Tag Archives: James Cook

John’s 50th visit to Antarctica

28 Feb

My co-author has been visiting Antarctica regularly since he was a young man. He does scientific work and lectures on cruise ships.

He has written another vivid account of life in the Antarctic. Here it is

Here I am once more on the South Scotia Sea over 50 years since I first voyaged here, heading from one iconic place in Polar history to another – South Georgia to Elephant Island – on the ship the ‘Akademik Ioffe’. Outside my porthole is a symphony in monochrome, grey cloud and dark grey sea with wind torn whitecaps around which wandering Albatross are wheeling and skimming, along with a myriad of other Southern Ocean seabird. Occasionally there will be a whale blow to add a deep bass tone to the music of the Southern Ocean.
The Scotia Sea is named for the ship ‘The Scotia’ which carried William Speirs Bruce and his men on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902 to 1904. A forgotten polar hero, but one I hope will become much better known and appreciated with the publication of the new biography of his life and times. I hope he would have appreciated my description of the view from my porthole and the treble tones of the whistling wind – something that was a constant for him during the voyage.
South Georgia is iconic in Polar affairs for many reasons, it was rediscovered by James Cook in 1775 during his second great circumnavigation of the world, and as a result became the centre, first of fur sealing, then in the early 20th century for whaling. As they wiped out the fur seals at South Georgia, the early 19th century sealers turned their attention – and their ships – South West to the South Shetlands, South Orkneys and the Antarctic Peninsula. And it was they who did most of the early explorations there. South Georgia is also, of course, iconic as part of the story of Shackleton and the ‘Endurance’ expedition, and the other day I was privileged to lead a group from Stromness whaling station up the valley to the “Shackleton waterfall”, thus retracing part of his famous journey.
Elephant Island is iconic as the place that Shackleton’s men were marooned at ‘Point Wild’ for 4 months through the winter of 1916, awaiting rescue. We will be visiting it in two days – weather permitting (it rarely does). On my various visits to the vicinity of Point Wild – I have never yet actually managed to set foot there (maybe this time!) – I often reflect on the fact that brave and enterprising folk have several times recreated the voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Others have trekked across South Georgia following in Shackleton’s footsteps. But nobody has ever suggested re-enacting sitting under an upturned boat at Point Wild eating penguins for four months. And I doubt they ever will!


16 May

Really enjoyable visit to Vervey and the British Residents Association.

Interest was expressed in scurvy, which so bedevilled the Scott expeditions, and it occurs to me that many will be unaware of the history of a disease, which killed thousands and thousands of people; in many years practicing as a doctor I never saw it (and if I had, the treatment would have been straightforward), but in Scott’s time vitamins were unknown and vitamin C (the deficiency of which causes scurvy), was not isolated till the 1930s (and then in the laboratory of the famous scientist, Sit Almoth Wright, who had been emphatic against the connection of the vitamin and the disease).

Scurvy was the dread of all long sea voyages. It was known to the Crusaders, British sailors in the American Revolution, Soldiers in W.W.1. The vitamin is necessary for collagen formation in humans. A lack of the vitamin causes, after about three months, lassitude, fatigue, swelling of the joints and lower limbs, spongy gums, lesions in the limbs that can break down and coalesce so that the victim seems to be rotting to death, also cardiac problems: a most unpleasant death that all were only too keen to avoid.

James Lind, a naval surgeon, cured scurvy in a controlled trial as early as the 1750s when he gave orange and lemons to some sufferers and alternative treatments to other sufferers. He did not think of the disease as a deficiency disease, but rather, a digestive problem. The Navy did introduce citrus fruits for its men, but by the 1900s the citrus fruit cure has lost credibility for the understandable reason (it seems to me), that men were given citrus fruits but still developed scurvy. This was because of the problem of Unintended Consequences. Limes from the Caribbean were utilised by the navy, rather than lemons from the Mediterranean. Limes have less vitamin C than lemons and the juice was transported across the Atlantic in copper containers, which damaged the vitamin’s potency. i.e. the final product was ineffective but the reason for this not understood.

So, by the early 1900s, scurvy was thought to be due to the unpleasant sounding ‘ptomain poisoning’ putrefaction in tins and Wilson’s duty on ‘Discovery’ was to sniff and taste all tins to be eaten each day (virtually everything was in tins) and to throw away any suspicious item. As we know this remedy was ineffective and scurvy broke out when ‘Discovery’ had left England for a year.

Vitamin C is present in citrus fruits and some plants and vegetables. Scurvy can now be quickly cured by oral doses of the vitamin.

I was fascinated to read that James Cook thought that one of his greatest achievements was to have avoided scurvy on his three-year voyage to the Antarctic in the 1700s. He gave his crew sauerkraut also fresh fruit (whenever they landed in a Pacific Island). I understand the Inuit apparently avoided scurvy by eating raw fish and the skin of the Beluga Whale.

We don’t know how lucky we are.