A land of savage grandeur
that measures each man at his Worth.
Every day, at 10:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., the bell of Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery
rings true in Cambridge, England, roughly 7,500 nautical miles from the scene of his
Antarctic explorations just shy of a century ago. Here in fairer climes, the bell calls
to tea wanderers who have gravitated to Scott Polar Research Institute. Oceanographers,
glaciologists, and polar historians—the learned and armchair variety alike—drift
down to the institute's museum, which is filled with treasures of the Heroic Age of polar
exploration. But on a warm July day last summer, I was captivated by treasures in the
inner sanctum of the archives: neat scrapbooks of photographs taken by Frank
Hurley during the Endurance expedition.
Frank Hurley shoots the Endurance frozen into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea.
In the archives, timeless black-and-white tableaux document the majesty of the
Antarctic and the tragedy of Endurance with crystalline elegance. Then
there is an abrupt shift, to intimate photographs etched in uneasy grays. There is
a new urgency in these grainy images, a glimpse of desperation alien to the
composure of the earlier ones. These are the pictures I have come to see,
the spare record of Shackleton's men on Elephant Island.
Now, four months later, I am aboard the Akademik Shuleykin, off the
coast of the forbidding island where Shackleton's men sought refuge. The site of
their camp, called Cape Wild in tribute to second-in-command Frank Wild,
is true to its name. Mist shrouds its stony, wind-blasted ramparts. We made landfall
here a week ago, a rare event we're told, but a gale rebuffed us after the first day.
Returning for additional filming, we find the island's storm-tossed waters still
impassable by small boats.
On board ship, with howling gale-force winds outside, cinematographers Reed
Smoot and Sandi
Hurley's images and the cameras that made them. Before us is the same model of camera
that Hurley used to take the Cape Wild photos. Smoot is the director of photography
for the large-format film about
Shackleton that the NOVA/White Mountain Films team is shooting for release in
2001 and a longtime collector of vintage cameras. Sissel is Director of
Photography of the television documentary,
which will air on the PBS series NOVA in 2001.
Landings on Elephant Island are extremely rare due to its extreme weather conditions and rocky shore.
"Hurley was a brilliant artist, with a very clear, focused vision. I think in a
way it may have been a refuge for him in the incredible trials they went through,"
says Smoot. "But I can't imagine what it was like for him to be making these images.
The conditions may be difficult down here, but I know the Shuleykin is always
here as a refuge for us."
Sissel was able to shoot during the one-day landing on Cape Wild last week.
"It was shocking to recognize the same rocks and cliffs in Hurley's photos.
It was a small and violent place."
It is a tribute to Hurley's genius, derring-do and tenacity that the images exist.
Greenstreet called him
"a warrior with his camera [who] would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture,"
which included hefting a plate camera and 40 pounds of gear to the top of Mount
Duse on South Georgia, balancing with his cinematograph high in the rigging of Endurance,
and diving into the sinking ship to retrieve his precious negatives. He made night shots of
the ship by venturing onto the pack in the dark, lighting over a dozen magnesium flares,
and shooting long exposures. With Shackleton's help, Hurley made the agonizing choice to
keep only 120 of the 400 images, smashing the discards to prevent him from second
thoughts. He carefully guarded the photographs during their tumultuous sea journey and
days on Elephant Island. Hurley photographed the balance of their saga with his
Kodak Model 3A folding pocket camera. His judiciousness in capturing the story with
only three rolls of film is astonishing.
Large-format cinematographer Reed Smoot films on location in Antarctica.
Reed adds, "He didn't know the end of the story when it was happening. Somehow, in the
four months he was on Elephant Island, he self-edited his work to conserve film and just
capture the most telling images."
Shackleton hired Hurley to document the expedition, primarily for fundraising purposes.
Shackleton was in the vanguard of the new era of explorers funding their work with
publishing and film revenues, beginning with his 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition.
"Hurley knew what his role was—to create heroic images of the expedition," says
Sissel. "He was not a photojournalist attempting to strictly record reality. Within
this role, though, he had real vision. He was an artist."
Documentary cinematographer Sandi Sissel is harnessed to a camera mount on the deck of the James Caird while filming in Cumberland Bay.
For Smoot and Sissel, as for Hurley, the technical hurdles to realizing their vision
are considerable. Both crews undertook extensive technical preparations for the polar
environment, including cold-chamber testing of all equipment in Canada. On location,
splash bags or scuba housings keep out seawater and mist, compressed air blowers remove
spray from lenses, and heaters fend off extreme cold. Sissel rigged a straw on her
viewfinder to siphon condensation, since the heat of her face frequently fogs it. Both
directors of photography use a cold soak room—a storage area for the cameras to help
control the condensation that would result from moving the cameras from freezing
temperatures into the warm ship, an innovation Hurley fashioned for himself on the
Endurance. Gyroscopic mounts help stabilize the film image in wild seas.
These adaptations help—when conditions are right.
"The logistics are much more complex than we expected," says Smoot. "We have a very
narrow window when the weather is severe enough to tell the story, but not yet too
dangerous to film."
Sissel agrees, citing the added difficulty of conveying severe weather. "To tell
this story, I want to shoot when the weather is at its worst. But the problem is
you can't see cold or wind. The landscape just looks romantic. I have to choose
images carefully to show it."
Filming for the Shackleton projects features both documentary shooting and dramatic recreations of scenes from the story, including this soccer match on an ice floe in the Weddell Sea.
In addition to these difficulties, mounting dramatic recreations for both films
adds another layer of complexity. Production designer
Roger Crandall and costume designer
Cathren Warner designed sets, props, and costumes designed to film scenes of
Shackleton's ice floe camps, activities on the pack ice, and sailing of the small boats. Bob
Fletcher, and Stuart
Hoagland skippered seaworthy, historically accurate replica boats specially
built for the expedition. David
Rootes of Poles Apart coordinated safe
movement of more than 20 players in polar locations.
Smoot and Sissel both describe Hurley as a genius. "He had an extraordinary vision.
He was a young man, in his twenties, and this was his second big job," emphasizes Sissel.
"Self-motivated, he was his own director, and he shot both stills and motion pictures.
He did incredibly ambitious things. When they were desperate and miserable on Elephant
Island, for instance, he was scaling the cliffs to compose the perfect image."
Smoot sees Hurley as a storyteller. "We're working in a great location with epic events,
and Hurley's beautiful documentation tells the story."
Now, at 00:30 hours Greenwich mean time, the wind, which has been blowing consistently
at 40 knots throughout the day, has accelerated, with a 61-knot gale. The Shuleykin
is now dragging anchor, and the captain has decided to move to the south side of the island.
We are hopeful for tomorrow.
Answer to November 15 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?
Shackleton had a choice: remain on the sea ice floe or set out by foot in some
direction in hopes of reaching land from which they could be rescued. As he knew the
Antarctic Peninsula was to his west and that no land lay to his east, he might have
thought of hiking westward. Trekking over sea ice, with its pressure ridges and open
leads, would be dangerous and draining of the group's resources. In addition, as
sea ice would be expected to be present all year along the coast of the Antarctic
Peninsula, rescue by ship, even if anyone knew where they were, was unlikely.
Staying with the ice floe would have been easier, but how would that have helped
the rescue effort? Shackleton couldn't have been sure; however, by the time the Endurance
broke apart and sank under the sea-ice pressure, Shackleton knew that they were drifting
northward. From their drift and strong winds out of the south, he could be fairly safe in
assuming that the northward drift would continue. He would conclude that eventually the
ice floe might make it to the northern fringes of the sea ice, from which point they
could use the Endurance's small boats, the James Caird, the Dudley Docker,
and the Stancomb Wills, to sail to the islands that were known to exist
off the north coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. These islands were much more
accessible by boat, and whalers frequented the region. If the sea ice broke
apart before easy access to the ocean was possible, they might have climbed to
the top of one of the tabular icebergs, though it would be most difficult to scale
the nearly vertical walls of ice. What if the sea ice drift turned eastward? They
might have found themselves drifting in their small boats in the middle of a vast
ocean, far from land.
Staying with the ice floe was risky but the best option available, and it
In 1992, 77 years after the Endurance drift, I led a project involving the
first intentional scientific Southern Ocean ice drift station. It was named
Ice Station Weddell (ISW) and was situated in the western Weddell Sea. ISW, a
joint effort of the United States and Russia, followed closely along the track of
the Endurance. Twenty-three people occupied an ice floe of approximately
50,000 square feet, consisting of a mixture of ice types, ranging from about
28-inch-thick ice on two refrozen leads, to over six and a half feet of
ice that is believed to have formed from rafting events. The snow cover was
between eight and 28 inches deep. The ISW drift started on February 11, 1992
at 71°7'S, 51°6'W, ending on June 9, 1992 at 65°63'S, 52°41'W.
Two icebreaker research vessels, the R/V Akademik Federov of Russia
and the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer of the U.S., carried out deployment
and recovery. The total drift was 465 nautical miles at a mean speed of 4.1 miles per day.
ISW gathered an impressive array of data from the ice floe and from helicopters
that carried the scientists dozens of miles to the east and west of the ice
floe, in this largely unexplored corner of the Southern Ocean, the western
edge of the Weddell Sea. In reference to Shackleton, we found that west of
the Endurance drift, over the continental slope of the Antarctic
Peninsula, strong shear produced a rough sea ice surface, with many upturned
ice floes. Passage through this region would have been very difficult for
Shackleton and his team. Also, at the site where Endurance was
crushed (on October 7, 1915 at 69°W, 51°W), the ISW ice floe experienced
great pressure from the sides, losing a large flat part of the ice floe that
was used for aircraft landing. After that point, the ISW's only contact was by icebreakers.
—Arnold L. Gordon is a professor of oceanography at Columbia University and on the research staff at the university's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. His research deals with the Southern Ocean's role in governing the Earth's climate.