Note: This is the first in a series of 25 dispatches sent from the field
during two NOVA filming expeditions to the Antarctic region. The journeys
were made to acquire footage for two NOVA films on the 1914-16 Endurance
expedition, one for public television and one for IMAX theaters. The first
expedition, which took place in October-November 1999, traveled to South
Georgia, Elephant Island, and other locations that Shackleton and his men
visited. The second expedition, which occurred in April 2000, filmed three
leading climbers trying to retrace the route that Shackleton and two of his
men took across South Georgia in 1916. Links to all the dispatches are
available at the bottom of this page.
October 19, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
Location: Montevideo, Uruguay
Wind: 7 knots, SW
Latitude: 34 degrees 64' S
Air Temp: 70°F
Longitude: 56 degrees 12' W
Water Temp: 69°F
As I prepare myself to face the elements of Antarctica—our ship, the
Akademik Shuleykin, leaves this port city for South Georgia tomorrow—I have cause to remember an unsettling experience I had a fortnight ago,
an experience that could just save my life. Here's how I wrote it up at the time:
For a few moments, I have no idea where I am.
I know I am underwater, sinuses filled with water, firmly strapped inside an
aluminum contraption, but up, down, left, and right are indiscernible. A
surge of rising panic is overcome by ritual: Slam window out with fists,
feel for belt buckle and release, grope for window frame, give two hard
strokes and a flutter to clear away any spilled or burning jet fuel, surface for air.
"Never seen that before!" drawls Wykoff McMillan, one of two marine survival
experts from Lafayette, Louisiana who are training us. "Back in Louisiana
we'd call that crawdad style! You flipped before you even got out of
the cockpit. But it works!"
Now I know where I am—in a chilly, Olympic-sized pool in Salt Lake
City. I've just escaped—for the second time—from a
helicopter cockpit frame, flipped underwater to test survival
skills in an inverted craft, downed in the ocean. My disorientation
was so intense that I was instinctively compelled to right myself
before swimming out of the cockpit, contrary to the usual drill.
And I can't even remember how it happened.
The regular clientele of the Marine Survival Training Center are oil-
industry workers, stationed on rigs far out in the Gulf and the North Sea.
Beyond immediate rescue, rig workers are prepared to fend for themselves
during calamities of every kind: helicopters ditched in frigid waters,
burning drilling platforms, and sinking ships, to name just a few.
Their motto, "Jump and try, or stay and fry," is an acerbic creed of self-sufficiency.
Our NOVA film crew hopes not to wind up in the same boat, so to speak,
but we have to be prepared, because in two short weeks we're bound
for the Antarctic to follow in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914
Endurance expedition. We're partnering with White Mountain Films
to make both a NOVA program and a large-format film about Shackleton's
incredible tale of surviving 20 months in the Antarctic with not a man lost.
Since we'll be filming aerials, the helicopter exercise is essential,
although you can never be fully prepared. "It's a very, very violent
experience," McMillan warns. It's sobering to imagine being upside
down, waiting for the helicopter to fill with water to equalize the
pressure before breaking the window out. The drill at least gives
you some rehearsed action to reach for through the paralyzing shock.
And the paralyzing onslaught of the icy water.
Frigid water survival skills are key to the training of our
35-strong crew. At a temperature of 40°F, life expectancy
is about one hour. With survival techniques, that can be
stretched out to as long as three. Considering we're sailing
into near-freezing waters, we'll need all the time we can get. The natural
human response to immersion in cold water could end life in mere minutes,
as our Antarctic coordinator, David Rootes, can attest.
"When you hit cold water, you reflexively gasp, sucking in freezing water,
which sends your upper windpipe into spasm, preventing water, and air, from
getting in," he says. "It's awful." Rootes knows firsthand. During his 25
years in the Antarctic, as a scientist and polar filming consultant, he's had
his share of thin ice give way.
Hence cardinal rule number one when about to ditch in the ocean: cover the face
and mouth with one hand. Then cross the other arm over to brace on the opposite
shoulder, look out and down for floating debris before jumping off the doomed craft. Or in my
case right now, a 16-foot diving platform into the water. Some crew members
are looking a bit uneasy about the jump. I'm just so grateful to be done with
my three disorienting dunkings in the helicopter simulation that anything else is a relief.
In addition to inflatable life rafts, these lifeboats aboard
the Akademik Shuleykin are customized for polar conditions.
Which is good, because McMillan isn't done with us yet. We take to
the water again, this time to learn how to deploy life rafts and EPIRB
(Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) radio transmitters. There's no telling how long
we'll be floating in our life jackets first though, so we work on techniques
to preserve warmth as long as possible, like curling the legs and arms into a
fetal position, or huddling together with smaller people in the center.
I notice that the extremely fit climbers in our group are shivering
uncontrollably now. So am I, although I'm better off with my higher female
body fat ratio. It's the first hint presaging hypothermia, as the body cools.
Heat drains rapidly from your extremities, and the shakes set in, making
coordinated movement extremely difficult. Muscle rigidity creeps in; Rootes
recalls a dowsed colleague who swam a few yards to the safety of the floe edge,
and tore muscles and ligaments throughout his body. As your core body temperature
drops five degrees from the normal 98.6°F, confusion and disorientation occur.
Your heart rhythm is affected at about 89.6°F, leading inexorably to
death at about 75°F.
I do a quick calculation: McMillan said if the total of air and water
temperature is below 130°F, the potential for hypothermia is there.
On this brilliantly sunny, 60°F fall day in Salt Lake City, the balmy water
temperature of 73°F brings us to 133°F, and we're trembling after two
hours. A few short weeks from now, in the austral spring of the Weddell Sea,
with an air temperature of 25°F and water hovering just above
freezing, the total is more like 58°F.
Now, as I wait here in Montevideo, I am reminded of the first night the crew
of Endurance spent camped on the ice floe after taking to the boats,
when a lead unexpectedly opened and dropped Ernest Holness
into the freezing black water. When the Endurance sailed from the London docks
85 years ago, bound for the Antarctic, her crew had had no survival
training seminar. For some, it was their first experience of the sea
and subzero temperatures. For all of them, it was the first time they'd
been marooned in a barely charted part of the Antarctic, stranded on treacherous
sea ice for six months. Alone, beyond all hope of rescue, they survived, and saved
themselves. It is a humbling thought as we set out to revisit the scenes of their struggle.