Sir Ernest Shackleton - Antarctic explorer

Portrait of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, 1874–1922 Portrait of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, 1874–1922 by Reginald Grenville Eves, 1921. This portrait was probably painted from life, before Shackleton set off on his final voyage, the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, in 1921. Not long after the start of the voyage, Shackleton died of a heart attack on 15 January 1922, at Grytviken, South Georgia. Repro ID: BHC3022. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.After Captain Scott died during an attempt to reach the South Pole in 1912, Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874–1922) chose to tackle the challenge of Antarctica in a different way. He decided he would attempt to journey across the icy continent from one side to the other via the South Pole.

Where is Antarctica?

Antarctica is an enormous continent. More than 99 per cent of it is covered by ice. In places, this ice is more than three miles thick. Antarctica is completely surrounded by the vast Southern Ocean, half of which freezes in winter. It is high, windy and extremely cold. There is no indigenous human population and no life forms at all except around the coast

More than 2000 years ago, Greek writers described a large mass of land in the south of the world. Even though they had never seen it, they believed it must exist so that it could 'balance' the land they knew about in the northern half of the world. They named this imagined land 'Anti-Arkitos', meaning the 'opposite of the Arctic'.

Did explorers before Shackleton try to reach the Antarctic?

Yes. For instance, Captain Cook had tried to find the great southern continent on his second Pacific voyage of 1772–74. In 1912, an expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott had been narrowly beaten in the race to be first to the South Pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Who was Ernest Shackleton?

He was an explorer who was born in southern Ireland, but grew up in London. He joined the merchant navy when he was 16 and worked on many different ships before becoming a polar explorer.

How did Shackleton become interested in polar exploration?

Shackleton was a romantic adventurer, who became interested in exploration and joined the Royal Geographical Society while still at sea. In 1901 he got a place on Captain Scott's first Antarctic expedition, in the Discovery, through his seafaring skills and contact with one of the expedition sponsors.

When did Shackleton next travel south to the Antarctic?

In 1907, he led his own British Antarctic Expedition in the Nimrod. Other members of the expedition climbed Mount Erebus and reached the south magnetic pole. Using ponies and also dragging his own sledges Shackleton himself led a party which reached to only 97 miles from the Pole. Although there had not been much government support beforehand, Shackleton received a hero's welcome when he returned. He was knighted, becoming Sir Ernest Shackleton.

What was Shackleton's most difficult journey of exploration?

In 1914, in command of a party in the ship Endurance, Shackleton set off to cross the Antarctic from one side to the other, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. As both Amundsen and Scott had reached the South Pole and the Americans had reached the North Pole, he saw this as the last great challenge.

What happened during this next expedition?

Although the expedition failed because Shackleton did not reach the South Pole, in other ways it was his biggest success. He triumphed over enormous difficulties to bring his men safely home after the Endurance was trapped and crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea. To do so, he made an incredible journey to get help.

When did things begin to go wrong for 'Endurance'?

Shackleton and his men set sail in August 1914, just as war was starting in Europe. On 19 January 1915, Endurance became locked in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Over the course of the next nine months the ship was gradually crushed, finally sinking on 27 October. It proved impossible for the 28 men to drag their boats and stores across the frozen sea so Shackleton camped on the ice and drifted with it. When the ice began to break up as it drifted north into warmer waters, the men launched the three boats and in dangerous conditions, managed to reach Elephant Island. This rocky and barren island was still more than 800 miles from the nearest inhabited land with people who could help them.

What sort of condition were the men in?

They were cold and exhausted, and weak from the hardships of the journey. They knew they would not be found and could not all sail further. They were also worried that their supplies of food would not last long. There were seals and penguins to kill for food and fuel but not many and they eventually had to rely on collecting shellfish.

What did Shackleton decide to do?

He decided to leave most of the party behind, while he set out in a boat to reach South Georgia, the nearest inhabited island, 800 miles away. He knew that he would find help there, at the Norwegian whaling stations on the north side.

Did Shackleton go alone?

No. He and five others left in the best of their ship's boats, the James Caird. Although it was winter and the Southern Ocean is the stormiest in the world, they knew the plan was their best hope for the survival of the whole party. When the six set sail, the rest of the group were left behind to make camp on Elephant Island.

How big was the 'James Caird'?

It was just over 7 metres long and 2 metres wide.

Did Shackleton make any changes to the boat before they set sail?

Yes. The carpenter, 'Chippy' McNeish, made the bottom of the boat stronger, and stretched a canvas deck over most of it to give some shelter. The journey was extremely dangerous. On many occasions, the six believed they were about to sink in the terrifying conditions they encountered, with waves which seemed as high as mountains and violent storms. They were constantly wet and cold and one of the biggest dangers they faced was the weight of the ice collecting on the boat as the sea-spray froze. Several times they risked their lives hacking it off to prevent the boat capsizing. They also had a real fear that their water would run out before they made land. After 15 exhausting days at sea, they finally sighted South Georgia.

They found it very difficult to find a place to land their boat safely, and were forced by gale, which nearly wrecked them on the coast, to spend two more nights at sea. Eventually, they managed to get into a cove in King Haakon Bay on the south of the island. To their relief, they found a stream with fresh water almost immediately.

Where did Shackleton and his men sleep?

They found a cliff overhang where they could shelter and light a fire for warmth.

Were they safe there?

No, because they were on the uninhabited side of the island. To get to the whaling stations for help, someone had to cross the unmapped island to the other side. This would mean climbing high mountains that had never been crossed before.

Who took part in the final bid for help?

Shackleton led, taking the tough seaman Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, the expert navigator on the James Caird, who also had mountaineering experience. The journey involved a climb of nearly 3000 feet (914 metres). They did not take a tent and could not rest for long because they could easily freeze to death if they fell asleep in the snow. Apart from short breaks they marched continuously for 36 hours, covering some 40 miles over mountainous and icy terrain.

When did they realise they were close to safety?

They heard the steam-whistle of the Stromness whaling station, signalling the start of another day's work at 07.00. After scrambling down a final ridge, the three men at last reached people who could help them.

What happened to the other members of the party?

They were all rescued. Those on Elephant Island had to wait longer, until 30 August 1916, but were eventually picked up by Shackleton on a Chilean navy tug. All the men believed that their survival was due largely to his tremendous leadership. Many would have believed it impossible to bring all his men home with no lives lost. Many of his men were to return immediately to the harsh reality of the First World War. Tragically, after surviving so many dangers with Shackleton, some were to perish in it.

How did Shackleton die?

He died of a heart attack, on 5 January 1922. He was on his way to the Antarctic again, on board another ship the Quest, at Grytviken, South Georgia. He is buried there.

Nowadays, the southern continent is shared between 27 nations that have scientists based there. The things they study include changes in climate and the destruction of the ozone layer. For further information about the Antarctic today visit the British Antarctic Survey website.