By Cassandra Brooks and John Weller
Things are getting desperate. The last of the browning lettuce disappeared unannounced weeks ago. The bananas barely made it through the first few meals. Our days of eating fresh mangoes, pineapple, tricolored bell peppers, cucumbers, radishes, and avocado (oh the delicious avocado!) are all gone. The last tomato – a cherry variety that was days past ripe – was not even worth fighting for.
Even the cabbage is gone. The carrots cling on for dear life along with the oranges and grapefruit. Their precious Vitamin C will keep the scurvy at bay, for now. But we still have a month to go.
We’ve sampled more than 100 different locations in the Ross Sea and my hands are cracked, chapped, and leather-like from long days working with the cold and salty water. The temperatures outside have dipped below zero degrees, dropping to -60°F with the wind chill, and the sea continues to ice over. Some of our equipment is beginning to freeze.
Perhaps the idea of working thousands of miles from home in one of the coldest environments on Earth sounds miserable, and in the days of Scott, Shackleton, and the other great Antarctic explorers, it surely was. But while I miss having fresh fruits and vegetables to eat, I am hardly suffering or at risk of scurvy. Our vessel has the finest at-sea working and living conditions I’ve yet encountered. (See the recent book South Pole, about Scott’s expedition, by National Geographic writer Christine Dell’Amore.)
We have a state-of-the-art laboratory and field set up at our disposal (despite our gear freezing from time to time). Further, we are outfitted by the National Science Foundation with extreme cold weather gear that keeps us warm even if we have to work outside in the -60°F. And in reality, many of us never have to leave the warmth of the ship.
Rewind one hundred years to the days of wooden boats that were constantly at risk of being crushed in the ice rather than our steel hull that can break through ice 10-feet thick. The early Antarctic explorers were often gone for years rather than months at a time. Sometimes things went smoothly, and the explorers (always with scientists in tow) charted new territory, made new discoveries, and made their home countries proud.
Other times things went awry. On August 1st, 1914, four days after the start of World War 1, Ernest Shackleton left England in his attempt to lead the first explorers on the 1,800-mile overland journey across the Antarctic continent. He believed that if all went well, he might return to London as soon as April 1916.
Such a one-way expedition required two ships. Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, headed to the unexplored Weddell Sea. The Aurora headed to established huts in the Ross Sea. The plan was for the Ross Sea team to lay supply depots over nearly a quarter of the route so that Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic team, having trekked over 1,300 miles with only what they could carry, could make the rest of the journey to safety.
But nothing worked out as planned. After crossing the Drake Passage and cutting hundreds of miles into the pack ice on the way to the landing point in the Weddell Sea, the Endurance got stuck in the ice. Surrounded by massive floes, the ship and its crew were at the mercy of the shifting pack. They floated, helpless, for 10 months, through the Antarctic winter. They maintained their ship until October 1915, when the pressure of the ice finally overcame the thick wooden hull, crushing the ship, and leaving the men on the ice floes with only their 22-foot lifeboats as potential transit back to safety.
The men dragged their boats and supplies north across the pack ice for another six months, camping on the shifting floes until they got to open water and took to the lifeboats for the trip north over some of the roughest seas in the world. Miraculously landing their three tiny boats on Elephant Island after nine days at sea, they were still not safe. No one knew where they were, so rescue would be almost impossible.
Shackleton would then have to captain one of the boats across nearly 800 miles of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia Island – and then become the first man to cross that treacherous island – to reach help: a whaling station. The men back on Elephant Island would have to wait out another winter before Shackleton could return to rescue them.
No one died. It is perhaps the most fabled story of survival of all time. But hidden by this fable is a tragedy. The men of the Aurora, the other half of the expedition, fared worse. Though that ship actually did reach its target in the Ross Sea, landing at Scott’s Hut outside of present day McMurdo in January 1914, the ship broke loose in a gale before all the supplies could be brought on land and was carried away by the ice, stranding ten men onshore with minimal provisions. And though that stranded team successfully did their jobs and laid the supply depots for the Weddell Sea team that would never come, three men died before they were eventually rescued two full years later.
In envisioning these men, some of whom gave their very lives to the pursuit of Antarctic exploration, I can’t help but reflect on their contributions to science. Yes, they did what they did in order to conquer and claim new territory, plant their flags on new precipices, and even open the door to new industries in Antarctic waters. But these men were driven by the pull of the unknown and a thirst for knowledge. They noted, measured, and investigated everything they encountered. They did the first science in Antarctica.
Even as the ice was slowly crushing the Endurance, Robert Clark, the expedition’s biologist, dropped his sampling net into an ice crack with nearly 3,400 feet of wire, “and hoisted it up at two and a half miles an hour by walking across the floe with the wire.” Shackleton also reports, by the way, that the “Result [was] rather meagre–jelly-fish and some fish larvae.” They never stopped doing their work.
Here, a century later, how could I possibly complain about lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, cracked hands, or the cold? It’s time to go collect more water, pull up the sampling net, and do some more science.