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 66 21.2 S, 060 17.9 W