My Reflections on the Blue Desert

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Life at sea is easy when you’re traveling aboard the National Geographic Endeavour. Smiling faces, plenty of refreshments, and tons of space create an atmosphere more like a Hyatt resort. When spending time in the lounge, the library, the galley, or even sometimes on deck it is easy to forget you’re in one of the most dangerous oceans on the planet. The luxuries and warmth of the ship are distractions from the freezing gusts and turbulent blue churn below. I spent some time on the bridge today where I could view the sea ahead, port, and starboard. Looking at the same horizon all around, and after trekking to the bridge from the cold outer deck, I was reminded that we are a small speck on the Blue Desert. Since we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the water and air temperatures have dropped to just above freezing and the winds are blowing a bitter chill through the air. It is spring time here, but the only bird chirping is the occasional squeak from something sliding on the ship.

Yesterday we had the pleasure of listening to Kim Heacox tell a two hour long tale of Shackleton. Kim wrote a book about Sir Ernest Shackleton for National Geographic and has an amazing ability to see the larger picture in the small details. He was able to take us from London, where Shackleton hired 26 crew based on personality over merit, and instill the memories of that voyage into our heads as though we had lived them too. If you don’t know the story of Shackleton, then you are missing out on one of the greatest adventure stories of our time. Homer and Shakespeare would have liked to have known Shackleton.

Shackleton was a man who sought challenge. He carved the route that took Scott to the South Pole, and never lost a single man under his command. In 1914 he set out with 27 other men, in the Endurance, to cross the continent of Antarctica. They needed to spend the winter on the ice in order to be ready to make the crossing in the short Antarctic spring and summer months. Unfortunately, they found themselves caught in brash ice and had to spend the winter on the ship. The original plan was to drop Shackleton and 5 other men on the continent and sail the Endurance back to warmer waters. With the ship stuck, those plans were delayed. They wintered the Antarctic night until the ice began to break. Amidst thoughts that they’d be freed again, the ice broke in such a way that the Endurance was destroyed. Now 1915, an entire crew had to survive its way back to civilization on penguin and seal meat with 3 open-top life boats as vessels for escape. Over the course of months, they made their way up the Antarctic coast and set to the Southern Ocean the instant Mother Nature would allow it. 28 men in three 20 foot long rescue boats made it from Antarctica to Elephant Island (an Antarctic Island). On Elephant Island they found enough seals, penguins, and fresh water to survive on. Elephant Island was not salvation though; it was still hundreds of miles of open-ocean from anything. In fact, it is closer to South America and the Falklands than anything else, but Shackleton decided to shoot for the whaling stations on South Georgia. His decision was made because most weather comes from the West in the Southern Ocean and everything else was almost due-North. He took 4 men with him and let the winds power the James Caird life boat to South Georgia. It would be over 5 months later before he rescued the rest of his crew on Elephant Island. Being the adventurer he was, Shackleton looked forward to crossing over 800 miles of the Southern Ocean in an open-topped vessel. He reached the whaling station in 1916 and has gone down in history since.

I realize it is a disappointment to end the Shackleton tale in such a way, but if you want to read the whole account search Amazon for either of these authors: Kim Heacox or Alfred Lansing. Kim’s version has pictures and is shorter by the way.

The full story of Shackleton is not what I wanted to share today. I have spent some time trying to imagine what it was like to have traversed these seas in such a small boat with no protection from the elements aside from some sleeping bags and the clothes on their backs.

Standing on the deck of the Endeavour for more than 5 minutes, today, will match the strongest cold I’ve ever felt in Virginia Beach. Looking out on the horizon has inspired a feeling of loneliness I have never known. The strike of the wind waters my eyes and completely dries my skin every time I step outside. When shivering sets in, there is no way to stop it than to seek the man made shelter of the ship. All of this can be experienced within minutes down here. To imagine Shackleton crossing these same seas…well, it is unimaginable.

Caird he was, Endeavoured we’re better.

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