British Captain James Cook is credited as the first to cross the Antarctic Circle and circumnavigate the continent in 1773 but he didn’t find it! Antarctica was completely unknown until 1820 when Russian explorers saw it but thought it was just a group of islands. It took another 20 years for U.S. and French explorers to realize that it was actually a continent. It was the last region in recorded world history to be discovered.
Note these explorers did not land on inhospitable Antarctica, but the U.S. team did map 800 miles of it. People (Norwegians) didn’t set foot on it until 1895. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen took things a step further, literally, as the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911.
But the most famous explorer of all when it comes to Antarctica was Sir Ernest Shackleton. This Irish-Brit, who went on four Antarctic expeditions, was the first to go the furthest south and climb the active volcano Mount Erebus. His third voyage with two ships, Endurance and Aurora, resulted in a shipwreck and a runaway boat that the crews largely and miraculously survived. This Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17) is one of the greatest maritime survival stories in history and made Shackleton’s leadership legendary. (In fact, business professors and leaders have taken and given lessons based on him.)
Briefly, the story is that Endurance, of which Shackleton was commander, became trapped and crushed by winter pack ice in the Weddell Sea for 10 months. Eventually, the ship lost its “endurance” and sank. The 28-man crew survived by camping on sea ice until warmer weather melted it enough to move three lifeboats to nearby Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton took a skeleton crew in one lifeboat to South Georgia Island, a stormy voyage of 720 nautical miles over 16 days that narrowly avoided capsizing in hurricane conditions. But the six men made it to the island and Shackleton organized a rescue tugboat of the Chilean navy at a whaling station to pick up his men left behind on Elephant Island for 4.5 months. And if this rescue wasn’t enough, Shackleton traveled afterwards to New Zealand to pick up Aurora that was blown away from its crew by a blizzard in a different part of Antarctica. Shackleton sailed this ship back to pick them up (7 of 10 men survived) from the very continent that nearly killed him. (Ironically, he died of a heart attack, not frostbite or rescuing someone, while moored in South Georgia in 1922.)
The discovery of Antarctica through Shackleton’s last voyage is known as the Heroic Age of Antarctica Exploration. Today, we are still discovering this remote continent. In fact, it is the only place I’ve ever been where I felt like a true explorer. In December 2010, my Lindblad Expeditions ship went to nooks and crannies of Antarctica that the crew had never been. Arguably, all of us took the first footsteps on tiny bits of our planet there!
Now, to say that we were still in the “heroic age” of exploration may be a stretch. Instead of hiking a volcano like Shackleton, we hiked up a mountain and slid down its snowy face on our booties like 5-year-olds. Rather than rationing crackers while camping on sea ice, we had a 2-hour barbeque on an ice floe next to a small mountain of beers and Weber grill with hamburgers. In lieu of paddling in a lifeboat in hurricane conditions, we drag-raced against penguins in a kayak in a calm bay on a warm, sunny day. Instead of being trapped by the Antarctic Sea, we did a polar plunge into it for three seconds and escaped into the ship’s sauna. Rather than calling for help, we sent postcards from Port Lockroy, which has the continent’s only post office. In lieu of “running” in a lifeboat to save others, I barely saved myself running on a treadmill while our ship rocked and rolled in shaky Drake Passage. Instead of surviving a shipwreck, we rescued another ship. (Now that’s another story which would have made Shackleton proud … thankfully, lifeboats were not required.) So like Shackleton’s photographer Frank Hurley, we did get perilous shots of our own ship and another being thrashed and wind-lashed in the Antarctic Sea. (FYI, I bought the above Hurley photo of Endurance trapped in ice at a serendipitous Shackleton exhibit in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland in 2014.)
While the next day’s schedule was given to us nightly, sometimes we would wake up to a change of plans due to weather, luck or location. For example, one day bad weather precluded us from going somewhere so we took a tour of the U.S.-owned Palmer Station. Normally, it’s not open to the public but one of our crew members used to work there so she got us in. It was fascinating to learn what researchers do for months at a time in a tundra dressed like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!
The ice barbeque was a spontaneous first for our crew who decided we could give it a go and “go with the floe.” Imagine 100 people eating burgers on a floating piece of ice about 200 feet in diameter and 20 feet thick! Penguins swimming nearby felt slighted for not being invited. But we did resemble Shackleton in promoting camaraderie, with beers and burgers distributed equally among officers, scientists and seafarers. We also socialized with our crew regularly.
Yes, there were scientists among us … experts on penguin biology, climate change and more who were guest lecturers. We also had National Geographic photographers and an undersea videographer who shared the best of their photos and videos every evening. We even got to dine with the NatGeo photogs for one-on-one tips in capturing nature at its finest. And to top off our memories, Lindblad Expeditions created a CD for all of us explorers with a collection of the best pro photos and videos from our trip! They documented our arrival in Santiago, Chile; flight to Ushuaia, Argentina; and voyage through the Beagle Channel, Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula and Antarctic Circle.
I thought of Shackleton when our ship broke through pancake ice south of the Antarctic Circle. I photographed a displaced emperor penguin and Weddell seals floating on ice floes. It was rare for the crew to be able to go so far south. All 150 of us new comrades took a group photo at the bow of the ship to commemorate the occasion – a stunning splash of Lindblad-NatGeo red jackets against the black and white landscape.
That summer “night,” the midnight sun turned black and white into pastel watercolors. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. I thought how fortunate I was to be able to observe Antarctica this way – “unshackled” by its climate – thanks to very skilled captains and expedition leaders.
If you’re going to travel to the end of the earth, make sure you choose a reputable company with experience navigating the Antarctic Sea! Otherwise, as Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestley once said, “when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”