The greatest Antarctic survival story (almost) never told

“The Weddell Sea,” wrote historian Thomas R. Henry in 1950, “is, according to the testimony of all who have navigated its mountain-filled waters, the most treacherous and bleak region on earth.” These are the swirling, ship-crushing waters where Ernest Shackleton lost the Endurance. Common sense would therefore indicate that tourists can do well there – especially now that the Antarctic winter is fast approaching. Not in 2024.

“Entering the Weddell – long overlooked due to the challenges of shifting ice – is now expedition cruising eminentlywith the added excitement of following in Shackleton’s footsteps,” said Alex Mudd of polar specialist Swoop Travel as we approached.

Only it wasn’t Shackleton’s footprints I was looking for during my fortnight’s journey, but those of an obscure Swedish scientist, Otto Nordenskjöld, and one of the great Antarctic survival stories that have (almost) never been told.

Ten years before Shackleton’s trials, he endured two winters of continued hardship in the Weddell Sea after his ship was ravaged by pack ice (a large mass of ice floating in the sea, created by smaller pieces pressed together). Now that more than 100,000 cruise passengers visit Antarctica every year, a trip to the frozen continent is no longer as special as it used to be. Most trips head to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula and follow a well-trodden conveyor belt of landing sites, so I longed for a different story and the pioneering spirit of Nordenskjöld.

The Sylvia Earle in Antarctica

Aurora Expedition’s ship Sylvia Earle was the ship for writer Mark Stratton’s voyage – Bartosz Strozynski

From the moment we entered the Drake Passage from southern Argentina, the journey was turbulent. The ship’s Anglo-American expedition leader, Ashley Perrin, addressed me and 91 fellow passengers with disturbing news after the captain’s welcome cocktail. No, the prosecco wasn’t finished yet, but the southerly wind was driving the pack ice of the Weddell Sea north towards the entrance. “The ice of the Weddell may be too hard to penetrate and I’m sure no one will want to leave it in the James Caird,” she warned, referring to Shackleton’s daring escape from the lifeboat. For maximum impact, a grainy image of Nordenskjöld’s Antarctic ship, crushed and sinking on February 12, 1903, is projected onto the screen behind her.

The Nordenskjöld saga was unpacked during lectures by naval historian Ben Maddison during our journey south. He set sail in 1901 and, together with his fellow scientists from the Swedish South Pole Expedition, sailed into the Weddell with the deliberate intention of wintering to collect meteorological and climate data. They built a prefabricated hut after being dropped off at Snow Hill Island in early 1902 and settled there for the winter.

When Antarctica returned to them in the Southern Hemisphere the following summer, the three-masted barque was buffeted by unusually thick pack ice. The ship’s captain, CA Larsen, sent three men overland to warn Nordenskjöld that Antarctica was stuck. But unable to reach him, they built a stone hut to survive the approaching winter. The same fate befell Larsen’s remaining crew after the ship sank. Nordenskjöld had no idea why no help had arrived and faced a second winter on Snow Hill with dwindling supplies. By March 1903 the expedition had split into three parties, without a ship and with little hope.

“In the annals of polar history, Nordenskjöld’s expedition was a triumph because they accomplished incredible science in an area that was completely unknown,” says Maddison. “The adventure is relatively unknown because he was not as glamorous as Shackleton.”

Icebergs in the Weddell SeaIcebergs in the Weddell Sea

Icebergs in the Weddell Sea

Such hardships were not endured as we made beautiful knots towards Antarctica. The round bow of our ship Sylvia Earle, a new design feature on polar ships, absorbed the wave energy so that the passage was smooth. In addition to lectures, we were also shown how to make hail, which Nordenskjöld is said to have eaten: pemmican (dried meat and fat) and sleigh cakes, cooked in melted snow. It is easily digestible without the addition of penguin or seal fat. Otherwise I spent my time on the top deck watching albatrosses and icebergs glide by effortlessly.

After 36 hours we rounded the northern tip of the continent and slid through the narrow Antarctic Strait into the Weddell. It was a blue-sky morning and there was little resemblance to Perrin’s apocalyptic prediction. Watching flat icebergs many kilometers in diameter, with no other ship in sight, left us in ecstasy.

We sailed close enough to see the scientists’ makeshift hut locations. On Paulet Island there is a simple stone dwelling built by Larsen and his twenty crew in February 1903. They stored killed penguins, covered it with tarpaulin and went into cooling mode. An hour further on, the three sailors, who had failed to warn Nordenskjöld, had dug in for the winter. Their smaller hut is hidden from view by the modern orange buildings of Argentina’s Esperanza-Hope Bay research base. The bay is beautifully surrounded by high, fluted mountain slopes with thick powder snow.

The Argentine Esperanza-Hope Bay Research BaseThe Argentine Esperanza-Hope Bay Research Base

The Argentine Esperanza-Hope Bay Research Base

Unfortunately, beyond this point our nemesis awaited. Heaps of broken ice floes, like splintered white chocolate, stretched as far as the eye could see. There was no chance of reaching Snow Hill as this barrier pushed north towards us. “The way to be shipwrecked is to get stuck between land and ice and be crushed. You can immediately notice it,” says Perrin. I was up for an adventure, but being stranded on an ice floe for months trying to come up with creative ways to cook penguins was a challenge.

There was disappointment on board and personal guilt – I was fortunate to have reached Snow Hill on a previous trip and had told passengers about my journey to Nordenskjöld’s creosote-black prefabricated cabin, with a bunk bed, a table and chairs and a coal burner, which he shared two winters with five other scientists. It lies at the mouth of a snow-free gorge with ammonite fossils that allowed Nordenskjöld’s team to make important contributions to the theory of continental drift.

Nordenskjöld's hut on Snow HillNordenskjöld's hut on Snow Hill

Nordenskjöld’s hut on Snow Hill

After nine hours in the Weddell, concerns focused on finding shelter before another Biblical storm arrived. We hurried out and fled to the South Shetlands, an arc of islands that hovered like a halo above the Antarctic Peninsula. After spending 24 hours there, we traveled along the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where 99 percent of visitors go, to the Bellingshausen Sea.

We were the last ship of the summer season. The onset of winter now provided an enchanting layer. The snowfall was heavy. Plastic embryonic sea ice made each wave undulate as if covered in cling film. The British Post Office at Port Lockroy was closed, meaning the gentoo penguins could finally enjoy some peace and quiet in Antarctica’s most visited location. The high-walled Lemaire Channel, which Nordenskjöld navigated in 1902, was frenzied with feeding humpback whales. “There are so many because there is little sea traffic to disturb them now,” explains naturalist Heather Chrystie on board. Plan B, or was it C or D, had been a possible return to the Weddell, but by now it was completely choked with ice and we ended up steaming up the Drake towards Argentina avoiding a 30 foot swell.

Sea ice formation in the WeddellSea ice formation in the Weddell

Sea ice formation in the Weddell

Three days later I sought closure to Nordenskjöld’s saga in Buenos Aires, in the port of Puerto Madero, where a perfectly preserved Argentine naval ship, an 1874 three-masted corvette built in Birkenhead, called Uruguay, is now a floating museum. Below deck, among the artefacts is cutlery from the Nordenskjöld expedition.

Coincidentally, one of Nordenskjöld’s team was an Argentine Navy lieutenant named José-Maria Sobral. When the Argentine High Command noticed in 1903 that he had not yet turned up, they sent Uruguay to investigate. Their passage was free of ice and in November of that year they reached Snow Hill. By this stage the three crew from Hope Bay had finally walked to Snow Hill and just hours after the naval ship arrived, Larsen and his men rowed in. The expedition was miraculously reunited and sailed back to Buenos Aires.

A gentoo penguinA gentoo penguin

A gentoo penguin

“Do you know the story of Nordenskjold?” asked a Navy man collecting the 400 pesos (40 pence) entrance fee to Uruguay. I nodded. I was hardly a member of the Weddell disaster club, but the wild late-season seascapes of Antarctica had taken my senses apart and put them back together in a completely exhilarating way.

How to do that

Mark Stratton was a guest of Discover the World, which offers an “Antarctic Peninsula and Weddell Sea” voyage on board the Aurora Expedition ship Sylvia Earle, departing in March 2025. Prices start from approximately £13,210 per person, including international return flights from London to Ushuaia, via Buenos Aires. British Airways flies to Buenos Aires from £760 return.

You’ll need a night or two in Buenos Aires before connecting to the Ushuaia cruise port. Casasur Bellini (two nights from £280 per person) and the opulent Palacio Duhau Hyatt (two nights from £600 per person) are recommended.

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