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21/01/2023

Reading time: 6min

Newsdesk

Sweco UK

Retracing Shackleton’s steps: Stewart Craigie in Antarctica

 

By Stewart Craigie, Special Interest Projects technical director

Shackleton’s Journey is a beautifully illustrated book which details Ernest Shackleton’s historic expedition crossing the Antarctic and the story of his courageous crew. To help bring some of that journey to life, I’m sharing a log from my 2023 trip so that people can better understand this unique part of our world – I’m also retracing Shackleton’s route, even visiting his grave on King Edward Point – a place which I have wanted to visit since I was 12 years old.

Why am I in the Antarctic?

I am currently travelling aboard the RRS Sir David Attenborough and accompanying Leigh Storey, the Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme (AIMP), John Eacott, who manages the Framework Contract for NERC and Elen Jones, BAS’ AIMP Programme Director.

It is a 5-week tour of the region visiting Rothera (where the new Discovery Building is being constructed), Robert Island, Signy, King Edward Point and Bird Island inspecting works already completed and in progress and undertaking research into future projects such as the Rothera Hangar, runway extension and renewables, a potential decarbonised station at Signy and future modernisation at King Edward Point. It is a great opportunity to extend the value that Sweco has been supplying to the transformation of BAS’ operations in the region to and to further strengthen relationships with our client and partners.

 

We were on the ship for almost two weeks before we arrived at the group of islands where Shackleton and his men finally made their camp. We didn’t actually get to visit Elephant Island, but we did visit two islands (Robert Island and Signy) very close to it.

Our visit is in the middle of the Antarctic summer, so we saw the islands at their best.

(Me with Robert Island in the background)

After travelling between snow-covered mountains, past icebergs and through sea ice, we finally arrived at Robert Island on New Year’s Eve. This is a very remote, steep and rocky island. There is very little life on the island albeit a small group of birds, seals, whales and penguins. There is a research station here where scientists come to study the vegetation which includes moss, lichen and very short grasses. We helped the scientists unload their supplies. This is hard work because there are no vehicles on the island and subsequently everything must be carried. The scientists must bring everything they need to live on the island during their stay.

Overnight we travelled to Signy Island and past Elephant Island, which is the most northerly of the South Shetland Islands. Unfortunately, however, it was a foggy day, so we didn’t get to see Elephant Island. A few hours later we arrived at Signy which is in the South Orkney Islands. This was exciting for me since I grew up in the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland. Signy is another stop to drop off scientists and help them transport their supplies to the research station. We spent two days here – the first day was nice and sunny, whilst the second day was cold and snowy.

Bearing in mind this is the Antarctic summer it reminds you how difficult it must have been for Shackleton’s crew to survive on Elephant Island.

(Approaching Signy)

We left Signy to head towards Bird Island – on a route very similar to that made by Shackleton on the James Caird. Our journey started on 5 January, the 101st anniversary of Shackleton’s death, which was a remarkable coincidence. The journey started out quite difficult as the ship was rocking so much that a lot of the passengers were seasick. There were also lots of icebergs and I get woken in the night with the ship crashing through sea ice. The thing that surprised me was how rough it was in our ship (that is half the size of the Titanic) as I tried to imagine how difficult and scary it must have been for Shackleton and his men on a boat that was the size of a family car. I asked the Captain how big the waves were, he told me they were 6.0m high. That is as high as a house!

Whilst on the ship we had to take great care in such rocky conditions. We were required to secure our seats when not sitting in them and were told to lock all of our drawers to prevent them from sliding open.  There was a team of people helping the captain safely guide the ship through these difficult waters.  As you will recall, Shackleton only had Frank Worsley and Tom Crean to help him. We covered the distance in two days. The James Caird took 17 days. The waves would have been towering over them. Whilst it was a little bit exciting in such a big ship, it must have been terrifying in a small boat. We were warm and dry on the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Shackleton and his men would have been soaked and freezing.

(Approaching Bird Island)

We arrived at Bird Island, which is to the west of the cove that Shackleton’s boat reached. It was the first time we had seen green vegetation in weeks. We anchored the ship offshore and travelled towards the island on a small boat. Even in this sheltered bay, the waves were higher than the boat as we headed towards the island. Once we arrived in the sheltered cove it was much calmer. When we got to the beach it was covered in seals, seal pups, penguins and of course, birds. Most of them had no fear of us, but we were quickly reminded that the bigger seals can attack and bite. Although it is a magical place, it can still be very dangerous.

(The welcoming committee at Bird Island)

I imagine Shackleton and his men had the same difficulty with the seals. The seals are huge and very powerful. They are about 3 times heavier than a man.

In a few days we will head to King Edward Point and finally arrive at Shackleton’s grave. I have been trying to get to the gravesite since I was 12. This will be the most exciting part of the journey for me.

Until next time!