The Weddell Sea – In the Footsteps of Shackleton

13th January 2019

Ice conditions appeared to be good on arrival in the Weddell Sea this morning, the water the clearest of any sea in the world and free from ice floes at this point.  A far cry from the dense and dangerous ice floes that locked and then destroyed Shackleton’s Endurance in 1915 in this exact path of ocean.

Our landing today was one of the earliest yet, however I didn’t mind as we were landing on Snow Hill Island to explore the hut of Otto Nordenskjöld’s expedition of 1902-3.  We came ashore on the beach and immediately sunk almost to our knees in mud due to the nature of the wet landing on the island.

Our landing today was one of the earliest yet, however I didn’t mind as we were landing on Snow Hill Island to explore the hut of Otto Nordenskjöld’s expedition of 1902-3.  We came ashore on the beach and immediately sunk almost to our knees in mud due to the nature of the wet landing on the island.

We trudged up to the beach and waited to go in the hut, which due to its size can only accommodate five people at a time.  We were finally allowed to enter, and the sheer starkness of the hut was apparent as soon as one is inside.  The hut has four rooms, a main room containing a small stove and a table with two chairs and the other three rooms containing wooden bunks.  Pictures of the Uruguay hung from the walls in the main room and a visitor’s book sat on the table, which I signed right under our captain’s signature, all the while feeling like I was standing on the shoulders of giants and wondering what conversations must have been had around this little table. 

Nordenskjöld’s team had been forced to spend two Antarctic winters here, after their ship was unable to pick them up due to severe ice conditions in this rather unpredictable area of the Antarctic.  Having only planned for one winter, they were forced to catch penguins and seals for food and fuel when supplies ran low.  Managing to get to the penguins was a feat in itself, there is a large rookery of Emperor penguins on this island, however they more towards the interior and the area is unreachable, save via helicopter.

Shackleton at one point had actually been looking at this island and this very hut as a secondary landing point, after the Endurance drifted north in the pack ice from their original proposed landing site.   These hopes were dashed when the ship remained locked in the ice for many more months to come and was finally destroyed by the immense pressure of the ice floes forcing the expedition to make their Ocean Camp on the ice floe itself.

The crew had set up another hike for us, the steepest yet.  We decided to go for a walk along the beach instead, as the hike just seemed to be for the sake of hiking.  There didn’t seem to be anything at the top, nor was the view any better than that from the beach.

On walking along the beach, we picked up the odd fossil, strange trilobite looking creatures and prehistoric clams locked in the rock.  We contemplated taking one home, and realised we could probably get away with it, but instead put the intended fossil back for someone else to enjoy. If everyone takes something, there won’t be anything left eventually.

Sat on a piece of iceberg (a “bergy bit”) which had washed up on the beach enjoying the feeling of being in a place in which all but the most intrepid explorers had not trodden.  Wondered how many times the men from Nordenskjöld’s expedition and indeed Nordenskjöld himself had sat on the beach looking longingly out at the horizon in the hopes of seeing their beloved ship or any sign of relief.

The weather appeared to be turning on return to the ship and after much boot scrubbing to remove the thick mud, we had a drink at the bar.  There was no fresh mint on board, so no mojitos for me, I had to contend with a Manhattan, which for the record I did not enjoy. 

A blizzard on board!

Enjoyed some time on deck, as a lone juvenile emperor penguin was passing us on a nearby floe, I attempted to take a picture with my phone, but the bird just looked like a speck. I miss my camera. The weather and the ice conditions had deteriorated rather rapidly, the once glass like Weddell Sea, was now full of slush ice, bergs and floes and it had started to snow.  This drove most people inside.  Darren and I were the exception, and decided to have a snowball fight on deck, as did some of the crew.  It was odd, running about the ship hurling newly fallen snow at each other in the middle of Antarctica, having the odd “What the hell am I doing?” moment.

It wasn’t long before the light snow turned into a full-on snow storm and the sea in front of us started to freeze.  It was only thin new ice, so the ship had no trouble breaking through it.  I had another moment of feeling like I was in some kind of dream, standing on the front of our Antarctic vessel in the middle of a snowstorm, surrounded by icebergs and floes and breaking through sea ice.  This truly is the adventure of my lifetime; how will I ever top this?

The ship started to pick up some speed and it became clear that the conditions were getting a little dangerous and we needed to get out of the Weddell Sea post haste!  A fact which became all too clear when our afternoon zodiac expedition was cancelled.  I wasn’t too fussed by this, I can’t imagine any more adventure being crammed into today and anyway I was enjoying the snowstorm, as was Darren who was fascinated by the perfect little star shapes the flakes came down in.

We retreated to the back of the ship, where it is enclosed and a little less drafty to enjoy the weather.  While we were hanging over the back of the ship, we encountered a Fin whale, the largest whale on Earth, next to the Blue whale.

Enjoyed dinner in our cabin this evening, it was nice to enjoy the warmth and reflect on what has been one of the most inspiring days of my life to date.  There is talk of us landing at Deception Island tomorrow, where hopefully we can continue to walk in the footsteps of the great explorers who came before us.

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