Last month, 99-year-old photo negatives were discovered in Scott’s Hut near Cape Evans on Ross Island in Antarctica. Ross Island is also the location of McMurdo Station and Discovery Hut, which I visited and posted about a little over a year ago. Some of you may have seen this story when it hit the news last month, but I thought it was worth bringing up again because it’s just so amazing.
The photos were recovered by conservators with the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZAHT) who are currently working on preserving 4 expedition huts in Antarctica which were originally built for early exploration of the continent by people like Earnest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. As you can see in my Discovery Hut post, despite the harsh environment in Antarctica, the cold lends to preservation even after 100 years. My visit to Discovery Hut was before any of the restoration work had begun, and the condition of the items inside — from clothes to pots and pans to cans of food — was remarkable, even without conservation efforts.
Conservators for the current project, the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project found a pile of negatives in a box while working in Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans. They were frozen and matted together in the box, but Mark Strange, photographic conservator for the NZAHT was able to separate, clean, and digitize the negatives. The result was a collection of remarkable photos taken between January 14 and January and January 25, 1915.
The photos are believed to have been taken by the official photographer for the Ross Sea Party, Arnold Spencer Smith, as the expedition first sailed into the Ross Sea headed for McMurdo Sound and Cape Evans. The Ross Sea Party was one of two elements of the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition (1914-1917). As its name suggests, Earnest Shackleton instigated and led the expedition for the purpose of crossing the Antarctic continent for the first time.
One ship, Endurance, sailed from South America to the Weddell Sea with Shackleton aboard. A team of men, dogs, and sleds were planning to start from the shore of the Weddell Sea and cross over to the Ross Sea to complete the transantarctic trek. Another team sailing on the Aurora left from New Zealand for the Ross Sea in order to set up supply depots for the last 1/3 of the journey and also to give the expedition members a ride home at the end of their journey.
Things went rather famously awry for both parties. Endurance set out in December 1914, but encountered more sea ice than expected. By February, the ship was stuck in the ice and unable to maneuver. The men were forced to hunker down for months waiting, drifting slowly with the ice pack. The crew prepared themselves to spend a winter icebound.
In late July, the ice began to break up. But as it did so over the following months, incredible pressure was placed on the ship, squeezing it to its breaking point. By late October 1915, Shackleton was forced to abandon ship and the crew began camping on the ice with two lifeboats to be their rescue. They salvaged supplies from the cracking ship until late November when it sunk beneath the ice.
It wasn’t until April 1916 that the ice finally broke up and the crew rowed their lifeboats to Elephant Island. The island was small and uninhabited and the men were in dire straits, so it was decided that a team of 6 would attempt to sail to South Georgia Island in one of the 3 lifeboats. It was some of the worst sailing conditions Shackleton had seen in his long career as a mariner, but the crew somehow made it to their destination. The men were then able to secure rescue for those left on Elephant Island in August 2016.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the Ross Sea Party arrived in McMurdo Sound in January 1915, as seen in these photos. Ten men disembarked to begin deployment of the supply depots for Shackleton, unaware that anything was amiss with the expedition. The crew was inexperienced and found it exceedingly difficult to drag the 1000 lb sleds through the ice. However, they were committed to supporting the mission, believing that Shackleton and his team were making their way across the ice and that their survival relied on the depots. Painstakingly, they proceeded to lay the depots as intended.
In May 1915, disaster struck. A 90 mph gale ripped the Aurora from her moorings and the ship was cast adrift in the ice, unable to get back to shore. Most of the crew’s provisions were on board the ship and then men on shore were left stranded. The men presumed that no rescue would be possible until at least 1916 when Shackleton emerged, so they kept on with their work to build the resupply depots for Shackleton. Along the way they slaughtered penguins and seals for food to fuel their work, which requires more than 1400 miles of marching. The men were able to survive in part by rationing supplies leftover in Scott’s Hut from earlier expeditions.
The Aurora drifted with the ice pack until February 1916, when the ice began to break up and the ship was able to maneuver to open water. During the time adrift, the wireless operator on board reconfigured the radio to have a much larger transmission radius — 1000+ miles. Finally, the southernmost station in New Zealand picked up the signal and the crew was able to arrange rescue of the men stranded onshore.
Three of the men onshore died during the ordeal, including Arnold Spencer-Smith, the presumed photographer of the discovered photos. The other seven were rescued in January 1917.
The man in the above photos is Alexander Stevens, a Scottish geologist and the expedition’s chief scientist. The other photo I include is of Mt. Erebus, a similar view to the one I had during Happy Camper last year. It’s not known why these photos were left behind while others were taken back on the rescue ship, although I can imagine that after several years of being stranded in Antarctica with little help, I wouldn’t spend too much time looking around to make sure my bags were packed.
You can see the full gallery of recovered photos on the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust website. You can also hear more about the expedition and the discovery of the photos in a podcast by the NPR show Science Friday.