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. 63 17.6’ S; Long. 041 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.