Last week I wrote and shared images of a visit I made to Grytviken, South Georgia, in 2016, in the footsteps of Shackleton. I received lots of positive comments so I thought I would try the format again with memories of another significant place to the Endurance Expedition – Wilhelmina Bay.
Those of you that remember the story of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition will recall that Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, became stranded in pack ice, some 100 miles further north than ice was normally encountered. This ultimately led to the loss of the ship, and whilst expected, marked a turning point in their journey, and had a significant effect on Shackleton and his crew.
“On November 21, 1915, nearly four weeks after the men had abandoned the Endurance, Shackleton stood examining the ship in the distance. One member of the expedition wrote in his diary: “This evening, as we were lying in our tents, we heard the Boss call out, ‘She’s going, boys!’ . . . And, sure enough, there was our poor ship a mile and a half away, struggling in her death agony. She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air. She then gave one quick dive and the ice closed over her forever. . . . without her, our destitution seemed more emphasized, our desolation more complete.
Within minutes, the dark spot of water into which the Endurance sunk froze over, blending into the white ice that extended endlessly in all directions. Since abandoning the ship, the team had expected it to sink. But the vessel’s loss nevertheless dealt a very powerful blow to the men’s morale. Shackleton himself was stunned. He recorded the event briefly in his diary and added: “I cannot write about it.” (Koehn 2010: 14).
While I was watching Shackleton, the Channel 4 series recently, I heard a fleeting reference to Wilhelmina Bay as a possible landing stage for the tiny lifeboats salvaged from Endurance before she sank. After some research, and finding Nancy Koehn’s article below, I found out that Shackleton had a shortlist of possible landing spots from which to seek help (depending upon tidal and weather conditions) when the time came to launch the Dudley Docker, Stancomb Wills and James Caird. The three lifeboats, reinforced by the ship’s carpenter, Chippy McNeish were hulled up on Patience Camp with the men and dogs ready for the next stage of their arduous journey. The possible places to make landfall included Paulet Island, from which Shackleton planned to take a small party of men on to Wilhelmina Bay by foot, Clarence Island, Elephant Island and Deception Island. Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands was also considered as the port that would provide certain assistance but this was 540 miles away.
The reason I noted the reference to Wilhelmina Bay, was because on 8 December 2016, a crystal-clear day, I was lucky enough to visit this special spot. Our boat, MS Expedition, ploughed into the ice rather than dropping anchor and we were shipped ashore in zodiacs that landed on the ice in similar fashion! I recall vividly the turquoise ice formations, the reflections in the water, and the penguins perched on the icebergs. We walked across the ice and then boarded the zodiacs to view the Bay from the water.
Koehn, Nancy F. 2010. Leadership in Crisis: Ernest Shackleton and the Epic Voyage of the Endurance. Harvard Business School, 9-803-127 December 2, 2010. Boston.