Antarctic Life

A frozen outlook on life on the ice

The Endurance Centenary

Off the coast of Southern Africa 29.9368°S, 12.5000°E

Temperature: +20°C

Today marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance sank. It marked the end of an arduous struggle between the wooden ship and the brutal crushing power of the ice that surrounded it.

Commemorating the centenary onboard the RRS Ernest ShackletonCommemorating the centenary with the Shackleton family plaque and the RRS Ernest Shackleton plaque

There are many similarities between my journey and the one Shackleton made over a century ago, for a start the destinations are the same (within a few hundred miles), Vahsel Bay and Halley, both off the Weddell Sea. Both also began in Plymouth, although I was to journey to Immingham to join the ship. The night before I left Plymouth I enjoyed a lovely meal with my girlfriend and parents at the Duke of Cornwall hotel. As we were leaving I noticed a plaque on the wall noting that Sir Ernest Shackleton had also stayed and dined there the night prior to his departure to the Antarctic - a rather spooky and unplanned coincidence!

The Endurance trapped in icePhotographed by the legendary Antarctic photographer Frank Hurley

On the 21st November 1915, after many attempts at freeing the ship, the endurance began to sink and calls were made to abandon. The would mark the next phase of arguably the greatest rescue ever pulled off. Sadly this meant the crew having to leave many supplies behind, including Frank Hurley, the expedition photographer, having to destroy most of his glass negatives documenting their journey thus far - only able to take 120 of the 400 he had taken.

Starting from today until the 28th February the Royal Geographic Society in London are holding an exhibition of Frank Hurley's photographs entitled "Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley".

The journey from the ice to Elephant island took them a gruelling 7 days dragging 3 lifeboats with them. From Elephant island, Shackleton and 4 other men left the remaining men behind to what must have seemed like certain death for both groups of men. Shackleton's group left in a small lifeboat the James Caird, named after one of the wealthy financers of the expedition, to journey across the treacherous Southern Ocean to South Georgia, a journey of 779 miles. This can be an unpleasant experience in any ship, but to make this journey in a small craft with only basic navigation kit and hit land was a miracle to say the least - one small miscalculation and the strong ocean currents would have blown them thousands of miles off course to the middle of the Atlantic, and certain death.

Having successfully cheated death and made it to South Georgia, Shackleton and his men still needed to cross uncharted mountain ranges to reach the other side of the island, to Stromness, a whaling outpost where he could muster help and save his men. After many attempts, Shackleton was finally able to rescue his men on August 30th 1916, nearly 9 months since leaving the safety of the Endurance. This clearly left its mark on all the men. Alexander Macklin, the ship's surgeon would tell his children whenever they complained that they were cold that they "don't know the true meaning of the word". Despite the odds against them, all aboard the ship were returned alive, including the stowaway. Most of the men never even recieved their pay for their ordeal but were amongst the first to sign up for Shackleton's next and last expedition.

During my interview for the job I was asked who I admired more, Shackleton or Scott. I had to think for a while, and whilst it is very difficult to compare the acheivements of these two great men, for me, the outstanding leadership and miraculous rescue led me to choose Shackleton despite having never achieved his ultimate goals.

I will leave this post with this final image, depicting that not much has changed in 100 years - everyone on ship has a job to perform outwith their usual duties, here one can see the geologist, 3rd officer and doctor scrubbing floors, something I do every Monday morning.

Scrubbing outFrom left to right, Wordie the geologist, Cheetham 3rd mate and Macklin ship's surgeon scrubbing the floor. Image by Frank Hurley