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Science before adventure: Nordenskjöld and Drygalski

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Nordenskjöld and five of his crew finally made landfall at Snow Hill Island, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula where they quickly erected a small magnetic observatory and a base to winter over.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Antarctic Peninsula

Science before adventure: Nordenskjöld and Drygalski

On 16 October 1901, Norwegian explorer and geologist Dr Otto Nordenskjöld left Gothenburg for his Antarctica trip using the same vessel Antarctic that Borchgrevink had once sailed with. Although the focus of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition was making scientific discoveries the sense of adventure had not been lost on Nordenskjöld or his men. As the expedition’s navigator Captain Carl Anton Larsen, an experienced Norwegian navigator and polar explorer, took Antarctic into the ice-cold waters beyond the South Shetland Islands and into the Orleans Strait, the level of excitement swept over the crew with Nordenskjöld writing in January 1902 that

We are now sailing a sea across which none had hithero voyaged. The weather had changed as if by magic; it seemed as through the Antarctic world repented of the inhospitable way in which it had received us the previous day, or, maybe it merely wished to entice us deeper into its interior in order the surely to annihilate us. At all events, we pressed onwards, seized by that almost feverish eagerness which can only be felt by an explorer who stands upon the threshold of the great unknown’.

Nordenskjöld and five of his crew finally made landfall at Snow Hill Island, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula where they quickly erected a small magnetic observatory and a base to winter over. From their base the party of six made several exploratory journeys using boats, huskies and man-hauled sledges where they made the ‘first step trodden by a human foot on the whole of the eastern coast of the mainland of West Antarctica’.

The adventure begins for Nordenskjöld’s men

After dropping off Nordenskjöld at Snow Hill Island, Larsen returned to the Falklands Islands in the Antarctic planning to return the following year to pick them up. However, on the journey to pick Nordenskjöld and his men up Larsen encountered severe pack-ice forcing him to drop a three-man rescue team at Hope Bay along with supply depots so that if the ship was unable to reach Nordenskjöld the rescuers would be able to reach Snow Hill Island overland. Antarctic did not make it to Snow Hill Island with a violent storm blowing the ship towards Paulet Island where ice began to crush her. For nearly two weeks the crew tried to plug the leaks that were forming throughout the ship while Larsen make numerous attempts to get it closer to land. On 12 February 1903 Larsen gave the order to abandon ship. For the next two weeks the shipwrecked crew made a 40 km journey across constantly moving ice-pans to Paulet Island.

The party of three enduring a full winter

The crew of three deposited at Hope Bay had become lost trying to find Nordenskjöld’s winter quarters and instead found themselves at the entrance of the Crown Prince Gustav Channel with one member describing it as a place of

Mile upon mile of snowy plain, such as we have never seen before, meet our eyes: one can actually imagine that a gigantic snow-clad city lies before us, with houses and palaces in thousands, and in hundreds of changing, irregular forms – towers and spires, and all the wonders of the world’.

Nonetheless, they were off-course and had to return to Hope Bay imagining the Antarctic being there to pick them up. It was not until the following October that the three were reunited with Nordenskjöld, having endured a full winter in a makeshift shelter and then taking a trip through unexplored territory to Snow Hill Island. The three were unrecognisable with Nordenskjöld writing they were

Black as soot from head to toe; men with black clothes, black faces and high black caps, and with their eyes hidden by peculiar wooden frames…my powers of guessing fail me, when I endeavour to imagine what race of men these creatures belong’.

The reuniting of Nordenskjöld and all his men

Meanwhile on Paulet Island, Larsen and his shipwrecked crew also weathered a hard winter with the men having to build shelter from rocks and tarpaulin and surviving on seals and penguins. The men had managed to keep their spirits up despite the tough conditions with one writing that

Many hundred dreams have been dreamed in our island but I do not know if they helped to brighten our existence. They grouped themselves around two objects – food and rescue. Why, we could dream through a whole dinner, from soup to dessert, and waken to be cruelly disappointed. How many times did one not see the relief vessel in our visions – sometimes as a large ship, sometimes as nothing but a little sloop?

Shortly after the party of three began their journey to meet up with Nordenskjöld, Larsen and his crew set out from Paulet Island in their small whaleboat. After a difficult journey they made it to Snow Hill Island just as a joint Argentinian-Swedish mission arrived to rescue Nordenskjöld and his men.

A German scientific expedition shipwrecked but living in comfort

In January 1902, at the same time as Nordenskjöld had first recorded sailing into unknown waters, German explorer Erich von Drygalski’s expedition had entered Antarctic waters aboard the Gauss. Drygalski, who was a professor of geography and geophysics at the University of Berlin, had polar experience in Greenland, was drawn to Antarctica for the science rather than adventure. An attempt to reach the South Pole was not part of his plans. After the expedition had discovered and named Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, the ship attempted to sail between two ice-ridges only to become trapped with Drygalski writing that

Nobody recalled exactly what happened during the next hours but we all felt that we had become a toy of the elements. A snowstorm blew up, floes and ‘bergs closed in’.

The men tried to free the ship but on 2 March Drygalski and his men had to accept defeat. The crew was forced to winter over but luckily, despite the vessel frozen into ice with a thickness of nearly 6 metres it was comfortable and well provisioned. The men feasted on fresh seal and penguin meat and kept themselves fully occupied and entertained. The expedition’s meteorologist wrote about their happy off-duty hours that

Sundays were beer-nights, Wednesday’s were lecture nights, but Saturday nights were best of all: on them we sat together behind a glass of grog, united in games or conservation’. The ship’s crew even formed clubs with ‘a gentleman’s cigar-smoking club, glee-clubs, a band composed of a harmonica, flute and triangle and two pot-lids for a cymbal’.

Drygalski’s productive expedition

Apart from the shipwreck, Drygalski’s expedition was scientifically successful with huts being built for observations of meteorological, astronomical and magnetic phenomena. The sea floor was dredged through holes in the ice, the movements of birds were recorded and specimens of rocks collected. In total, 1,440 species of living organisms were recorded and described with the scientific results of the expedition eventually filling 20 published volumes. Meanwhile, one of the expedition’s sledging-party discovered a solitary volcanic cone naming it Gaussberg. Drygalski had also used a balloon filled with hydrogen to reach an altitude of 490 metres, describing the view as being ‘so extensive that it was like looking into infinity’.

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