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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
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?
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
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.

Sunset Heading south along the Antarctic Peninsula.
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.

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."

Captain Maslennikov 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.

Pack ice all over Broken pack ice covers the surface of the Weddell Sea.
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.

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.

Floe crews After our polar guides test the ice floe's safety, the film crew prepares for shooting.
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.

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.

Two boats at berg's edge Team members row the replica boats in the lee of an 80-foot-high tabular iceberg.
The Shuleykin 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.

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.

    Previous Questions

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:
    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: (1-4) Kelly Tyler.

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