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Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance
Visions of Endurance
November 18, 1999
By Kelly Tyler

Location: Elephant Island Wind: 61 knots, NW
Latitude: 61 degrees 11'S Air Temp: 40°F
Longitude: 54 degrees 57'W Water Temp: 36°F
A land of savage grandeur
that measures each man at his Worth.
        —Frank Hurley
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.

Hurley photographing 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 Sissel contemplate 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.

Elephant Island with snow 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.

Reed with camera 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."

Sandy Sissel 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."

Football on the floe 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 Wallace, Andy 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.

Kelly Tyler is Online Producer for NOVA.

Question of the Day
You successfully land on Elephant Island, but your captain reminds you that the island is not in shipping lanes and your party will likely never be found there. What do you do?

Watch our next dispatch for guest commentary from polar explorer and mariner Trevor Potts.

    Previous Questions

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 worked!

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.

Sound of the Day
Eastman View Camera plate camera, contemporary to the camera used by Frank Hurley, focusing, loading, cocking, and releasing the shutter:
    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) Frank Hurley/Courtesy of the Macklin Collection; (2-5) Kelly Tyler.

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