There are certain moments in history that are etched into your memories and where you were at the time. Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down, when Nelson Mandela was released or perhaps each time Wales won the Six Nations in the last twenty years…
One great moment for me, as a longtime polar enthusiast, was the discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance at the bottom of the Weddell Sea. Now, I must confess, I was in fact two days late to the party as I had been disconnected to the world (and WiFi) until I was sailing just off the shores of South Georgia when the news came through.
I had been on an epic Antarctic journey and as I retraced my steps to understand where I was when they discovered Endurance, I realised I was indeed walking in Shackleton’s footsteps, taking the final section of his epic journey walking from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. It was here at the Norwegian whaling station that Shackleton had finally reached civilisation and could begin his attempts to rescue his crew that remained on Elephant Island as well as the three men on the far side of South Georgia who had remained with the James Caird.
Earlier that morning I had visited Grytviken, where the great man is laid to rest and alongside him are the ashes of Frank Wild, his right hand man in life and now for eternity. His gravestone is set at a slight angle facing out towards the Southern Ocean and is surrounded by those of the whalers and an Argentine victim of the 1982 conflict which began in South Georgia.
The small but fascinating museum at Grytviken has an exact replica of the James Caird, tiny for the six men crossing 800 nautical miles of some of the world’s roughest oceans. In length not much longer than the wingspan of a magnificent wandering Albatross. I had been lucky enough to have sailed the same route in three days onboard a very comfortable, in great contrast, expedition ship in relatively calm seas, somewhat different to the 16 days and tumultuous storms that Shackleton, Creen, Worsley, Vincent, McCarthy and McNish had endured.
Earlier in the trip I had visited Elephant Island and with surprisingly favourable conditions we had managed to land briefly at what remains of Point Wild, much of the beach having been washed away in the interim years. This is a notoriously difficult landing, so we were exceptionally lucky to have actually stood on the rocky promontory. There is a now small bust of Piloto Pardo, the Chilean naval officer who eventually rescued the 22 remaining men, which was surrounded by chinstrap penguins.
After the brief landing it was decided that it was the perfect spot for a polar plunge. Keen to take on the challenge, myself and 25 of my fellow expeditioners leapt from the ship into the distinctly chilly waters. The expedition leader Hadleigh was convinced that this “offering to Poseidon” influenced the finding of Endurance!
The discovery of Endurance couldn’t have been more poignant given where I was on this expedition. With the wonders of modern technology, and a now working internet connection, I was able to view spectacular images from the wreck despite it being some 3,000 metres down on the seafloor. Frank Hurley’s famous ghost ship image hangs above my fireplace and now I was able to see crystal clear video footage of the ship’s wheel, name plate and masts, the sight of which brings a tingle down my spine and a tear to my eye.
If you are keen to know more, why not travel to Spitsbergen and Greenland on our next cruise in August 2022 with The Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI). Joining us on board will be none other than Dr. John Shears, one of the expedition team who found Endurance! SPRI’s mission is to enhance the understanding of the polar regions through scholarly research and publication, educating new generations of polar researchers, caring for and making accessible its collections, and projecting the history and environmental significance of the polar regions to the wider community.
There are very few polar voyages available which offer so much variety in terms of wildlife, landscapes and culture which is what makes this particular trip so compelling and in particular to be in the company of fellow polar enthusiasts and experts.