The Elysium Expedition's deliverables – a feature film, a TV documentary, a photo essay book and a permanent photo archive – will be rolled out in 2014 to help celebrate Shackleton's epic journey. In the spring of 2011, the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, will host an exhibit of the expedition's epic images of Antarctica and South Georgia.
Participation in the Elysium Expedition marked the confluence of my 30-year-long petroleum career and divergent life pathways. My degrees in geology, geophysics, biology and journalism, and my interests in photography, scuba diving and environmental advocacy, all flowed seamlessly together amidst the backdrop of this mysterious, ice-clad continent and its frigid waters teeming with wildlife.
As university students and as newly graduated petroleum, environmental and mining geoscientists, we honed our skills by mapping geology and geological processes in the field, instilling in us a sense of awe and wonder through exploration of the world around us. However, some 20 or 30 years later, many geoscientists have lost this tactile connection to exploration and discovery. For many, our ability to conduct exploration has been reduced to at-the-office geology and geophysics, and the review of computerized maps and financial reports.
Despite our vast body of scientific knowledge, I believe that there exist many out-of-the-box career development opportunities for Earth scientists – both from a personal and a scientific perspective – to explore and discover the planet.
The Elysium Expedition provided a chance to break away from my desk, and, amidst the backdrop of the harshest climate on Earth, to practice my professions and explore my passions -- what an incredible privilege and a chance of a lifetime opportunity.
During my audition for a coveted spot in the Elysium Expedition, I pitched my vision of recreating the role of the ship's geoscientist, 100 years later. I would provide a unique perspective to discussions of climate change, glaciology and oceanography, I said. I waxed poetically about the ground-breaking science conducted by geologists and geophysicists who had played key roles in Shackleton's numerous polar expeditions. These geoscientists mapped the mineral potential and glacial coverage of Antarctica, took numerous magnetic and gravity measurements, and were pivotal in advancing the geological and geophysical knowledge of Antarctica, the South Pole and South Georgia.
Surely, my pitch explained, the expedition needed a modern-day equivalent. As it turned out, I had some big boots to fill and some interesting personalities to follow.
During Shackleton's ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, James Mann Wordie of Glasgow, Scotland, was the expedition geologist and head of scientific staff. Wordie managed the expedition's team of scientists, including a physicist, a meteorologist and a biologist.
While stranded with his expedition-mates on Elephant Island, he became exceedingly popular – by exchanging his tobacco rations for unique rock specimens that the men had taken an extra-special interest in collecting. Apparently, geoscientists were just as passionate a century ago as they are today.
Reginald William James joined Wordie’s scientific staff as a magnetic specialist and physicist. Like many of the men who participated in the Shackleton Expedition, he joined serendipitously after hearing about the position at Cambridge University. His interview with Shackleton lasted all of five minutes, James recalled. “All that I can clearly remember of it is that I was asked if I had good teeth, if I suffered from varicose veins, and if I could sing."
Shackleton’s crew wrote, humorously, about the ship's physicist: "James had some wonderful electrical machines which none of us understood...and a joke of ours, that annoyed him very much, was that he did not either."
Following in Shackleton's footsteps, 100 years later, the Elysium Expedition's two geoscientists are both women. I was joined by Dr. Toni Williamson, an Australian geologist based in Toronto. Her doctorate studies involved a paleo-environmental assessment of climate change during the Early Cretaceous System of Australia.
EXPENSES THEN AND NOW
The people have changed and the times have changed. The relative costs, however, of mounting an Antarctic expedition are still epic.
In 1914, Shackleton purchased the Endurance for £11,600 and struggled to raise the £50,000 (that’s £3.5 million today) required for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In fact, Wordie personally donated money towards the purchase of fuel. The Endurance departed England the day the First World War was declared.
My vision to participate in the Elysium Expedition was widely supported through partnerships with corporations and geoscience organizations, and by generous individual donors. APEGGA shared my vision of exploration and discovery, recognizing with its sponsorship the benefit to APEGGA members and its educational and Outreach programs.
“Here’s an opportunity to extend and continue what Shackleton set out to complete, but his expeditions were limited by the harsh climate and the technologies of the time,” said Tom Sneddon, P.Geol., APEGGA Manager, Geoscience Affairs. “There are still people [the Elysium explorers] out there who want to extend their vision – in the pursuit of excellence – and explore the envelope of our 21st century technologies and science. We need to be able, as a society, to adapt to a changing environment – and the answers are in the field.”
Michael Aw, leader of the Elysium Expedition and publisher of Ocean Geographic, carried the Explorers Club Flag Number 108 to Antarctica, where it was unfurled with great fanfare on Elephant Island. Founded in New York City in 1904, the Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space, and supports research and education in the physical, natural and biological sciences. The club’s 202 flags are steeped in a history of human courage and accomplishment.
APEGGA has a long and storied history as well. So following suit, I unfurled the Association flag at a king penguin colony in Fortuna Bay, South Georgia.
I also received crucial financial support from other geoscience organizations, including the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists Foundation, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Foundation, and the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre. My Antarctic dispatches were published by the Calgary Herald, the supporting geoscience associations, as well as the Earth science departments of Dalhousie University (my alma mater) and the University of Calgary, enabling readers to explore Antarctica and South Georgia with me. The APEGGA website also spread my story, by posting my blog.
THE FULL CONTINGENT
This is not just my story, of course. It's the story of a full cast of adventurers who brought their respective expertise, reputations, and goals to the expedition.
As a member of the Elysium scientific crew, I worked alongside the world's preeminent scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I also worked with movie makers, photographers, artists, musicians, historians, scuba divers and explorers, including National Geographic's photographers-in-residence Emory Kristof and David Doubilet. Kristof is famous for discovering the Titanic with National Geographic's explorer-in-residence Robert Ballard. In 1977, Kristof was the first to document the existence of hot water volcanic vents off the Galapagos Rift, along with the unique life forms that they support.
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Kristof travelled to Antarctica to investigate the shipwreck of the Antarctic, which sank in 1903 in 3,000 feet of water in the Weddell Sea. Kristof explained that remotely operated vehicles and autonomously operated vehicles would be needed to search beneath the pack ice for the Antarctic. Due to the harsh Antarctic environment, he would not dive in a submersible and photograph this wreck in person, as he had the Titanic.
South of the ship, situated in 10,000 feet of water, lies the Endurance, Shackleton's three-masted barquentine. Discovery of the Antarctic, said Kristof, would provide the “proof of concept” for state-of-the-art technologies required to mount a multi-million-dollar expedition to find the Endurance.
Unusually heavy pack ice, however, prevented the MV Professor Molchanov – the Elysium Expedition's oceanographic research vessel, built by the Russian Institute of Science in 1982 – from entering the Weddell Sea near Paulet Island.
Kristof’s vision of exploration and discovery in Antarctica also included documenting the world’s most southerly hot water vent. Located in an oceanic spreading centre, the hydrothermal vent is geographically close to the wreck of the Antarctic. The vent's existence was documented in 2006 by David Mearns, a researcher and shipwreck hunter.
Night after night, Kristof and I pored over seafloor maps and images – while sipping fine Argentine malbecs in the Professor Molchanov'swell-appointedbar – that pinpointed the location of the deep sea vent, enthusiastically discussing how modern-day geophysical methods assist in ocean exploration.
SOUNDS FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD
I travelled to Antarctica with a few agendas of my own.
For example, ever honestgeophysicist exploring this vast polar region needs to record its unique and diverse sounds: glaciers calving into the ocean and grinding ice (growlers, bergy bits, ice bergs and pack ice). Calgary-based CGGVeritas shared my vision of exploration and discovery of Antarctica, and generously purchased me a special purpose-built hydrophone – designed originally to record whale sounds – complete with a digital recording system, a waterproof headset and a software interpretation package.
With grandiose aspirations of breaking into the film industry, I hoped to use my acoustic recordings to collaborate with Eric Bettens, the expedition's official musical composer from Belgium, and with Leandro Blanco, a Spanish movie maker and underwater sound expert.
Equipped with my new hydrophone and 100 metres of cable, I set out to investigate the acoustic signatures of Antarctica. The inaugural day for testing the hydrophone was grey and rainy. Dr. Steve Nicol, an oceanographer and krill expert from the Australian Antarctic Division, commented that – in 25 years of visiting Antarctica – it was the first time that he’d ever encountered rain.
On this day, we were exploring the Antarctic Peninsula at Pleneau Bay and travelling through a spectacular area called the Iceberg Graveyard. Originating in the Ross Sea, the icebergs were transported via the Circumpolar Current, eventually running aground in the shallows of the bay. In addition to the trapped icebergs, Pleneau Bay us rimmed by massive glaciers cascading down to the ocean.
Cruising the coastline by inflatable boat, we were dwarfed by towering fortresses of blue ice heavily dissected by deep crevasses. And we were awestruck by the frequent claps of thunder as ice calved off the glaciers, crashing into the ocean.
Dressed for extreme snorkelling in Antarctica – with the hydrophone headset over my neoprene dive hood and a polar fleece hat over the hood for extra warmth – I began to record the otherworld sounds of capsizing ice bergs, the gin-and-tonic-like grinding of a pack ice, and the mini-tsunami waves precipitated by glaciers collapsing into the ocean. I was keen, as well, to record the songs and growls of humpback whales and leopard seals that we had spotted earlier near the inflatable boat.
I was just getting used to operating the hydrophone with my cumbersome dive gloves when Murhpy’s Law intervened.
Ironically, I recorded the hydrophone’s final sounds when it violently struck our propeller, an especially horrible sound because the hydrophone was worth about $800. I quickly hauled in the frayed remains and assessed the equipment situation – I now had about 95 metres of cable, minus the hydrophone.
In hindsight, I had misjudged the importance of good English-Russian translation between me and the inflatable’s driver: the first time I lowered the hydrophone into the ocean, I’d waved my arms wildly, pointing at the hydrophone and then at the propeller. My attempts at universal body language had failed miserably, as the driver gunned the throttle without notice, abruptly ending my nascent experiment at recording the underwater sounds of Antarctica.
WHERE SHACKLETON RESTS
Our pilgrimage to Shackleton’s final resting place puts the loss of the hydrophone into sombre perspective. We visited Grytviken, South Georgia, where the explorer died of a heart attack at a mere 47 years of age. Grytviken is an abandoned Norwegian whaling station littered with whale vertebrae and rusting rendering tanks. Some 87,000 whales were processed here before the station was abandoned in the 1960s.
Today, Grytviken is home to a British Antarctic Survey research station, populated by 13 Britons and countless king penguins, fur seals and Elephant seals.
Shackleton died here on Jan. 5, 1922, shortly after the start of his Quest Expedition. We visited his gravesite in a small cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence and patrolled by king penguins, and we enthusiastically toasted this great Irishman's accomplishments with Jameson Irish whiskey. I poured the last dram of my whiskey on his grave as an offering of respect.
Running the gauntlet of Antarctic fur seals that lunged at us from hiding places in hummocky grass tussocks, we made the pilgrimage to Shackleton's memorial cairn and cross situated on an exposed hilltop at the entrance to Grytviken Harbour. In the lead was Jonathan Shackleton, an Irish organic farmer, author and cousin to Sir Ernest.
The memorial was erected in 1922 by George Vibert Douglas, the Quest Expedition's chief scientist and a Canadian geologist who later became a Carnegie professor of geology at Dalhousie University. Douglas was careful to point the white cross toward the magnetic South Pole, which was discovered during Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition of 1909.
Secreted inside the cairn was a scroll bearing the stamp of the Royal Geographical Society. Jonathan Shackleton unfurled the scroll and, with an historical sense of place and purpose, read aloud the names of the Quest Expedition's crew to the Elysium team of 21st century explorers – all of whom had been humbled by following in Shackleton's footsteps, 100 years later.
Susan R. Eaton. P.Geol., P.Geoph., M.Sc., is a professional geologist, a professional geophysicist, a freelance writer, and an extreme snorkeler. She lives in Calgary. To read Susan's Dispatches from Antarctica and South Georgia, and to view her photographs and videos, visit www.susanreaton.com.