‘So near and yet so far’— Weddell Sea Expedition succeeded at climate readings but failed to find Shackleton’s ‘Endurance.’

“The search for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship Endurance has been called off after extreme weather trapped an underwater vehicle under a sheet of ice.”

                                — Thu 14 Feb 2019 18.42 GMT

In the end, it wasn’t climate change but rather weather that proved the difference. The Weddell Sea Expedition’s attempt to find what remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s missing ship Endurance was scuttled after rapidly advancing sea ice trapped a submersible ROV expedition members were using to search the seabed floor beneath Antarctica’s beleaguered sea ice. The remote-operated submersible was lost to the deep, in what some might say was a fitting and somehow appropriate denouement to a brave but ultimately futile effort to use 21st century technology to unravel a mystery that has posed questions ever since the Endurance was itself trapped in sea ice and sank beneath the surface on the 21st of November, 1915.

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographical Society

Despite February being the height of the Antarctic summer and seemingly favourable conditions at first, coupled with 21st-century GPS readings based on the immaculate charts and maps provided by Endurance’s navigator, the two dozen geoscientists aboard the Dutch icebreaker and research vessel  SA Agulhas II knew when they had been beaten. Without their remote-operated  submersible submarine, they’d be working blind. And even someone with a rudimentary knowledge of conditions in Antarctica would know that “blind” is not how you want to operate in the most extreme — and potentially deadly — environment on planet Earth. No one — literally, no one — alive today would’ve been more aware of the potential for disaster. Shackleton and his crew were forced to give up the ghost in 1915, despite having survived much of the polar winter when frozen ice floes crushed their ship’s hull. Their subsequent escape from the Antarctic sea ice on foot and in lifeboats is one of the great stories of human resilience and endurance in recorded history. The lure of finding what remains of Endurance has captivated maritime historians, geographers and romantics for more than a century.

“We’re disappointed, clearly, as a team not to have been successful,” Mensun Bound, the expedition’s director of exploration, said in a statement. “Like Shackleton before us, who described Endurance’s graveyard as ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world,’ our well-laid plans wee overcome by rapidly moving ice and what Shackleton himself called ‘the evil conditions of the Weddell Sea.’

“We hope our adventure will have engaged young people about the pioneering spirit, courage and fortitude of those who sailed with Endurance to Antarctica.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Where Shackleton had to rely on hand-drawn charts based on meticulous longitude and latitude readings, the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition was decidedly high-tech. The submersible, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV, was designed to map a wide electronic grid of the sea floor below frigid waters more than 3,000m (9,800 feet) deep using HD still colour cameras.

The expedition is not considered a failure, however, as its main mission — completed before the crew’s attention turned to finding Endurance — was to study the effects of climate change and melting sea ice along the nearby Larsen C Ice Shelf, which famously “calved” a monster iceberg and later dubbed A-68, twice the size of Luxembourg, in July, 2017. Strangely, even given the remote location of Endurance’s watery grave, no team of scientists had examined the continuing erosion of the Larsen C ice shelf in person until the SA Agulhas ventured deep into the Weddell Sea this past January. Satellite imagery can only tell so much. Part of the expedition’s mission was to take actual physical samples of the ice and measure carbon readings and other scientific date that may be locked inside.

Expedition geoscientists, including polar geographers, geologists, oceanographers and climate scientists, pointed out just last week that their findings have already enhanced our knowledge of Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems, not to mention the oceans that surround the Southern Continent on all four sides.

The Weddell Sea Expedition was never going to solve the world’s climate crisis, of course.

Thanks to the incalculable value of the retrieved and recorded data, though, scientists now have a better understanding of what exactly’s going on. Good thing, too. The future of humanity may well depend on it, if not the future of the entire planet.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Lawson’s choice: On penguins and filming ‘Dynasties,’ when is there a right time to intervene?

Not so long ago, I asked the producer of a prestigious,  award-winning series of wildlife programs if he was ever tempted to intervene if he and his camera crew witnessed a tragedy unfolding that they could somehow stop.

It’s the first law of journalism that the reporter must never become part of the story. Objectivity counts for everything. No professional, self-respecting journalist can allow themselves to be seen taking one side over the other.

The wildlife filmmaker faces a similar if not identical dilemma. They’re there to capture nature at its most raw and untouched, and ideally the film crew is meant to be invisible, as if not there at all.

His answer surprised me.

“Yes,” he said.

For the simple reason that, by their mere presence, a camera crew has already intruded on a natural situation. So it’s their responsibility — an obligation, some might say — to help solve a crisis if it was of their making.

This is not a question of semantics. It comes up with wildlife filmmakers all the time. (In this case, I had asked about a nature film I had seen recently, in which a lioness with newborn cubs suddenly moves her litter to a new den she presumes to be safer, despite the presence of a cobra at the den she’s moving into. The producer worried she may have been spooked into moving her cubs to a less safe den by the presence of a camera crew. They had no way of knowing.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The more prestigious production houses, like BBC’s Natural History Unit — makers of the David Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, Planet Earth and Blue Planet — have a strict code of ethics, which is rooted in non-interference.

The intention, always, is to let nature take its course.

That directive was sorely tested in Emperor, the climactic episode of the Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, which makes its US debut this weekend on BBC America (Sat. 9E/P, 8C). Filmmaker Will Lawson pulled off a first, following a  colony of emperor penguins for an entire year, including — obviously — the bitter, cold, dark Antarctic winter.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

At one point during filming, Lawson discovered a small group of penguins they had been following, chicks in tow, had inadvertently stranded themselves in an ice gully. The filmmakers realized that if they did not intervene, the penguins — every single one of them — would die. Intervention in this case was to dig a gully and ice ramp, providing a way for the penguins could escape inevitable death that, rather than being a case of nature taking its course, seemed more like a capricious twist of fate — not nature at all but rather simple bad luck.

Lawson chose as my producer friend had chosen: He knowingly broke the “cardinal rule” of non-interference, rationalizing that the penguins would find the exit ramp on their own, and if they didn’t … well.

It was not a straightforward decision, “by any stretch of the imagination,” he admitted in an interview with ITV’s Lorraine Kelly on the breakfast program Lorraine! last November, shortly after the episode first aired in the UK on BBC One.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

In a situation like that, he said, you have to look at the facts in front of you. Which is what he did. Attenborough himself would have done the same, BBC insiders have since said. The penguin episode makes its US debut this weekend, and will arguably reach the largest audience Dynasties has yet seen.

“Film crews have to capture events as they unfold, whatever their feelings,” Attenborough himself noted. (Programming alert: A special hour-long “Making of” program, hosted by Attenborough, will air exclusively on BBC America in 10 days time, on Feb. 23, and will feature behind-the-scenes moments from all five Dynasties programs, including the penguins in Antarctica.)

“I know it’s natural,” Lawson said of his to-do-or-not-to-do dilemma, “but it’s bloody hard to watch.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Decisions are never easy, and there will always be those who disagree, no matter how one decides. An informal poll on YouTube found that while 700 viewers agreed with Lawson’s choice, 40 disagreed. (“You’re not intervening, guys,” one assenting viewer posted. “You’re doing a very humane thing. You’re helping poor creatures get a second chance in life.”)

It’s contrary to the better angels of our nature to allow animals to die needlessly. And that’s as true of penguins in Antarctica as it is of any living creature anywhere else. Our job as a species should be to act as stewards for the planet. After all, as more than a few viewers have noted on various Dynasties message boards, we have caused so much death and destruction — inadvertent or otherwise — that helping the inhabitants of this planet, even if unnatural, seems the least we can do.

From ‘Terror’ to ‘Endurance,’ a New Year’s Day expedition for the ages.

On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance

It was thought unlikely, if not  impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus —  in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

SA Agulhas II/handout

SA Agulhas II/handout

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.

And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became  trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.

Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.



Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.

The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming. 

In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg  — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.

The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker  Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.

National Maritime Museum/archives  - Photo by Frank Hurley

National Maritime Museum/archives - Photo by Frank Hurley

The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.

The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.

As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”

Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.

“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”


Less than 15% of world’s oceans untouched by human imprint: Antarctica the last, best hope for future of our blue Planet.

Good news, bad news.

First the bad. The first systematic analysis of the world’s oceans shows that less than 15% of planet Earth’s sea reservoirs remain untouched by human hands. The study, by the University of Queensland, Australia in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is an eye-opener, in part because even the researchers themselves were surprised by how little marine wilderness remains.

The ocean, after all, covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. So if just 15% of that remains untouched, it shows just how far-reaching — and  damaging — humanity’s effect on planet Earth really has been.

The good news is that some efforts are being made to protect what’s left.

Much of that 15% lies in Antarctica, where even some prominent, high-profile fishing companies have agreed to back a UN proposal to establish the world’s largest marine sanctuary.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

The survey’s findings were published in the journal Current Biology. Ward Appeltans of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, run by UNESCO, noted the research focused on the ocean floor, and did not include effects on the water column above that.

Not surprisingly, the oceanographic commission is backing calls for a global ocean conservation treaty. Just 5% of the world’s remaining oceans lie within existing protected areas, a disparity former U.S. President Barack Obama tried to address before leaving office in January, 2017.

©Ward Appeltans/Twitter

©Ward Appeltans/Twitter

There are other bright spots, but they are tiny — and not without their own controversy.

Remote coral gardens around the equatorial atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean are still healthy, though researchers note that in part this is because more than 500 islanders were forcibly removed from their island homes in 1971, as part of an international arrangement between the UK, US, Mauritius and Seychelles, to facilitate the building of an air base.

Pragmatists may also be forgiven for wondering about the potential environmental impact of a military airbase on pristine coral reefs and the surrounding sea, given the penchant for secrecy around anything to do with national, international and hemispheric security.

Antarctica is the key to any future decisions, though.

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Antarctica lies within an area loosely defined in marine terms as “the high seas,” those areas beyond protected areas that individual nations can establish as part of their territorial waters.

That is why an all-nations international agreement, such as that which can only be negotiated by the UN or a similar worldwide body, is so important.

Climate change and ocean acidification, coupled with more obvious manmade activities such as industrial fishing, global shipping, pollution in coastal areas and resource extraction, are having a profound effect, not just on marine ecosystems but on the world’s weather patterns.

As David Attenborough warned in his epic BBC series Blue Planet II last December, the world’s oceans are under threat as never before.

In January, marine scientists warned that the oceans are suffocating. So-called “dead zones” have multiplied four-fold since 1950.

In February, new surveys showed that more than half the world’s oceans are now industrially fished.

Is it too late?

Perhaps not, if more nations — and individuals — accept the old proviso, Not on my watch., whether that means scaling back some $4 billion in government fishing subsidies toward fishing on the high seas or deciding against Chilean sea bass the next time you go to a fancy seafood restaurant.