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All discovery starts with first steps and in the case of Antarctica, these were made during the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration in the 19th and 20th century. Many of the expeditions at that time recorded scientific observations and brought back specimens, providing information of an environment unperturbed by human impact. Little did the early explores know that they laid the foundations of Antarctic science that has become so crucial for predicting our future in the age of manmade climate change some 200 years later. So, it is only befitting that our Antarctic Quest 21 expedition in 2021/22 commemorates the iconic explorer and leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton, in the centenary year of his final expedition to the Antarctic.
It was in 1820 that Lt Edward Bransfield Royal Navy, made the first confirmed sighting of mainland Antarctica. That first sighting was the start of a period of intensive exploration of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica itself.
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration. Outstanding in their personal contributions to this period were the British explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Robert Falcon Scott. However, early polar exploration had other great contributors from across the globe. Figures, such as Roald Amundsen and Douglas Mawson, were instrumental in unlocking the interior of the Antarctic continent. Others, such as Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who Scott liked, collaborated with and referred to as ‘The Gentleman of the Pole,’ explored the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Each, in their own way, undertook incredible challenges, forging into new territory. They also contributed immensely to the global pool of scientific knowledge about the Antarctic. All these individuals displayed the most outstanding levels of resilience, leadership, commitment, endurance, and exceptional vision. It could be argued that the person who most epitomised these qualities, was Sir Ernest Shackleton or, as he was better known, ‘The Boss’.
The story of Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition is well known as a tale of the ability of Shackleton and his men to overcome all odds in a battle of survival in the hostile Antarctic environment. When their ship was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea in 1915, Shackleton and his men took to hauling their lifeboats across the sea ice in a desperate bid to reach safety. It is widely regarded that it was Shackleton’s legendary leadership, coupled with an unbelievable level of trust and commitment from his men, that enabled Shackleton to guide his team through some of the most extreme hardships imaginable and effect their safe rescue some nine gruelling months later.
Despite the tribulations he suffered during the Endurance expedition, Shackleton returned to the Antarctica in 1921 to lead a further scientific expedition. This expedition was originally known as ‘The Shackleton-Rowett Expedition,’ as the main financial backer was John Quiller Rowett, a wealthy individual who was committed to scientific research. It was only later that the expedition became more commonly known as the ‘Quest Expedition,’ after the MV Quest which was Shackleton’s final ship, obtained for the Antarctic Expedition. Sadly though, Shackleton’s ‘Quest’ was never to begin in earnest, as he suffered a fatal heart attack on the morning of 5 January 1922. It was Shackleton's demise that has come to be regarded as the final chapter of the 'Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,' but it is those very values and Shackleton’s example that now inspires:
"Expedition Antarctic Quest 21"
It is Shackleton's example that now inspires the “Antarctic Quest 21” expedition. In keeping with the values of the early explorers and Shackleton himself, Antarctic Quest 21 will travel into the untrodden regions of the Antarctic Peninsula to undertake essential science and exploration. Operating in this region is no easy task, with considerable climatic and environmental challenge. The only mechanism of movement across the unforgiving terrain is by manually hauling all that is needed for the team’s survival, as we as all the scientific equipment. ‘Man-haul’ is very much in the spirit of Shackleton’s heroic and historic achievements, and the expedition team will hold a commemoration service in his honour on the ice on 5th January 2022. This will take place on the East Coast of the Peninsula, overlooking the Weddell Sea, and the site of Shackelton’s legendary Endurance Expedition. In raising a ‘wee dram’ of Shackleton Whisky to his memory, we will seek to connect with Shackleton enthusiasts across the globe, as well as all those who are following us in his Spirit of scientific exploration, through the medium of modern telecommunications.
In 2012, Paul Hart led a small team to cross the Antarctic Peninsula from west to east and back, undertaking scientific research to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Captain Scott reaching the South Pole. Man-hauling loads of more than 110kg, the team braved tremendous storms and the ever-present dangers of crevasse and avalanche. Katabatic winds gusting more than 100 mph threatened to destroy their tents and took temperatures as low as -55 °C. The team also had to deal with the mental impact of falls into crevasses. Despite this, for over two and half months they explored un-trodden areas of the Antarctic Peninsula and gained valuable data relating to climate change, geology and meteorology. Their work was hailed as an outstanding success by such venerable institutions as the British Antarctic Survey, the Scott Polar Research Institute and the Natural Environment Research Council.