Day 28: 28 January 2019

It has been a slow day; down even to four knots at one point as we were dodging our way along in dense fog through what the Mate (Jacques Walters) called ‘some bloody Bergy stuff’.  Everybody,  however, is in a buoyant mood because, after a month at sea, we are at last on our way to what one of Shackleton’s diarists called ‘this forsaken spot’ to begin the search. 

In seventeenth century Italian Comendia dell’Arte there was a stock character called Puncinello whose only purpose was to appear from out of the wings, create chaos and then get off the stage.  I thought of him today when I was looking at recent satellite imagery of our search area with the Ice Skipper, Freddie Ligthelm.  He, and indeed all of us, are much concerned by the thick, ten-tenths ice coverage that is smothering the site.  As it is at present, even if we can bludgeon our way through to the Endurance box, we will not be able to launch and recover our AUV or even put our acoustic positioning system into the water below our keel.  ‘What we need’, said Freddie,’ is some stiff weather that will get in there, create havoc and then be gone’ – it was then that I thought of Puncinello.

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Many of the team who have been around long enough to have a bit of a hinterland have been giving after-dinner talks about their work.  This has all been arranged by Holly Ewart who has, in effect, become our Entertainments Officer, a position held by Shackleton on Scott’s Discovery Expedition.  This evening it was my turn. 

I have always wanted to be introduced as somebody who needed no introduction, and I thought tonight might have been the night, but it didn’t happen, so I introduced myself and then for 20 minutes I talked about some of my previous excavations.  It was all soft-focus stuff meant as no more than a bit of patter before we got to the real meat of the evening, which was a screening of Frank Hurley’s film ‘South’ which I had brought with me from Oxford.   Anybody who is genuinely interested in the Shackleton saga has to see this gem of a film as it takes you right into the Weddell Sea and allows you to feel the cold and smell the ice.  It was this film and the photographs that cemented Shackleton’s reputation for all time, and indeed Hurley’s as the premier adventure-photographer of his era.  Just as both had hoped.

Hurley’s moment came when Douglas Mawson invited him to be the official ‘camera artist’ for his 1911-14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition.  When Shackleton, who understood the importance of the image, saw the work that Hurley had undertaken for Mawson, he knew that he had to have the 29-year-old Aussie with him to immortalize his own grand undertaking.  So he sent him a telegram inviting him to join the team.  Hurley was filming in the Northern Australian outback at the time and the message was eventually brought to him by a tracker from the local police station.  Hurley later wrote:

  ‘A cable arrived from London.  I opened it.  It was from Sir Ernest Shackleton … offering me the post of official photographer to his Antarctic expedition.  I jumped and shouted for joy … I had not the slightest idea what Shackleton’s offer might involve or whither he was bound.  The great explorer had long been my hero, and I was game to join him in anything that smacked of high adventure. The cable intimated that I should join the expedition in Buenos Aires in five weeks’ time.  That meant a race to Sydney of 1500 miles, over bad roads, and a ship voyage half way around the world.  Could I make it in time?  I sent a cable saying I was on the way.’     

Hurley, however, became much more than just the team photographer, soon he was the one everybody was turning to for anything technical.  When Orde Lees’ engines broke down it was Hurley who fixed them, when the scientific instrumentation failed it was Hurley who undertook their repair, and it was he who installed basic lighting and devised systems to exploit the escaping heat from the stoves.  Shackleton called him ‘Hurley, our handy man’, Wordie described him as ‘the ingenious Hurley’, Hussey referred to him as ‘that jack-of-all-trades Hurley.’ 

Hurley made little mention of these contributions in his own diary, but the others did.  Wordie wrote, Hurley ‘installed a new ice melter … result, plenty of hot water for washing and having a hot bath.’  Chippy McNish wrote: ‘Hurley is fitting up a small generator to light up the anemometer screen.’  Shackleton described how Hurley 

‘installed our electric-lighting plant and placed lights in the observatory … and rigged up two powerful lights on poles projecting from the ship to port and starboard.  These lamps would illuminate the ‘dogloos’ brilliantly on the darkest winter’s day and would be invaluable … [if we had] to get fifty dogs aboard while the floe was breaking and rafting under our feet’.

Hurley was what is euphemistically called a strong character and, as might be expected, he did not get on with everybody.  Hurley and Orde Lees, for instance,  did not always warble in the same key.  It may have had to do with Hurley’s appetite for practical jokes, of which Orde Lees was often the victim.  For instance, in Hurley’s diary we find:

‘Hussey and myself night watch again.  During the small hours, we endeavoured to cure Lees of his habitual snoring.  Asleep on his back, with his mouth wide open, the gap seemed to invite a joke … [so] I dropped in several fish.  The sardines disappeared, but the snoring increased and the mouth opened wider … [so] I emptied a handful of lentils into the cavern with satisfactory results.’

Some months later Orde Lees recorded how, following a disagreement, Hurley ‘turned on me and characterized me as a ‘ **** of the first order’.  It was Orde Lees, however, who wrote the most balanced description of Hurley: 

‘Hurley is an interesting character.  He is Australian – very Australian … As a photographer he excels and I doubt if his work could be equalled, even by Ponting, but it is not only as a photographer but as a general handy man that he has proved his efficiency.  Having started life in some engineering firm, he is an extraordinarily able mechanic … [and he was also] at one time an electrician in the Sydney Post Office.  He is certainly one of our hardest workers and the more difficult the job the more he seems to revel in it.  Unfortunately he is rather too free with his tongue to be an ideal companion, and a little inclined to let his prejudices run riot, but apart from this he is quite a good chap … Occasionally he gets on one’s nerves.’

But, of course, it is by the quality of his work that Hurley is now judged, and there was no length to which he would not go in order to capture the most expressive mood or most dramatic moment.  There is the famous  photo of him with his tripod camera right out on the extreme end of one of the vessel’s uppermost yards, and then there was the mountain he climbed at South Georgia with all his kit in order to obtain a panoramic view of Grytviken.  Macklin described in his diary how he even rigged a platform below the bowsprit to obtain close-ups with his camera and ‘cinematograph machine’ of the ship’s cutwater slicing through the ice, which became one of the more famous sequences in the motion picture.

What is generally not known is that Hurley came very close to losing all his moving footage and many of the stills when, in November 1915, the ship slumped in the ice and his studio and storage area became submerged.  On the 2 November he recorded in his diary how he managed to save most of his work:

‘During the day, I hacked through the thick walls of the refrigerator to retrieve the negatives stored therein.  They were located beneath four feet of mushy ice and, by stripping to the waist and diving under, I hauled them out.  Fortunately, they are soldered up in double tin linings, so I am hopeful they may not have suffered by their submission.’

And finally of course there is the well-known moment when, because of their bulk and weight, Hurley and Shackleton had to discard most of the photographic plates.  On 9th November, 1915, Hurley wrote:  ‘… I spent the day with Sir Ernest, selecting the finest of my negatives from the year’s collection.  120 I resoldered up and dumped about 400 …’.  Hopefully, some of the rejects are still on the site and may one day be saved for, as one of the diarists put it, just ‘a glance at Hurley’s really excellent photos conveys more than pages of writing.’

Noon position:  63  57.1 S,  51  38.6 W