Update #10

We did get a chance to fly to Cape Royds for a final bit of survey work. Steve had found an obscure reference to the presence of abandoned colonies to the west of Clear Lake, north of the modern colony (Spellerberg, 1970). We had worked at Royds in 2001, but had only collected modern samples and excavated sites very near the modern colony, and so had not surveyed to the north. We flew to Cape Royds with Barry in an A-Star, a machine equivalent to the Squirrels at Terra Nova with a different engine. I have to admit to a mild sense of annoyance to the (over?)zealous requirements to fly in helos from McMurdo, even though I was familiar with these requirements from our previous work. One must wear a flight helmet and full ECW to fly, meaning that we had to carry along our field boots, jackets, etc. to change into when we arrived. Helo-techs load the basket, weigh passengers for manifests, and run you through a safety lecture every time you fly, regardless of experience. Although I understand the liability issue involved, I longed for the relationship with the pilots we experienced at Terra Nova, where we wore appropriate field clothes to fly, had headphones instead of helmets, did all our own loading and unloading, and the pilots decided what an appropriate load was. I felt like the Michelin Man in my ECW and helmet for the 20-minute flight to Royds. And I think the whole team has grown very accustomed to this mode of transport to the point of casualness, as I noticed no one had cameras out on the flight except for Steve who wanted a better shot of Cape Evans for his records.

At Cape Royds we decided to leave our visit to the historic Shackleton hut for last, and we first headed north towards Clear Lake. Royds is a remnant of volcanic activity on Mt. Erebus, so the rock is all dark extrusive rock produced in lava flows, but the existence of very large crystals indicates some sort of two-stage cooling process. As we reached the short stretch of Black Sand Beach, decorated with chunks of white sea-ice, that would provide access for penguins to the slopes above we began to find abandoned sites. These sites were much more obscure than any we have previously seen, with the pebble collections more sediment filled and irregular. The ornithogenic soil layers are also very white in spots, so this evidence may suggest that these are older sites (?). As we worked northward, we kept encountering more sites, and even one “mother of all sites” as Steve described it. This was clearly an extensive occupation, and seems to be a more ideal spot than the one occupied by the colony today as it is closer to open water more frequently. A few mounds I examined appeared to be quite recently occupied, and Steve told me that there was a report of a small group of Adélies in the ‘70’s that had tried to raise chicks somewhere north of the modern colony, so this might be an ancestral site for some penguins. Whatever the case, this site will have to be left for future work, as we are out of time and have already collected more sediment than Steve expected. We took a last look north towards Cape Bird and turned back.

We returned to the Cape Royds colony and had a look around. The adults are almost all gone, and the chicks appear to have fared well this season, with many very large, fat chicks in the crèches. As I watched at the shore, I finally got to see a chick take to the water for the first time. Having followed the adults to the shore, when they went in he did too and floundered out to a nearby ice floe splashing mightily. Then when the adults on the floe went into the water, he raced to the edge and dove in, disappearing under the surface. I waited a while for him to emerge, but he must have found the water suited him as I never saw him again. Steve had checked out the key to the hut, so we headed up the hill, happy to be getting out of the wind for a bit.

The Shackleton Hut at Cape Royds has quite a history. Many know the dramatic story of Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance that survived more than a full year on their own under his leadership when the ship was crushed by the pack ice. But fewer people know about Shackleton’s other, earlier accomplishments in the Antarctic. He was a member of Scott’s 1906 Discovery expedition, and was sent home by Scott when he contracted scurvy and perhaps because he threatened Scott’s leadership. He returned to McMurdo Sound in 1908 leading his own British Antarctic Expedition. He unloaded the Nimrod and began construction of the Cape Royds hut on Feb. 3, 1908 (exactly 96 years ago to the day that we visited the hut!). In March of that year, unable to begin laying depots for the polar attempt, a group of 6 from his expedition did the first ascent of Mt. Erebus over 5 days. The team wintered over in this cold, drafty hut preparing equipment for the polar attempt and performing scientific experiments. The next spring they began laying depots to the pole, and sent off a party to attempt the Magnetic South Pole. This team succeeded, and the geographic South Pole party came to within 100 miles of the South Pole before turning back when Shackleton calculated that to go on would assure running out of food; the dilemma that caused the deaths of the polar team in the Scott expedition.

All of these successes were fraught with difficulties and close-calls, but due to Shackleton’s leadership not one life was lost. (These include surgery to remove Mackintosh’s right eye, amputation of another’s big toe due to frostbite, rescue of the Magnetic Pole party by blind luck, and Shackleton and Wild’s race to catch the Nimrod before departing and return to rescue the South Pole party: 100 miles of travel in 5 days with almost no sleep at the end of the ordeal of the polar attempt.) This record prompted another early Antarctic explorer Raymond Preistley to write: “As a scientific leader, give me Scott; for swift and efficient Polar travel, Amundsen (who almost easily succeeded in first reaching the geographic South Pole); but when all is lost and it seems like there is no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” The hut was used again briefly during Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-1914), and again during Shackleton’s attempted traverse when the Endurance became trapped (1914-1917), but was not visited again until 1947 by a U.S. icebreaker, which found it full of snow. It is now maintained by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, as are all the other historic huts in the Ross Sea region.

To see some images of items preserved in the Shackleton hut, click on the links below:

Canned fruit jars A healthy lunch
A cure for a healthy lunch A clean hut is a happy hut
An autograph of the man himself Bunks and sleeping bags
A well-stocked kitchen A full pantry
The warmest spot in the house Sledges for manhauling
Another apothecary The stables

Spellerberg, I. F. 1970. Abandoned penguin rookeries near Cape Royds, Ross Island, Antarctica and 14C dating of penguin remains. New Zealand Journal of Science 13, 380-385.

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