The Weddell Sea
November 15, 1999
By Kelly Tyler
Location: The Weddell Sea
Wind: 33 knots, NW
Latitude: 64 degrees 03'S
Air Temp: 23°F
Longitude: 56 degrees 01'W
Water Temp: 34°F
Out of whose womb came the ice?
We pursued our southing, searching in vain for the pack ice that for generations
has been the object of dread for polar mariners. The Shuleykin sailed through
Antarctic Sound and Erebus and Terror Gulf, which were bordered by snowy slopes
pierced by the tips of nunataks—mountains buried to their peaks. We skirted
great tabular bergs miles
in length and towering 100 feet above the ship. In the distance, the bergs flashed
a narrow band of pyrite gleam into the leaden sky. Attempting to shelter by one of
these massive ice islands, we instead bore the full fury of its own weather winds
screaming down the berg at 45 knots. With no pack in sight, it was clear that
we must follow Shackleton
into the Weddell Sea.
And the hoary frost of Heaven
who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone.
And the face of the deep is frozen.
—Job, Twenty-third Psalm
The Weddell has proved treacherous for explorers ever since James Weddell reached
his farthest south of 71°30' in 1823. It was an exceptionally good year for his
journey, an anomaly in the history of ice conditions in waters normally choked with
pack as far north as Elephant Island. Prevailing winds drive the frozen sea-ice and
bergs calved from ice sheets in a vicious clockwise vortex, grinding against the arm
of the Peninsula and even filling Erebus and Terror Gulf and Antarctic Sound with ice.
Heading south along the Antarctic Peninsula.
The contours of the coast were largely unknown, but Shackleton well knew the sea's
character: "All the conditions in the Weddell Sea are unfavourable from the
navigator's point of view."
steered the Shuleykin forward with caution. On the horizon a narrow band of
pearlized lightness appeared. It was surely ice-blink light reflecting off massed
pack ice onto a cloud bank above. Reaching a farthest south of 64°16'S 55°55'W
just shy of the Antarctic Circle at 66°30', we heard grinding and booming on the
hull of the ship. The waters ahead were a maze of flat floes of sea ice, brash ice, and
icebergs. It was an unearthly scene wholly unfamiliar and unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Even with an overcast pall over the sun it was dazzlingly bright. Nothing in the scene seemed real.
The captain turned the ship back to safer waters. As a Class One ice-strengthened vessel,
the Shuleykin can handle open pack ice, but only icebreakers dare to penetrate hard pack.
Broken pack ice covers the surface of the Weddell Sea.
For Shackleton the pack appeared all too soon. The whalers had warned him, and true
to their prophecy, the Endurance entered the ice just two days out of South
Georgia. "The noon latitude had been 57°26' and I had not expected to find pack-ice
nearly so far north," he wrote in South. It was the beginning of a long struggle as the
ship fought against the unrelenting pressure. Shackleton ordered the engines run full
speed astern, to no avail. The crew hacked leads through the pack, but the channels
closed. By January 18, the Endurance was beset on all sides. Shackleton called
it a draw. The crew prepared to settle in for the long Antarctic winter.
These days were ruled by routine and a nagging sense of suspended animation.
To pass the time the men engaged in sled-dog races, scientific pursuits, theatrical
shows, and even soccer (football outside the U.S.) on the ice. This last improbable
pursuit is something we have come to recreate. Looking at the miles of broken
tumultuous pack, it seemed an impossible task. Yet in the midst of the chaotic
jumble of ice lay a floe about one mile square, the product of several years'
accretion of sea ice sculpted into a dazzling landscape. Floes this large seem
like islands, but their appearance is deceptive. Our polar guides warily landed
and tested the floe's stability, then ferried the film crew over by zodiac. Our
first steps revealed the artifice; one foot would find purchase, the next would
sink three feet into a hole below the wind-blown snow surface and down to the ice.
Looking behind us, our deep footsteps glowed various shades of blue.
With the coming of austral spring, Shackleton hoped the ship would finally be
released. But instead the pressure increased, and the struggle began afresh.
The ship heeled over with the immense forces pitted against her. To Shackleton,
"the outlook was black indeed, the end of the Endurance
had come." He felt the death throes of the ship as keenly as if she had
been a living thing: "Now straining and groaning, her timbers cracking, and
her wounds gaping, she is slowly giving up her sentient life at the very
outset of her career." With her died Shackleton's dream of a transcontinental
crossing. On November 31, 1915, the Endurance
sank, and he and his men were left at the mercy of the Antarctic. "Without
her our destitution seems more emphasized, our desolation more complete,"
he wrote. Soon to be lost, too, were their faithful dogs and Mrs.
Chippy, the carpenter's cat.
After our polar guides test the ice floe's safety, the film crew prepares for shooting.
For the next four months the men lived on the ice, wondering if they would
ever touch land again. They drifted with the inexorable flow of the Weddell
Sea pack ice swept up the crooked arm of the Peninsula. The drift kept them
capriciously out of reach of Snow Hill Island and Paulet Island until they
were on the brink of the Drake Passage. Their only option would be to launch
the boats in the most treacherous seas on Earth and make for a subantarctic island.
sailed north in the twilight at 1:00 a.m., retreating from the pack. But overnight
the ice blew 25 miles north, creeping up on the ship. The captain was anxious for
safe waters farther north. We launched the James Caird,
the Dudley Docker,
and the Stancomb Wills
in the Weddell Sea. Below us, the sea was 11,550 feet deep. It was freezing, and a
dank chill permeating the air snatched away any warmth secreted in clothing. The men
in the boats hunched over their heavy oars and rowed with all their might. Soon it
began to snow and sleet. Guides circled in zodiacs, working to keep lanes clear in
the labyrinthine pack ice. In moments the Stancomb Wills
became closed in pack; then, like Shackleton's men before them, the rowers poled the
brash ice and pack away.
Team members row the replica boats in the lee of an 80-foot-high tabular iceberg.
As Shackleton's three boats set out, their destination was uncertain. It would be
Clarence Elephant or Deception Island. We "wrapped" our filming in the evening as the
Antarctic sun began to set at 11:30 p.m. A handful of people remained on the bridge for
hours, reluctant to surrender the last fleeting glimpses of this otherworldly place.
For Shackleton's men it was only the beginning of a grueling, eight-day journey.
We are sailing now for Elephant Island to try to land the three boats once again.
Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.
Question of the Day
Your ship has sunk. Your expedition is not expected back from the Antarctic
until 1916. It would take several months after that for a rescue party to be
mounted and many more months for it to arrive in polar regions to begin the
search. Do you make for land or try to live on the ice floes?
Watch our next dispatch for guest commentary from physical oceanographer Dr. Arnold Gordon.
Answer to November 12 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?
You're got more in store than you can imagine. Leopard seals and killer whales
usually prey on seals and penguins, but they've been known to pursue humans as
Thomas Orde-Lees discovered
when a leopard seal chased him across the floes. Check out Danger on the Ice
for a sampling of other hazards of south polar exploration.
Sound of the Day
The grinding of the ship's bow against brash ice:
Get RealPlayer software
View Expedition Maps
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.
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