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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Elephant Island
November 11, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Elephant Island Wind: 13 knots, NNW
Latitude: 61 degrees 01'S Air Temp: 33°F
Longitude: 54 degrees 54'W Water Temp: 36°F
The frost performs its secret ministry
Unhelped by any wind.
        —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
Shackleton and Company were iron men in wooden ships, but, alas, we are made of less stern stuff. Departing South Georgia for Elephant Island, the Shuleykin encountered fierce resistance from the Drake Passage, and few among us were exempt from seasickness. The ship lunged forward onto swells as high as 24 feet, propelling waves and spray as high as the uppermost deck of the ship, some 20 feet above the waterline. Seasickness is an odd and random malady. Some of the most devoted sailors on board are laid low every time, while one novice is unaffected. For myself, pitching bow to stern, even in big swells like these, isn't disturbing, but combine it with a wallowing roll and I'm done for. We are all unified in our exasperation that the adjustment process begins anew each time we raise anchor.

Big wave crash The Drake Passage's enormous seas drench the decks of the Shuleykin.
After leaving South Georgia behind, the ship plowed south, and our passage into the polar seas was evident. The icebergs bounding our path had become massive tabular bergs, some more than a mile long, resembling flat white islands with brilliant hollowed caves. At night, the search beams of the ship became streaked with driving sleet and snow. White-breasted cape petrels, their black wings stamped with snowy blotches, flocked alongside the ship, while humpback whales breached ahead in our path. The wind freshened to 35 knots, stingily snatching heat from our bodies with a wind chill of -18°F and icing the bow with a frozen tracery of spray. These days daylight stretches from sunrise at 4 a.m. to sundown near 10:30 p.m., a thin austere twilight that lingers greyly aboard the ship.

Elephant Island appeared off the ship's bow yesterday, a series of black crags jutting into a lowering sky. It is a forbidding place, with a more sinister majesty than South Georgia. The northernmost of the South Shetland Islands, it was Shackleton's last hope before being swept into the maelstrom of the Drake Passage. After five stark months camped on the open pack ice of the Weddell Sea, Shackleton gave the order to launch the lifeboats on April 9, 1916. The drift of the ice had swept them inexorably past their original targets, first Snow Hill Island, then Paulet Island. Ironically, stores purchased by Shackleton were cached on Paulet 13 years before when he took part in a rescue mission to find the lost polar explorer Carl Larsen.

Zodiac to Elephant Island A zodiac heads to Elephant Island, whose eerie basaltic crags vanish into a lowering cloudbank.
Yesterday, we rocked off shore in zodiacs below Elephant Island's black basalt cliffs, in sight of Shackleton's landing place, buffeted by swirling aquamarine water. The rare scientific or tourist parties who venture there seldom land; our expedition leader Dave German told us it is one of the ten most difficult small-craft landings in the world. There is no safe anchorage here, and the Shuleykin drifted offshore while we went in, dipping into six-foot troughs of clear water and riding up on the wide sea swell. Point Wild is a narrow spit of land, with sea on each side; we made our way around the other side of the point for a new attempt at landing. It was rough. Eddying currents betrayed rocks, and hard waves threatened to sweep the boats in. Finally we landed and stood on the site of Shackleton's camp, exposed on two sides to the raging sea wind and behind to howling katabatic winds rushing down the cliffs. That hostile place was their safe haven. It is impossible to imagine even a wan light of hope burning there in the months after Shackleton left in the James Caird.

Point Wild appeared uncannily as it did in Frank Hurley's photographs. Its ascetic beauty, in black and white in his photographs, was mirrored in reality. Snow blanketed its sheer black cliffs, home to thousands of duotone chinstrap penguins. Unlike the king and gentoo penguins we encountered in South Georgia, which seemed to enjoy serene meditative companionship, Elephant's chinstraps were a raucous brawling bunch, slapping each other silly with flailing flippers and filching stones from one another's nests. A soft-eyed Weddell seal and her furred pup stared in dazed astonishment at the mass melee before them.

Elephant Island and penguins Resembling day-old stubble, a colony of chinstrap penguins now claims the site where Shackleton's men camped on Elephant Island.
This morning, we began loading equipment into zodiacs to travel to shore once again. The zodiacs lurched a full six feet below the gangway and up again while we tried to embark. Landing on Elephant Island proved even more treacherous, a violent high tide churning the boats onto the rocks. Antarctic coordinator David Rootes declared it unsafe and returned the crews to the Shuleykin. There was no telling when the steady nine-foot swell and pall of mist would recede, and we could not afford to wait. In less than an hour, the ship weighed anchor, and we set a course south for the Weddell Sea. In less than a day, we will arrive in Erebus and Terror Gulf and Antarctic Sound, where Carl Larsen was lost and Shackleton cast adrift amid the pack ice.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

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?

Check our next dispatch for an answer from guest commentator, noted polar explorer Gareth Wood.

    Previous Questions

Answer to November 10 Question of the Day:
Your ship is sinking. What kind of supplies do you try to salvage from the ship first?

When Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned the first Endurance, he calculated that the ship was in excess of 500 miles from civilization and more than 350 miles from the nearest land. His priority was survival and eventual escape to civilization. Yet he realized that his means of survival would be entirely of his own making. There would be no rescue party dispatched to find him. In the early part of the 20th century, communication technology was limited. Shackleton and his party were completely alone, their precise location would not have been known outside the ship. Their isolation and complete self-dependency were the elements that made surviving then so difficult, in comparison to being rescued today. For today, communications are such that a modern ship operating in Antarctic waters could be in daily contact with support groups ashore. While the loss of a ship would still represent a supreme test of human resources, the dispatch of rescue teams would at least be assured.

During the days of October 1915 when the Endurance began to break up, Shackleton must have assessed his priorities and calculated which items of equipment would serve him most usefully. Boats and sledges for transport, tents and bedding for shelter, navigational charts and instruments, food for survival, and clothing for warmth were the priorities. When the Endurance was finally abandoned and Ocean Camp was established, personal effects were strictly limited. Each man was limited to two pounds of personal possessions, and, acting as an example, Shackleton discarded a handful of gold sovereigns and his gold watch on the ice. Only those items considered useful for survival and escape to civilization would be taken. The attitude of the team and the belief that they would survive was also crucial to their success.

If a ship were to founder or be crushed in the ice today, the initial priorities would be similar to those of Shackleton. Small boats, shelter, bedding, navigation equipment, food, and clothing would all be needed. However, those items of the highest priority would be communications equipment and especially items of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. GMDSS is an international safety system ensuring that all vessels, wherever they are in the world, can immediately summon help and assistance in times of emergency. While rescue in the icy wastes of Antarctica may well take some time, the survivors of an accident today would only have to cope for a matter of days rather than months, and assistance would be dispatched immediately.

The book South by Ernest Shackleton recounts the epic struggle of Shackleton and his team in their quest for survival. Their story rivals any ever written and stands as a testament to their strength of will and the power of human endurance. It is probably their willpower and self belief, more than any item recovered from the sinking Endurance, which enabled them to survive. After abandoning Endurance on October 27, 1915, the majority of the crew were only finally rescued from Elephant Island on August 30, 1916. For in excess of 10 months this small group of men survived against all odds on a diet primarily of penguins and seals, with no outside support and no guarantee of rescue. That feat of survival was their success, the like of which will probably never be repeated. It is possible that modern-day explorers could survive for the short number of days prior to being rescued, but it is arguable that only someone of Shackleton's character could instill the belief required to survive for longer.
—Lt. Jonathan Fuller, RN is the Hydrographic Survey Operations Officer aboard HMS Endurance, a modern British naval icebreaker.

Sound of the Day
Brash ice from icebergs fizzes, releasing trapped air bubbles:
    RealAudio: 28.8 | ISDN | Get RealPlayer software

View Expedition Maps


Survival Training (October 19, 1999)
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) Rob Meyer; (2,3) Kelly Tyler.

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