Friday 9 June 2017

It all seems a bit fishy...

I was Queen Neptune on Tuesday. No, I’m not suffering from delusions of grandeur after standing in the equatorial sun for too long; it actually happened! We held a Crossing the Line Ceremony for those amongst us who had not yet crossed the equator in a nautical fashion. The “deities”, Neptune and his wife, were invited aboard by the Captain. The trustworthy shellbacks meanwhile (1. I am not making this up, 2. They are people who have crossed the line before) rounded up the scabby pollywogs and brought them to the court of Neptune, that they might be judged for their crimes against the God of the Sea and then permitted to enter his court. Food waste was poured all over them and they had to kiss a fish, before being permitted to call themselves shellbacks.

I was asked to be Queen Neptune on the grounds of being one of the only women on board who had crossed the line previously. I felt curiously disadvantaged as a woman playing a woman! The motorman who was in the role before me had borrowed a bra and rigged it up so that it squirted kahlua and milk on the kneeling supplicants. I’m not sure that actually possessing the correct XX chromosomes can ever live up to the ability to lactate kahlua on demand.

I did my best though.  I made myself a chiton from a bedsheet. I would just like to get some crafting brownie points here by saying I went bold and sewed it freestyle. That’s right people, no pattern and no pins. Just pedal to the floor and keep your fingers crossed. And then of course, be prepared to wear the monstrosity that you made... Regrettably, after donning this garment I looked less “awesome majesty” and more “ Lenor” so I decided that the Queen of the Sea should have scales on her face. And that, children, is what social mobility is all about. You start off as a pollywog, work hard and in nine months, you too can have a scaly face!
From left to right; the barber, Neptune, myself and the Doctor

King Neptune and myself sitting in state

The pollywogs did wonderfully well. I may have slipped them a few condoms for use as water balloons (Daily Tides Headline: Queen Thetis in Shock Double Agent Exposure!!!) and both myself and Neptune were attacked with squeezy mustard by a pollywog who had concealed the bottles under his top whilst his offences were being read out. With a cry of “No surrender!” he leapt forth, whipping the squeezy bottles from under his shirt and firing the contents at King Neptune and myself. Even now, this tragic and disturbed youth is being keel hauled (He isn’t really; we ate him. Burp.).

And now, having crossed the equator into the Northern Hemisphere, the long journey home begins. I’m due to get off the ship in Cape Verde and then I fly home to Heathrow. My long suffering other half has promised to meet me with a suitcase full of clothes (my stuff from the ship is starting to look pretty tired) so that we can have a bit of a jaunt around the UK visiting our families! This was a little disconcerting. We arranged what he should pack over the phone. Apparently I have “industrial carpet shoes” which I hope translates as “your adorable half boots by Irregular Choice in herringbone fabric”. But nevertheless I shall have different things to wear, which will be lovely!

So what happens after that? Well, hopefully next week I’ll provide you with a post on the joys of Cape Verde, then I have a top secret post, and then I’m rejoining the ship in Southampton! Yessir, for those who didn’t know, I was offered a little extension to my trip. The JCR is heading North for the Arctic and I’ve got my chance to go and see some polar bears. So keep reading patiently because I’m not going quiet just yet...

Wednesday 7 June 2017

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat...

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noted that after nine long months, the James Clark Ross is back in the Northern Hemisphere. But what have we been doing in the interim since gadding about in Montevideo and discussing tattoos, I hear you cry!

We collected a new group of scientists from Recife on the Brazilian coast line and delivered them to Ascension Island and the surrounding sea mounts. Ascension Island is a lonely volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic. Its nearest neighbour, the island of St Helena is 800 miles away. Definitely too far for a bowl of sugar! In point of fact, no-one is native to Ascension. It appears to have been considered a desolate wilderness in the middle of the ocean. One-time pirate William Dampier was ship-wrecked and subsequently rescued from it. Other sea-farers used it as a letter box island and a chance to get fresh meat in the form of turtles. But otherwise the tides of men generally passed it by until Napoleon was exiled to St Helena.  Suddenly it became crucial for the British government to have a garrison there lest the French mount a rescue attempt for Bonaparte.  Since then Ascension Island has played a crucial part in transatlantic cable laying, was a wartime military base for the British and Americans and is a stepping stone in the air bridge down to the Falklands.

Proof that the original military garrison on Ascension regarded it as something of a hardship posting

Turtles still lay their eggs on Ascension

An American WWII jeep restored to working order in the Ascension Museum
In 2015, a cross party consensus achieved with the help of various NGOs determined that Britain and her overseas territories should have marine protected areas. Ascension in particular is considered to be a “Hope Spot” which means that enthusiastic human activity in the area hasn’t robbed it of its biodiversity. The fisheries scientists, the Ascension Island government and the foreign office have all been working together to try to form an evidence based marine conservation area or “blue belt”. Put another way, there’s no point in just plonking it down anywhere, you have to make sure that it’s actually doing some good and protecting the areas and the species that need to be protected.

That’s where National Geographic, EU Best and the Darwin Plus Initiative grants came in. National Geographic in particular funded the charter of the James Clark Ross and made a documentary on the science performed aboard in line with their Pristine Seas campaign. EU Best and the Darwin Plus Institute made it possible to fund the smaller boat that assisted us with tagging operations and the post-doctoral analyses of the information garnered.
Shark Tagging

The initial crucial thing was mapping the sea bed. Surprisingly large areas of ocean floor can be uncharted and it’s ever so embarrassing to lose expensive scientific equipment because you smacked it into an underwater cliff that you didn’t realise was there. In practice this meant that the JCR steamed round in circles whilst using a multibeam echosounder to work out what the ocean floor looks like. This is the same principle as an ultrasound; sound waves are beamed out by the ship and are then reflected back when they hit something solid. Receivers on the ship pick up the reflected wave and by using the known speed of sound under water, a very clever computer program can work out how far that sound wave has travelled before being reflected. And once all of those millions of pieces of data are collated we have a map of the ocean floor.

Once our map was generated, the scientists could get to work on discovering what beasties were down there. Initially it was important to work out where most of the biomass actually was. Again, echosounders were employed to beam back information about differently dense tissues- those tissues being likely to represent organic matter. This generated a broad brush stroke picture of where the majority of sea life was but not necessarily what it was. As previously suspected, most of the biomass was concentrated around the sea mounts- under water mountains created by volcanic activity. Sea mounts project upwards into the ocean, creating currents that channel deep sea nutrients up into warmer, shallower waters.

Having located where the most of these organisms were living, it was then time to see if we could get eyes on and actually work out what types of organisms they were, what their environments looked like and if there were any particularly vulnerable ecosytems. Benthic and pelagic cameras were deployed to film these organisms in their natural habitats whilst at the same time sister vessels were engaged in tagging sharks and tuna so that we could work out the movement patterns of the larger predators. In particular we wanted to know if the sharks and tuna spend all their time on the sea mounts or if they have wider ranges because that would be important in terms of determining how far out from the sea mount the marine protected area would need to extend.
Stills kindly shared from the National Geographic footage

Now the important question simply becomes why, should you as the reader, even care about this information? Why is the creation of marine protected areas thousands of miles from where you live (unless you live on St Helena, you lucky duck) remotely relevant to you?

Well, for one thing, these marine ecosystems act as carbon scrubbers. Algae in the water strip carbon from the atmosphere and cycle it into the food chain. Once bigger organisms have consumed that carbon, not only does it stay locked in their body for a number of years, but when they sink to the seabed their bodies become trapped in oceanic ooze, thereby trapping the carbon in the oceans for the long term. And if we want to avoid global warming, trapping carbon is exactly what we need to do. Factories spend thousands every year employing technologies to strip carbon from their waste emissions- these ecosystems will do it for us for free!

On top of this, if you want to keep eating seafood- and my favourite thing after chocolate is sushi- those fishing grounds need to be managed responsibly. And that means keeping a lid on reckless overfishing and monitoring stocks of fish. It means protecting the ecosystems that allow the larger predators to flourish because I have yet to meet anyone who has told me that they love eating plankton. And finally there is a certain moral imperative to protect the oceans. As a species we have been singularly careless in our treatment of this planet, regarding its wealth as boundless. But I hope and believe that we are starting to recognise that all of our actions often have consequences far beyond what we ever could have imagined. We cannot afford to be like the Victorian landowner releasing rabbits in Australia because he wanted something to shoot at from his veranda. If we want to continue to survive on a planet that is a kindly and generous home we must protect it for both ourselves and the generations to come.


Tuesday 23 May 2017

Sailors and their Superstitions

Did you know that it’s terribly unlucky to have a ginger person on board a ship? Women are also a BAD THING which gets me coming and going really. Whistling, singing, big pieces of egg shell, bananas, setting sail on a Friday...the list of things that can ruin a voyage is apparently endless. This was the upshot of a conversation at morning smoko a few days ago and it got me thinking about superstitions and why sailors in particular are supposed to be so superstitious.

There are a few schools of thought as to where superstitions come from. Arguably one man’s faith is another man’s superstition, but we’re not discussing that. We’re thinking about those little kernels of belief that take up house room in a corner of your psyche. The reason why black cats so rarely get adopted at animal rescue centres and the reason why you won’t say Bloody Mary three times to a mirror in the dark.

One school of thought suggests that it is an evolutionary advantage for humans to be able to perceive connections between seemingly separate events. It is advantageous to see flowers on an apple tree and to be confident that if you return there in a couple of months there will be food. It is advantageous to connect the dead gazelle and the waving tail deep in the long grass. Forming connections keeps you alive. And it keeps you alive to the extent that it’s worthwhile to form a few erroneous connections just to have the advantage of the correct ones. So we decide that red skies at night have a hidden meaning and that saying “Macbeth” is very unlucky.

The other suggestion is that humans attempt to manipulate and placate their environment through the use of ritualistic behaviour. So we make sacrifices or the promise of good behaviour in an attempt to gain a temporary reprieve from the dangers of our world. You throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder to keep ghosts and witches away; you spit on the ground to offer a part of yourself to ghosts so they’ll leave you in peace...and one very naughty Roman general failed to take bad omens seriously on his way to Carthage and that was the reason why he lost so epically. It wasn’t that he had made military errors; his failure was to appease the gods. And that is certainly what a very grumpy senate pointed out to him many, many times on his somewhat inglorious return (Seriously, look up Clodius Pulcher. It’s sort of funny in a horrible way).

So that brings us, through a somewhat circuitous route, to why sailors are supposed to be so superstitious. However you think these little accretions of belief form, sailors have more reason than most to have them. Even today, fishing and fishing related jobs are amongst the most dangerous professions in the world. Their mortality rate is second only to logging. And so they developed little ways of warding off misfortune. Don’t let women on board; they’ll distract you from the sea and she is a jealous mistress. Grind up egg shells or witches will sail to sea in bits of the shell. Don’t whistle or you’ll whistle up a storm/wind. Definitely don’t say “drowned”, “goodbye” or “good luck”. I can relate to that last one. Never, ever, in A&E, even on an incredibly calm night, look around you and say “Well, it sure looks qu**t in here.” You DON’T drop the q-bomb.

Sailors’ tattoos are a wonderful extension of this rich tapestry of belief. I was under the impression that most tattoos originated from sailors walking into a tattoo parlour, pointing at a picture on the wall and saying “I want that one.” Apparently, traditional sailor’s tattoos have a lot more meaning than that. In some ways, they might be read as a resumé of the bearer’s achievements. In other ways they’re an example of helpless humans trying to propitiate an uncaring world.

Probably the most familiar sailor’s tattoo is that of an anchor. To the sailor, the anchor represents stability in a shifting world, a fixed point. It’s the reason why a name might be emblazoned across the anchor; that person represents stability to that sailor. But the anchor also has other meanings. It means that you’ve crossed the Atlantic. And merchant marine sailors in World War II would get it as a badge of honour. Their ships were disproportionately attacked by German U-boats on their way across the Atlantic because the Germans were aware that they were bringing vital supplies to Britain. Many more American merchant seamen lost their lives in World War II than did American naval men.
A seafarer spells out his wife's name in flags (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Pig and cockerel symbols are often tattooed on sailors’ feet. These images are supposed to ward off drowning and shipwreck. The legend goes that these animals would usually be transported in wooden crates on the ship’s deck. In the event of ship wreck, the wooden crates would be one of the few things to float and a seaman could cling to one of these crates and save himself from drowning. Similarly a cross on the sole of the foot would ward off being eaten by a shark. Although that does lead me to wonder if the rest of the sailor gets eaten, leaving the foot to slowly tumble down to the seabed...
Hold fast to the rigging- so that you don't fall to your death (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Compass roses and nautical stars help prevent seafarers from losing their way. A pair of crossed anchors on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger indicates that the bearer has worked as a boatswain. A knotted rope tied about the wrist indicates time working as a deck hand. A turtle informs you that this person has crossed the equator and is a trusty shellback and a member of King Neptune’s Court. A ship with a full rig means that the sea farer has rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America whereas a gold earring means that they’ve rounded the Cape of Good Hope and the gold ring may be used to pay for their funeral.
So that you never lose your way (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Hula girls signify a voyage to Hawaii whereas a dragon means a stop in China. A golden dragon means crossing the international date line. A swallow is earned for every 5000 miles of sea that the sailor has crossed. But more than that, it is a symbol of the intent to come home. A swallow with a dagger through it is far from a sign of machissimo; it shows that a friend has been lost at sea. Because the swallows will take you home but that home might be a farther shore...

For more images of sailors and their tattoos, take a look at Richard Turner’s gallery at
One of our seafarers- all inked up! (Photo taken by and used with permission of Richard Turner)

Monday 15 May 2017


Hello and greetings my children! Are you sitting comfortably? Sorry, I’m feeling a bit hyper today. Two cups of coffee and a bar of chocolate and I am wonderfully wired. I’ve had a splendid last couple of weeks though. The science in the Southern Ocean finished about two weeks ago and we swiftly turned north towards Montevideo. Rather amusingly we managed to hit some bad weather on our way back which made the return journey much more fun. I think at certain points we were actually making negative progress!

It was brilliant though. I went up to the navigation bridge a lot and squealed loudly every time we started to tip over into a really deep trough. I must be deeply fun to sail with. Our instruments were recording the waves as being 10-12meters high; just think about that! That’s like being on the top of a 4-5 storey building and then crashing down into the basement every few seconds! It was faintly hypnotising to watch our progress from the bridge; to see the slow gathering of the swell, the delicate veins of white foam criss-crossing the leaden grey-black surface of the waves. Feeling the bow of the ship lifting as it hit the upswell, beginning the climb and then sitting, weightless and poised at the crest, staring down into the depths of the next trough.  Then a sharp descent into the watery maw just before the ship ploughed her way, snout first, into the next wave with billows of white, roiling water crashing and thundering their way onto the deck.

I made my way up to the Monkey Island with two of the scientists to watch our progress on the final day of the big blow. Happily the air temperature was finally warm enough that we could stand outside for hours which felt like a hysteria-inducing luxury after so many weeks of only going outside for essentials. We hung our heads over the parapet, enjoying the rush of fresh air and the steep drops before tumbling to the deck, shrieking with laughter, to avoid the walls of spray that would be wafted up towards us.

And then suddenly we were in Montevideo and it was time to say farewell to all the crew and scientists that I had sailed with. This crew change had a particular piquancy because it was the last time that I would sail with any of them. I finish in August, just as they will be rejoining the ship for the refit (that’s to make the ship ready for sea again after a year of work) and to take her across to Denmark. So it was rather a sorrowful farewell, although I suspect that for them the occasion was coloured by the fact that they were getting home after four months at sea! Still, they’ve been wonderful to sail with and I will miss them every time I trundle down into the hold to do circuits and every time I watch Terminator II!

Montevideo itself was wonderful. It’s the capital city of Uruguay and it sits just where the River Plate disgorges itself into the Atlantic. In my head, it was a land of gauchos, steak, Graham Greene and men wandering around in white suits and panama hats whilst looking shifty. And it really didn’t disappoint. A lot of the architecture is in a lovely Spanish colonial style that looks as though it hasn’t received much in the way of tender loving care in the last decade or so. The doors are tall and narrow and the windows adorned with wooden shutters flaking paint after years of exposure to the sun. Most of the upper stories have iron wrought balconies, with occasional faces of inquisitive cats or dogs poking their heads through the bars.
Faded glories in Montevideo

Like most visitors to Montevideo, I  went to the meat market for many of my meals. Apparently, many years ago, a ship was carrying a pre-fabricated iron wrought railway station to South America. The ship unloaded in Uruguay but the new owners failed to pay their bill so they were never allowed to collect the railway station. So it sat at the dock in Montevideo for years until someone realised that it might not be needed as a railway but it would make a great covered market. So now it sits by the entrance to the port, housing several pop-up restaurants and a few souvenir stands.

 The pop-up restaurants were glorious. They consisted of a central workstation with hot coals and a grill in the center to cook the meat or seafood and a counter for the customers to sit at.  I ate three steaks in two days. I’m actually pretty proud of that although when it came to dinner time on the second day, I just lay in bed whimpering and telling people that I didn’t want to eat anymore. The steak was easily the best that I have ever had; they were deliciously tender and wonderfully flavourful. These were happy and contented cows! And there were these bowls of thyme, chilli, garlic and olive oil standing on the counter tops, which when spread liberally over the steak made it something to die for. Excuse me, I just have to go and dribble a little bit. Seriously, you should go!
The Counter at the one of the MeatMarket Stalls

Meat Market from Above

I made liberal use of the wifi in the coffee shops in order to video call my other half. It was lovely to see his face even if it did come complete with a pang of homesickness! Sadly the dog was resolutely ignoring my voice as it came out of the phone. She knows enough not to be fooled; hearing my voice doesn’t mean I’m there (and therefore no treats will be forthcoming)! I didn’t skype my parents because as my father pointed out with impeccable logic, they already KNOW what I look like. If any of you ever think that I am slightly odd, I would just like to point you towards my parents. Yep. They sent me a lot of chocolate though, so I should probably show them slightly less lip. I love you Mum and Dad!

And I visited a few museums. The first was the Pre-Colombian Museum of Indigenous People which was interesting although regrettably most of the signs were in Spanish so I perhaps didn’t get as much out of it as I could have done (This is my own fault entirely, for not being good enough at Spanish, btw). Still, there was a fantastic display of festival masks on the top floor which were wonderfully creepy, so that was very enjoyable.
Incredibly Spooky Festival Masks

But the best museum by far was the Andes 1972 museum. If you are ever in Montevideo, you MUST go there. I imagine most of you know the story, but in 1972 a team of Uruguayan rugby players went missing when their plane flew into the Andes and vanished in bad weather. Chilean, Argentinian and Uruguayan rescue missions were scrambled to try and find the crash site and/or any survivors but all forty-five people had simply disappeared into the vastness of the Andes. Seventy-two days later a Chilean farmer found two men trying to gain his attention across a river. He threw them a rock with a piece of paper and a pen tied to it. And he received in return a letter explaining that they were some of the survivors of the flight that had crashed. They had walked for ten harrowing days to try get help for the remainder of their friends. The farmer, Sergio Catalan, rode for four hours and then travelled another hour in a truck simply to get to the nearest town with a police station to get help. Shortly after, the survivors were rescued from the crash site, the Valley of Tears, in the Andes. 

At first, it simply seemed miraculous that the sixteen survivors were still alive. And then it hit the news; there was evidence that human remains had been consumed at the crash site.  A huge media conference was called and the survivors told their horrific story. That without food, water and minimal shelter other than what could be fashioned out of the remains of the plane, the survivors had been driven to eat the bodies of their fallen friends. They were out there for seventy-two days; to do anything else would have meant their deaths.
 Certainly, when I read the book “Alive” about their struggle as a fairly grisly (what can I say, I’m a medic!) ten year old, that was the bit that I focused on. But as I walked around the museum, I realised that this was by no means the most remarkable part of their story. Trauma, dehydration and hypothermia would have been the biggest killers in mountains where the night-time temperatures dropped to sub-zero. The fact that they survived at all is the remarkable thing, not what they were driven to eat in their extremis.

And then I reached one of the final information boards. A father of one of the boys who had died soon after the plane crashed had made a statement to the press. I’m paraphrasing, but he said that when he was told that the flight had crashed into the Andes, he had known that there was no way that his son could have survived given the conditions. He then said “...if it had to happen, I am glad that there were forty-five of them. Because it means that sixteen families were able to welcome their sons home tonight...we have nothing to reproach these boys with...” The magnanimity and compassion inherent in those words is astonishing. And I think that is what this museum emphasises; that even in the ugliest and hardest of times we can behave with compassion. Even when things are at their most bleak, there is hope.
Wading birds fishing the fresh water of the River Plate as it empties into the Atlantic

Wednesday 3 May 2017

SOFA Scoring and Poor Beverage Control

Once again the seas are gloriously lumpy and as I can do very little else right now, I thought I might grumble about the article that I’ve been reading. Every so often I’m assailed with guilt and think that I really should try harder to be the sort of person that constantly reads scientific papers and genuinely gets excited about the thought of doing a work-based audit! My enthusiasm lasts roughly five minutes and then I read words like “operationalization” and I realise that I am not meant to enjoy reading research. For crimes are committed there. Yea, and verily did Helen rise up and smite the author of the paper heavily for linguistic errors and for using the word “conceputalization” with malice aforethought.

Otherwise it was quite an interesting paper. It talked about sepsis, its recognition and its treatment. It introduced me to something entirely new; the SOFA score. Apparently SOFA scoring is something that you do in Intensive Care for your poorly septic bods. Personally I think that it’s what you do after a hard day at work. SOFA score of 0-1, I can still hit the gym and make myself dinner. SOFA score of 2-3, I need to rant excessively and order a takeaway. Score of 4-5, I sit on the SOFA and rock gently whilst maintaining a vice-like grip on a glass of wine.

So, moving on from the horrors of medical papers, what is the good ship James Clark Ross doing at present? Well, currently a grand total of 8 knots as she tries to outrun the rather exciting weather. The science is done and we’re proceeding North towards Montevideo and a crew change. I’m very much looking forward to this. I’m keen to be on land again and eating fresh fruit and vegetables. My hat goes off to the guys in the galley; they keep salad going for way longer than seems even remotely possible. To the point where I was starting to wonder if they had a secret unit on a lower deck where they were growing lettuce hydroponically- nothing else explains how they were producing lettuce four weeks into the trip when it’s dead in my salad crisper by the end of one week! Either that or it was a faustian salad with a painting of a very wilted and slimy Romanian lettuce hidden in the head cook’s closet.

Such musings aside however, it has been quite a long time since the last salad leaf was eaten, and I am longing to eat something that is fresh and crunches. I keep thinking about pineapples. My patience has also been drained by the number of beverages that have landed on me in recent days. I was drenched in guiness last night after we took a heavy roll and this afternoon I poured cocoa all over my arm and the wall (bulkhead for the nautical types out there). This was actually very upsetting because I had been naughty and melted a teaspoon (okay, more!) of nutella into my cocoa and I was just about to savour the nutty-chocolatey goodness of it all when I went flying into the bulkhead and my treat went all over the wall. I would like you all to know that I showed great fortitude in this difficult time and merely slurped what I could off my arm rather than swearing.
I suspect this fortitude might have been missing a month ago. We went through a two-three week patch of terrible weather where I could not sleep at all. Normally I’m extraordinarily gifted and can easily sleep for 24 hours after a row of night shifts (If you’re new to this, you have to train to reach this level!) but I was lucky if I could manage four hours in a night. I tried everything. Blocking all light out with a towel against my door, the daylight blind down, a towel over anything glowing in my cabin, reading medical textbooks...the works. And it really takes its toll on you. I reached a point where my rational mind would respond in one way, whilst my emotions would respond in a completely different way. Someone could say “good morning” and whilst rationally I would know it was a nice remark, emotionally I would think “They hate me! Why else would they have said good that!” It’s a strange feeling to know that your emotions are suspect. Finally the weather smoothed out and I could sleep again and suddenly all the people who had said “Good morning” in such a nasty and snide way were being lovely again. Just shows that other people can’t cope with fatigue I suppose!

What a lot of grumbling I’ve just done! On a positive note, we had humpback whale visitors a few days ago. I never really found them a particularly appealing whale, with their barnacles and greyish colouring. But seeing them in motion, as I have on this trip, is to appreciate them properly. Pictures (regrettably, because that’s what I have for you!) just don’t do them justice. They’re so gently, mildly curious about why the big red thing on the surface keeps lowering stuff into the water that goes “ping”. And they congregate around the ship as she sits on station with no sense of fear, but rather a bemused sense of tolerance. It becomes apparent too, how utterly at home in their medium they are. They are so powerful and yet so effortless in the water. Movement is achieved with a lazy flick of a muscular tail; graceful and joyous. Watching them, I decided that you can have your showy orcas and your massive blue whales. I like mine playful and a little bit barnacly!



More fluking!

Monday 24 April 2017

The Handsomest Man in the Navy

Alas, t’would seem that it is time for yet another general election in the UK. This wee surprise from Prime Minister Theresa May has occasioned a little bit of scrambling on my part as I will still be overseas when it comes time to vote. I’m going to have to vote by proxy and I’m keeping my fingers very tightly crossed that a form posted from Montevideo on May 8th will make it back to the UK in time for me to nominate my proxy voter!

So, in this time of great trouble and uncertainty, (“Will we still have marmite if we leave the EU?” I hear you cry!) I thought I might lighten the mood by talking about a chap that we can all look up to. A man who has done great things in Arctic and Antarctic exploration.  A man who was publically noted to be good looking! A man who had a whole ship named after him! That’s right; it’s time to talk about Commander James Clark Ross.
The RSS James Clark Ross berthed at Rothera Station

James was born on April 15, 1800 and a mere eleven years later he embarked on his naval career. I find that slightly alarming; I’m not sure what I was doing aged eleven but it certainly wasn’t starting a career. Stickers may have been a thing? And please bear in mind that this was in an age where lifeboat regulations had yet to come into force. There was no such thing as a standardised distress flare (that wouldn’t come into being until after the Titanic) and GPS was nearly two-hundred years in the future. British sailors in general didn’t even learn to swim on the grounds that it would merely “prolong the agony” if they went overboard! This was not a career for the timorous.

James was lucky in having an uncle, Sir John Ross, who had already distinguished himself in the Napoleonic wars. It seems probable that the rapid promotions that James enjoyed may have had something to do with his uncle’s influence and confidence in him. In any case, this rapidly proved to be a confidence well founded. By 1818 he was to accompany Sir John Ross on an expedition to find the North-West Passage.

The North-West passage was a hypothesized route to the trading nations of Asia through the Arctic waters of Northern Canada. Reduced sea ice levels have made this route much more passable of recent- but at the time that James went North, there was no certainty that such a route even existed. Regrettably the Ross expedition was forced to turn back after encountering significant amounts of ice, and Sir John was criticised heavily by the newspapers and the admiralty for not having pushed on.

Despite this inauspicious start, the grounding that James received in matters of scientific research and polar exploration was invaluable. Whilst on his uncle’s expedition he took part in many of the scientific observations and on their return to Britain received a post on William Parry’s expedition to the Arctic. James spent the next few years on voyages with Parry to the Arctic, and by 1825 had overwintered there four times. Parry came to rely heavily on his energy and scientific acumen. During the 1824-25 expedition alone, James took magnetic and lunar observations, checked longitudes, measured the thickness of the sea ice and continued his work in taxidermy.

Parry was shortly after to command an attempt to find the magnetic north pole. The men of the expedition man-hauled sledges weighing up to 200 pounds over the sea ice. Their efforts were foiled by the poor conditions; the sledges foundered in snow softened by fog, rain and sun. In addition to this the sea ice was steadily drifting south, and the men of the expedition struggled to match the pace of the southerly drift. Parry himself became snow-blind and James was severely injured on being caught between a snow hummock and one of the sledges. The decision was made to turn back after a week in which the expedition had advanced no further than one mile due to the drift of the ice.

In June 1829, James Clark Ross had been made a captain by the admiralty but not having a ship he was at something of a loose end. His uncle, Sir John, offered him a post on his next Arctic expedition. James leapt at the opportunity; he wouldn’t return to Britain for the next four and a half years. Frozen seas would prevent their return and during this period James made the discovery that he could keep his overwintering sailors free of scurvy if he fed them on a typical Inuit diet- plenty of fat and offal. You see? Liver is good for you! During the second winter of this extended voyage, James undertook a 28 day expedition to find the magnetic North Pole. On June 1, 1831 he found it at 70° 5’ 17” North and 96° 46’ 45” West. (It has since shifted both North and West)

When the Rosses finally made their way back to Britain, James was recognised as one of the foremost polar explorers of the day. He was a natural choice to lead an expedition to Antarctica to study magnetism in the southern latitudes. His expedition utilised the bomb-ships, Erebus and Terror (Isn’t that a great name for a ship? The Terror!). Bomb ships had specially strengthened frame-works in order to withstand the recoil of mortars and cannons on board which made them perfect when re-purposed to become polar exploration ships. The crew of both ships had cause to be grateful for their ships’ ice strengthened structures; by 1842 the ships were in an “ocean of rolling fragments of ice, hard as floating rocks of granite, which were dashed against them with such violence that their masts quivered.”

Despite these alarms, both ships penetrated deep into the Antarctic pack ice and through into the Ross Sea. James and Crozier planted a British flag on Possession Island and watched a volcanic eruption; they would later name the volcano Mount Erebus after one of the ships. Ultimately as they headed further south they found a large land mass blocking their way, disappointing James as he realised that this land mass stood between him and the discovery of the magnetic South Pole. The ships turned west and came across a vast and forbidding ice barrier, reaching a full 150 feet above the level of the sea. They had reached what would become known as the Ross Ice Shelf, although at the time James very patriotically (prudently?) dubbed it the Victoria Barrier.

In 1843 the expedition returned home and James married Ann Coulman. He promised at the time of their marriage that he wouldn’t undertake any further polar exploration (although she did release him from this promise in 1848 when he was asked to command the mission to find and rescue John Franklin). James spent his time living quietly with his wife and their children, and in writing “A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions in the Years 1839-1843” Writing pithy titles was apparently not one of his many skills!  I think we can all agree however, that of all his many achievements, the greatest of them was this; that Lady Franklin, wife of notable explorer John Franklin, did say that he was the “handsomest man in the navy.” Well observed madam, well  observed.
Commander James Clark Ross painted by John Wildman. Copyright National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London