Chapter 28: The homeward cruise
Chapter 28: The homeward cruise
We bring no store of ingots,
Of spice or precious stones;
But what we have we gathered
With sweat and aching bones.
As we sat in the wardroom of the Aurora exchanging the news of months long gone by, we heard from Captain Davis the story of his fair weather trip from Hobart. The ship had left Australian waters on November 19, and, from the outset, the weather was quite ideal. Nothing of note occurred on the run to Macquarie Island, where a party of three men were landed and Ainsworth and his loyal comrades picked up. The former party, sent by the Australian Government, were to maintain wireless communication with Hobart and to send meteorological reports to the Commonwealth Weather Bureau. A week was spent at the island and all the collections were embarked, while Correll was enabled to secure some good colour photographs and Hurley to make valuable additions to his cinematograph film.
The Aurora had passed through the ‘fifties’ without meeting the usual gales, sighting the first ice in latitude 63° 33’ S, longitude 150° 29’ E. She stopped to take a sounding every twenty–four hours, adding to the large number already accumulated during her cruises over the vast basin of the Southern Ocean.
All spoke of the clear and beautiful days amid the floating ice and of the wonderful coloured sunsets; especially the photographers. The pack was so loosely disposed, that the ship made a straight course for Commonwealth Bay, steaming up to Cape Denison on the morning of December 14 to find us all eager to renew our claim on the big world up north.
There was a twenty–five knot wind and a small sea when we pulled off in the whale boat to the ship, but, as if conspiring to give us for once a gala day, the wind fell off, the bay became blue and placid and the sun beat down in full thawing strength on the boundless ice and snow. The Adélians, if that may be used as a distinctive title, sat on the warm deck and read letters and papers in voracious haste, with snatches of the latest intelligence from the Macquarie Islanders and the ship’s officers. No one could erase that day from the tablets of his memory.
Late in the afternoon the motor launch went ashore, and the first of the cargo was sent off. The weather remained serene and calm, and for the next six days, with the exception of a ‘sixty–miler’ for a few hours and a land breeze overnight, there was nothing to disturb the embarkation of our bulky impedimenta which almost filled the outer Hut. Other work went on apace. The skua gulls, snow and Wilson petrels were laying their eggs, and Hamilton went ashore to secure specimens and to add to our already considerable collection of bird skins. Hunter had a fish trap lowered from the forecastle, used a hand dredge from the ship, and did tow netting occasionally from the launch in its journeys to and from the land. Hurley and Correll had bright sunshine to ensure good photographic results. Bage and Hodgeman looked after the transport of stores from the Hut, and Gillies, Bickerton and Madigan ran the motor launch. McLean, who was now in possession of an incubator and culture tubes, grew bacteria from various sources – seals and birds, soils, ice and snow. Ainsworth, Blake and Sandell, making their first acquaintance with Adélie Land, were most often to be seen quarrying ice on the glacier or pulling loaded sledges down to the harbour.
On the 18th a party of us went off to the Mackellar Islets in the motor launch, taking a tent and provisions, intending to spend two days there surveying and making scientific observations.
These islets, over thirty in number, are clustered mainly in a group about two miles off shore. The group is encircled by rocky outposts, and there are several links to the southern mainland. Under a brilliant sun, across the pale blue water, heaving in a slow northerly swell, the motor launch threaded her way between the granite knobs, capped with solid spray. The waves had undermined the white canopies so that they stood immobile, perched on the dark, kelp–fringed rocks, casting their pallid reflections in the turquoise sea. Steaming into a natural harbour, bordered by a low ice foot on which scores of Weddell seals lay in listless slumber, we landed on the largest islet – a succession of salt–encrusted ridges covered by straggling penguin rookeries. The place just teemed with the sporadic life of an Antarctic summer.
It was calculated that the Adélie penguins exceeded one hundred and fifty thousand in number over an area of approximately one hundred acres. Near the landing place there were at least sixty seals and snow petrels; skua gulls and Wilson petrels soon betrayed their nests to the biologists.
The islets are flat, and afford evidence that at one time the continental ice cap has ridden over them. The rock is a hard grey gneiss. A rough plane table map of the group was made by Hodgeman and myself.
Our scheme of local exploration was now continued to the west. For two years we had looked curiously at a patch of rocks protruding beneath the ice cap eight miles away, within Commonwealth Bay. It had been inaccessible to sledging parties, and so we reserved Cape Hunter, as it was ultimately called, for the coming of the Ship.
The anchor was raised on the forenoon of the 22nd, and by midday the Aurora steamed at half speed along the ramparts of the glacier, stopping about four miles from the Cape, after sounding in four hundred and twenty–four fathoms. Through field glasses much had already been seen; enough to arouse an intense interest.
One could not but respond to the idea that here was a new world, flawless and unblemished, into which no human being had ever pried. Here were open secrets to be read for the first time. It was not with the cold eye of science alone that we gazed at these rocks – a tiny spur of the great unseen continent; but it was with an indefinable wonder.
In perfect weather a small party set off in the launch towards a large grounded berg which appeared to lie under the ice cliffs. Approaching it closely, after covering two miles, we could see that it was still more than a mile to the rocks.
Penguins soon began to splash around; Wilson petrels came glancing overhead and we could descry great flocks of Antarctic petrels wheeling over cliff and sea. Reefs buried in frothing surge showed their glistening mantles, and the boat swerved to avoid floating streamers of brash ice.
The rocky cliffs, about eighty feet in height at the highest point, were formed of vertically lying slate rocks – a very uniform series of phyllite and sericite schist. At their base lay great clinging blocks of ice deeply excavated by the restless swell. One island was separated from the parent mass by a channel cut sheer to the deep blue water. Behind the main rocks and indenting the ice cliff was a curving bay into which we steered, finding at its head a beautiful cove fringed with a heavy undermined ice foot and swarming with Adélie penguins. Overhanging the water was a cavern hollowed out of a bridge of ice thrown from the glacier to the western limit of the rock outcrop.
Hurley had before him a picture in perfect proportion. The steel–blue water, paled by an icy reflection, a margin of brown rocks on which the penguins leapt through the splashing surf, a curving canopy of ice foot and, filling the background, the cavern with pendent icicles along its cornice.
The swell was so great that an anchor had to be thrown from the stern to keep the launch off shore, and two men remained on board to see that no damage was done.
At last we were free to roam and explore. Over the first ridge of rocks we walked suddenly into the home of the Antarctic petrels! There had always been much speculation as to where these birds nested. Jones’ party at our western base had the previous summer at Haswell Island happened upon the first rookery of Antarctic petrels ever discovered. Here was another spot in the great wilderness peopled by their thousands. Every available nook and crevice was occupied along a wide slope which shelved away until it met the vertical cliffs falling to the ocean. One could sit down among the soft, mild birds who were fearless at the approach of man. They rested in pairs close to their eggs laid on the bare rock or among fragments of slate loosely arranged to resemble a rest. Many eggs were collected, and the birds, losing confidence in us, rose into the air in flocks, gaining in feathered volume as they circled in fear above this domain of rock and snow which had been theirs for generations.
In adjoining rookeries the Adélie penguins, with their fat, downy cheeks, were very plentiful and fiercer than usual. Skuas, snow and Wilson petrels were all in their accustomed haunts. Down on the low ice foot at the mouth of a rocky ravine, a few seals had effected a landing. Algae, mosses and lichens made quite a display in moist localities.
Before leaving for the ship, we ‘boiled the billy’ on a platform of slate near the cove where the launch was anchored and had a small picnic, entertained by the penguins playing about in the surf or scaling the ice foot to join the birds which were laboriously climbing to the rookeries on the ridge. The afternoon was so peaceful and the calm hot weather such a novelty to us that we pushed off reluctantly to the Aurora after an eventful day.
Those on board had had a busy time dredging, and their results were just as successful as ours. A haul was made in two hundred and fifty fathoms of ascidians, sponges, crinoids, holothurians, fish and other forms of life in such quantity that Hunter and Hamilton were occupied in sorting the specimens until five o’clock next morning. Meanwhile the Aurora had returned to her old anchorage close to Cape Denison.
The sky banked up from the south with nimbus, and early on the 23rd a strong breeze ruffled the water. There were a few things to be brought off from the shore, while Ainsworth, Sandell and Correll were still at the Hut, so that, as the weather conditions pointed to a coming blizzard, I decided to ‘cut the painter’ with the land.
An hour later the motor launch, with Madigan and Bickerton, sped away for the last load through falling snow and a rising sea. Hodgeman had battened down the windows of the Hut, the chimney was stuffed with bagging, the veranda entrance closed with boards, and, inside, an invitation was left for future visitors to occupy and make themselves at home. After the remainder of the dogs and some miscellaneous gear had been shipped, the launch put off and came alongside in a squally wind through thick showers of snow. Willing hands soon unloaded the boat and slung it in the davits. Everyone was at last safe on board, and in future all our operations were to be conducted from the ship.
During the night the wind rose and the barometer fell, while the air was filled with drifting snow. On the 24th – Christmas Eve – the velocity of the wind gradually increased to the seventies until at noon it blew with the strength of a hurricane. Chief Officer Blair, stationed with a few men under the fo’c’sle–head, kept an anxious eye on the anchor chain and windlass.
About lunch time the anchor was found to be dragging and we commenced to drift before the hurricane. All view of the land and lurking dangers in the form of reefs and islets were cut off by driving snow.
The wind twanged the rigging to a burring drone that rose to a shriek in the shuddering gusts. The crests of the waves were cut off and sprayed in fine spindrift. With full steam on we felt our way out, we hoped to the open sea; meanwhile the chain cable and damaged anchor were slowly being hauled in. The ship’s chances looked very small indeed, but, owing to the good seamanship of Captain Davis and a certain amount of luck, disaster was averted. Soon we were in a bounding sea. Each time we were lifted on a huge roller the motor launch, swinging in the davits, would rise and then descend with a crash on the water, to be violently bumped against the bulwarks. Everything possible was done to save the launch, but our efforts proved fruitless. As it was being converted into a battering ram against the ship itself it had to be cut away, and was soon swept astern and we saw no more of it.
Most unexpectedly there came a lull in the wind, so that it was almost calm, though the ship still laboured in the seas. A clearance in the atmosphere was also noticeable for Cape Hunter became discernible to the west, towards which we were rapidly drifting. This sight of the coast was a great satisfaction to us, for we then knew our approximate position1 and the direction of the wind, which had veered considerably.
The lull lasted scarcely five minutes when the wind came back from a somewhat different quarter, north of east, as violent as ever. The eye of the storm had passed over us, and the gale continued steady for several days. That night the struggle with the elements was kept up by officers and crew, assisted by members of the shore party who took the lee wheel or stood by in case of emergency.
December 25. Christmas Day on the high seas off Adélie Land, everything wet and fairly miserable; incipient mal de mer, wind 55–60; snowing! When Davis came down to breakfast and wished us a Merry Christmas, with a smile at the irony of it, the wardroom was swaying about in a most bewildering fashion.
Towards evening, after the Aurora had battled for hours slowly to the east, the sea went down somewhat and some drifting ice was sighted. We continued under full steam, pushing forward to gain the shelter of the Mertz glacier tongue. It was now discovered that the fluke of the anchor had broken off short, so great had been the strain imposed upon it during the height of the hurricane.
On Boxing Day the ship was in calmer water heading in a more southerly direction so as to come up with the land. Fog, fine snow and an overcast sky made a gloomy combination, but during the afternoon the fog lightened sufficiently for us to perceive the mainland – a ghostly cliff shrouded in diaphanous blink. By 10 pm the Mertz glacier was visible on the port bow, and to starboard there was an enormous tilted berg which appeared to be magnified in the dim light.
Allowing a day for the weather to become clearer and more settled, we got out the trawl on the 28th and did a dredging in three hundred fathoms close to the glacier tongue. Besides rocks and mud there were abundant crinoids, holothurians, corals, crustaceans and shells. In addition, several pieces of fossilised wood and coaly matter were discovered scattered through the catch.
Bage, under Davis’s direction, took temperatures and collected water samples at fifty, seventy–five, one hundred, two hundred and three hundred fathoms, using the Lucas sounding machine on the fo’c’sle. The temperature gradient from the surface downwards appeared to give some indication of the depth of ice submerged in the glacier tongue alongside which we were lying.
On the 29th a cold southeaster blew off the ice cliffs and the sun was trying to pierce a gauzy alto stratus. The Aurora steamed northeast, it being our intention to round the northern limit of the Mertz Glacier. Gradually a distant line of pack, which had been visible for some time, closed in and the ship ran into a cul–de–sac. Gray, who was up in the crow’s nest, reported that the ice was very heavy, so we put about.
Proceeding southward once more, we glided along within a stone’s throw of the great wall of ice whose chiselled headlands stood in profile for miles. There was leisure to observe various features of this great formation, and to make some valuable photographic records when the low southwestern sun emerged into a wide rift. Hunter trailed the tow net for surface plankton while the ship was going at half speed.
At ten o’clock the ship had come up with the land, and her course was turned sharply to the northwest towards a flotilla of bergs lying to the east of the Way Archipelago, which we intended to visit.
On December 30, 1913, the Aurora lay within a cordon of floating ice about one mile distant from the nearest islet of a group scattered along the coast off Cape Gray.
Immediately after breakfast a party of eight men set off in the launch to investigate Stillwell Island. The weather was gloriously sunny and everyone was eager at the prospect of fresh discoveries. Cape Hunter had been the home of the Antarctic petrels, and on this occasion we were singularly fortunate in finding a resort of the Southern Fulmar or silver–grey petrels. During the previous summer, two of the eastern sledging parties had for the first time observed the breeding habits of these birds among isolated rocks outcropping on the edge of the coast. But here there was a stronghold of hundreds of petrels, sitting with their eggs in niches among the boulders or ensconced in bowers excavated beneath the snow which lay deep over some parts of the island.
The rock was a gneiss which varied in character from that which had been examined at Cape Denison and in other localities. All the scientific treasures were exhausted by midday, and the whale boat was well laden when we rowed back to the ship.
Throughout a warm summer afternoon the Aurora threaded her way between majestic bergs and steamed west across the wide span of Commonwealth Bay, some fifteen miles off the land. At eleven o’clock the sky was perfectly clear and the sun hung like a luminous ball over the southern plateau. The rocks near the Hut were just visible. Close to the ‘Pianoforte Berg’ and the Mackellar Islets tall jets of fine spray were seen to shoot upward from schools of finner whales. All around us and for miles shoreward, the ocean was calm and blue; but close to the mainland there was a dark curving line of ruffled water, while through glasses one could see trails of serpentine drift flowing down the slopes of the glacier. Doubtless, it was blowing at the Hut; and the thought was enough to make us thankful that we were on our good ship leaving Adélie Land forever.
On the morning of December 31, 1913, Cape Alden was abeam, and a strong wind swept down from the highlands. Bordering the coast there was a linear group of islets and outcropping rocks at which we had hoped to touch. The wind continued to blow so hard that the idea was abandoned and our course was directed towards the northwest to clear a submerged reef which had been discovered in January 1912.
The wind and sea arose during the night, causing the ship to roll in a reckless fashion. Yet the celebration of New Year’s Eve was not marred, and lusty choruses came up from the wardroom till long after midnight. Next morning at breakfast our ranks had noticeably thinned through the liveliness of the ship, but it is wonderful how large an assembly we mustered for the New Year’s dinner, and how cheerfully the toast was drunk to ‘The best year we have ever had!’
On January 2, 1914, fast ice and the mainland were sighted. The course was changed to the southwest so as to bring the ship within a girdle of loose ice disposed in big solid chunks and small pinnacled floes. A sounding realized two hundred fathoms some ten miles off the coast, which stretched like a lofty bank of yellow sand along the southern horizon. On previous occasions we had not been able to see so much of the coastline in this longitude owing to the compactness of the ice, and so we were able to definitely chart a longer tract at the western limit of Adélie Land.
The ice became so thick and heavy as the Aurora pressed southward that she was forced at last to put about and steer for more open water. On the way, a sounding was made in two hundred and fifty fathoms, but a dredging was unsuccessful owing to the fact that insufficient cable was paid out in going from two hundred and fifty fathoms to deeper water.
Our northwesterly course ran among a great number of very long tabular bergs, which suggested the possibility of a neighbouring glacier tongue as their origin.
At ten o’clock on the evening of the 2nd, a mountain of ice with a high encircling bastion passed to starboard. It rose to a peak, flanked by fragments toppling in snowy ruin. The pyramidal summit was tinged the palest lilac in the waning light; the mighty pallid walls were streaked and blotched with deep azure; the green swell sucked and thundered in the wave worn caverns. Chaste snow birds swam through the pure air, and the whole scene was sacred.
A tropical day in the pack ice! Sunday January 4 was clear and perfectly still, and the sun shone powerfully. On the previous day we had entered a wide field of ice which had become so close and heavy that the ship took till late in the evening to reach its northern fringe.
From January 5 onwards for two weeks we steamed steadily towards the west, repeatedly changing course to double great sheets of pack which streamed away to the north, pushing through them in other places where the welcome ‘water sky showed strong’ ahead, making ‘southing’ for days following the trend of the ice, then grappling with it in the hope of winning through to the land and at last returning to the western track along the margin of brash which breaks the first swell of the Southern Ocean.
The weather was mostly overcast with random showers of light snow and mild variable winds on all but two days, when there was a blow of forty miles per hour and a considerable sea in which the ship seemed more active than usual.
Many soundings were taken, and their value lay in broadly […] Of course, too, we were supplementing the ship’s previous work in these latitudes.
One successful dredging in eighteen hundred fathoms brought up some large erratics and coaly matter, besides a great variety of animal life. It was instructive to find that the erratics were coated with a film of manganese oxide derived from the seawater. Several tow nettings were taken with large nets automatically closing at any desired depth through the medium of a ‘messenger’. Small crustaceans were plentiful on the surface, but they were if anything more numerous at depths of fifty to one hundred fathoms. Amongst the latter were some strongly phosphorescent forms. The flying birds were logged daily by the biologists. Emperor and Adélie penguins were occasionally seen, among the floes as well as sea leopards, crabeater and Weddell seals.
Friday January 16 deserves mention as being a day full of incident. In the morning a thin, cold fog hung along the pack whose edge determined our course. Many petrels flew around, and on the brash ice there were dark swarms of terns – small birds with black capped heads, dove grey backs and silvery–white breasts. They were very nervous of the ship, rising in great numbers when it had approached within a few hundred yards. One startled bird would fly up, followed by several more; then a whole covey would disturb the rest of the flock. Hamilton managed to shoot two of them from the fo’c’sle, and, after much manoeuvring, we secured one with a long hand net.
Soon after, there was a cry of ‘killer whales!’ from the stern. Schools of them were travelling from the west to the east along the edge of the pack. The water was calm and leaden, and every few seconds a big black triangular fin would project from the surface, there would be a momentary glimpse of a dark yellow–blotched back and then all would disappear.
We pushed into the pack to ‘ice ship’, as the water supply was running low. Just as the Aurora was leaving the open water, a school of finner whales went by, blowing high jets of spray in sudden blasts, wallowing for a few seconds on the surface, and diving in swirls of foam. These finners or rorquals are enormous mammals, and on one occasion we were followed by one for several hours. It swam along with the ship, diving regularly underneath from one side to another, and we wondered what would happen if it had chosen to charge the vessel or to investigate the propeller.
Close to a big floe to which the ship was secured, two crabeater seals were shot and hauled aboard to be skinned and investigated by the biologists and bacteriologist. When the scientists had finished their work, the meat and blubber were cut up for the dogs, while the choicer steaks were taken to the cook’s galley.
After lunch everyone started to ‘ice ship’ in earnest. The sky had cleared and the sun was warm and brilliant by the time a party had landed on the snow–covered floe with baskets, picks and shovels. When the baskets had been filled, they were hoisted by hand power on to a derrick which had been fixed to the mizzen mast, swung inboard and then shovelled into a melting tank alongside the engine room. The melter was a small tank through which ran a coil of steam pipes. The ice came up in such quantity that it was not melted in time to keep up with the demand, so a large heap was made on the deck.
Later in the afternoon it was found that holes chipped in the sea ice to a depth of six or eight inches filled quickly with fresh water, and soon a gang of men had started a service with buckets and dippers between these pools and the main hatch where the water was poured through funnels into the ship’s tanks. The bulwarks on the port side of the main hatch had been taken down, and a long plank stretched across to the floe. At nine o’clock work was stopped and we once more resumed our western cruise.
It was found that as the region of Queen Mary Land approached, heavy pack extended to the north. While skirting this obstacle, we disclosed by soundings a steep rise in the ocean’s floor from a depth of about fifteen hundred fathoms to within seven hundred fathoms of the surface, south of which there was deep water. It was named ‘Bruce Rise’ in recognition of the oceanographical work of the Scottish Expedition in Antarctic seas.
On the 17th, in latitude 62° 21’ S, longitude 95° 9’ E, the course ran due south for more than seven hours. For the two ensuing days the ship was able to steer approximately southwest through slackening ice, until on the 19th at midday we were in latitude 64° 59’ S, longitude 90° 8’ E. At length it appeared that land was approaching, after a westward run of more than twelve hundred miles. Attempts to reach the charted position of Totten’s Land, North’s Land, Budd Land and Knox Land had been successively abandoned when it became evident that the pack occupied a more northerly situation than that of the two previous years, and was in most instances thick and impenetrable.
At 10 pm on the 19th, the ice fields still remaining loose and navigable, a dark line of open water was observed ahead. From the crow’s nest it was seen to the south stretching east and west within the belt of pack ice – the Davis Sea. We had broken through the pack less than twenty–five miles north of where the Gauss (German Expedition, 1902) had wintered.
All next day the Aurora steamed into the eye of an easterly wind towards a low white island, the higher positions of which had been seen by the German Expedition of 1902, and charted as Drygalski’s High Land. Dr Jones’ party had, the year before, obtained a distant view of it and regarded it as an island, which proved to be correct, so we named it Drygalski Island. To the south there was the dim outline of the mainland. Soundings varied between two hundred and three hundred fathoms.
On January 21, Drygalski Island was close at hand, and a series of soundings which showed from sixty to seventy fathoms of water deepening towards the mainland proved beyond doubt that it was an island. In shape it is like a flattened dome about nine miles in diameter and twelve hundred feet in height, bounded by perpendicular cliffs of ice, and with no visible evidence of outcropping rock.
The dredge was lowered in sixty fathoms, and a rich assortment of life was captured for the biologists – Hunter and Hamilton. A course was then made to the south amidst a sea of great bergs; the water deepening to about four hundred fathoms.
During the evening the crevassed slopes of the mainland rose clear to the south, and many islets were observed near the coast, frozen in a wide expanse of bay ice. Haswell Island, visited by Jones, Dovers and Hoadley of the Western Party, was sighted, and the ship was able to approach within eight miles of it; at ten o’clock coming up to flat bay ice, where she anchored for the night. Before we retired to bunk, a Ross seal was discovered and shot, three–quarters of a mile away.
Next day, January 22, an unexpected find was made of five more of this rare species of seal. Many emperor penguins were also secured. It would have been interesting to visit the great rookery of emperor penguins on Haswell Island, but, as the ship could only approach to within eight miles of it, I did not think it advisable to allow a party to go so far.
On the night of the 22nd, the Aurora was headed northeast for the Shackleton Ice Shelf. In the early hours of the 23rd a strong gale sprang up and rapidly increased in violence. A pall of nimbus overspread the sky, and blinding snow commenced to fall.
We had become used to blizzards, but on this occasion several factors made us somewhat apprehensive. The ship was at least twenty–five miles from shelter on an open sea, littered with bergs and fragments of ice. The wind was very strong; the maximum velocity exceeding seventy miles per hour, and the dense driving snow during the midnight hours of semi–darkness reduced our chances of navigating with any certainty.
The night of the 23rd had a touch of terror. The wind was so powerful that, with a full head of steam and steering a few points off the eye of the wind, the ship could just hold her own. But when heavy gusts swooped down and the propeller raced on the crest of a mountainous wave, Davis found it impossible to keep steerage way.
Drift and spray lash the faces of officer and helmsman, and through the grey gloom misty bergs glide by on either hand. A long slow struggle brings us to a passage between two huge masses of ice. There is a shock as the vessel bumps and grinds along a great wall. The engine stops, starts again, and stops once more. The yards on the foremast are swung into the wind, the giant seas are broken by the stolid barriers of ice, the engine commences to throb with its old rhythm, and the ship slowly creeps out to meet the next peril. It comes with the onset of a ‘bergy bit’ which smashes the martingale as it plunges into a deep trough. The chain stay parts, dragging loose in the water, while a great strain is put by the foremast on the bowsprit.
Early on the 24th the ship was put about and ran with the wind, while all hands assembled on the fo’c’sle. The crew, under the direction of Blair, had the ticklish job of replacing the chain stay by two heavy blocks, the lower of which was hooked on to the lug which secured the end of the stay, and the upper to the bowsprit. The running ropes connecting the blocks were tightened up by winding the hauling line round the capstan. When the boatswain and two sailors had finished the wet and chilly task of getting the tackle into position, the rest put their weight on to the capstan bars and the strain on the bowsprit was relieved. The fo’c’sle, plunging and swaying in the great waves, was encased in frozen spray, and along all the ropes and stays were continuous cylinders of ice. The Aurora then resumed her easterly course against the blizzard.
Saturday January 24 was a day of high wind, rough seas, watery decks, lively meals and general discomfort. At 11.30 pm the waves had perceptibly decreased, and it was surmised that we were approaching the berg, about thirty miles in length, which lay to the west of the Shackleton Ice Shelf.
At 6 am on the 25th the sun managed to glimmer through the low rack flying from the east, lighting up the carven face of an ice cliff along which the Aurora was coasting. Up and down we steamed until the afternoon of the 26th, when the wind lulled away to nothing, and the grey, even pall of cloud rose and broke into fleecy alto cumulus.
At the southern extremity of the long berg, fast bay ice extended up to the land and for twenty miles across to the shelf on which the Winter Quarters of the Western Party had been situated. Further progress to the south was blocked, so our course was directed to the north along the western border of the berg.
When not engaged in sounding, dredging, or tow netting members of the land party found endless diversion in trimming coal. Big inroads had been made in the supply of more than five hundred tons, and it now became necessary to shift many tons of it from the holds aft to the bunkers where it was accessible to the firemen. The work was good exercise, and everyone enjoyed the shift below, ‘trucking’ and ‘heaving’. Another undoubted advantage, in the opinion of each worker, was that he could at least demand a wash from Chief Engineer Gillies, who at other times was forced to be thrifty with hot fresh water.
After supper on the 28th it was evident that we had reached a point where the shelf ice veered away to the eastward and a wide tract of adhering sea ice barred the way. The floe was exceedingly heavy and covered with a deep layer of soft snow. Emperor and Adélie penguins, crabeater and Weddell seals were recognized through glasses along its edge. As there was a light obscuring fog and dusk was approaching, the Aurora ‘hung up’ for the night.
On January 29 the ship, after a preliminary trawling had been done in three hundred and twenty fathoms, pushed into the floe and was made fast with an ice anchor. Emperor penguins were so plentiful in the neighbourhood that many specimens were secured for skins.
A sea leopard was seen chasing a crabeater seal quite close to the bow of the ship. The latter, after several narrow escapes, took refuge on an ice foot projecting from the edge of the floe.
Advantage was taken of a clearing in the weather to walk over the sea ice to a berg two and a half miles away, from the summit of which it was hoped that some sign of land might be apparent. Away in the distance, perhaps five miles further on, could be seen an immense congregation of emperor penguins – evidently another rookery. No certain land was visible.
The cruise was now continued to the northwest in order to skirt a collection of bergs and floe, with the ultimate object of proceeding in an easterly direction towards Termination Ice Tongue at the northern limit of the Shackleton Ice Shelf.
A glance at the map which illustrates the work done by the Western Party affords the best idea of the great ice formation which stretches away to the north of Queen Mary Land. It is very similar in character to the well known Ross Barrier over which lay part of Scott’s and Amundsen’s journeys to the South Pole. Its height is remarkably uniform, ranging from sixty to one hundred feet above the water level. When allowance has been made for average specific gravity, its average total thickness should approximate to six hundred feet. From east to west the formation was proved to be as much as two hundred miles, with one hundred and eighty miles between its northern and southern limits.
This vast block of ice originates fundamentally from the glacial flow over the southern hinterland. Every year an additional layer of consolidated snow is added to its surface by the frequent blizzards. These annual additions are clearly marked in the section exposed on the dazzling white face near the brink of the ice cliff. There is a limit, however, to the increase in thickness, for the whole mass is ever moving slowly to the north, driven by the irresistible pressure of the land ice behind it. Thus the northern face crumbles down into brash or floats away as part of a berg severed from the main body of the shelf ice.
On the morning of January 30 we had the unique experience of witnessing this crumbling action at work – a cataclysm of snow, ice and water! The ship was steaming along within three hundred yards of a cliff, when some loose drifts slid off from its edge, followed by a slice of the face extending for many hundreds of feet and weighing perhaps one million tons. It plunged into the sea with a deep booming roar and then rose majestically, shedding great masses of snow, to roll onwards exposing its blue, swaying bulk shivering into lumpy masses which pushed towards the ship in an ever–widening field of ice. It was a grand scene enacted in the subdued limelight of an overcast day.
During the afternoon the Aurora changed her northwesterly course round to northeast, winding through a wonderful sea of bergs grounded in about one hundred and twenty fathoms of water. At times we would pass through narrow lanes between towering walls and emerge into a straight wide avenue along which these mountains of ice were ranged. Several were rather remarkable; one for its exquisite series of stratification lines, another for its façade in stucco, and a third for its overhanging cornice fringed with slender icicles.
On January 31 a trawling was made in one hundred and twelve fathoms. Half a ton of life emptied on the deck gave the biologists occupation for several days. Included in the catch were a large number of monstrous gelatinous ascidians or ‘sea squirts’. Fragments of coal were once more found; an indication that coaly strata must be very widely distributed in the Antarctic.
The pack was dense and in massive array at the extremity of Termination Ice Tongue. Davis drove the ship through some of it and entered an open lead which ran like a dark streak away to the east amid ice which grew heavier and more marked by the stress of pressure.
Our time was now limited and it seemed to me that there was little chance of reaching open water by forcing a passage either to the east or north. We therefore turned on our tracks and broke southwest back into the Davis Sea, intending to steam westward to the spot where we had so easily entered two weeks previously.
On February 4 the pack to the north was beginning to thin out and to look navigable. Several shortcuts were taken across projecting ‘capes’, and then on February 5 the Aurora entered a zone of bergs and broken floe. No one slept well during that night as the ship bumped and ground into the ice which crashed and grated along her stout sides. Davis was on watch for long hours, directing in the crow’s nest or down on the bridge, and throughout the next day we pushed on northwards towards the goal which now meant so much to us – Australia – Home!
At four o’clock the sun was glittering on the great ocean outside the pack ice. Many of us climbed up in the rigging to see the fair sight – a prevision of blue skies and the calm delights of a land of eternal summer. Our work was finished, and the good ship was rising at last to the long swell of the southern seas.
On February 12, in latitude 55° S, a strong southwester drove behind, and, with all sails set, the Aurora made eight knots an hour. The last iceberg was seen far away on the eastern horizon. Albatrosses followed in our wake, accompanied by their smaller satellites – Cape hens, priors, Lesson’s and Wilson petrels.
Before leaving the ice, Sandell and Bickerton had fixed an aerial between the fore and mizzen masts, while the former installed a wireless receiving apparatus within the narrow limits of his cabin. There was no space on the ship to set up the motor engine, dynamos and other instruments necessary for transmitting messages over a long distance.
As the nights began to darken, Sandell listened eagerly for distant signals, until on February 16, in latitude 47° S, the calls of three ships in the vicinity of the Great Australian Bight were recognized. After this date news was picked up every night, and all the items were posted on a morning bulletin pinned up in the wardroom.
The first real touch of civilization came unexpectedly early on the morning of February 21. A full–rigged ship on the southern horizon! It might have been an iceberg, the sails flashed so white in the morning sun. But onward it came with a strong southwester, overhauled and passed us, signalling ‘Archibald Russell, fifty–four days out from Buenos Ayres, bound for Cape Borda.’ It was too magical to believe.
On February 26 we gazed on distant cliffs of rock and earth – Kangaroo Island – and the tiny cluster of dwellings round the lighthouse at Cape Borda. Then we entered St Vincent’s Gulf on a clear, hot day, marvelling at the sandy–blue water, the long, flat mainland with its clumps of trees and the smoke of many steamers.
The welcome home – the voices of innumerable strangers – the hand grips of many friend – it chokes one – it cannot be uttered!
- It should be borne in mind that compasses are unreliable in the vicinity of the magnetic pole.
This version of Home of the Blizzard has been edited and published by the Australian Antarctic Division.