Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

NOVA Online (click here for NOVA home)
Shackleton
Site Map

Dispatch
Erebus and Terror Gulf
November 12, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Erebus and Terror Gulf Wind: 17 knots, W
Latitude: 63 degrees 44'S Air Temp: 43°F
Longitude: 57 degrees 14'W Water Temp: 36°F
Alone, alone, all all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea.
        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Through the night we sailed south through the Drake Passage, and in the morning we awoke in Antarctic Sound. It was colder still, with a steady snow falling. Off the starboard side of the ship, the Antarctic continent appeared, a chain of black volcanic peaks beneath a lowering sky. It was the snaked arm of the peninsula, curling close to a cluster of islands. Tabular icebergs appear, some as large as two miles long, likely calved from the Larsen, Ronne, or Filchner Ice Shelves. The water is becalmed, a broad rolling obsidian sheet, a welcome respite after our hard crossing.

The Shuleykin and the Laurel rest in Erebus and Terror Gulf, between Vega Island, Eagle Island, and the Peninsula. Here we are filming Iceberg Camp, named for the ships of James Clark Ross. After a long helpless drift in the relentless grip of the Weddell Sea pack ice, the Endurance was finally crushed, and her crew stranded, consigned to the mercy of those treacherous floes without the shelter of the ship. For five long months, they lived adrift, exposed to the elements, sleeping with the ominous sounds of ice stresses and circling killer whales. Drifting with the pack, it was Captain Frank Worsley's hope that they would reach open water and sail the three lifeboats, the James Caird, the Stancomb Wills, and the Dudley Docker, to a subantarctic island for rescue. Finally, their moment came on April 9, when Shackleton gave the order to launch the boats.


Tabular berg with brash ice This tabular berg off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, trailing brash ice, was 2.2 miles long.
After the first day at sea, Shackleton sought out a large, flat floe to camp for the night. He was restive. "Some intangible feeling of uneasiness made me leave my tent about 11 p.m. that night and glance around the quiet camp," he writes in South. "I started to walk across the floe in order to warn the watchman to look carefully for cracks, and as I was passing the men's tent the floe lifted on the crest of a swell and cracked right under my feet." Ernest Holness, in his sleeping bag, dropped in the crack into the dark waters, and Shackleton bodily hauled him out.

Shackleton was more careful the next night, choosing a "berg with an attractively solid appearance, and from our camp we could get a good view of the surrounding sea and ice." Now, in his quest to replicate Iceberg Camp, director George Butler scouted the gulf for a floe suitable for staging a camp scene with Shackleton's men, tents, and the three boats, art directed by Roger Crandall. "Eventually I found a floe with an upward tilt, a little like a stage proscenium. On this we laid out the camp. It was an unlikely but striking scene."

Antarctic Coordinator David Rootes exercised considerably more caution than Shackleton did. "We chose a six-foot-thick pack ice floe, which is frozen seawater. An iceberg is freshwater, and has a tendency to melt unevenly and can flip over. Frozen seawater is denser and more solid, and the floe has a flat bottom. After George chose the location, we tested it for cracks, and found it to be very solid. The people on the floe had flotation vests under their costumes, and during filming we had eight boats, a helicopter, and two ships standing by for support if problems arose."

Boats rowing and camp The James Caird, the Stancomb Wills, and the Dudley Docker arrive at a solid floe for the night of April 10, 1916, dubbed Iceberg Camp.

When the replica of the Stancomb Wills is craned from the Shuleykin into the waters and the costumed rowers board, we are all startled by the scene. After thinking about Shackleton's story for so long, we now see it materialized in this alien place and are acutely conscious of how alone those men were. After all, so are we. For hours, the three boats circle the wide flat gulf and make for the floe. At Iceberg Camp, the ragged men pull the boats onto the floe, light a small stove, and busy themselves with tents. Around them, a camera boat and several zodiac support boats circle, while a helicopter passes overhead. I am stunned by it; this quiet untouched place has never seen the likes of it before. And tonight we go, taking all evidence of this brief occupation with us. On a floe adjacent to Iceberg Camp, a single Adelie penguin spends hours gazing on the spectacle.


Adelie An Adelie penguin gazes on the spectacle unfolding in Erebus and Terror Gulf.
We have lost all sense of time now, and often ask each other: What day is this? Morning dawns sometime after 3:00 a.m., and at 11:30 p.m., as we drifted in zodiacs in the sound amongst the brash ice and bergs, the sun was just beginning to sink behind the peaks, its final rays gleaming platinum on the snowed slopes. Slowly, the sun set, until the sky finally became dusky at 1:30 a.m.

The filming schedule reminds us of the date, and the location we haven't yet reached: Pack Ice. In the winter, the pack ice crowds the continent as far north as Elephant Island. In November 1914, Shackleton was alarmed to find it as high as 57 degrees 26', just south of South Georgia. We too threaded a rare lane of icebergs to reach South Georgia, but here at 63 degrees 44', we only find patches of ice along with the bergs. The Laurel helicopter team, Ron Goodman and Cliff Fleming, flew south to scout for the ice, but were turned back by high winds. The Laurel leaves us today to return to Punta Arenas, so we continue south alone. We have set a course for the Weddell Sea, which claimed the Endurance 84 years ago.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.


Question of the Day
You're camped on pack ice. You know polar bears only live in the Arctic, so you figure predators are the least of your problems. Or are they?

    Previous Questions

Answer to November 11 Question of the Day:
A crewman is questioning your decisions. One day, he even refuses to carry out your orders. He is clearly under stress. How do you handle it?

I speak from experience when I say we often underestimate the psychological challenge of such adventures. Clearly Shackleton was keenly aware of how fragile the integrity of his team was in such trying and desperate circumstances. But he was determined to pull through—with all his men—and he was always on guard for signs of flagging morale. Shackleton paid attention to people. He took the time to "touch base" regularly with each individual and acknowledge his role. He developed a good understanding for each member's strengths, demeanor, needs, and weaknesses. He leveraged that knowledge to maintain morale and keep people busy.

Shackleton was a dynamic and persuasive personality. Playing to people's emotions and talents, he was not only able to build commitment and passion around a vision but, through a genuine concern for his men, was able to forge a trust. When McNeish challenged that foundation, Shackleton gambled that the rest remained committed. He acted quickly and decisively to isolate McNeish and to maintain the integrity and focus of the team. In the era of Edwardian England and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, it was not good enough to be in command. One had to be seen to be in command. Would I have made the same decision? I think yes, but with a tendency to move quickly to task I often forget to build the commitment and trust in my team. At the end of it all, I may not have come away with the same support Shackleton had, and my leadership might have been in question.

Finally, I think it is important to remember that McNeish played a pivotal role in the success of the expedition. His temperament and personality need to be considered in the context of what he contributed.
—In 1985-86 Gareth Wood and two British companions became the first people to trek unsupported to the South Pole, a feat Outside magazine described as "One of the ten greatest feats of the decade." (www.garethwood.com)


Sound of the Day
Waves sloshing on the bow of the James Caird:
    RealAudio: 28.8 | ISDN | Get RealPlayer software

View Expedition Maps
Dispatches
Survival Training (October 19)
The James Caird Embarks (October 21, 1999)
The Roaring Forties (October 23, 1999)
Crossing the Convergence (October 24, 1999)
Arriving in South Georgia (October 27, 1999)
Grytviken (October 28, 1999)
Antarctic Kit: Dressing for Survival (October 31, 1999)
Stromness (November 1, 1999)
Kingdom of Blizzards (November 3, 1999)
King Haakon Bay (November 5, 1999)
The James Caird Sets Sail (November 8, 1999)
Glacier Traverse (November 10, 1999)
Elephant Island (November 11, 1999)
Erebus and Terror Gulf (November 12, 1999)
The Weddell Sea (November 15, 1999)
Visions of Endurance (November 18, 1999)
Return to Elephant Island (November 20, 1999)
Lost at Sea (November 21, 1999)
The End of the Quest (November 24, 1999)
Bound for South Georgia (April 7, 2000)
Return to King Haakon (April 10, 2000)
Farewell to Peggotty Camp (April 12, 2000)
Climbing South Georgia (April 13, 2000)
Stromness Revisited (April 15, 2000)
Reflections on Endurance (April 18, 2000)


Photos: (1-4) Kelly Tyler.

NOVA's Expeditions (1999 & 2000) | Shackleton's Expedition (1914)
Surviving Antarctica | Navigating the High Seas | Dispatches
Mail | Resources | Classroom Resources | Site Map | Shackleton Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule | About NOVA
Watch NOVAs online | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Search | To Print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated February 2002

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site

Join Us/E-Mail NOVA Online NOVA Online NOVA Online Site Map PBS Online Site Map Classroom Resources Dispatches Navigate the High Seas Surviving Antarctica NOVA's Expedition Shackleton's Expedition