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From a distance it looks like the sea is smoking. Above, craggy black rocks rise angrily from slate-coloured water, while gigantic, murderous birds wheel overhead. Over a kilometre from shore, a dreaded gurgle is carried on a foetid breeze. If Antarctica can be described as the end of the world, then for some visitors Elephant Point is its final terminus – the end of the end of the world.
The traditional last stop for Antarctic tourists is Deception Island, but if conditions don't seem too rough for the northerly crossing of Drake Passage, there's no harm in spending a final, often wistful, few hours at Elephant Point. From here two days are spent at sea to reach the semi-civilisation of Ushuaia in southern Argentina.
By this point in most Aurora Expeditions cruises, passengers have their disembarkation drill down to a fine art. Where the early attempts had been clumsy, bungled affairs, with people having to dash back to their cabins having forgotten their life jacket, or hat, or shades, or camera, or, or, or… by now, with a week of extraordinary Seventh Continent experience, they arrive ready for these final strides into the unknown. If they are sad at all, it's only through knowing that this is their final farewell to the planet's last pristine place.
Elephant Point may not have the geological drama of other Antarctic locations, and few people would be taken seriously if they described it as beautiful, but it is one of the most atmospheric of all excursions.
The name comes from the near permanent population of elephant seals who are typically found lounging or decomposing on the apocalyptic shores of Livingston Island. A herd is one collective noun for seals, and also for elephants, but to watch these belligerent, obese residents interacting, a quarrel would seem like a better descriptor – or a jiggle.
The adolescent bachelors of Elephant Point huddle together for warmth and security but theirs is a pretty tense snuggle. A sneeze – the seals often try to expel excess salt from their airways – often sets a chain reaction down the blubber chain, the ripples passing from one elephant to the next, all the way to inevitably enraged backstop who hasn't even heard the original exhalation. So begins much misunderstanding and barging and jawing. The nearest pub may be hundreds of kilometres away, but this could be a taxi queue almost anywhere in the world in the early hours of a Sunday morning.
Things are a little more peaceful in the nearby Gentoo penguin rookery, but between the birds and the beasts, Elephant Point represents one of Antarctica's greatest olfactory assaults. The eerie number of dead animals slowly rotting on the sand-free beach hardly help.
Most of them – primarily elephant seals that failed to make it to adulthood – have been thoroughly picked over by giant southern petrels and Antarctic skuas, both of which nest in small cliffs nearby. Those semi-predatory scavengers can often seem like the cruellest creatures on the continent, but they are also one of the purest reminders that the circle of life down here isn't the Disney version at all. It's altogether something colder, more immediate, and unforgettable – but if you've spent a week in Antarctica by this point, you'll understand that it's exactly the way it should be.
Most Aurora Expeditions cruises pass close to Elephant Point on their return trip to South America. Like all experiences in Antarctica, visiting there is not guaranteed and depends on weather and sea conditions. The 2019/20 season will see Aurora's new ship, the Greg Mortimer, make the southern journeys. See auroraexpeditions.com.au
Jamie Lafferty was a guest of Aurora Expeditions