Saturday, January 23, 2010
Now I do not generally identify public figures as heroes to model myself after. However as some of you may know, Ernest Shackleton is as about close to a hero as anyone can get for me. Thus is it is with pleasure that I am writing a post about him that I can remotely connect to my own experience.
Shackleton was an early British explorer in the Antarctic. He was a member of an expedition that narrowly missed the Pole in 1909. After Roald Amundsen reached the pole in 1912, Shackleton set his sights on another first: a continental transect. Although he ultimately failed, this was to be his most famous voyage. The expedition set out in the the ship Endurance from England in 1914 and sailed south. The plan was to reach the Antarctic coast on the shore of the Weddell sea, just on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula from Palmer station. However less than a day’s sail from land, the ship became stuck, frozen into the sea ice. For the next nine months, the ship was at the mercy of the slow clockwise revolution of the sea ice around the Weddell sea basin. In the end, the ship was crushed by the ice but Shackleton was able to lead of his men back to safety. He skillfully guided them past deadly leopard seals, through shifting ice, hunger, hypothermia, rugged glacier travel, and the greatest ocean crossing in a small boat. If you are interested in one of the greatest stories of courage, exploration, and leadership, I would highly recommend that you read Endurance by Alfred Lansing.
The bottom line is that Shackleton’s ship was stuck in the sea ice for almost a year, and that ships still get trapped in the sea ice today. In fact the research vessel that brought me here, the Laurence M Gould, was stuck in sea ice several years ago. She was halfway through a four-week scientific cruise when she became surrounded by sea ice which she could not break. It was mid-October, which is spring in the Antarctic, so there was no chance of being held as long as Shackleton was. Moreover, the Gould has a “stamina” of over two months, so there was no danger that supplies would run out. Even so, the scientists had no idea when the ice would release them because there is no timetable for the breakup of the sea ice.
Hugh Ducklow, the chief scientist for LTER, was on this cruse and recounted the story to me. Once it was clear that the vessel was trapped, there was nothing to do. All science operations ceased. Scientists and crew alike were forced to occupy the hours unexpectedly showered on them. Their only connection to the outside world was a satellite phone and limited email capabilities, no internet. So the ship became its own world. They set up a “radio station” that broadcast on an internal frequency. Volunteer DJs would play music and write news reports. There was a tacit agreement not to acknowledge the existence of the world beyond the ship, so the sports roundup detailed the progress of a multi-elimination fussball tournament, and the weather report was always what was right outside. People differed in their ability to cope with a situation they had never faced before. Most made themselves busy with whatever they could do but everyone was helpness in a way that a few people could never get used to, and they became irritable and unpleasant. There was no telling when they would escape the ice and return to their lives in the United States. This would be sense of limbo that I have never experienced and one that I suppose would be unusual for anyone to live through. Although I try to keep a balanced life I am sure that a forced extraction from the self-imposed treadmill of the modern world would be difficult.
I suppose that Shackleton coped with the boredom in a similar way to the scientists, trying to keep his men busy making rope, tarring the decks, training the sled dogs. Sinking morale was more of a threat to him than to the members of the Gould expedition because his chance for survival was much narrower, and rested on the hard work and cooperation of all of his men. He was eventually able to escape the Antarctic, as did the Gould. The ice broke up a month after trapping the Gould, and the expedition returned to Chile only two weeks late.
This story serves to remind me that Antarctica is still a land of surprises. I am keeping that in mind while the Gould is currently trying to circumnavigate an island exposed by the recent breakup of an ice shelf. The ice is still in place but broken into pieces separated by narrow stretches of water. The ship could venture into a lead in the ice which then closes, crushing it. Let’s all hope that they have a successful voyage!