The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

This is the sixth in a series of articles exploring island societies to examine how issues affecting small isolated communities can help us understand the world as a whole.

Emily Hahn

In 2002, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) conducted a poll to determine the greatest Britons in history.  The top ten included some of the best-known people of western civilization such as William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton.  However, to many living outside the British Isles, the man ranked number eleven on the list, Ernest Shackleton, may not ring a bell.


The curious life of Shackleton is most notable for his perseverance through failure rather than for reaching the pinnacle of his profession.  He was a polar explorer at the beginning of the 20th century but lost the race to the South Pole to Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who accomplished the feat in 1911.  In search of a different milestone, Shackleton attempted the first cross-Antarctic expedition in 1914 on his ill-fated and ironically named ship, Endurance.


Off the frigid waters off Antarctica, rapidly growing ice pack enveloped Endurance, crushing it beyond recognition, and forcing his crew to seek shelter on the ice.  Using lifeboats, the men were able to reach Elephant Island, located 150 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula and separated from civilization by an endless sea. With no other viable option, Shackleton then embarked on his legendary journey. Leaving his men behind, he boarded a lifeboat in search of South Georgia Island, which was home to a whaling village located more than 700 miles from Elephant Island.  After braving 16 days on the treacherous sea, Shackleton completed his mission, and his crew was rescued.


One can only imagine what went through Shackleton’s mind when he first spotted South Georgia Island. He undoubtedly felt pure joy, realizing that his men will be saved.  However, for at least a brief moment, he must have thought that the island was the most beautiful place on earth, certainly figuratively, but perhaps literally as well. Not surprisingly, he requested that this spectacular island serves as his final resting place.


Getting to South Georgia Island is easier today but remains arduous.  Most travelers begin their journey by flying to Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina.  Referred by locals as the “end of the world,” Ushuaia is the southernmost city on earth and the launching point for expeditions to South Georgia and Antarctica. After boarding a small ship that is capable of navigating the bays of South Georgia, travelers must cross the Drake Passage, the most dangerous waters in the world.  Unhindered by any landmasses on the globe at its latitude, this stretch of ocean boasts the highest winds that fuel massive waves. Since the days of Magellan, who first sailed these waters in 1520, all who dare to challenge the Drake Passage are humbled by its power.


Crossing Drake Passage is fun, as long as you don’t mind hurricane force winds and 30-foot waves battering the ship.  Walking inside the boat is impossible unless one tightly holds on to the guide rails with one hand and a motion sickness bag with the other.  Sleeping is hindered by the thunderous sound of the ship being lifted by a wave and allowed to crash down onto the waters below. Nevertheless, this frightening ordeal is well worth the trauma for the traveler when the ship finally reaches South Georgia Island.


Imagine the Andes Mountains dipping into the ocean floor at the tip of South America, but for a brief moment, peaking above the ocean surface for a breath of fresh air.  This, in essence, is South Georgia, an isolated mountain in the middle of an endless sea.  The whalers have long abandoned the island and left it for the wildlife to feed and breed in isolation, oblivious to the man-made world.  During the Antarctic summers, many of its bays are homes to king penguins, with hundreds of thousands of mating pairs stretching from the beach to the base of the glacier covered mountains.  Between streams supplied by the melting ice, are glowing green vegetation taking advantage of the endless sunlight.  On the beach, young elephant seals practice their mating rituals, and countless baby fur seals play with their mothers. Not to be ignored, humpback whales crash their tails on the surface of the bay disturbing the innumerable seabirds that feed on the waters.  South Georgia is perhaps the most beautiful place on earth.


Hidden from view deep in the seawaters that surround South Georgia Island is the Antarctic krill. This small shrimp-like creature serves as a vital food source for the animals that thrive in this harsh environment, including penguins, seals, and whales.  Unfortunately, the population of krill is declining rapidly, with their density decreased by 70 to 80 percent over the past 40 years.  Researchers fear that this is due to climate change, and foresee catastrophic effects on the higher members of the food chain.


The king penguins that breed on South Georgia Island are immune from a direct human threat.  Aside from the few expedition ships that allow the visitor to take photos, a penguin’s only concern seems to be to make sure its newborn chick is adequately fed.  However, unbeknownst to the tuxedo-clad bird is the human’s indirect attack on its existence.  By burning fossil fuels and elevating global temperatures, man is destroying its food source from thousands of miles away.  In an island where there are no power plants or automobiles, the ubiquitous scorn of climate change is inescapable.


When standing among the penguins on South Georgia Island, witnessing one of the earth’s greatest natural wonders, any human would be moved by its magnificent beauty.  What the visitors may not realize is that they are among the worst environmental criminals of the human race, and most complicit in indirectly murdering the cute waddling creatures.


Scientists can measure a nation’s fossil fuel consumption, or carbon footprint, by estimating CO2 emissions per capita.  High-income countries, as defined by the World Bank, emitted 10.7 metric tons of CO2 per person per year in 2014, compared to 0.3 for lowest income nations (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory). It can be safely assumed that nearly all visitors to South Georgia reside in affluent societies, and consume more than 30 times the amount of fossil fuels than those in low-income countries.  Additionally, the typical flight from New York City to Ushuaia correlates to approximately 1.6 metric tons of CO2 emissions, or roughly one year of fossil fuel consumptions for individuals living in countries like Costa Rica, India, or Morocco.  Also, the high-fueled journey through the rough seas of Drake Passage probably equates to at least another one metric ton of CO2 per person.  To put it bluntly, you probably have to kill some penguins to be able to see penguins.


The hypocrisy that exists between the environmentally conscious travelers who consume a disproportionate amount of environmentally harmful fossil fuels is hard to reconcile. He may return home to attack the many citizens and politicians who deny the existence of climate change.  He may also vow to cut his carbon footprint by as much as 50%.  However, even he is successful at convincing all the industrialized nations to reduce CO2 emissions significantly, it does not address the needs of more than a billion people in the world with no access to electricity.  It seems disingenuous when a wealthy individual vows to give up some of his luxuries, while so many have nothing.  Saving the environment and weeping for penguins are meaningless to the billions who live in the dark.