vulnerable," says Stenzel, “always on the edge of disaster."

Next landing: Visokoi, more than 3,000 feet tall, where sun-warmed cliff faces sloughed boulders, sending everyone diving for cover. Candlemas Island was black with volcanic slag and alive with nesting southern giant petrels—birds now closely monitored throughout their range. With a six-foot wingspan, they spend most of their lives far out at sea and are being killed off as bycatch from longline fishing. “They whooshed over us like cars passing too close to a pedes¬trian," says Stenzel. “It was exhilarating."

Recently flowing lava had hardened into a new slice of land on Montagu, where Golden Fleece waited out a storm. Off Bellingshausen, penguins blocked by brash ice evoked pool balls colliding as they tried vainly to escape the jaws of leopard seals. Thule Island houses a rare sign of humans: a wrecked Argentine base from the Falkland Islands war. Nature's mark is snow algae streaking glacial ice with exquisite reds and greens. A hike on Cook Island revealed black lightning bolts of magma that had oozed through cracks in boulders, and gull-like fulmars nesting so profusely on the cliff tops that they resembled snow. "Everything," says crewman Oren Tal, "is alive."

In their remoteness, the shape-shifting islands hold their stories close, and the few souls who have felt the pulse of the South Sandwich Islands' volcanic energy and abounding wildlife consider it a privilege. "Living in deep communication with this place, you feel changes in yourself," says Poncet. "Every trip brings something new."