7 January 2012

We are happily in ‘the albatross latitudes’.  In the roaring forties and furious fifties, the winds of the Southern Ocean are the plaything of a magnificent bird.  Ten of the world’s 13 species of albatross live on the open seas of the southern hemisphere. It is particularly the domain of the Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans), pure white with jet black wing tips, the largest surviving flying animal.  I have just been up on deck watching one soaring low between the waves, circling the ship, hardly ever beating its very narrow, very long wings.

The albatross is more than a creature of the wind; it was, in the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words, ‘the bird/That made the breeze to blow’.  When the North American naturalist, Robert Cushman Murphy, saw his first ever albatross on a voyage south in 1912, he wrote: I now belong to a higher cult of mortals … in the morning sunlight, flew the long-anticipated bird, even more majestic, more supreme in its element, than my imagination had pictured … Lying on the invisible currents of the breeze, the bird appeared merely to follow its pinkish bill at random.

The great birds love to follow ships which churn the shrimps and squids to the surface.  Albatrosses will swoop at any floating scrap, particularly if it is white.  Dr Edward Wilson on Robert Falcon Scott’s ship, Discovery, examined the stomach of an albatross he caught and found inside an undigested Roman Catholic tract with a portrait of Cardinal Vaughan.

Charles Harrisson, biologist on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was entranced by their magic: Night and day the great birds floated motionless silently around, and I could realize the feeling that prompted the old mariners to believe that the souls of drowned sailormen entered into those wonderful birds.

The 3-metre south-westerly swell that had our ship rolling yesterday has moderated today and now the sea is (temporarily!) as benign as the Southern Ocean gets.  The Aurora was not so fortunate.  Belgrave Ninnis, delighted as he was to be on the ship, described the conditions as Hell, grim Hell, sodden watery Hell. Perchance you have heard of the “Roaring Forties”. Well, for eleven days they’ve been roaring … This is famed as the roughest place on God’s earth, and, by Jove, it has lived up to its reputation … Things are coming to a pass when one comes to a meal in oilskins & sea boots.

Percy Gray, the ship’s second officer, was used to it, and was enjoying himself: In spite of the beastly discomfort, it really is a feast of fun on board with all these chaps.  A meal of course is the great rag.  As soon as it is meal time, everybody makes a rush for the places round the table which seat about half of us.  The others wander around snatching at food when they get the chance.  This morning I got left without a seat, so we (the standing up party) arranged that one should go up and raise a cry of ‘ship in sight’.  This acted like clockwork, and there was a mad rush for the companion.  We of course all leisurely assumed their seats…

Things got very serious on the Aurora in early January 1912.  They sighted their first iceberg at 4.20 pm on the 29th of December and encountered the pack ice the next day.  Captain Davis was disappointed to meet the pack so far north, and as it grew heavier, he was forced to follow the edge of it westward, ever westward, looking for an opening, a lead to the south.  Every day was, as he put it, another long weary day coasting along the edge of the pack trying to get south, but seldom making better than West.  What was he to do?  Try to penetrate the pack and risk getting trapped?  Or would he be forever heading west, stranded from the coastline and unable ever to land a party?

Still going west, recorded Gray on the 2nd of January.  Mawson hopes that the pack will clear about this longitude a bit, and that we shall be able to get south, without encountering it very heavy, but Wild is very doubtful.  Mawson is afraid of going into the pack unnecessarily, as ships have been caught for a whole year in it before now, and it would be a great farce if we came back without having landed a party at all.  I don’t mind being caught after we have landed all the parties, but I object to it before that.

By the night of 2 January, Douglas Mawson was in despair: his whole expedition seemed in jeopardy, and he was facing personal failure and humiliation.  Things looked so bad last night, he wrote to his fiancée, Paquita, that I could do nothing but just roll over and over on the settee on which I have been sleeping and wish that I could fall into oblivion.

But then suddenly, at 6 am on the 3rd, they discovered an unexpected and huge glacier tongue, beyond which there seemed a clear passage south towards land.  It was a turning point for the expedition.

This morning, wrote Mawson to Paquita, … a large proportion of failure appeared to stare us in the face (we had had the worst possible luck for some days past) …           This morning a great turn in events took place, and I now feel sure that we can complete the remainder of our programmes, though somewhat modified.  Providence came forward at the eleventh hour and made a heaven for us. … everything I believe will go well.  Already we have made important discoveries and, Oh my Dear, I am beginning to live again after a period of several days of impending evil and disaster.

Percy Gray also recorded the change in fortune on the 3rd: Great happenings to-day.  We have started the discoveries!  … When I got up at 8 o’clock this morning all hands were in a whirl of excitement, as an ice barrier had been sighted, stretching away in a north and south direction.  … Mawson and Davis are in fine humours, as this is apparently a very important discovery.

Mawson hoped to land a party the next day, but it would take another five worrying days before he could do so.  On the 7th of January, this day 100 years ago, the Aurora was still nosing along the edges of the pack ice and everyone on board was anxious and conscious of the possibility of defeat.  At present there seems to be no chance of landing, wrote Gray, as it seems to be nothing but ice barrier, and it will be an awful job landing them over [the] barrier.  They will have to be landed somewhere so the sooner we start about it the better… I only trust that the show is not a failure.