Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Apparently seals fart. A lot.

A holiday feeling has prevailed today aboard the good ship James Clark Ross. The conditions have been so choppy and the weather so bad that the order came from above to give the science stations a miss. Trying to winch rather heavy bottles and bits of gear into the ocean is fairly tricky even when the ocean isn’t doing its best to clamber inside the ship because it hears that the decor is just so fabulous!

Scientists have therefore been wandering about with a strangely lost look all day. Their day usually starts at 4am with the first set of data collection, so I think the majority of them were thrown by the unaccustomed amounts of sleep! This was not my problem. I played yet another fun round of “Guess that Noise and Name that Annoying Rattle!” and spent the night wrapping clothing around everything metallic in my cabin. Why do I own so many metal things? Thus when 7.00 rolled around, I grunted obscenities at my phone and snivelled into my pillow.

But, today I’ve heard a confirmation of some rather exciting gossip. Our itinerary has always said that we will make port at the Falklands and then re-supply Signy and Rothera. The Shackleton has the job of re-supplying Halley, King Edward Point (that’s South Georgia) and Bird Island. But apparently we’ve made such good progress on our jaunt south that we have an extra day before we need to get into the Falklands. So we may be going to South Georgia after all! Even better, we may be getting off the ship and going for a look around!

I am so excited. I didn’t mention this rumour when I first heard it because frankly this ship is a hotbed of rumours and misinformation. I thought it was immeasurably better to pretend to myself that really I didn’t care if we got to go ashore at South Georgia. I was totally indifferent to the thought...Hah! This is immense!

Do you know what’s at South Georgia? That’s right. Penguins, absolute boatloads of penguins. Oh, and seals and sea birds and every other smelly farting thing that you can think of!  I can’t wait. The bit that I’m most hopeful of seeing is Ernest Shackleton’s grave. For those who don’t know, Shackleton was part of the “heroic age” of exploration. Men like Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton went south to Antarctica to explore the continent ostensibly in the name of science and possibly in a spirit of jingoism. Whatever their motivations, what seems certain is that once they had been South, they were powerless to resist going back.

The story of Shackleton’s most famous venture, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is fairly well known. Mere days before the outbreak of World War I, Shackleton’s team received a fairly laconic telegram from the Admiralty telling them to “proceed” and so they set sail in the Endurance. Whilst navigating the Weddell Sea, the ship became stuck in pack ice, which eventually crushed her leaving the men of the expedition no choice but to decamp to the ice floes. When the ice began to break up, Shackleton ordered his men into the three life boats and they made their way to Elephant Island- an inhospitable place that they only reached after 5 exhausting days at sea.

Elephant Island wasn’t on the main shipping routes, so Shackleton picked a group of men to make the further journey to South Georgia where a whaling station was known to exist. This nautical jaunt, a mere 720miles in open life boats with a sextant as the only navigational aid, was performed and his men arrived on South Georgia.

Sadly, the poor beggars were on the wrong side of the island, so they had to cross 32miles of mountainous terrain with 50ft of rope and a carpenter’s adze between them. Apparently they drove screws into their boots so that they would work as climbing boots.

They made it across and Shackleton’s men back on Elephant Island were rescued  four months later by a Chilean captain, Louis Pardo and a British whaling vessel. No man was lost. Not a man died. Isn’t that extraordinary? So, in the words of another famous explorer, Apsley Cherry-Garrard,

“For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organisation, give me Scott...for a dash to the Pole and nothing else give me Amundsen and if I am in a devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”

Shackleton died of a heart attack in 1921 in South Georgia, whilst trying to launch another Antarctic expedition. His wife requested that he be buried there. To be able to see his grave and pour a tot of whiskey for the man...well that would be a fine thing.


  1. Lovely blog! Good luck and I hope you make it there. I've had a wee dram on that spot and it was most moving (not to mention accompanied by incredible scenery). Looking forward to reading about the rest of your adventures!

    1. Thank you Sophie! Really glad that you're enjoying the blog. Raise a glass for Shackleton and me on Saturday then! Helen