Retracing the Route of the Shackleton Expedition

Geoscience Adventure in Antarctica

Last February and March I joined the scientific crew of the Elysium Visual Epic Expedition, participating in an historical voyage of exploration and discovery.

For 19 days, the Elysium Team – comprising 57 explorers from 19 nations – retraced the route of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, a journey that went horribly sideways when the Endurance was crushed by ice and sank, precipitating one of the greatest survival stories of the 20th century.

Our mission was to undertake oceanographic studies and document impacts of accelerating climate change – both above and below the water – on the planet’s last remaining frontier. During the past 50 years, temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 3 degrees Celsius, or more than twice the world’s average warming trend. Because the Antarctic Peninsula has experienced the greatest temperature increase of any place on the planet, it’s an ideal outdoor laboratory to study climate change.

Later this spring, the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, will host a photographic exhibit of the Elysium Expedition’s epic images of Antarctica and South Georgia.

Other Elysium Expedition’sdeliverables – a feature film, a TV documentary, a photographic essay book and a permanent photographic archive – will be rolled out in 2014, during the centennial celebrations of Shackleton’s epic journey.

Big Boots, Big Personalities

During my audition for a coveted spot in the Elysium Expedition, I pitched my vision of recreating the role of the ship’s geoscientist, a century later, providing a unique perspective to the discussions of climate change, glaciology and oceanography. And I waxed poetically about the ground-breaking science conducted by geologists and geophysicists who had played key roles in Shackleton’s numerous polar expeditions – these geoscientists mapped the mineral potential and glacial coverage of Antarctica, acquired numerous magnetic and gravity measurements, and were pivotal in advancing the geological and geophysical knowledge of Antarctica, the South Pole and South Georgia.

Surely, I argued, the expedition needed a modern-day geo-equivalent.

As it turned out, I had some big boots to fill – and some interesting personalities to follow.

During Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, James Mann Wordie of Glasgow, Scotland, was the expedition geologist and head of scientific staff. Wordie managed the expedition’s team of scientists, including a physicist, a meteorologist and a biologist.

While stranded on Elephant Island for five months, Wordie became exceedingly popular, exchanging his tobacco rations for unique rock specimens that the men had collected. Apparently, geologists were just as quirky and passionate a century ago as they are today.

Reginald William James joined Wordie’s scientific staff as a magnetic specialist and physicist. Today, we would call James a “geophysicist.” Like many of the men who participated in the trek, he joined serendipitously after hearing about the position at Cambridge University. His interview with Shackleton lasted all of five minutes, as James recalled:

“All that I can clearly remember of it (the interview), is that I was asked if I had good teeth, if I suffered from varicose veins and if I could sing.”

Shackleton’s crew wrote, humorously: “James had some wonderful electrical machines which none of us understood ... and a joke of ours, that annoyed him very much, was that he did not either.”

Following in Shackleton’s footsteps, one hundred years later, the Elysium Expedition’stwo geoscientists are both women. I was joined by Toni Williamson, a Toronto-based, Australian geologist whose doctorate studies involved a paleo-environmental assessment of climate change during the Early Cretaceous System of Australia.

Expenses: Then and Now

The people have changed and the times have changed. The relative costs, however, of mounting an expedition to Antarctica are still epic.

In 1914, Shackleton purchased the Endurance for £11,600, and struggled to raise the £50,000 (current value £3.5 million) required for his expedition. In fact, Wordie personally donated money toward the purchase of fuel for the expedition. The Endurance departed England the day that World War I was declared.

My vision to participate in the expedition was widely supported through corporate partnerships, geoscience organizations, and by generous individual donors. The AAPG Foundation shared the vision of exploration and discovery, recognizing the benefits for AAPG’s members and for the organization’s educational and outreach programs.

“Outreach and helping to make geology and geosciences interesting and relevant for students is a top priority for the AAPG Foundation,” said AAPG and Foundation Executive Director Rick Fritz. “This expedition certainly fulfilled that goal.”

I also received crucial financial support from other geoscience organizations, including theCanadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists Foundation, theAssociation of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta, and the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre.

My Antarctic dispatches were published by the supporting geoscience associations, the Calgary Herald and by the earth science departments of Dalhousie University (my alma mater) and the University of Calgary, enabling readers to explore Antarctica and South Georgia with me.

The AAPG website also spread the story, by posting my dispatches from Antarctica.

The Dream Team

The Elysium story is not just mine, of course – it’s a story of a diverse cast of explorers who brought with them their respective expertise, reputations and goals.

I worked alongside the world’s preeminent scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, movie makers, photographers, artists, musicians, historians, scuba divers and explorers, including National Geographic’s photographers-in-residence Emory Kristof and David Doubilet. Kristof is famous for discovering the Titanic with National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence Robert Ballard. In 1977, he was the first to document the existence of hot water volcanic vents off the Galapagos Rift, and the unique life forms they support.

Kristof was there to investigate the shipwreck of the Antarctic, which sank in 1903 in 3,000 feet of water in the Weddell Sea. According to Kristof, remotely operated vehicles and autonomously operated vehicles would be needed to explore under the pack ice for the Antarctic.

South of the Antarctic, situated in 10,000 feet of water, lies the Endurance, Shackleton’s three-masted barquentine. Discovery of the Antarctic, said Kristof, would provide the “proof of concept” for state-of-the-art technologies required to mount a multi-million-dollar expedition to find the Endurance.

Unusually heavy pack ice, however, prevented the Professor Molchanov – the expedition’s oceanographic research vessel – from entering the Weddell Sea near Paulet Island.

Kristof’s vision of exploration and discovery in Antarctica also included documenting the world’s most southerly hot water vent. Located in an oceanic spreading centre, the hydrothermal vent is geographically close to the Antarctic.

Night after night, Kristof and I poured over seafloor maps and images that pinpointed the location of the deep sea vent, enthusiastically discussing how modern-day geophysical methods assist in ocean exploration.

Now Hear This!

I traveled to Antarctica with a few agendas of my own.

When contemplating a scientific expedition to Antarctica, every honest geophysicist needs to record the unique and diverse sounds of this polar region: glaciers calving into the ocean and grinding ice (growlers, bergy bits, ice bergs and pack ice). CGGVeritas shared my vision of exploration and discovery, and generously bought for me a special purpose built hydrophone – designed originally to record whale sounds – complete with a digital recording system, a waterproof headset and a software interpretation package.

With grandiose aspirations of breaking into the film industry, I hoped to use my acoustic recordings to collaborate with Eric Bettens, the Expedition’s official musical composer from Belgium, and with Leandro Blanco, a Spanish movie maker and underwater sound expert.

Equipped with my new hydrophone and 100 meters of cable, I set out to investigate the acoustic signatures of Antarctica.

The inaugural day for testing the hydrophone was gray and rainy. Steve Nicol, an oceanographer and krill expert from the Australian Antarctic Division, commented that – in 25 years of visiting Antarctica – it was the first time that he’d ever encountered rain.

On this day we were exploring Pleneau Bay, traveling through a spectacular area called the “Iceberg Graveyard.” Originating in the Ross Sea, these icebergs were transported via the Circumpolar Current, eventually running aground in the shallows of Pleneau Bay.

In addition to the trapped icebergs, Pleneau Bay was rimmed by massive glaciers cascading down to the ocean.

Cruising the coastline by zodiac, we were dwarfed by towering fortresses of blue ice heavily dissected by deep crevasses and, we were awestruck by the frequent claps of thunder as ice calved off the glaciers, crashing into the ocean.

Dressed for extreme snorkeling in Antarctica – with the hydrophone headset over my neoprene dive hood and a polar fleece hat over the hood for extra warmth – I began to record the otherworld sounds of capsizing icebergs, the grinding of a gin-and-tonic pack ice concoction, and the mini-tsunami waves precipitated by glaciers collapsing into the ocean. I was keen, as well, to record the songs and growls of Humpback whales and Leopard seals that we had spotted earlier near the zodiac.

I was just getting used to operating the hydrophone with my cumbersome dive gloves when Murphy’s law intervened.

Ironically, I recorded the hydrophone’s final sounds when it violently struck the zodiac’s propeller – an especially horrible sound, because the hydrophone was worth about $800.

I quickly hauled in the frayed remains and assessed the equipment situation – by my estimate, I now had about 95 meters of cable, minus the hydrophone.

In hindsight, I had misjudged the importance of the English-Russian translation between me and the zodiac driver: The first time I lowered the hydrophone into the ocean, I’d waved my arms wildly, pointing at the hydrophone and then at the zodiac’s propeller. Apparently lost in translation, my attempts at universal body language had failed miserably, as the zodiac driver gunned the throttle without notice, abruptly ending my nascent experiment at recording the underwater sounds of Antarctica.

A Toast to Shackleton

Our pilgrimage to Shackleton’s final resting place puts the loss of the hydrophone into sombre perspective.

We visited Grytviken, South Georiga, where the explorer died of a heart attack at a mere 47 years of age. An abandoned Norwegian whaling station, Grytviken is littered with whale vertebrae and rusting rendering tanks. Some 87,000 whales were processed before the station was abandoned in the 1960s.

Today, Grytviken is home to a British Antarctic Survey research station, and is populated by 13 Britons and countless King penguins, fur seals and elephant seals.

Shackleton died here on Jan. 5, 1922, shortly after the start of his Quest Expedition. We visited Shackleton’s gravesite in a small cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence and patrolled by King penguins, enthusiastically toasting this great Irishman’s accomplishments with Jameson Irish Whiskey. Respectfully, I poured the last dram of my whisky on his grave.

Running the gauntlet of Antarctic fur seals who lunged at us from hiding places in hummocky grass tussocks, we made the pilgrimage to Shackleton’s memorial cairn and cross situated on an exposed hilltop at the entrance to Grytviken Harbour – in the lead was Jonathan Shackleton, an Irish organic farmer, author and cousin to Sir Ernest.

The memorial was erected in 1922 by George Vibert Douglas, the Quest Expedition’s chief scientist and a Canadian geologist who later became a Carnegie Professor of Geology at Dalhousie University. Douglas was careful to point the white cross toward the Magnetic South Pole, which was discovered during Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition of 1909.

Secreted inside the cairn was a scroll bearing the stamp of the Royal Geographical Society. Jonathan Shackleton unfurled the scroll and, with an historical sense of place and purpose, read aloud the names of the Quest Expedition’s crew to the Elysium Team of 21st century explorers who had been humbled by following in Shackleton’s footsteps, 100 years later.

Editor's Note: I began by assembling the basics for my field trip to Antarctica and South Georgia: surface geology maps, topographic maps, hiking boots, wool socks, a back pack and two digital cameras. My gear list soon ballooned to include a hydrophone, an Iridium satellite phone, a laptop computer, an Arctic-rated dry suit (which doubles as a survival suit), flares, an underwater camera housing, long underwear, a parka, mitts, hats and knee-high rubber boots.

Three hundred and fifty pounds (of equipment) later, I was rigged for a modern-day geology and geophysics field trip to the bottom of the world.

I was ready to tackle one of the harshest climates on Earth.

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Editor’s Note

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