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1 Incredible Book Inspired Me to Go to Antarctica—3 Times

By Sivani Babu

09.16.19

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A towering iceberg and several pressure ridges rise over an ice floe as two Adélie penguins traverse the sheet of frozen ocean in the Weddell Sea. Almost a century earlier, an ice floe like this one in this very sea had become the refuge of Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men.

Photo by Sivani Babu

A towering iceberg and several pressure ridges rise over an ice floe as two Adélie penguins traverse the sheet of frozen ocean in the Weddell Sea. Almost a century earlier, an ice floe like this one in this very sea had become the refuge of Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men.

From childhood, “Endurance,” the classic story about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated trip to cross the White Continent on foot, ignited a thirst for adventure. As an adult, I got to visit—and every trip left its mark.

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The First Expedition, 2010

A tangerine moon rose full and bright, floating over the folds and peaks of a towering iceberg as our ship drifted through the Weddell Sea. The moon filled the sky, reflecting the light of a sun that hovered just below the horizon. At the bottom of the Earth, dusk and dawn mingled in gentle blues and purples. At the bottom of the Earth, the year was only a few hours old.

I looked out over the storied Weddell and pulled the worn book from my jacket. The pages were dog-eared and soft, the spine creased and frayed. I’d first read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage when I was nine years old. Snuggled beneath the blankets of my childhood bed in California, I’d lost myself in an alien land of “ice showers” and “water sky” and “endless desolation.” And I’d read the book at least a dozen times since. The words were practically etched in my memory after all these years, but there, as we bobbed in the low light of a seemingly endless blue hour, I began to read once more.

Across the water from Booth Island in the Palmer Archipelago, a full moon rises at sunset over Dayné Peak.

My obsession with Antarctica started with an atlas. It was a Christmas gift from my parents when I was five years old, and though I couldn’t lift the behemoth book, I dragged it from the den to the family room, burying my nose in pages and pages of maps—the browns and greens of continents, the blues of lakes, rivers, and oceans. I traced routes through South America, learned the names of African countries and cities, and memorized the population statistics of Australia. But for all the information contained in the atlas, it could tell me almost nothing about the white, rough-edged mass at the bottom of the planet. Antarctica was a mystery, and I wanted to solve it.

[Antarctica] was Shackleton’s touchstone. And the older I got, the more I wondered if it was my touchstone as well.

In the years that followed, I soaked up everything I could about the White Continent, its geology, and its celebrated explorers. Names like Douglas Mawson, Robert Falcon Scott, and Adrien de Gerlache rolled off of my tongue. I knew their ships and their missions and their fates. During the day, my backyard turned into ice fields, my staircase into mountains. And at night, my dreams turned into the epic voyages of a bygone era.

Ernest Shackleton, too, became a familiar name. He was, as Lansing described him, “an explorer in the classic mold—utterly self-reliant, romantic, and just a little swashbuckling.” He could have set his sights anywhere in the world, but he chose the difficult and dangerous. Antarctica didn’t just capture his imagination; it fed his ego. It was Shackleton’s touchstone. And the older I got, the more I wondered if it was my touchstone as well.

Left: A gentoo penguin preens its feathers. Right: The glacier blues and pristine whites of icebergs keep author Sivani Babu coming back to Antarctica.

My boots crunched in the snow as a pair of Adélie penguins popped out of a hole in the ice. They waddled along, slipping and tobogganing on their bellies for a while before clambering to their feet again and disappearing into the distance. I looked around at the vast expanse of the ice floe—a sheet of frozen sea. I was walking on the Southern Ocean. 

Nearly a century before, a sheet of ice like this one had become a perilous refuge for Shackleton and his men. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition abandoned ship after three exhausting days of fighting to save the Endurance from the crushing pack ice. They hand-pumped water out of the drowning ship, hacked away at the ice that clawed at her, and listened to her “suffocating and gasping for breath, her sides heaving against the strangling pressure.” Almost a year had passed since they’d first entered the ice in December of 1914. After all that time, it took just three days for ice to crush the ship and turn the men into ice-bound castaways camping on a floe like the one on which I walked.

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I looked over at my current ship, an ice-class, 148-passenger vessel that had been safely “parked” on the ice floe while the passengers went for a stroll. Although it wasn’t an actual concern, I still shuddered at the thought of ice piercing her hull or of the pressure required to make her behave “like a giant beast in its death agonies.”  

Shackleton and his men had set out to cross Antarctica on foot, but their feet never touched the continent. Instead, they spent 497 days drifting with the ice and enduring the perpetual darkness and brutal cold of the polar night. Already close, once the Endurance was lost, they became closer. They put on plays and sang songs, they hunted penguins and played soccer, and, together, they suffered the stinging pains of frostbite and hunger as the ice carried them back north. The only rescue would be the one they themselves effected.

The “Sarah W. Vorwerk” anchors amid the ice of Pléneau Island in the Wilhelm Archipelago. For nearly a month, the boat was home to an international group of photographers and explorers as they traveled the Antarctic Peninsula.

I’d always viewed the story as a tale of Shackleton and his leadership. Those men were there, I thought, because Shackleton had hired them. They were there in support of his vision. They were, and Shackleton’s leadership was extraordinary—that none of the 28 men died was a testament to that. But as I stood on that ice floe in the same sea that had claimed the Endurance, I realized that Shackleton wasn’t the only one who’d felt called to Antarctica.

On his crew was Thomas Crean, an Antarctic veteran who had been a part of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated race to the South Pole a few years earlier but chose to return anyway. There was Frank Worsely, who’d had a dream about navigating a ship through a London neighborhood filled with icebergs. The next morning, when he’d visited the neighborhood from his dream, he’d stumbled upon Shackleton’s office.  

. . . part of me was happy to see the book become more weathered. It was a badge of honor. We’d had some adventures, Endurance and I.

And then there was Perce Blackboro. As a kid, I’d lay awake and think about the young stowaway. As an adult, he returned to my thoughts on the ice floe. He’d hid in a locker for days before being presented to Shackleton once it was too late to turn around. After viciously railing at the young man, Shackleton allowed Blackboro to stay, but told him that he’d be the first one eaten if they ran out of food. Blackboro smiled and agreed.

The sun glinted off of an impossibly blue iceberg as one of my shipmates kicked a soccer ball across the ice. For a place like this, I thought, I probably would have agreed, too.

Carved by wind, water, and the sun, the columns and arches of icebergs heighten the drama of the most remote continent.

The Second Expedition, 2014

The S/Y Sarah W. Vorwerk rose several stories into the air, propelled upward on a powerful swell. Like a roller coaster, the sailboat seemed to stall as it crested the wave. Then it heaved and shuddered and came crashing down. My body lifted up off my bunk and as the boat rolled to port, I slammed into the lee cloth, a fabric safety barrier. When the cycle began again, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and turned my eyes back to Endurance.

The pages were rippled from moisture. As I turned each one, I made a futile attempt to smooth it out, but part of me was happy to see the book become more weathered. It was a badge of honor. We’d had some adventures, Endurance and I.

A gentoo penguin looks out over its colony on Cuverville Island, a rocky island first discovered by Adrien de Gerlache and the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in the late 1800s.

Four years after my first visit, I was on my way back to Antarctica and once again crossing the Drake Passage—the 600-mile stretch of ocean between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula often considered the roughest sea in the world. I had been yearning for a new adventure and now I was on one.

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Our first night in the Drake, we were broadsided by a rogue wave. The sound of glass shattering and the smell of smoke filling the cabin propelled each of us from our bunks, and in that moment, while we awaited information or instructions from our skipper, I recalled the gist of our safety briefing earlier in the day: There would be no rescue in these waters.

Thankfully, the instruction from our skipper was to go back to bed. But as we sailed the gauntlet of southern latitudes—the furious 50s, the screaming 60s—the sailboat felt exposed in a way that the larger ship of my first expedition never could. Writing of Shackleton’s men as they eventually rowed and sailed their lifeboats out of the pack ice, Lansing wrote, “It was as if they had suddenly emerged into infinity.” It was as if we had as well. We “had the ocean to ourselves, a desolate, hostile vastness.”

In shades of glacial blue, an iceberg reflects in the still waters off the coast of Pléneau Island.

But with that desolation came something else. Like the crew aboard the Endurance in the early 1900s, the nine of us aboard the Sarah were largely strangers when we set out, but it didn’t take us long to become something more. We played cards and shared stories of our lives back home as we lounged in flip-flops, T-shirts, and the Antarctic sunshine. We chased whales until sudden katabatic winds that threatened to flip our Zodiac forced us into a cautious, but rapid retreat. And we held our breath after an avalanche until the member of our group who had wandered that way reemerged on the horizon. There were snowball fights, and ill-advised practical jokes, and outstretched hands to help one another over difficult terrain as we explored. And it must have been some sort of collective foolishness that made us don swimsuits and jump into the breath-stealing, bone-chilling 29-degree water for no other reason than to say we had. For conversation, for help, for entertainment, and for pluck, we had only ourselves and each other to rely on. And when we returned to Argentina after weeks in one another’s company, we weren’t ready for it to end.

Ours was a trip where things went well. Even so, I returned with a breath of understanding—a glimpse at the relationships that could be forged when the universe narrows to a small group of people with a shared experience.  

The Third Expedition, 2017

I sat in a plush chair aboard a converted research vessel, my legs extended, bracing myself as the ship rolled. I watched in amusement as another chair tipped and tumbled across the room. Outside, the sky blushed soft pinks as the sun began its ascent.

The familiar pages of Endurance were now beyond dog-eared and soft—they were tattered and torn. The cover was one ill-timed sneeze or one thoughtless fumble away from fluttering off. I should tape that back on, I thought absently as I carefully turned to the last page of the book. I felt a familiar flurry of emotion. It was the same as when I was nine, reading the final pages by flashlight long after bedtime.

A gentoo penguin waddles off into the sunset.

Each reading of Endurance had brought me new perspective—about Shackleton, about his Endurance, about the golden age of Antarctic exploration. For years, I identified with his expectations. Antarctica was a place that allowed Shackleton to satiate his desire to explore, but in many ways, it also defined him. In some much smaller way, it did those things for me as well. As much as it captivated my imagination, I couldn’t deny that it also fed my ego: I wanted to be someone who had been to Antarctica. I needed to be someone who had sailed to Antarctica.

But on my third trip, something was different. I was different.

Out on deck, I’d listened to the water lapping gently at icebergs. I’d watched petrels and terns soar and dip through the sky. And when the mood struck, I’d told anyone who would listen snippets of stories about Douglas Mawson, Robert Falcon Scott, Adrien de Gerlache, and, of course, Ernest Shackleton. I wasn’t in Antarctica because I needed something from it. I was simply there.

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