The ultimate endurance
IT was the beginning of the end. As the pack ice closed about the ship that evening the men thought little of it, but the vessel’s situation had become terminal. It was dying: a slow, frozen, twisted death in Antarctica. And those on board would be lucky to escape with their lives.
A century ago, Ernest Shackleton’s famous polar vessel, the Endurance, was beset, gripped by strangulating sea ice off the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton’s dream of becoming the first to cross the southern continent on foot was over, and one of history’s most famous battles for survival had begun.
A century later, that same peninsula, a great white arm reaching for the distant tail of South America, looks much the same. Whiskered Weddell seals laze on ice floes, while penguins squabble over pebble nests and a watery sun squats over anonymous mountains. The only difference is that, where once Shackleton and his men were beginning a desperate race against death, now tens of thousands of people come every year for the “holiday of a lifetime”.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of organised tourism to the region; it’s a business that sees more than 30,000 visitors a year. They come to soak up the unique snowscapes, to photograph the gregarious wildlife — and to experience a slice of the Heroic Age of Exploration.
In this context, Shackleton remains front and centre: a swashbuckling James T. Kirk, in contrast to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s colder, more scientifically minded Spock. At the heart of his romantic appeal, and the tourism it has inspired, is the Endurance expedition itself, specifically Shackleton’s success, against overwhelming odds, in getting all 26 of his men, plus a teenage stowaway, off the peninsula alive. This epic undertaking began with months spent camping and trekking across treacherous sea ice before Shackleton and five others succeeded in a near-suicidal passage of more than 1200km across the ferocious Southern Ocean in a tiny lifeboat.
It’s a coup therefore that one of the leading Polar tourism operators, Quark Expeditions, now employs the historian, author and cousin (twice removed) of the great man himself, Jonathan Shackleton, as an Antarctic guide.
“Ernest had a huge amount of charisma and energy and he loved the wild,” says Shackleton junior, standing on the deck of Quark’s Ocean Diamond. “He loved challenges and he loved going places nobody else had been. It was all about that lure of the wild — that venturing into the unknown. And to a large extent that’s what’s still attracting people here today.”
Antarctica remains a permanent feature on travel bucket lists. It’s the elusive seventh continent — the win- diest, wildest and most pristine land mass on the planet. But it’s also a tourist destination regulated by two key factors: cost and the notorious Drake Passage, which deters all but the most determined from attempting the Great White Continent.
Ah yes, the Drake: a 965km-wide channel separating Antarctica from South America. It also happens to be the point where three of the world’s great oceans — the Atlantic, Southern and Pacific — all meet head-on, squabbling for supremacy.
The bad news is that, like Shackleton during the final leg of his epic escape act, pretty much every Antarctic traveller must tackle the Drake, sometimes in violent conditions. One of Shackleton’s companions, a young Irishman named Felix Rooney, described it as “so rough, the ship would roll the milk out of your tea”.
Thankfully, during the past century there has been significant advances in nautical technology, from GPS navigation systems to gyroscopically controlled ship stabilisers. And while the two-day crossing of the Drake today has the potential to be slightly uncomfortable, as long as you don’t do anything stupid such as order soup or attempt to shave, you’ll be fine.
During our passage across the Drake, we are treated to a series of lectures, on everything from Shackleton’s early expeditions to the wildlife we are likely to encounter. Tom Hart, a penguinologist from the University of Oxford, England, and guest lecturer on the ship, is at pains to point out 21st-century tourism is considerably more respectful towards Antarctica than Shackleton and his cohorts ever were.
“Let’s face it, early explorers used to kill and eat penguins,” says Hart, who leads the international Penguin Lifelines initiative. “Even as late as the 60s they’d be shooting seals to feed to their dog teams. Not to mention the fact they’d litter all over the continent. Things are far better now under the current system of international rules, which are very well regulated.”
Those rules, under the auspices of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, are surprisingly strict and designed to minimise human impact on the continent. They range from carefully hoovering out day sacks at the start of each trip to the mandatory disinfecting of your boots before and after land excursions and maintaining a respectful 5m distance from any penguins (unless they approach you first).
The rules go on: no more than 100 people are allowed to land in the same place at any one time, and on the rare occasions when overnight camping away from the ship is an option, numbers are strictly capped at 60. (This, more than anything, brings you closest to the conditions that Shackleton and his men would have experienced during their famous trek, with the significant bonus of modern bivvy bags over the sodden reindeer sleeping bags of 1915.)
On larger expedition vessels such as Quark Expedi-
A Weddell seal