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In The Wake of Shackleton

By Joan Bennett

I have always been interested in the Antarctic and envied ex BEC members like Graham Phippen, Zot and Ross White who were able to go there in the course of their work.

I always preferred Shackleton to Scott in any debate about the personalities of the two British explorers, so when the opportunity to go on a cruise to the Antarctic, labelled "In the Wake of Shackleton" it seemed to be just right for me.  The ship was originally a Russian Polar Research vessel and carried less than 50 passengers, the Expedition leader was Tony Soper (the birdman) and Lady Philippa Scott, widow of Sir Peter Scott, was a guest lecturer.  Cruises such as these are becoming more popular, concentrating on wildlife and going to out of the way places.  There is a panel of experts and lecturers, and landings are made in inaccessible places by Zodiac semi-rigid inflatables.  The atmosphere is very informal, no nonsense about dressing for dinner, and such like.


Pack ice and tabular berg - Weddle Sea

The cruise itself started at Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, past Cape Horn, across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, weaving through passages and islands around the Peninsula, visiting various scientific bases, and landing at interesting places.  Next call was Deception Island (a volcanic island).  We then crossed north of the Peninsula and penetrated the western part of the Weddle Sea.  It was here that we picked up the route of Shackleton after he lost his ship Endurance. We went as far south as we could, then made for Elephant Island, which was his first landfall after leaving the ice, and where 22 men spent four months living in upturned boats.  After that to South Georgia, following the route which Shackleton sailed with 5 others in the lifeboat, the James Caird.  After several days we sailed to the Falkland Islands, and returned to Ushuaia nearly three weeks after we had left.

Shackleton was of course a great explorer.  His exploits in the Antarctic are legendary.  When the Endurance was caught in the ice in 1915 the conditions that year were very bad.  When we were in the area, we went through lots of pack ice, very exciting with the ice grinding and cracking along the sides of the ship.  It was only a short while before that a large area of the Larsen Ice Shelf, which was attached to the Peninsula on the western coast of the Weddle Sea, just south of where we were, had broken free, so that there was a lot of pack ice.  We were very lucky in that we met up with the Royal Naval survey ship - also named Endurance which had a helicopter aboard.  They took off to see if there were any leads which we could follow, but the pack was extensive, so we turned north, towards Elephant Island.

Left : Elephant Island
Right:  Shackleton's grave, South Georgia

We left the Weddle Sea at about 17.00 and arrived off Elephant Island at about 6.00.  We were hoping to land on the spit where the ships crew spent the winter months awaiting rescue by The Boss, but the conditions were not good enough. Just to see this tiny piece of beach was quite instructive.  It was the only landing place which we saw as we sailed pass all the steep cliffs and glacier snouts.  We left Elephant Island at mid-day on Saturday arriving in South Georgia on Tuesday morning.  The crossing was quite rough, winds gale force 6-7, but at South Georgia they were up to force 10.  Many of the passengers were somewhat ragged around the edges, glasses in the bar went careering down the tables, and meals were not well attended. We arrived at Grytviken in the early morning, cleared customs, and landed on the island to visit the remains of the old whaling station, the museum and the restored museum and the restored Norwegian church.  We also paid our respects at Shackletons grave (he died here in 1921) drank a toast in his favourite brandy, and sprinkled libations over the grave.  Here we also met a marine sergeant who had just crossed the island, following the route taken by Shackleton.

We went to the barracks, and were told about the start of the Falklands War.  (Shades of Ross White).  After spending the day sailing to and landing in one of the remote bays, that evening we had dinner with the harbour master and his wife, and a couple who were sailing around the world, and have spent the last 5 years in South Georgia (they gave us a super lecture on S. Georgia, where they have spent much time mountaineering and skiing).  I ate with the CO of the garrison who is also the local magistrate, and we were later joined in the bar by the Ghurkas who make up the army complement.  Politics raised its ugly head here, as the chef s assistant, who was Argentinean, was not allowed to land in S. Georgia or the Falklands.

We saw quite a lot of wildlife, starting with the sighting of a condor whilst in Tierra Del Fuego, several types of albatross many petrels and shearwaters which followed the ship, cormorants, skuas, gulls, terns, and on the Falklands the rare striated caracaras, night herons, and kelp geese.  We saw 5 species of penguin, 5 of seal, and 8 of whales and dolphins.

On the whole we were lucky with the weather, having mostly good visibility, although the swell meant that we could not always land where we wanted.  The scenery was magnificent, and the glaciers were really awe-inspiring. We sailed along glacier snouts several kilometres long, we sailed past tabular icebergs, castellated icebergs, decayed icebergs, bergy bits, brash ice, pancake ice.  We watched, and felt, glaciers calving, looked into, but did not go into ice caves of gigantic proportions, and the deepest blue imaginable. Many of these sights were seen from the zodiacs, and we also went into the pack in these small boats.  A glaciologists paradise.  We also experienced strong katabatic winds in South Georgia, which blew up out of nowhere, luckily before we set out in the zodiacs.

Stromness Harbour, South Georgia

The effect of the geology on the scenery was very interesting, ranging from the continental Andes, and the fjords in well-wooded, Tierra Del Fuego; the black volcanic ash of Deception Island, with a caldera about 8 miles long and which compares well with Santorini.  The last eruption was in the 70's.  The granite and gabbros of South Georgia, which forms such beautiful mountains, very steep ridges, and shapely peaks, like the Isle of Skye, and the Falkland Islands, an extension of South American, being on the continental shelf, and which are very like Dartmoor, treeless moorland areas with low tor-like hills.  There are still a lot of landmines here, areas where people cannot go, but the sheep and penguins find a safe haven.

In December 1997 a protocol was passed by all the interested countries to stop all mining and oil exploration on the continent - this was one good thing to come out of the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.  We visited a number of the scientific bases and I was horrified to see the mess and degradation of the areas around some of the large bases.  On Prince Edward Island where we dropped off some Russian scientists, there were bases run by Russia, Argentina, Chile, and China, and there was also an airfield.  The only justification for tourists is to keep the scientists in check.  To prevent further pollution we were not allowed to dump any rubbish either on land or in the sea south of the Antarctic Convergence.

Certainly a trip to remember.  Trouble is I am now hooked, so in 1999 am heading north to Iceland, Jan Mayen Island and Spitsbergen.