INTO THE WEDDELL SEA
an abridged excerpt from South! by Ernest Shackleton
MONDAY, DECEMBER 21, was beautifully fine, with a gentle west-north-westerly breeze. We made a start at 3 a.m. and proceeded through the pack in a south-westerly direction. At noon we had gained seven miles almost due east, the northerly drift of the pack having continued while the ship was apparently moving to the south. Petrels of several species, penguins, and seals were plentiful, and we saw four small blue whales. At noon we entered a long lead to the southward and passed around and between nine splendid bergs. One mighty specimen was shaped like the Rock of Gibraltar but with steeper cliffs, and another had a natural dock that would have contained the Aquitania. A spur of ice closed the entrance to the huge blue pool. Hurley brought out his kinematograph-camera, in order to make a record of these bergs. Fine long leads running east and south-east among bergs were found during the afternoon, but at midnight the ship was stopped by small, heavy ice-floes, tightly packed against an unbroken plain of ice. The outlook from the mast-head was not encouraging. The big floe was at least 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. The edge could not be seen at the widest part, and the area of the floe must have been not less than 150 square miles. It appeared to be formed of year-old ice, not very thick and with very few hummocks or ridges in it. We thought it must have been formed at sea in very calm weather and drifted up from the south-east. I had never seen such a large area of unbroken ice in the Ross Sea.
We waited with banked fires for the strong easterly breeze to moderate or the pack to open. At 6.30 p.m. on December 22 some lanes opened and we were able to move towards the south again. The following morning found us working slowly through the pack, and the noon observation gave us a gain of 19 miles S. 41° W. for the seventeen and a half hours under steam. Many year-old adelies, three crab-eaters, six sea-leopards, one Weddell and two blue whales were seen. The air temperature, which had been down to 25° Fahr. on December 21, had risen to 34° Fahr. While we were working along leads to the southward in the afternoon, we counted fifteen bergs. Three of these were table-topped, and one was about 70 ft high and 5 miles long. Evidently it had come from a barrier-edge. The ice became heavier but slightly more open, and we had a calm night with fine long leads of open water. The water was so still that new ice was forming on the leads. We had a run of 70 miles to our credit at noon on December 24, the position being lat. 64° 32´ S., long. 17° 17´ W. All the dogs except eight had been named. I do not know who had been responsible for some of the names, which seemed to represent a variety of tastes. They were as follows Rugby, Upton Bristol, Millhill, Songster, Sandy, Mack, Mercury, Wolf, Amundsen, Hercules, Hackenschmidt, Samson, Sammy, Skipper, Caruso, Sub, Ulysses, Spotty, Bosun, Slobbers, Sadie, Sue, Sally, Jasper, Tim, Sweep, Martin, Splitlip, Luke, Saint, Satan, Chips, Stumps, Snapper, Painful, Bob, Snowball, Jerry, Judge, Sooty, Rufus, Sidelights, Simeon, Swanker, Chirgwin, Steamer, Peter, Fluffy, Steward, Slippery, Elliott, Roy, Noel, Shakespeare, Jamie, Bummer, Smuts, Lupoid, Spider, and Sailor. Some of the names, it will be noticed, had a descriptive flavour.
Heavy floes held up the ship from midnight till 6 a.m. on December 25, Christmas Day. Then they opened a little and we made progress till 11.30 a.m., when the leads closed again. We had encountered good leads and workable ice during the early part of the night, and the noon observation showed that our run for the twenty-four hours was the best since we entered the pack a fortnight earlier. We had made 71 miles S. 4° W. The ice held us up till the evening, and then we were able to follow some leads for a couple of hours before the tightly packed floes and the increasing wind compelled a stop. The celebration of Christmas was not forgotten. Grog was served at midnight to all on deck. There was grog again at breakfast, for the benefit of those who had been in their bunks at midnight. Lees had decorated the wardroom with flags and had a little Christmas present for each of us. Some of us had presents from home to open. Later there was a really splendid dinner, consisting of turtle soup, whitebait, jugged hare, Christmas pudding, mince-pies, dates, figs and crystallized fruits, with rum and stout as drinks. In the evening everybody joined in a “sing-song.” Hussey had made a one-stringed violin, on which, in the words of Worsley, he “discoursed quite painlessly.” The wind was increasing to a moderate south-easterly gale and no advance could be made, so we were able to settle down to the enjoyments of the evening.
The first day of the New Year (January 1, 1915) was cloudy, with a gentle northerly breeze and occasional snow-squalls. The condition of the pack improved in the evening, and after 8 p.m. we forged ahead rapidly through brittle young ice, easily broken by the ship. A few hours later a moderate gale came up from the east, with continuous snow. After 4 a.m. on the 2nd we got into thick old pack-ice, showing signs of heavy pressure. It was much hummocked, but large areas of open water and long leads to the south-west continued until noon. The position then was lat. 69° 49´ S., long. 15° 42´ W., and the run for the twenty-four hours had been 124 miles S. 3° W. This was cheering.
The heavy pack blocked the way south after midday. It would have been almost impossible to have pushed the ship into the ice, and in any case the gale would have made such a proceeding highly dangerous. So we dodged along to the west and north, looking for a suitable opening towards the south. The good run had given me hope of sighting the land on the following day, and the delay was annoying. I was growing anxious to reach land on account of the dogs, which had not been able to get exercise for four weeks, and were becoming run down. We passed at least two hundred bergs during the day, and we noticed also large masses of hummocky bay-ice and ice-foot. One floe of bay-ice had black earth upon it, apparently basaltic in origin, and there was a large berg with a broad band of yellowish brown right through it. The stain may have been volcanic dust. Many of the bergs had quaint shapes. There was one that exactly resembled a large two-funnel liner, complete in silhouette except for smoke. Later in the day we found an opening in the pack and made 9 miles to the south-west, but at 2 a.m. on January 3 the lead ended in hummocky ice, impossible to penetrate. A moderate easterly gale had come up with snow-squalls, and we could not get a clear view in any direction. The hummocky ice did not offer a suitable anchorage for the ship, and we were compelled to dodge up and down for ten hours before we were able to make fast to a small floe under the lee of a berg 120 ft. high. The berg broke the wind and saved us drifting fast to leeward. The position was lat. 69° 59´ S., long. 17° 31´ W. We made a move again at 7 p.m., when we took in the ice-anchor and proceeded south, and at 10 p.m. we passed a small berg that the ship had nearly touched twelve hours previously. Obviously we were not making much headway. Several of the bergs passed during this day were of solid blue ice, indicating true glacier origin.
By midnight of the 3rd we had made 11 miles to the south, and then came to a full stop in weather so thick with snow that we could not learn if the leads and lanes were worth entering. The ice was hummocky, but, fortunately, the gale was decreasing, and after we had scanned all the leads and pools within our reach we turned back to the north-east. Two sperm and two large blue whales were sighted, the first we had seen for 260 miles. We saw also petrels, numerous adelies, emperors, crab-eaters, and sea-leopards. The clearer weather of the morning showed us that the pack was solid and impassable from the south-east to the south-west, and at 10 a.m. on the 4th we again passed within five yards of the small berg that we had passed twice on the previous day. We had been steaming and dodging about over an area of twenty square miles for fifty hours, trying to find an opening to the south, south-east, or south-west, but all the leads ran north, north-east, or north-west. It was as though the spirits of the Antarctic were pointing us to the backward track—the track we were determined not to follow. Our desire was to make easting as well as southing so as to reach the land, if possible, east of Ross’s farthest South and well east of Coats’ Land. This was more important as the prevailing winds appeared to be to easterly, and every mile of easting would count. In the afternoon we went west in some open water, and by 4 p.m. we were making west-south-west with more water opening up ahead. The sun was shining brightly, over three degrees high at midnight, and we were able to maintain this direction in fine weather till the following noon. The position then was lat. 70° 28´ S., long. 20° 16´ W., and the run had been 62 miles S. 62° W. At 8 a.m. there had been open water from north round by west to south-west, but impenetrable pack to the south and east. At 3 p.m. the way to the south-west and west-north-west was absolutely blocked, and as we experienced a set to the west, I did not feel justified in burning more of the reduced stock of coal to go west or north. I took the ship back over our course for four miles, to a point where some looser pack gave faint promise of a way through; but, after battling for three hours with very heavy hummocked ice and making four miles to the south, we were brought up by huge blocks and floes of very old pack. Further effort seemed useless at that time, and I gave the order to bank fires after we had moored the Endurance to a solid floe. The weather was clear, and some enthusiastic football-players had a game on the floe until, about midnight, Worsley dropped through a hole in rotten ice while retrieving the ball. He had to be retrieved himself.
Solid pack still barred the way to the south on the following morning (January 6). There was some open water north of the floe, but as the day was calm and I did not wish to use coal in a possibly vain search for an opening to the southward, I kept the ship moored to the floe. This pause in good weather gave an opportunity to exercise the dogs, which were taken on to the floe by the men in charge of them. The excitement of the animals was intense. Several managed to get into the water, and the muzzles they were wearing did not prevent some hot fights. Two dogs which had contrived to slip their muzzles fought themselves into an icy pool and were hauled out still locked in a grapple. However, men and dogs enjoyed the exercise. A sounding gave a depth of 2400 fathoms, with a blue mud bottom. The wind freshened from the west early the next morning, and we started to skirt the northern edge of the solid pack in an easterly direction under sail. We had cleared the close pack by noon, but the outlook to the south gave small promise of useful progress, and I was anxious now to make easting. We went north-east under sail, and after making thirty-nine miles passed a peculiar berg that we had been abreast of sixty hours earlier. Killer-whales were becoming active around us, and I had to exercise caution in allowing any one to leave the ship. These beasts have a habit of locating a resting seal by looking over the edge of a floe and then striking through the ice from below in search of a meal; they would not distinguish between seal and man.
The noon position on January 8 was lat. 70° 0´ S., long. 19° 09´ W. We had made 66 miles in a north-easterly direction during the preceding twenty-four hours. The course during the afternoon was east-south-east through loose pack and open water, with deep hummocky floes to the south. Several leads to the south came in view, but we held on the easterly course. The floes were becoming looser, and there were indications of open water ahead. The ship passed not fewer than five hundred bergs that day, some of them very large. A dark water-sky extended from east to south-south-east on the following morning, and the Endurance, working through loose pack at half speed, reached open water just before noon. A rampart berg 150 ft. high and a quarter of a mile long lay at the edge of the loose pack, and we sailed over a projecting foot of this berg into rolling ocean, stretching to the horizon. The sea extended from a little to the west of south, round by east to north-north-east, and its welcome promise was supported by a deep water-sky to the south. I laid a course south by east in an endeavour to get south and east of Ross’s farthest south (lat. 71° 30´ S.).
Our position on the morning of the 19th was lat. 76° 34´ S., long. 31° 30´ W. The weather was good, but no advance could be made. The ice had closed around the ship during the night, and no water could be seen in any direction from the deck. A few lanes were in sight from the mast-head. We sounded in 312 fathoms, finding mud, sand, and pebbles. The land showed faintly to the east. We waited for the conditions to improve, and the scientists took the opportunity to dredge for biological and geological specimens. During the night a moderate north-easterly gale sprang up, and a survey of the position on the 20th showed that the ship was firmly beset. The ice was packed heavily and firmly all round the Endurance in every direction as far as the eye could reach from the masthead. There was nothing to be done till the conditions changed, and we waited through that day and the succeeding days with increasing anxiety. The east-north-easterly gale that had forced us to take shelter behind the stranded berg on the 16th had veered later to the north-east, and it continued with varying intensity until the 22nd. Apparently this wind had crowded the ice into the bight of the Weddell Sea, and the ship was now drifting south-west with the floes which had enclosed it. A slight movement of the ice round the ship caused the rudder to become dangerously jammed on the 21st, and we had to cut away the ice with ice-chisels, heavy pieces of iron with 6-ft. wooden hafts. We kept steam up in readiness for a move if the opportunity offered, and the engines running full speed ahead helped to clear the rudder. Land was in sight to the east and south about sixteen miles distant on the 22nd. The land-ice seemed to be faced with ice-cliffs at most points, but here and there slopes ran down to sea-level. Large crevassed areas in terraces parallel with the coast showed where the ice was moving down over foot-hills. The inland ice appeared for the most part to be undulating, smooth, and easy to march over, but many crevasses might have been concealed from us by the surface snow or by the absence of shadows. I thought that the land probably rose to a height of 5000 ft. forty or fifty miles inland. The accurate estimation of heights and distances in the Antarctic is always difficult, owing to the clear air, the confusing monotony of colouring, and the deceptive effect of mirage and refraction. The land appeared to increase in height to the southward, where we saw a line of land or barrier that must have been seventy miles, and possibly was even more distant.
The Endurance was lying in a pool covered by young ice on [February] the 9th. The solid floes had loosened their grip on the ship itself, but they were packed tightly all around. The weather was foggy. We felt a slight northerly swell coming through the pack, and the movement gave rise to hope that there was open water near to us. At 11 a.m. a long crack developed in the pack, running east and west as far as we could see through the fog, and I ordered steam to be raised in the hope of being able to break away into this lead. The effort failed. We could break the young ice in the pool, but the pack defied us. The attempt was renewed on the 11th, a fine clear day with blue sky. The temperature was still low, —2° Fahr. at midnight. After breaking through some young ice the Endurance became jammed against soft floe. The engines running full speed astern produced no effect until all hands joined in “sallying” ship. The dog-kennels amidships made it necessary for the people to gather aft, where they rushed from side to side in a mass in the confined space around the wheel. This was a ludicrous affair, the men falling over one another amid shouts of laughter without producing much effect on the ship. She remained fast, while all hands jumped at the word of command, but finally slid off when the men were stamping hard at the double. We were now in a position to take advantage of any opening that might appear. The ice was firm around us, and as there seemed small chance of making a move that day, I had the motor crawler and warper put out on the floe for a trial run. The motor worked most successfully, running at about six miles an hour over slabs and ridges of ice hidden by a foot or two of soft snow. The surface was worse than we would expect to face on land or barrier-ice. The motor warped itself back on a 500-fathom steel wire and was taken aboard again. “From the mast-head the mirage is continually giving us false alarms. Everything wears an aspect of unreality. Icebergs hang upside down in the sky; the land appears as layers of silvery or golden cloud. Cloud-banks look like land, icebergs masquerade as islands or nunataks, and the distant barrier to the south is thrown into view, although it really is outside our range of vision. Worst of all is the deceptive appearance of open water, caused by the refraction of distant water, or by the sun shining at an angle on a field of smooth snow or the face of ice-cliffs below the horizon.”
The second half of February produced no important change in our situation. Early in the morning of the 14th I ordered a good head of steam on the engines and sent all hands on to the floe with ice-chisels, prickers, saws, and picks. We worked all day and throughout most of the next day in a strenuous effort to get the ship into the lead ahead. The men cut away the young ice before the bows and pulled it aside with great energy. After twenty-four hours’ labour we had got the ship a third of the way to the lead. But about 400 yards of heavy ice, including old rafted pack, still separated the Endurance from the water, and reluctantly I had to admit that further effort was useless. Every opening we made froze up again quickly owing to the unseasonably low temperature. The young ice was elastic and prevented the ship delivering a strong, splitting blow to the floe, while at the same time it held the older ice against any movement. The abandonment of the attack was a great disappointment to all hands. The men had worked long hours without thought of rest, and they deserved success. But the task was beyond our powers. I had not abandoned hope of getting clear, but was counting now on the possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack. The sun, which had been above the horizon for two months, set at midnight on the 17th, and, although it would not disappear until April, its slanting rays warned us of the approach of winter. Pools and leads appeared occasionally, but they froze over very quickly.
We continued to accumulate a supply of seal meat and blubber, and the excursions across the floes to shoot and bring in the seals provided welcome exercise for all hands. Three crab-eater cows shot on the 21st were not accompanied by a bull, and blood was to be seen about the hole from which they had crawled. We surmised that the bull had become the prey of one of the killer-whales. These aggressive creatures were to be seen often in the lanes and pools, and we were always distrustful of their ability or willingness to discriminate between seal and man. A lizard-like head would show while the killer gazed along the floe with wicked eyes. Then the brute would dive, to come up a few moments later, perhaps, under some unfortunate seal reposing on the ice. Worsley examined a spot where a killer had smashed a hole 8 ft. by 12 ft. in 12½ in. of hard ice, covered by 2½ in. of snow. Big blocks of ice had been tossed on to the floe surface. Wordie, engaged in measuring the thickness of young ice, went through to his waist one day just as a killer rose to blow in the adjacent lead. His companions pulled him out hurriedly.
On the 22nd the Endurance reached the farthest south point of her drift, touching the 77th parallel of latitude in long. 35° W. The summer had gone; indeed the summer had scarcely been with us at all. The temperatures were low day and night, and the pack was freezing solidly around the ship. The thermometer recorded 10° below zero Fahr. at 2 a.m. on the 22nd. Some hours earlier we had watched a wonderful golden mist to the southward, where the rays of the declining sun shone through vapour rising from the ice. All normal standards of perspective vanish under such conditions, and the low ridges of the pack, with mist lying between them, gave the illusion of a wilderness of mountain-peaks like the Bernese Oberland. I could not doubt now that the Endurance was confined for the winter. Gentle breezes from the east, south, and south-west did not disturb the hardening floes. The seals were disappearing and the birds were leaving us. The land showed still in fair weather on the distant horizon, but it was beyond our reach now, and regrets for havens that lay behind us were vain.
“We must wait for the spring, which may bring us better fortune. If I had guessed a month ago that the ice would grip us here, I would have established our base at one of the landing-places at the great glacier. But there seemed no reason to anticipate then that the fates would prove unkind. This calm weather with intense cold in a summer month is surely exceptional. My chief anxiety is the drift. Where will the vagrant winds and currents carry the ship during the long winter months that are ahead of us? We will go west, no doubt, but how far? And will it be possible to break out of the pack early in the spring and reach Vahsel Bay or some other suitable landing-place? These are momentous questions for us.”
WILLIAM WEITZEL teaches fiction and writing at Harvard University and has just completed his first novel—a coming-of-age narrative about risk and loss in the intertwined memories of four friends in the woods. Most recently, he was a finalist for the A.E. Coppard Prize for Fiction, and his work has been published in the White Whale Review and is forthcoming in the New Orleans Review and Southwest Review. He is currently at work on a series of short stories that showcase mountain ecologies and contemporary human relations to wilderness, along with a second novel based on his three months in the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. In recent years, he has driven a 4X4 truck on a south-north transect of the Kalahari Desert, choppered into Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan range and hiked out, and dodged caiman in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve in Peru.