Shackleton in our Mind

Seven weeks at sea in one of the stormiest areas of our planet. Research work under extreme conditions. We know our ship is safe. But even a large and stable icebreaker like "Polarstern" sometimes becomes nature's plaything during storms.

By Federal Ministry of Education and Research

The high seas - a challenge for everyone on board. Waves over eight meters high crash over the ship's side. We look at the raging sea. Thinking of the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his five companions. In a wooden lifeboat, only a few meters long, they fought through the storm with the last ounce of their strength, and braved the waves to South Georgia, to get help for their men left behind. How did they manage that? The geoscientist Thomas Pape from MARUM in Bremen, who has participated in 27 expeditions with various research vessels so far, about Shackleton and his men.

Shackleton Sir Ernest Henry 1874-1922LIFE Photo Collection

Many years ago, I read a short article about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition organized by Sir Ernest Shackleton, a planned Antarctic crossing that fascinated me. First and foremost, of course, the rescue of all participants of the "Endurance" expedition, but also the inventiveness, perseverance, and luck – prerequisites for survival on the ice in the Antarctic Weddell Sea. Shackleton's 1,500 kilometer journey in a wooden lifeboat, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the subsequent crossing of the unexplored South Georgian mountain range are moving. The history of the expedition is not known to everyone anymore, and on several occasions I have described some facets.

LIFE Photo Collection

Unlike Shackleton and his companions, as marine geologists today, we explore the processes taking place deep below our research vessel on and with in the seafloor. Although our research work is different, the joy of observation, new discoveries and understanding of processes is certainly as great as it was in Shackleton's days. In short moments between work, I love to look across the wide ocean. The play of sunlight and clouds fascinates me, and I think of the researchers who paved the way at sea, on which we are travelling with our research ships now.

Geoscientist Thomas Pape on RV METEORFederal Ministry of Education and Research

Our expedition off South Georgia with the research vessel "Meteor" in 2017, about 100 years after Shackleton's expedition, prompted me to read the travelogues of the photographer Frank Hurley, who was only 19 years old at the beginning of the "Endurance" journey. I also re-read the notes of Shackleton. Both authors impressed me with the equanimity and candor of their descriptions.

RV METEOR approaching South GeorgiaFederal Ministry of Education and Research

Two years later, I'm back on deck. This time on the research icebreaker "Polarstern". On deck it is icy. Hurley's photographs come to my mind. They are so aesthetic that one feels like an observer on the spot. It is unclear to me how the men managed to survive in the ice with the simplest equipment during the many months, how they created hope despite countless seemingly unsolvable problems, or how they did not let conflicts get out of hand. When my hands get cold after only a few minutes of work on our windy working deck, I think of the clothing of Shackleton's men and the cold temperatures down to
-47°C they endured. Giving the other men confidence was certainly a great talent of Shackleton.

Stormy SeaFederal Ministry of Education and Research

The reports about the Trans-Antarctic Expedition also reminded me of the fate of the Ross Sea Party - a story that is less well known but no less moving. The task of this group was to build way-stations on the opposite ice shelf of the Ross Sea for the last distance of the planned Antarctic crossing. While the drift ice around Shackleton's group in the Weddell Sea continued to move further and further away from their destination, the Ross Sea group – unaware of Shackleton's simultaneous failure - completed their mission under the heaviest hardships. Only upon Shackleton's arrival by ship did they realize that their two-year torment was useless.

LIFE Photo Collection

While my eyes wander across land and sea around South Georgia during free minutes on our expedition, I have to think of the efforts of both those groups and the different acknowledgement of their successes. Shackleton's daring and energy led to continued fascination with the “Endurance” expedition, despite its scientific failure. The supporting Ross Sea group, which achieved its goals with impressive tenacity, was later called Shackleton's forgotten men.

LIFE Photo Collection

Credits: Story

PHOTOGRAPHY: Holger von Neuhoff
TEXT: Thomas Pape, MARUM University of Bremen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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