The first part of this book relates how Professor Chris Turney and his team sought to finance a private scientific expedition to Antarctica. Known as the Spirit of Mawson, the expedition would commemorate Douglas Mawson’s journey a century earlier. The website stated: ‘Our aim: to extend over a hundred years of scientific endeavour in the region and communicate the value of science and adventure in this remote and pristine environment’.
Turney has a very readable style, drawing the reader in as he recounts howling winds or freezing conditions or sea sickness – which affected nearly everyone. He intersperses descriptions of the scientific work undertaken with details of raising funds, finding a vessel, organising the expedition, finding scientists and citizen scientist volunteers, and with details of Mawson’s and later, Shackleton’s ill-fated expeditions.
The first leg of the trip was to subantarctic islands off New Zealand to examine the flora, fauna and wind conditions. The ship then returned to New Zealand to restock and, on this second leg, the author’s wife and two teenage children joined the voyage. Also on the expedition were two members of the Mawson’s Hut Foundation, there to make vital repairs to the century old building. The changed conditions in Commonwealth Bay, due to the enormous iceberg B09B and shifting ice, meant that Cape Denison where the hut is located was now 65 kilometres from the edge of the sea ice.
The contrast between Mawson’s descriptions of Cape Denison and what the 2013 expedition found was stark:
This is crazy. We’re supposed to be in the windiest place in the world and there’s not even enough to fly a kite…Mawson described the deafening noise from 200,000 Adélie penguins living around the huts…but the rookeries are almost completely deserted…Cape Denison is dying’ (page 117-8 italics in original).
After ferrying scientific parties between the hut and the ship for two days, the expedition moved east for further investigations when their plans were disrupted by what the author described as ‘the Antarctic Factor…Murphy’s Law on steroids’(page 145) when a fierce windstorm unexpectedly blew in. Unfortunately, they became trapped on Christmas Eve when the sea ice and icebergs, driven by the wind, encased the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.
Turney recounts Shackleton’s experience of being trapped in the Endurance and contrasts his experience of doing endless media briefings to earlier expeditions when they were completely cut off for years. Once it was known they were trapped, there was a flood of ill-informed comments from various media suggesting it was ‘A group of scientists, explorers and tourists’ (My italics. Source: The Australian, December 2013) who were trapped and the expedition had been ‘a jaunt’ and was ill-prepared.
In following Shackleton’s lead to schedule activities and keep the expeditioners busy and to maintain morale, the expedition yet again attracted unwarranted criticism. Some scientists felt that posting a video of a New Year’s Eve celebration only further displayed the lack of seriousness of the entire expedition. The rescue mission was both risky and expensive, involving lifting people off the ship by Chinese helicopter (as the Chinese ship was stuck) and dropping them on the ice by the Aurora Australis as it too could not get through the ice. Other ships were diverted from their schedules to be ready should they be needed and this affected other scientific programs.
Even though the expedition had a raft of world class scientists aboard and undertook serious scientific investigations, I am left wondering whether the criticism it attracted was because it was always designed to be an open, accessible expedition and its aim was to communicate the value of science and adventure to the wider world.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8
Released by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: July 2017
RRP: $35.00 trade paperback, $14.99 eBook