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Day One: 1 January 2019
There were 27 of the them and Shackleton.
In August, 1914, as the world erupted into what would become the most destructive war in human history, they set off on an expedition which would become the stuff of legend. Their goal was to cross Antarctica on foot from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea by way of the Pole. It was, in Shackleton’s words, ‘the last great journey left to man’. But they never even got started; in fact they never even set foot upon the great white continent. In January, 1915, while carving their way through the pack, their ship, the legendary Endurance, became icebound. In the end she was crushed and on 21 November they all watched in silence as her stern rose twenty feet into the air, paused momentarily and then in one gulp was gone. All that was left was a small dark opening in the ice, but within seconds the pack had closed leaving nothing to mark where she had been.
They were 28 little dots marooned on the ice at the heart of the most hostile sea on the planet. They were utterly alone, the nearest civilization was many hundreds of miles away. Their last contact with the outside world had been over eleven months before, they did not have a radio and nobody knew where they were. Their prospect of rescue was nil.
The Endurance sank at 5 pm. In his tent that evening Shackleton tried to describe what had happened. ‘She went today’, he began. He struggled on another 43 words and then gave up. ‘I cannot write about it’, he concluded.
They expected to die - slowly and horribly - but what followed was the greatest Antarctic adventure there has ever been and, arguably, the greatest story of human survival in recorded history. The most remarkable thing about the Shackleton saga is that they all lived to tell the story.
If Shackleton’s objective was to cross Antarctica then ours is to locate his ship. Today we forgathered mission-ready upon the freezing white banks of the Weddell Sea. Soon we will set sail on the South African icebreaker Agulhas II for the Larsen C ice shelf The greater part of our expedition will be scientific, but towards the end we will plunge the abyss in an attempt to find the Endurance. As a maritime archaeologist I can say with little fear of contradiction that this will be the greatest wreck-search there has ever been. Conditions and equipment allowing, and at a cost of millions, we will journey into what Shackleton himself called ‘the worst corner of the worst sea on earth’, and then, using the most advanced deep-ocean search-and-survey technology available, go under the pack to three thousand meters to hunt for what has been called the most iconic ship of all time. Of course I do not know if we will succeed, but stay with me, I will talk you through it, and together we will find out.
Day 2: 2 January 2019
New Year’s Eve on the Endurance
How did we celebrate New Year on Agulhas II? We enjoyed a barbeque on the helicopter deck and then went down to the ship’s bar. Although this will be a ‘dry’ ship, alcohol was served this evening as an exception. The most popular drink was Endurance Beer made by the Shackleton Brewing Company in South Africa. The older scientists (and here I include myself) are not really the jovial, hearty, beer-swilling, back-slapping types so we retired to bed early leaving those who are younger in spirit to see in the New Year. Contrast this with New Year’s on the Endurance exactly one hundred and fourteen years ago.
On this day in 1914 the Endurance was, like us, off the eastern shoulder of the Weddell Sea, but interestingly we are further south of where they were. We are at Lat. 70⁰ 10.3’ S, Long. 002⁰ 07.0’ W; the Endurance had only just crossed the Antarctic Circle and was at 66⁰ 47’ S, 15⁰ 45’ W. According to the charts on our bridge, this puts her then position at 363 nautical miles north-west of us.
Despite being behind schedule the Endurance had covered 480 miles since entering the pack and was, in fact, only 149 miles from the point on the coast where Shackleton planned to off-load supplies and set up his winter quarters in a pre-fabricated hut which, in large part, must still be in the wreck at the bottom of the sea.
Interestingly, it was on the morning of New Year’s Eve in 1914 that Shackleton’s party had their first real taste of the prodigious power of gathered ice when they were brought to a standstill by two closing slabs (each about 15 X 50 ft and 4 ft thick) which caught the Endurance in a pincer movement and heeled her six degrees to starboard. To extract themselves they extended an ice anchor across the pack from the stern and then, by putting their engines to Full Astern and warping in on the anchor, were able to draw her to safety. The moment they were free, the two slabs that had held them, slammed together and rafted up 12 feet over one another at an angle of 45⁰.
By the afternoon conditions had improved to the extent that they were able to go out on the ice and captured four adelie penguins and one emperor for the pot. In his journal the skipper of the Endurance, New Zealander Frank Worsley, gave a vivid description of the ice conditions and what happened at midnight:
‘Since noon the character of the pack has improved. Though the leads are short, the floes are rotten and easily broken through if a good place is selected with care and judgement. In many cases we find large sheets of young ice through which the ship cuts for a mile or two miles at a stretch. I have been conning and working the ship from the crow’s-nest and find it much the best place, as from there one can see ahead and work out the course beforehand, and can also guard the rudder and propeller, the most
vulnerable parts of a ship in the ice. At midnight, as I was sitting in the ‘tub’ I heard a clamorous noise down on the deck, with ringing of bells, and realized that it was the New Year.’
The ship’s bell was struck sixteen times then Worsley descended the ratlines to join Shackleton, Wild and Hudson on the bridge where they were soon united by the others. They shook hands and wished each other a Happy New Year and then went below to the wardroom, or ‘Rookery’, where they drank toasts to the King, the Expedition and the success of their country at war. Wild then called for three cheers for the Boss which, noted Hussey (the team’s meteorologist) , ‘caused Shackleton much embarrassment.’ They then sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and went to bed.
New Year’s Day found them making good progress as they sliced south through brittle young ice. The ship’s carpenter, 41-year-old Harry (Mr Chips) McNish, a blunt-talking, curmudgeonly Glaswegian, shaved off his beard which he had not touched since leaving the River Plate. ‘I feel the wont of my whiskers,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘but I won't do it again until next Hogmanay and then we will be turning towards home and those we love best.’ And this was the view of all on board, none of them could have had any inkling that, by the next Hogmanay, the Endurance would be at the bottom of the Weddell Sea and that they would be living on the ice.
Diaries for the following New Year, 1916, are extremely interesting. There had been stress within the team resulting in some depression. Just three days before there had been a one-man mutiny. They had been hauling the boats when McNish, who was exhausted and suffering from piles, refused to go on or be told what to do by Worsley. His argument was that, because the ship had sunk, he was no longer obliged to follow orders. Shackleton was furious and read everybody the ship’s articles which all had signed and which made clear that, although they were ‘on shore’, they still had to perform their duties according to instructions.
The incident brought out some of the simmering resentments that existed within the expedition. Thomas Orde Lees, a team oddball who cherished a particular dislike of McNish (which was reciprocated with fervour), mentioned in his diary how the ‘objectionable, cantankerous carpenter’ had been ‘grossly insubordinate.’ Shackleton wrote ‘Every one working well except the carpenter. I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress.’
For his part McNish made no mention of the what had happened, but in his diary for New Year’s Eve he wrote: ‘Hogmanay and a bitter one too, being adrift on the ice instead of enjoying the pleasures of life like most people. But as the saying is, there must be some fools in this world’.
No doubt the highlight of McNish’s day was a ‘monster sea leopard over 12 foot long’ which chased a much frightened Orde Lees around a floe until Frank Wild (the team’s deputy leader) shot it.
Day 3: January 3 2019
Football on the ice
Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (which was much read on the Endurance), I stoppethed one in three. Which wasn’t bad for a goal-keeper well into his sixties.
Our departure has been delayed while we wait for the arrival of the remainder of the team from Cape Town. In happy tribute to the men of the Endurance who enjoyed nothing more than what they called ‘a bit of footer’, our expedition leader, John Shears, decided that a kick-around on the ice would be a good idea. It was.
Keeping the men fit and happy was important to Shackleton so he much encouraged football and hockey on the ice when conditions allowed. He himself was goalie. Their first game was on 20 December, 1914, and was played between the those who were supposed to be going ashore to make the crossing of Antarctica and those who would remain on the ship. The ship won 2-0. One of the diarists wrote: ‘In the evening before supper we had a rare game of football on the snow. It was a farce of course …’ And so was ours, the most memorable moment being when a line of insouciant little penguins strolled by the goal.
As the maritime archaeologist, the research on the Endurance (her construction, the circumstances of her loss and how we best set about finding her) fell to me. One of the great enjoyments of the past two years has been reading the unpublished diaries of those who were there. They are full of the kind of detail that does not make it into the many books on Shackleton which tend mostly to be rehashes of those that went before. It was in one of these diaries that I found the following charming little vignette concerning the discovery of their football that they all thought had been lost with the ship:
‘This morning Blackborrow [the team stowaway] and I went down to where the ship sank. There we met Greenstreet [First Officer] and Clark [biologist]. We found a few tins of lard, peas and mustard, which had evidently floated up from the sinking ship. Also conspicuous amongst … [the] broken ice and wreckage was our football, the same that has helped us while away many pleasant and active hours on the floe around the ship.’
Day 4: January 4 2019
We are off on a great voyage of discovery. Shackleton, I like to think, would be proud of us.
By midday yesterday we were joined by the last members of the team and immediately we were under way for the Larsen C ice shelf on the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
I wonder how this will all turn out. What will we achieve and how will this all look 45 days from now? This project has been several years in the making, everybody has been carefully selected for their expertise; this great she-elephant of an ice-breaker is packed to the gunwales with learned academics and highly-trained technical specialists, but that doesn’t guarantee success. ‘Stranger things have happened at sea’ and we could yet be a ship of fools on the voyage of the damned. We’ll see …
The fact is we are a day and a half behind schedule. On a project like this when every minute is at a premium, this is not good. We have, however, an eight day transit ahead of us and, if conditions allow, maybe we can make up the lost time.
As a rule of thumb, the bigger the expedition the less likely it is to get away on time. Things always conspire to hold you back; equipment problems, late delivery of essentials, and so on. In Shackleton’s case it was a war.
On Friday 1st August, 1914, the Endurance gave the first kick of its screw and slowly she eased out of London’s West India Docks and into the Thames. One of the diarists described the large crowds that had gathered and how he had heard one bystander predict that ‘Some of them will never see London again.’ But these were terrible times, the two most powerful nations in the world, Britain and Germany, were about to take up cudgels in a war of total destruction. Three days later, on the 4th August, Shackleton went into Margate on the Kent coast where he read in the newspapers of the order for general mobilization. He returned to his ship straight away, mustered the team and informed them that he proposed to send a telegram to the Admiralty offering to place the Endurance, its stores and crew at the disposal of the nation. They all agreed and Shackleton immediately cabled the Sea Lords in Whitehall. The British navy was then the most powerful weapon the world had ever known and the man with his finger upon the trigger was none other than Mr. Winston Churchill. Within an hour they had received his response, just one word: ‘Proceed.’
Day 5: January 5 2019
Something more than a ship
4 a.m. Couldn’t sleep. Got up. Had the whole vessel to myself. Or so I thought until I ran into the ship’s doctor, Anna Smith, at the coffee station. We sat down in the lounge together, and then, without sugaring her words she gave it to me point-blank:
‘Why ?’, she demanded.
I blinked, ‘Why what?
‘Why bother with the Endurance?’ What do you hope to achieve?’
It is a good question and one that needs to be addressed.
I have been directing underwater excavations and surveys since I was 28 years old. For 32 consecutive years I worked on shipwrecks from antiquity to the modern day, often several a season. Some were big and important that I look back on with pride, others, that I try to forget, were a spectacular waste of money, time and resource. Back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s (which many now look back on as the Golden Age of maritime archaeology) there were more wrecks being found than there were diving archaeologists and, as a result, most of these new sites were never surveyed and have now been plundered out of existence by looters.
In those early years I was focused on ancient wrecks in the Mediterranean, mainly off Italy. Diving, as a recreational activity, had become huge - and Roman wrecks were popping up everywhere. From Britain there was only Toby Parker, Honor Frost and myself who were conducting campaigns every year in those waters. Divers would come up to us with amphorae they had found and we had to make brutal decisions regarding which wrecks could be saved and which would be lost to learning. There was only so much time and money to go around. The measure I applied was simple. If field archaeology is all about the advance and dissemination of knowledge, particularly new knowledge, then what, I would ask myself, does this site tell us that we do not already know? If the answer was not a lot, then the site would be ignored, but if it raised important questions, then it would probably be surveyed and, depending on that evaluation, it might go on to excavation. It was a yardstick that served me well all my career. The problem is that when you apply it to the Endurance, the site does not fare well.
Since candour is the currency of these conversations I have to say that, if we find the Endurance, it will not tell us much of any significance that we do not already know. Every detail of her construction has survived on paper and in the beautiful photographic record made by the expedition’s intrepid Australian photographer, Frank Hurley, back in 1914-16. We know too what she contained and the circumstance of her loss. In this regard it is hard to think of a wreck that is better documented. So, from a strictly archaeological point of view (and not everybody will agree on this, and I am here deliberately side-stepping issues of conservation and marine science), it is hard to justify what we are doing.
However, if we analyse it from an historical perspective, things look very different. Few I think would ever argue that this is not a site of outstanding cultural importance; the Endurance is to the
Shackleton saga what the Victory is to the Nelson story. Both ships are rooted in the British psyche, both represent valour and all that is best in the human condition - but they go beyond that. They have become legends that belong to the world. One of the unpublished diarists on Shackleton’s team said it well when he wrote of the Endurance that she was ‘something more than a ship’.
Now may not be the moment and we may not be the people to do it, but – I promise you this – ‘not all the water in the rough, rude sea’ will prevent this wreck from one day being found, and so, therefore, it is important that she be found by a responsible team (such as ours), without any predatory designs or commercial intentions.
Think what happened to the Titanic which sank just three years before the Endurance (and which, by the bye, also went down lacerated by ice while on her maiden voyage). The moment she was found, the site became a free-for-all, a help-yourself and smash-and-grab for anybody with a deep-water submersible. We feel certain that nobody wants what happened to the Titanic to happen to Shackleton’s Endurance. If we are so lucky as to find the Endurance, our first task will be to record the site for monitoring purposes and then, to prevent its depredation, seek its protection in law as a site of outstanding, international cultural heritage.
In broad terms, the answer to Anna’s question is that we are seeking to find the Endurance so that she might be protected and preserved into the future, when conservation science will have advanced sufficiently for a responsible body to consider whether it would be advisable to raise her remains for preservation and public display.
* * * * * * *
We are now out of the ice and are crossing the mouth of the Weddell Sea on our way to the Larsen C ice shelf on the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Today was the anniversary of Shackleton’s death. He died in 1922 of a suspected heart attack while on his ship, the Quest, at South Georgia. At his wife’s request , he was buried on the Island in the whaler’s cemetery at Grytviken.
During the evening some of us drank to his memory and we all watched the excellent Kenneth Branagh film ‘Shackleton’.
Day 6: 6 January 2019
The ship’s bell
Ray (who insists on calling me Bub) is my new best mate on board. He’s a rough, tough, spit-in-your-eye Texan with a physique on him that is straight out of Stonehenge. He not only pilots underwater ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles), he even builds them. Anyway, if we find the Endurance, Ray, like everybody else onboard, wants me to raise something, as in ‘Hey Bub, wouldn’t it be awesome if we brought up the bell?"
I agree it would be ‘awesome’, bells are just so emblematic, but it is not so simple …
Behind this project there was an Expedition Advisory Committee that comprised John Kingsford (of Deep Ocean Search [DOS]), Donald Lamont (former Chairman of the Antarctic Heritage Trust and ex-Governor of the Falkland Islands), John Shears (Expedition Leader), Gwilym Ashworth (DOS), George Horsington (of Marine Archaeological Consultants [MAC]) and myself. Together we consulted closely with the Trustees of the Flotilla Foundation, scholars at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge (which later partnered up with the project) as well as a range of scientists and technical experts from UK, South Africa, France, Norway, New Zealand and elsewhere. Above all there was Ocean Infinity who provided staff and the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) without which this project would not have been possible. We worked closely with every one of them while all the time building on preparatory work carried out by DOS a couple of years before.
The one topic we kept coming back to was whether or not we should raise anything from the Endurance. There were a range of opinions but, in the end, we got bogged down on ethical issues. In addition there were conservation concerns as well as legal questions regarding ownership (because everything on the seabed is owned by somebody, it’s just that usually they do not know who they are).
The whole matter became so complex that we finally decided that if we found the wreck and were able to conduct an archaeological survey, it would be strictly non-disturbance; in other words, nothing would be taken from the site. That is not to say that in the future individual objects and structure should not be raised. Indeed there are items of information and cultural value on the site that, if left, will one day decay out of existence; but now is not the time, we simply are not ready for the reception of artefacts. Indeed - and to put a cap on the argument - by the terms of our permit that was issued by the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we are not allowed to touch or raise anything. And so it is that for the present at least, the bell stays put.
* * * * * * * *
Had a meeting with Captain Knowledge Bengu in his cabin. Together we looked at the Copernicus Sentinel-1 images of ice conditions around the huge slab of ice (designated A-68) that calved from the Larsen C ice shelf. That is our next destination. We are experiencing the best ice conditions for many seasons and he thinks we have a good chance of getting in behind A-68 and close to what is left of the ice shelf.
For much of the day we have been in close pack. The ship is on manual and, basically, we are finding open water wherever we can that will take us in the right general direction. Speed varies from 4 to 12 knots. Current ETA for the Larcen C is midday 10 January.
Day 7: 7 January 2019.
It’s a wreck full of guilty pleasures, the ultimate archaeological bag of sweets. But, if we find it, I am not going to touch anything – that is our prime directive – but will I be tempted? You bet I will!
So, what sort of things that foundered back in 1915 might I find tempting?
First and foremost would be the glass slides and film canisters abandoned by Frank Hurley, the inventive, straight-talking, curly-haired, 31-year-old Aussie photographer whose pictures to this day captivate and inspire, to the extent that it is almost impossible to think of the Shackleton story without Hurley’s powerful record. Many of his images would have been lost in the flooded ship had he not, in his own words, ‘hacked through a thick wall to retrieve [them]. They were located beneath four feet of mushy ice and, by stripping to the waist and diving under, I hauled them out.’ A week later he endured the gut-wrenchingly dismal task of winnowing them with Shackleton, deciding which to keep and which to discard because their collective weight would have been too much for the intended journey across the ice. Hurley wrote in his diary: ‘I spent the day with Sir Ernest, selecting the finest of my negatives from the year’s collection. 120 I [saved] and dumped about 400.’ Although most of the rejected glass plates, were broken (so there could be no second thoughts about saving them), they should all still be there scattered on the seabed.
Another item I would love to rescue is ‘Chippy’ McNish’s model of the Endurance which we know he was working on from two fleeting mentions in his diary. That will certainly still be within the wreck and probably in good condition.
On a grander scale there is the prefabricated hut, that was carried within the hold and which was to be the shore party’s winter abode at Vahsal Bay. Certainly some of the hut’s timbers were used in the construction of what was called ‘The Ritz’, that is to say the ship’s winter quarters within the ‘tween deck, but most of it should still be on the wreck.
And then there are the scientific samples. First would be the rock collection of the expedition’s geologist, James ‘Jock’ Wordie, but even more tempting would be the specimens collected by his cabinmate, Robbie Clark, the team’s rather mirthless marine biologist who, invariably, is described by writers as an archetypical ‘dour Scot’. The only time he was ever known to express any excitement was when a team prankster inserted a couple of strands of boiled spaghetti into one of his glass formaldehyde pots and deceived him into thinking he had discovered a new species.
But there was an occasion when Clarke was dredging with his net below the ice and did indeed discover, what he believed to be, a previously unknown creature from the deep. Shackleton was on board at the time and the first he knew of it was when, in his words, he ‘heard a great yell from the floes and found Clark dancing about and shouting Scottish war-cries. He had secured his first complete specimen of an Antarctic fish, apparently a new species.’ Macklin, one of the team doctors, described it in his diary as having ‘a very ugly appearance’, with an extremely small body and an immense head and jaws .
After the ship sank Worsley wrote: ‘I felt sorry for Clarke, as … I realized that he had been obliged to leave on the Endurance the whole of his valuable collection that he had been at such pains to classify and study.’ Although the glass container’s seal would have been compromised by the extreme pressure, it is entirely conceivable that Clarke’s very ugly fish is still lurking within in its jar, and certainly it would be of great interest to modern science.
All the foregoing would, as I said, be tempting, but there is one thing, and one thing only, that would immediately have me phoning the expedition’s head office in London to beg them to make the necessary representations to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for a special deed of dispensation to allow its recovery … and I will tell you what that thing is tomorrow.*
* * * * * *
We are still transiting the mouth of the cavernous Weddell Sea on our way to the Larsen C ice shelf. Our noonday position was: Lat. 63⁰ 17.6’ S; Long. 041⁰ 31.2 W, which puts us roughly due east of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and at a distance from it of about 400 nautical miles. Currently we are in loose pack beneath sullen skies and, with our steering in manual, crunching along at an unspectacular 4 knots. Beneath our keel, at a depth of 3500 meters, lies the vast Weddell Sea Abyssal Plain.
We have for a while been outside the Antarctic Circle but tomorrow we expect to be below it once more. It’s a notional line of parallel that does not do anything for me but, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, everybody on board seems to be quite excited about crossing it again.
Day 8: January 8th 2019
Nothing beats a good diary.
The more salacious, slanderous and muck-raking the better. My favourite diaries are those of the incomparable Samuel Pepys, Chief Secretary of the Navy, but who, in delicious detail, tells us all about his entanglements with actresses, even his wife’s chamber maid and, of course, the wonderful and very married Bess Bagwell. And then there is waspish Hester Thrale and Fanny Burney, both scribbling away about each other and their dear friend, the inimitable Dr Johnson. And within that mix we have the journals of James Boswell which featured his first meeting with Johnson in Davies Bookshop in Convent Garden.
All good stuff, but there can be a serious side to the genre; a thoughtful and well observed diarist can do much to enrich our understanding of history; for instance the journals of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelias are fundamental to our perception of life and attitudes in the second century AD. Just think how impoverished our appreciation would be of life at Versailles under Louis XIV were it not for the gossip-mongering Duc de Saint-Simon and, returning to Pepys, it is no exaggeration to say that his diaries have entirely coloured our view of seventeenth century London under Charles II.
And so it is with the Shackleton story. The real red meat of what happened down here in the Weddell Sea a little over a hundred years ago, is to be found within the diaries. Off the top of my head I can count nine diaries from the expedition team of which I have read or consulted seven. Most people only read Shackleton’s book South (not to be confused with his diary) which is an excellent book, but it is Shackleton burnishing his legacy. If one really wants to know what was being thought, said and done, one has to go to the I-was-there accounts, but – and here we come to the problem – only three of the nine diaries have been made fully available through publication.
As might be expected, some are more revealing than others. Worsley has a lot to say, but he was a romantic who was writing to be read, and liked to embroider for the sake of the story; Orde Lees's journal is nicely descriptive; Wordie is a bit too guarded and discreet; James is good on science but otherwise a bit bloodless; Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish is completely unpunctuated and stripped-down terse (but I love him), while Shackleton is probably the most irritating of all because, potentially, he has the most to say, but does not, and, more than that, he simply will not allow you into his head.
And now I come to my favourite, the diary of the physician, Alexander Macklin, which survives in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge. Of all the diarists he is easily the most thoughtful and erudite. But, and here’s the thing, only the second half of his diary survives - the first half went down with the Endurance.
Because they could only carry 2 lbs of personal weight on their intended journey across the ice, he felt obliged to leave his diary on the ship. For the rest of his life this was to him a source of infinite grief. During the surviving half of his diary, which he began on 28 October, 1915, the day after they abandoned ship, he occasionally paused to mourn the loss of that first volume; for instance on 8 November, 1915, he wrote:
‘I wish we had realized that we were not going to make a dash for land, for I would have brought my diary and my bible, both of which I value highly. My diary recorded carefully all events and impressions and was nearly full and would have been of immense interest to me and perhaps to others could I have got it home.’
At the beginning of the second volume he wrote the following poignant lament:
‘This diary I am beginning just a year and two days after that other which I started at Buenos Aires, which I kept so carefully, registering every incident, and recording all my impressions. I made the last entry only four days ago and now it is being ground to nothing aboard the Endurance – poor old ship – I can hear her groaning away with the ice crunch-crunching all about her. It is a real loss my old diary, but lost it is and beyond recovery, for the starboard alleyway is crushed in, and my cabin is under several feet of water solidly frozen oven.’
Macklin’s diary will still be there on the wreck. It is the one thing above all others that I would save if I could.
* * * * * * * *
We are now 150 nautical miles from the Antarctic Peninsula and closing. Fair skies, calm seas.
Ice that survives to the following year is called ‘first-year ice’, while that which survives two summers is called ‘multiyear ice.’ Up until now it has mostly been young ice, but today we have been shouldering our way through mixed first-year and multiyear ice, some of which was over 3m thick and required vigilance even though we are still in the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ). Apart from the floes there are many large bergs dotted around in every direction as far as the eye can see. On the bridge there are three or four people constantly scanning with binoculars looking for ways through, but also making sure we do not whack any ‘growlers’, that is to say large chunks of ice that are not quite as innocent as they first appear.
Later tonight we will pause to make our first CTD descent and put out the nets to sample the marine biota.
Day 9: January 9 2019
An attentive reader has written in saying: ‘I don’t understand. In Blog 1 you said they never set foot on the continent, but in Blog 7 you talk of Wordie’s ‘rock collection’. How can that be? You cannot collect rocks without going on land!’
The answer is that Wordie’s rock collection consisted mainly of small stones, or what are called gastroliths (look it up), extracted from the stomachs of dissected penguins.
As soon as the poor bird was dead, but probably still twitching, Wordie and Robbie Clark were snouts down and into its tripes like a couple of old pigs grubbing for truffles. One was seeking pebbles, the other was after squid beaks.
For me, one of the joys of going through the diaries is being able to compare and contrast (as examination questions like to put it) the varied descriptions of the same event to produce a more rounded picture of what was going on. For instance, in ‘Chippy’ McNish’s diary for the 31st December, 1914, we read: ‘Made [a pen] for which we caught 5 penguins today, 1 emperor and 4 adélies.’
The reason why they were penning the penguins was so that they could be killed as required by both the cook and the scientists. If they killed them all at once, those they did not use immediately would soon be frozen solid. We hear no more of the adélies, but we do know what happened to the unfortunate emperor. On 4th January, 1915, Wordie wrote:
‘I have been looking more closely at the pebbles got from the emperor penguin on Dec 31st; the quantity is almost double that I got from the emperor on Dec 17th. I notice two kinds of granite, a grit, purple sandstone, very micaceous sandstone and two kinds of dyke stone.’
Ten days later he related the following:
‘I am numbering off the contents of the emperor penguins’ stomachs as if they were land deposits. The stomach of a young emperor caught on Tuesday night has given a good deal of amusement; there is about ½ Ib of pebbles, the biggest having a maximum dimension of one inch.’
The question becomes why do penguins ingest stones? As far as I am aware, there is no clear answer for this. In the case of the emperors it cannot be linked to their nesting habits because, unlike most of the other penguin species, emperors do not nest, their eggs are incubated on the tops of their feet beneath a flap of skin. Nor can the source of the stones be from the land, because emperors are only ever on the ice and snow. The stones must therefore come from a marine environment. Early thought supposed that they were consumed by accident while feeding, either when the bird was foraging on the seabed or, perhaps, mistaking them for fish, as they fell from melting icebergs. Recent observed behaviour, however, suggests that the stones are deliberately swallowed. One explanation might be that they are used as a grinding agent for food, in particular the hard exoskeletons of crustaceans. Wordie was of the view that they were there to ballast the bird for diving.
* * * * * * * *
During the night the ship stopped in an open patch of water to deploy the CTD array. This instrument consists of a group of sensors that are lowered to the seabed by winch to measure electrical [C]onductivity, or salinity, [T]emperature and [D]epth, or water pressure. Added to the CTD probe is a carousel of what are called Niskin bottles, which are basically open tubes that, during the upcast, or recovery leg, are triggered to close at set depths locking in samples of water that can be analysed for biological and chemical activity.
At much the same time nets were lowered to collect phytoplankton and zooplankton. The biologist showed me the sample as they removed it from the nets, and, judging by the smiles on their faces they were well pleased.
We also tested the doors ship’s moon pool, an opening through the bottom of the vessel that, even in rough conditions or ice, gives us protected access to the sea below.
During the late afternoon we had our first sight of land and by 1900 hrs we were abreast Joinville and Dundee Islands which are just to the north of the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. In seas full of big bergs we dodged our way down the east coast of the Peninsula and by 2330 hrs were off Snow Hill and Seymour Islands. We should reach A-68 the day after tomorrow, but first we will have to stop for sea trials and calibration exercises.
Flurries left our decks covered in snow. Noonday position 63⁰ 38.3 S, 052⁰ 36.0 W.
Day 10: 10 January 2019
I have a number of one-liners that I have always longed to be able to spring forth at the right moment.
I have always wanted to jump into a taxi and yell ‘Follow that car!’ Or again, in a dinner-party situation, I have always wanted to look my hostess in the eyes, and say (in a somewhat imperious manner): ‘Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes.’* I have a bottom drawer full of ‘em. Today, however, for the first time in my life, I finally got to take one out and use it. I was on the back deck when a whale spouted about a hundred yards from the stern. I was totally ready for it. I pointed with one hand, cupped my mouth with the other, and then, like Starbuck (or was it Ishmael?) I hollered ‘Thar she blows!’
Such theatricals, however, are totally out of character for me and feeling a touch sheepish I looked around to see what my colleagues had made of it all. Not one of them had paid a blind bit of notice so I went below and made a cup of tea.
There is however a serious side to this. The whale I saw was a minke. Two days ago we saw another. But, as far as I am aware, that’s it. Where, I ask myself, have all the whales gone?
I decided to look back to see what Shackleton was observing in the way of whales at this time. It was quite illuminating. On this very day in 1915, the day in which he made landfall with the continent, he wrote:
‘Loose pack stretched to the east and south, with open water to the west and a good watersky … the Endurance continued to advance south. We saw the spouts of numerous whales and noticed some hundreds of crab-eaters [seals] lying on the floes … a few killer-whales with their characteristic high dorsal fin also came into view.’
Glancing back to Shackleton’s entry for the previous day I found the following: ‘Two very large whales, probably blue whales, came up close to the ship, and we saw spouts in all directions.’
I find all this so scary. These are the great feeding grounds to which the leviathans used to migrate every austral summer. Right here is where the greatest beings on earth – the 100 ft blue whales - would come to scoff. The largest population of this species in the world was based in Antarctica. But where are they and all their cousins now?
Shackleton’s marine biologist, Robbie Clark, a dour hard-working Scot, was particularly interested in the whales and, during the month they spent on South Georgia, where the southern whale fisheries were based, he studied carefully what he saw taking place on the flensing decks where the whales were laid out to be stripped of their blubber. He took notes and like many, including the then Governor of the Falkland Islands, the far-seeing William Lamond Allardyce, he became much disturbed by the rampant over-exploitation of the stocks.
In particular he was concerned for the humpback whale for which he was able to gather some reliable statistics. The first of the South Georgia whaling stations had opened in 1904, just ten years before Shackleton arrived on the Island. During that decade the annual catch had been dominated by humpbacks which, of the large cetaceans, was by far the most common in the near waters of Antarctica. As Clark put it, ‘up to the fishing season of 1910-11, humpbacks formed practically the total catch,’ but for the 1914-1915 season when Shackleton was in South Georgia, records from one of the stations (Leith) showed that the humpback kill had shrunk dramatically to only 15% of the catch.
After the Endurance left South Georgia for the Weddell Sea, Clark noted only two sightings of humpbacks, both within the South Sandwich Island neighbourhood. Clark later concluded that, because of their unrestricted slaughter, ‘the humpback stock is threatened with extinction’, and urged international protective legislation. Yet, despite the statistics and obvious diminishing returns, the Whaling industry was allowed to stagger on to the mid 60s, by which time the whale had been all but expunged from the planet. In recent decades they have been making a comeback and fifteen years ago they were again a fairly common sight around here. I know because I was here over ten years ago and witnessed this for myself.
So again I wonder why it is that we are not spotting them now. To my simple mind, if the whales are not here then their food is not here. As I think about it I see one fundamental difference between the just-avoided great extinction that Robbie Clark warned about, and the apparent absence of whales today. If the decimation that Clark noted had reached its conclusion, then the extinction, however sad, would have been somewhat contained. The whale was at the top of the trophic ladder, its annihilation would, to some extent, have had limited negative impact on the nutritional support structure below. When Shackleton was on South Georgia it came down to one simple equation; one harpoon equals one dead whale. Today, by contrast, it is far more complex, extensive, insidious and deadly. Today we are merrily chiselling away at the very foundation of these fragile food webs, and this has ramifications that go beyond horrific.
At the bottom of the chain are the microbial bacterioplankton, while at the top you have the grand charismatic species such as the penguins, albatross, seals and whales. It is a delicately poised food network in which everything, as if in some vast outdoor restaurant, is feeding on something else. If you are a phytoplankton, for instance, you will absorb your nutrients and photosynthesize, but just up the chain are the zooplankton, and they will be eating you. And if you are zooplankton (kind of shrimp-like krill) you are on the menu for just about everything above you, especially the whales.
Down here almost all the whales (the blue, the fin, sei, minke, right and humpback) belong to the cetacean group known as baleen whales. Baleen are comb-like plates attached to the upper jaw that filter zooplankton. Off King George Island, just a short distance around the corner from us, the krill biomass has declined by a staggering 80 per cent and is still falling. This can be linked directly to the loss of the ice pack down the west of the Peninsula, because juvenile krill live within the loose crystalline latticework on the underside of the ice.
And what about the penguins? In the same general area on the western Peninsula, in the last 35 years, the breeding population of adélies has declined by roughly 80 per cent. This can be attributed, both directly and indirectly, to climate change - the dramatic reduction in pack ice, the decline of the krill as well as the increased snowfall (as a result of the warming air over the Peninsula) that leads to melt-water that, in turn, chills the eggs and drowns the chicks. Whole colonies have literally been wiped out leaving what are called ‘ghost rookeries.’
And finally, what about those ‘hundreds of crab-eaters’ that Shackleton saw on this day in 1915. Crab-eaters don’t actually eat crab, they eat krill. And how many crab-eaters have we seen in the past 10 days? I have counted precisely three.
They say the Antarctic Peninsula is the canary in the coal mine for climate change, global warming and ocean acidification because everything down here is in such a delicate state of balance. Temperature changes have already risen by almost two degrees and the acidification of the sea has been relentless in its climb (because the oceans exchange gases with the atmosphere in such a way that all the pollutants we put up there eventually end up in the sea). And let’s not forget the reason we are down here - the collapse of the Larsen ice shelf which began almost twenty-five years ago and culminated two years ago with the calving of an iceberg four times the size of London.
See what I mean? It is scary stuff. And this is why the science that we are doing down here is so vital.
* * * * * * * *
0600 hrs. The whole ship was jarred when it had a go at a large ice floe that was more resilient then it looked. The ship then backed off and found a way around it, but by then everybody was awake. Some of the scientific kit registered malfunctions because of the bump. ‘Electonics don’t like that stuff’, summarised Ray at breakfast.
All day we were amongst the big flat-top tabular bergs that have calved from the ice shelves. At one point I counted 48.
We also spotted our first leopard seal.
By mid-evening we were off Cape Framnes. This was named by the Norwegian whaler/explorer Carl Anton Larsen who, in 1893, was the first down this way in his ship Jason, which was built at Framnes in Sandefjord where, some years later, the Endurance would also be constructed. It was Larsen who, in 1904, founded Grytviken, the first whaling station at South Georgia.
We should reach the Larsen C ice shelf (named after Carl Anton) during the early hours of tomorrow morning.
Weather fair. Noon position: 65⁰ 20.1 S, 059⁰ 28.0 W.
* A famous quote from The Count of Montecristo.
Day 11: 11 January 2019
I have never seen the swallows return to Capistrano nor have I been to Connecticut in the fall. I have never witnessed the Northern Lights, nor have I seen Paris in the spring. But last night I reached out with one arm, extended my forefinger and touched the Larsen C ice shelf - and there cannot be many in this old world who can claim that.
It was 02.30 in the morning, the sun was red-rimmed and low in the sky but still shining. The ship was asleep, it was just me and a member of the crew at the very bow. On the bridge the Captain was trying to find open water beside the shelf so we could test the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) under the ice. To maximise the clear water off the stern, we nosed right up against it so that our bow was actually touching the barrier. Soon, however, the loose floes brought in on the wind began gathering about us, and we backed off in search of somewhere more sheltered. As we drew away I noticed a small red smudge on the ice wall; we had accidentally left a little of our paint behind, it will be gone in a few hours but, in the meantime, it is just enough to say we were here.
The ice conditions have been kind to us. I was off the tip of the Peninsula back in 2010 when the American ice breaker, the Nathanial B. Palmer (named after the famous New England seal-hunter who was down in the Antarctic during the first half of the 19th century), with a full complement of scientists, tried to get through to the Larsen C ice shelf, but they could not penetrate the ice and had to give up. Just last season the British Antarctic Survey icebreaker, the RRS James Clark Ross (named after the British explorer who was in the Ross and Weddell seas during the early 1840s), attempted to break through to the Larsen C and giant iceberg A-68, but were thwarted by 4-5 meters of ice and were obliged to turn back. Even if we do not find the Endurance we have already done well.
And so we have actually arrived. It has taken 10 days, fifteen hours and twenty minutes but we are exactly where we want to be, between the Larsen C ice shelf and A-68, the massive berg weighing one trillion tons that calved from it. Equipment trials begin later today. We are so keen to get started it almost hurts .
* * * * * * *
I love a grand gesture. Who can ever forget Marshall Kane throwing his tin badge into the dust in High Noon. Or Top Gun when Maverick tosses Goose’s dog-tags into the sea. But the absolute best has to be Shackleton casting his gold on to the snow and challenging everybody else to do likewise.
For their intended journey across the ice after abandoning the Endurance, they were obliged to ditch all unnecessary weight. Orde Lees described the exercise thus:
‘Our leader proceeded to set an example by deliberately throwing away all he possessed – away went his watch, about 50 golden sovereigns … books and a dozen other things, whereupon we all did likewise until there was a heap of private property probably of some hundreds of pounds value, lying about all over the floe.’
Shackleton called it ‘The fateful day’ - the 27th October 1915 - the day they abandoned ship. That evening he wrote: ‘The end of the Endurance has come … [she] is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are all alive and well … the task is to reach land.’ But what land? Where were they headed?
During the last 24 hours I have not been able to stop thinking about Shackleton’s intentions because yesterday we passed Robertson and Snow Hill Islands, and the day before Paulet Island. Many months ago, I and my colleague Toby Benham of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge had a gentlemanly difference of opinion over where Shackleton was heading after they had abandoned ship. Toby said Robertson Island; I said Paulet or Snow Hill Island. I argued that Shackleton had never mentioned Robertson in his book South, only Paulet with a sideways reference to Snow Hill. However, since then I have done much more reading of the diaries and can now see that we were both correct. Despite what Shackleton later wrote, there can be no doubt that, on the ‘fateful day’, he had been thinking of Robertson as much as Paulet.
On 27th October, the day they left the Endurance, one diarist wrote: ‘By 8.20 pm everything necessary for our proposed sledging journey to either Robertson Island, Sugar Hill [i.e. Snow Hill] or Paulet was out on the floe …’ Let’s now move ahead three days to the 30th October. On this day, five minutes after shooting ‘Chippy’ McNish’s cat, Mrs Chippy, they set off for the Antarctic Peninsula. At this moment Shackleton was still thinking of Robertson Island because, in another diary for this day, we find the following:
‘We are going to steer for Robertson Island. We have started the great journey … The pioneer sledge (Boss, Hudson, Hussey and Self) got away about 1.15 pm, the Boss shouting out “Now we start to Robertson Island, boys” (to which all hands raised a cheer).’
In his book South Shackleton only mentions Paulet, which was at a distance of 346 miles, and was the nearest point where there was any possibility of food and shelter. A stone hut had been built there by Otto Nordenskjold’s 1902 Swedish expedition which had lost its
ship, Antarctica (captained by Carl Anton Larsen and built by Johan Chr. Jakobsen who also made the Endurance), off Paulet Island. Shackleton knew that the hut was full of supplies because he had bought them himself in London when he had been asked to equip a relief expedition. In fact, the whole team knew what had happened to the Swedish party because, one of the books carried by them on to the ice, and which, interestingly, was taken on the boat journey all the way to Elephant Island, was Nordenskjold’s narrative of his adventures which he called Antarctica (indeed, it is also one of the two books which I brought with me for reading on the current expedition).
So why didn’t Shackleton mention Robertson Island in his book South? The answer must be because Robertson was clearly a bad idea and, as the foremost British explorer of his day, a role he much cultivated, he did not want that on his record. Even Shackleton was fallible.
* * * * * * * *
Many floes and large tabular bergs all around us. Finding clear water to test equipment not as easy as we thought. ROV in the water for trials at 0930 hrs. There was a tense moment when the umbilical came into contact with a flow and was carried under the stern. Fortunately no damage. The floes are being carried along on a 1.4 knot current and they are sometimes having to be pushed away using the ship’s FRC (Fast Response Craft).
Calm sea, temperatures -3 to -4 C. Noon position 66⁰ 21.2 S, 060⁰ 17.9 W
Day 12: 12 January 2019
[caption id="attachment_808" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Photo taken by Julien Trincali[/caption]
Doubts have been expressed by some on the ship as to whether volume 1 of Macklin’s diary will, because of its perishable nature, have survived within the wreck of the Endurance (see Blog 8).
I grant you that it will have suffered some deterioration and will be distinctly mushy, but I am absolutely confident that, if the wreck is still in semi-intact condition, then the diary will still be there and in large part legible.
Water, you see, is surprisingly a great preservative. Even better if temperatures, light and oxygen are all low. I could go on, but I want to tell you a story. Something that happened to me just last year. Something that will put a lid on the matter.
We were conducting an ROV survey at a depth of almost 6000 m. That is deep, extremely deep, far deeper even than the Titanic. Suddenly, there on the mud in front of us lay a wooden case. It was a classic sealed-box mystery and everybody was possessed by the urge to know what was inside. It was just so Pandoran. We consulted on what to do, and in the end we decided to raise it for interrogation and recording and then afterwards return it to the seabed, a common procedure in maritime archaeology when, because of cost, conservation or storage (often all three), you simply cannot recover everything and expect a museum to look after it all. In short, from a depth of over fifteen Empire State Buildings, we brought it up.
In my time I have recovered Greek painted pottery, statuettes of mythological animals, Ming porcelain, figurines of people, thousands of coins, great guns and weaponry of all kinds, rare pottery from South East Asia, even slabs of gold; collections of artefacts that today grace the shelves of over a dozen museums around the world, but nothing I have found prepared me for, or gave me a greater thrill, than what was in that box.
There are moments when I just know God loves archaeologists, and this was one of them. I had been expecting nails, but what we had found was a box of books – and first editions all.
Nothing beats the joy of connecting with the past. You find something, a trapdoor opens and suddenly, like Alice down the rabbit hole, you are hurtling into another world, connecting with people and places and great, dripping, slices of history.
Those books, all printed during the same two-year period within the first half of the 19th century, were easily identifiable. All I had to do was enter into my computer several key-words from any
page and, instantly, I had everything I needed to know. Authors, titles, texts and story lines, it was all there, and, in my head they took me everywhere. One was a travelogue of France, another was an early post-colonial history of the River Plate and, my favourite, a memoir of battles fought on the North West Frontier. There were even novels, one of which one was illustrated by George Cruickshank best known for his work with Charles Dickens. Other titles included The Ward of Thorpe-Combe by Mrs Trollope, (mother of Anthony Trollope); Ten-Thousand a Year by Samuel Warren; The Recreations of Christopher North by John Wilson; and Cecil, a Peer, or the Adventures of a Coxcomb, a best-seller by ‘the wittiest women of her age’, the silver-folk writer Catherine Gore.
But I digress. My point is that that these books, which were all still legible, had been on the seabed for much longer than Macklin’s diary. Furthermore, they were on the bottom of a warm water ocean; the Endurance, by contrast, which is 3000 m below the ice, is in the freezer. All the foregoing, however, raises an important issue to which I will return tomorrow – that of the state of preservation of Shackleton’s legendary ship.
* * * * * * * *
At 20.01 hrs our bow touched A-68 for the first time. Are we the first ship to be here? Was this an historic moment? We think so, but we are not certain.
It was a difficult 24 hrs that left everybody exhausted. As we have seen, we started the day right up against the Larsen C ice shelf where we were hoping to conduct equipment trials, but because of unfavourable currents and a persistent NE wind that pushed the floes towards the shelf, the sea was too congested for subsea ops. We moved south along the shelf towards an area that, from the ice radar, looked to be more sheltered, but were again thwarted so we transited the approx. 25 mile gap to iceberg A-68, pausing about a mile from it to conduct CTD and bongo-net work. After which we closed on A-68 where we spent the evening trying to find a clear space to deploy the ROV for trials which are intended to test its under-ice reach and navigational flexibility, as well as its ability to perform a rescue of the AUV if necessary. All evening we struggle with the floes; we tried driving them away with prop-wash and pushing them to one side using the FRC boat, but nothing worked and, after midnight, we drew off from A-68 and headed out to find a clear spot away from the berg in which to conduct CTD and coring work.
Although we will be conducting science until the 24th I am now monitoring conditions over the Endurance wreck area with our ice skipper. Unfortunately there is still dense coverage over the site. The weather so far has been too kind to us. Basically, we need something to happen, ideally something that will give it a good shake. We must be the only ship in the world that is hoping for a thumping good storm.
Position against Larsen C ice shelf: 66⁰ 23.1 S, 060⁰ 23.3 W. Position against A-68: 66⁰ 36.3 S, 059⁰ 37.6 W