Tag Archives: South Orkneys

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!

The British Antarctic Survey

2 Nov

I did not know, before reading the obituary of Richard Laws that The British Antarctic Survey (of which Laws was Director in the 1970s and 80s), that the successful continuation of this hugely renowned scientific base was indirectly due to the Falklands War.
The Survey was pioneered by Sir Vivian Fuchs who gained government support for the present headquarters in Cambridge as well as research stations based on the Antarctic Peninsula. Fuchs’ work was continued by Laws who consolidated the BAS’s reputation as a multidisciplinary research institute, but had to battle against severe funding cuts by the BAS’s funding body, the National Environmental Research Council.
A new facility at King Edward Point (which had been threatened with closure) had only just been occupied when the Argentines arrived at the Point. The team were interned for a short time.
When South Georgia and the Falklands were recovered, Margaret Thatcher concluded that it was in the British interest to have a continued presence in the South Atlantic and Antarctica and that scientific work there should be supported. Increased funding followed and BAS scientists are amongst the world leaders in Antarctic science. In Halley, they were the first to discover the depletion of the ozone layer over the South Pole, a discovery that informed the world of the potential damage that man could inflict on our world. The peninsula bases and the BAS headquarters in Cambridge continue their international contribution.
The importance of the peninsula had been recognised in W.W.11. Operation ‘Tabarin’ was undertaken by the Admiralty and the Colonial Office in 1943.Its aim,to establish a permanent presence in the Antarctic in response to possible territorial claims by, amongst other countries,Germany and Argentina (the latter country already staffing a base in the South Orkney Islands which was started by the Scottish explorer William Speirs Bruce of the ‘Scotia’ expedition).
The area still remains a source of disagreement between Britain and Argentina


14 Oct

I have now started work on Bruce who led the ‘Scotia’ expedition (1902-04), a scientific expedition in the South Orkneys and the Weddell Sea. I would welcome any input.
Bruce seems to have had two outstanding enthusiasms; Firstly, natural sciences (he gave up the medical studies that he seems to have pursued in a desultory fashion for some years, to embrace the financial uncertainties of a scientific future) and secondly, a passionate Scottish Nationalism.
There are no obvious indicators for these passions;although Bruce’s father Samuel was born in Edinburgh, he grew up in London. Bruce himself was English born and educated. His overwhelming interest in natural science and Scotland seems to have started when he attended summer courses in biology in Edinburgh. These were organised by the inspirational Patrick Geddes. Geddes was an ecologist and promoted a holistic approach to the environment. In these courses Bruce met the foremost natural scientists of the day. His imagination and enthusiasm were caught. Aged 20, Scotland became his home and had his longterm loyalty.
Bitterness towards the South came later, no doubt fueled by Sir Clements Markham’s provocative reply to Bruce’s announcement, in 1901, that he planned a Scottish expedition to Antarctica to leave at roughly at the same time as Sir Clements’ baby. S.S ‘Discovery’
Sir Clements wrote…..’I do not understand why this mischievous rivalry should have been started and I trust you will not connect yourself with it…..’
Such comments inevitably stiffened the determination of the Scottish supporters of the scheme. ‘Scotia’ unusually, was fully financed by private, mostly Scottish backers.
The expedition was a success scientifically and a new land was discovered in the east of the Weddell Sea. He called this Coats Land after his principle backers.
Beyond Scottish borders Bruce is not as well known as other British explorers of the Heroic Era, although Professor David Munro mounted an important celebratory centenary exhibition.
Bruce deserves more recognition