Tag Archives: South Georgia

Finding Shackleton’s Endurance

5 Jun



Recently a Victorian merchant vessel, the ‘West Ridge’, lost off the west coast of Australia over 100 years ago, was located during the search for the still tragically missing MH370, which disappeared whilst flying from Malaysia to China, in March 2014.

‘West Ridge’ ship wreck found 12000ft beneath Southern Indian Ocean December 2015

Area of Southern Indian Ocean where West Ridge, a barque lost in July 1883

credit:Australian Transport  Safety bureau /ATP/Getty



Now it is hoped that the final location of another lost ship, Shackleton’s Endurance, will be found on the seabed of the Weddell Sea as a part of an expedition that has, primarily, important scientific aims.

As is well known, Shackleton’s ship became trapped in the icy grip of the Weddell Sea in February I915. She drifted slowly and helplessly in a clockwise direction around the Weddell until October 1915, when the pressure of the sea ice started to crush the stern, and the sea finally poured in. The crew had to abandon ship to begin their precarious existence on ice flows.

Endurance sank on November 1915 – ‘She’s going boys’


October 1915 Endurance being crushed in the Weddel Sea – Sank in November 1915

credit : Frank Hurley

The proposed expedition aims to increase scientific information about the continent.

Glaciologists, geologists, geophysicists, marine biologists and oceanographers make up the team, which comes from, I understand, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the Nekton Foundation, the University of Oxford, the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) and the University of Cape Town. The scientists will examine marine life in the Weddell Sea, and study the exposed cavities that lie beneath the Larsen C. ice shelf, one of the largest ice shelves in Antarctica, following the breakaway, in July 2017, of Iceberg A-68.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell, Director of SPRI, says that the study is relevant to all the ‘fringes’ of Antarctica and the ice shelves around it. Ice shelves are part of what secures the ice flow from the interior, if they break off, the interior ice flows faster. This is of general concern, because interior ice flows contribute to global sea level rise.

The Weddell Sea expedition will start in January 2019, (when sea ice is at its thinnest). Agulhas11 an icebreaking polar supply and research vessel will sail into the western part of the Weddell Sea, which has actually only been visited rarely since Endurance sank there in 1915.

The work will focus on the area in and around Iceberg A-68; the iceberg that broke off. It is massive, it has a surface area of 2,240 square miles (5,800 square kilometers), about four times the size of London!

Also cavities under the shelf of Larsen C itself will be explored, the seafloor mapped, and the overhanging ice canopy investigated. Samples of ice will be extracted from the shelf. These can be read (like tree rings) to see the ebb and flow of the ice over time. Because A-68 split off, there is concern as to whether Larsen C may be prone to collapse and the expedition aims to establish the past history of ice advance and retreat, to see if old grounding lines – the locations where Larsen’s feeding glaciers previously rested on the seafloor, have moved backwards and forwards on a fairly regular basis, or only retreated. In this way it is hoped to put the recent changes at the peninsula into longer-term context.

The Captain of Endurance, New Zealander Frank Worsley, was a navigator of enormous experience. He subsequently navigated the James Caird, a twenty-five foot boat, through the turbulent waves of Drake’s Passage and the South Atlantic, for 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Only three sightings of the sun could be made on this sail. When Endurance sank in 1915, Worsley recorded her position as 68˚39′ 30.0″S. 52° 26′ 30.0″W, but locating the ship poses considerable challenges – she is 10,000 feet below the sea surface, the ice conditions on the surface can vary greatly from year to year, also the state of the ship will be poor, though it is thought that the hull will be reasonably intact.

If Endurance is found she will be surveyed, photographed and filmed. Undersea drones will document any marine life. The expedition obviously aims to record Endurance’s exact location, so the wreck can be listed as a historic monument under the Antarctic Treaty. Nothing will be removed from the site if the ship is found.

This is an important expedition with important implications. Finding Endurance would be a bonus, though it is interesting to consider whether Shackleton would have preferred to let her remain undisturbed.


Tags ‘West Ridge’, ‘Endurance’, Professor Julian Dowdeswell,  Frank Worsley, ‘James Caird’, Larsen C, Iceberg A-68, ‘Agulhas II’, South Georgia.









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!


13 Jan

I am giving a number of talks on’ Shackleton’s Life and Times’ this year. He is of particular interest now because; a hundred years ago he was still trapped in the icy grip of the Weddell Sea – no hope of any communication or help in those days.
His third expedition, the ‘Trans Antarctic’ expedition is an heroic story, but when I come to the final section, the crossing of South Georgia, I tend to keep it brief: The audience has, after all by then, gone through his early life, the ‘Discovery’ and ‘Nimrod’ Expeditions, plus five sections of the Job’s Trials that was the ‘Trans Antarctic’ expedition.
But the crossing of South Georgia is an epic story in itself. Having arrived at South Georgia in the adapted whaler The James Caird’ after a voyage that Shackleton feared might end in disaster, the six-men crew landed in King Haakon Bay through a narrow gap in a line of reefs, a gap ‘like blackened teeth’, so narrow that they had to ship their oars to get through. But they landed on the uninhabited side of the island; the whaling station in Stromness was some 26 miles away. The James Caird could not sail around the island safely. so a journey had to be made on foot across an utterly unknown and forbidding series of mountains and glaciers. Shackleton picked two of his five companions: Tom Crean and Frank Worsley to make the journey with him.
Shackleton wrote later: ‘I know that over that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me we were four men not three’ – they were being looked after by an unknown being, a concept taken up by T.S.Eliot in The Waste Land.
The three started out early on 19 May 1916 moving by the light of the moon. The only one with mountain experience was Worsley. Each man carried a three- day food supply in his sock. They took a primus stove plus oil, a pot, matches, a compass, a chronometer, a rope, an adze and pieces of wood from the James Caird to use as walking sticks. Soon after starting they were in fog. They roped themselves together; Worsley the navigator came last, shouting directions.
As the morning advanced they found they had crossed the island at its narrowest point, but from their vantage point the mountains dropped precipitously ahead of them and they were forced backwards. Throughout the day impassable ridges stopped their progress. They were fatigued and frostbitten.
The next stage seems to me to be almost the most dispiriting. They arrived at a place where there were five craggy peaks ahead, blunt fingers reaching into the sky. They could not find a descent pathway from the first two gaps and had to go back. Each ascent was steeper than the previous one. The third (particularly exhausting), took them to 5.000 feet. Finally, at the most northern of the four gaps they looked onto a precipice that dropped 300 feet before disappearing into the mist (or eternity).
What to do? Although Shackleton was said to be a careful and cautious leader generally, he felt they had no choice; they had nothing to loose with twenty-five men depending on them. He consulted his companions. ‘Are you willing to take a risk’? They inched down the precipitous cliff, cutting footholds with the adze, until they arrived at a snowy slope with no visible bottom. With fantastic daring the three sat, one behind the other (as if on a toboggan) and took off. They seemed to shoot into space. They shouted with excitement as they slid down 900 feet in minutes. Incredibly the slope ended leveled out and ended in a bank of snow. They had made it!
But still the trial was not ended and the men were exhausted. Shackleton allowed Crean and Worsley to sleep for five minutes (keeping awake himself by an iron will) and woke them saying they had rested for half an hour. The three had to pass over yet another ridge to get down to the coast. They struggled on and by dawn of the second day they reached a gap from which they could both see Stromness and hear the 6.30 am whistle that woke the men in the station. At 7 am they heard it again. This was their first evidence of human habitation since December 1914.
Still the problems were not over. The three then had to descend to the station carefully along the banks of and in, an icy stream, then lower themselves by rope down a thirty foot waterfall. They waded through the water before finally staggering towards the station. They were filthy, tattered, with wild hair and beards (Worsley safety-pinned his clothes together so as not to give offence). They carried the logbook the adze and the cooker, lasting memorials of their ordeal.
At the station they were seen first by two boys who, reasonably, fled. When the manager came he said ‘Well’? ‘Don’t you know me said Shackleton’? I know your voice came the doubtful reply. ‘My name is Shackleton’.
Some of the station men wept.
Some say that Shackleton’s third Antarctic expedition should never have been made. Differing views are held, but for courage, endurance and leadership in adversity it is difficult to imagine anyone more capable of giving hope, inspiring admiration and instilling confidence.

Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914

28 Feb

On August 1, 1914. Ernest Shackleton set off on his hugely ambitious expedition: The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His aim; to cross the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. Amongst his crew was the experienced navigator, Frank Worsley and crewmen Ernest Wild and Tom Crean, all to be famous in Antarctic history. The photographer, who was to take wonderful images of ‘The Endurance’ in her death throes, was Frank Hurley. Shackleton’s plan had been formulated when news reached England that Amundsen, followed by Scott, had actually reached the Pole. There was no glory in being the third party to get there.

August 1914 was the start of WW1. Before sailing Shackleton offered ship and crew to the government. The First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, no doubt be-devilled by multiple national concerns, replied ‘Proceed’

‘Endurance’ left South Georgia to go to Antarctica on 5/12/14. This was later than planned because of unusually severe pack ice. THREE days later the crew unexpectedly met with the pack. They were not to reach dry land for over 400 days. They were not to get back to the whaling station on South Georgia until 19/05/16, having spent seventeen months going round the Weddell Sea, surviving on pack ice and sailing perilously small sailing boats, firstly to Elephant Island and then back to South Georgia. The team never reached the continent. ‘Endurance’ sunk into the deep on November 21, 1915. It was written ‘that some failures are greater than success’ and this was one.

Had they landed, could the expedition have been successful? It seems improbable. Ranulph Fiennes’ very recent expedition, to achieve the traverse that Shackleton aimed for, well stocked, and well planned as it was, had to abandon the attempt after about 50 (of the 1800) miles of the crossing.  Vivian Fuchs who achieved the first crossing in 1957, was met at the South Pole by Edmund Hillary who had crossed from the Ross Base with supplies. Fuchs experienced as he was, had difficulty getting his snow cats (linked together by heavy- duty cable in case they fell into a crevasse), over the immense chasms south of the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton was aiming to cross with dogs and manpower. He HAD arranged for supplies, but not up to the Pole, just as far as the Beardmore Glacier.  It is difficult to imagine how he could have achieved his monumental ambition. The pack ice may have been the salvation of the expedition. 


6 Aug

The centenary of Shackleton’s most famous expedition is coming up fast. I imagine there will be many celebrations.

Shackleton is looked on as a charismatic leader, known throughout the world. His management skills are hugely admired. But, I wonder, would he, at the end of his career, have looked upon himself as a success or a failure?

Although his achievements are many, he never in fact, commanded more than 27 men and, it can be said,  he failed in the Antarctic goals he set himself: He was sent home by Scott from ‘Discovery’, a tremendous blow to a proud and ambitious man. On the ‘Nimrod’ expedition he achieved a glorious success in getting to within a hundred miles of the Pole, but he did not get to the Pole and, when eventually he had funds to return this had been achieved, not only by Amundsen, but also by Scott, no glory in being third. On the ‘Endurance’ expedition he did not achieve any of the ambitions that he had set himself – it has been said that some failures are more glorious than success and certainly, his command of this expedition is legendary (the sail to South Georgia and the boat journey to Elephant Island are regarded as almost miraculous), but he did not actually get onto the mainland.

I think ‘Endurance’ (part of the family motto), applies not only to the ship but to Shackleton himself. His endurance was both physical and outstandingly, mental. His overwhelming gift was to instill confidence and hope.

But I think at the end of his life, on balance, he would not have considered himself a great success.

Shackleton’s Journey re-enacted

7 Feb

An Anglo-Austrian team is attempting to recreate  Shackleton’s epic journey from Elephant Island to the whaling base in South Georgia. 800 miles by sea through the tempestuous Drake’s Passage and then the terrifying crossing over South Georgia.

The team led by Tim Jarvis have already completed the first part of the journey. They are at Peggotty Bay in South Georgia and will start the attempt to cross the island to-night. They made the stupendous journey from Elephant Island in 12 days, a little shorter than Shackleton. However Shackleton by this time, had already been battling against the elements for 16 months since he left South Georgia in December 1914 on the first leg of his attempt to cross Antarctica.

Shackleton’s journey from Elephant Island was terrifying. Six man in a  25 foot boat, the ‘James Caird’. She lifted over 50 feet waves–plunging from the crests of the waves into deep ‘holes’ where waves and ice blocks towered over them.   Frank Worsley, who navigated, was a hero.  In their 4 hour shifts the  six bailed, navigated, ate. In their rest periods they lay on the shingle ballast , soaked and probably sleepless. They landed at the wrong side of South Georgia, hence the horrifying climb across uncharted mountains that Tim Jarvis’ team will start to-day.

Shackleton crossed the island with two companions, but he wrote later that he felt there was a fourth invisible presence with them and guiding them; a concept later taken up by T.S.Eliot in The Waste Land

Shackleton did not achieve  the goal he had set himself, to cross Antarctica, but some failures are more glorious than success. His expedition was an inspiring example of endurance under suffering,