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Photo of Alexander Stevens on the deck of the Aurora, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

A surprising discovery of valuable photographs illuminates Antarctic exploration from a century ago, like this photograph of Alexander Stevens on the deck of the Aurora in McMurdo Sound.

Photograph courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust, www.nzaht.org

Caroline Alexander

for National Geographic

Published December 31, 2013

The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust has announced the stunning discovery of a cache of century-old photographic negatives found in a hut that served as base camp for the earliest Antarctic expeditions.

Photo of the cellulose nitrate negatives found blocked together.
Photograph courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust
Cellulose nitrate negatives were key to protecting the fragile negatives.

The cellulose nitrate negatives were clumped together in a small box in the hut's long-abandoned darkroom.

After painstaking conservation treatment, the negatives were separated to reveal 22 images from the early age of Antarctic exploration.

While the hut at Cape Evans was that of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the photographs were taken by a member of Sir Ernest Shackleton's later expedition, which had wintered there in 1915-16.

The Heroic Age

Disasters were the hallmark of early polar exploration, often referred to as the "heroic age" of discovery because each venture required superhuman efforts merely to survive. (See also "Opinion: 6 Reasons Antarctic Explorers Were Tougher 100 Years Ago.")

By 1914 the South Pole had already been won and claimed by Norway's Roald Amundsen. But for ambitious explorers like Shackleton, one great southern polar prize still remained—the crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Shackleton had tried twice, and failed twice, to reach the Pole on previous expeditions.

All his hopes then lay in this last attempt, and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was assembled with what passed for great care in that amateur age of discovery. Central to his plans were two ships and two land expeditions.

The first team, under his command, would sail to the Weddell Sea in his ship, Endurance, winter over, and start the overland march in the southern spring.

The second team would sail from New Zealand to Antarctica's Ross Sea, wintering over at Cape Evans—the base of operations for all previous Antarctic land expeditions—and laying depots of food and supplies toward the Pole.

Best Laid Plans Undone

In theory it was an elegant plan. In practice both expeditions met with disaster: Endurance was crushed by ice, and Shackleton's grand overland venture was never even begun.

Photo of iceberg and land, Ross Island, Antarctica.
Photograph courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust
An early photograph of Ross Island was among many old Antarctic images discovered.

On the other side of the continent, the Ross Sea party was fighting its own battles.

On the night of May 6, 1915, a blizzard had wrenched their ship, Aurora, from her mooring and blown her out to sea, along with much of their supplies. Ten members of the party were stranded, and they sought shelter in the hut of Shackleton's old rival, Scott.

Unaware that Endurance had met with disaster, the Ross Sea team believed that the lives of the men on Shackleton's overland expedition depended on the depots it was their task to lay.

Resolving to lay these supply caches at all cost, the men stinted their own supplies through a long winter and in spring embarked upon what would be the most arduous and lengthy journey of man-hauled sledging at that time.

Although three of the stranded men perished, the supplies were successfully laid—but Shackleton never came. The rest of the men were rescued in January 1917.

The discovery of the old negatives evokes the familiar landmarks around McMurdo Sound and yields a portrait of the expedition's chief scientist, Alexander Stevens, on the deck of the ill-fated Aurora.

As the centenary of the Ross Sea party's ordeal approaches, the ghostly images stir a haunting memory of this remarkable feat of duty and self-sacrifice.

19 comments
Anthony London
Anthony London

Those were the days!  At that time, men were real men, even the women.

Tom Kilpatrick
Tom Kilpatrick

makes you wonder a lot about the current way we snap pictures with abandon,  such a small amount of photographs but yet they mean so much!!! 

Helene Hill
Helene Hill

We should also congratulate the skillful technicians who rescued these pictures from oblivion.  No mean task, you can be sure.

Karl Bolter
Karl Bolter

Calling this an "amateur age of discovery" shows a lack of understanding of the time period as well as the individuals involved in these expeditions.  These weren't a bunch of guys sitting around a radio, drinking beer, and trying to figure out what to do for an upcoming year.  They were badass people who were exploring with the best tech and info they had available for that time period.  Let's not dismiss what these folks did in our age of computers and GPS.

Medardo Bernados
Medardo Bernados

is it preserved well? i`m going to share this to my marine engineering students...

Andrew Susay
Andrew Susay

Yes we are wimps as we now have GPS and even apps to help us out in times of need......however, aren't we forgetting about space exploration!.



André M Gautier
André M Gautier

...and nowadays, some people just pay 15'000$  to board a Russian ship and think that they are living an extraordinary "explorer adventure" when the ship is stuck in the floe... with all the media hype...
I had the chance to meet some of the scientists from the International Geophysic Year (1957-58) in the Antarctic, real explorers in tremendously difficult conditions...; but the earlier explorers were even more pioneers, they had inadequate equipment compared to our present standards, no satellite-phone to call a "back up" rescue unit... and nevertheless they have done a fantastic job...
So it is extraordinary to find such old pictures of these real exploration heroes !
It is also so good that National Geographic reminds us ""6 Reasons Antarctic Explorers Were Tougher 100 Years Ago" (link in the NG article above!)...

Liviu Ştefan
Liviu Ştefan

can u see the global warming in the bottom corner?

Shristhi Avasthi
Shristhi Avasthi

They must have been so brave! Having no confirmation that they would ever come back or what they would see

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

These were real adventurers and explorers, venturing into the unknown - no GPS, satellite views, helicopters or supply flights.

Robert Martin
Robert Martin

As we enter 2014, it's almost impossible to comprehend the efforts of our predecessors that brought us here.


I'm in total awe!

Philip Whelan
Philip Whelan

@Karl Bolter to add to what you said (and I agree with you), both Shackleton's and Scott's expeditions had the full support & backing of the Royal Geographical Society.  They were as professional as anyone could be, but each made fundamental errors, in a place which can punish even small errors.  Later explorers went "on the shoulders" of those before, having learned lessons from these guys.  It's likely Mallory DID reach the summit of Everest, wearing a tweed jacket & having no oxygen... I conclude by saying that today, there are very few adventurers who take the same size risks as these legends of a century ago.  They do still exist though.  Today we call them 'madmen', because they are prepared to die for their ultimate goal; we look back & assume that Shackleton & his men didn't prepare to die, and were foolhardy & unprepared, because today we have so many aids & technical clothing, etc... They were simply the same as today's 'do or die' types, free-climbing the tallest skyscrapers, or base-jumpers in the Norwegian fjords.  They just had more scope for being "the world's first  .......  " at something big.  Oh, the photos aren't anything special, I just marvel that they survived for so long out there.

Evan Mayo
Evan Mayo

@Andrew Booth Right, nowadays they will evac someone out because they ran out of band aids. Plus food is easily stored for longevity easier.   Today's explorers are wimps by comparison. 

Jonathan Allen
Jonathan Allen

@Philip W. You are right that bold adventurers exist in all eras.  There is, however, a big difference between those who venture into the unexplored in order to advance knowledge and science, and those who undertake risky stunts just on a dare or for bragging rights.  National Geographic Society has traditionally promoted the former. 

As for the latter, it is especially troubling when they get into a jam, and the rest of us bear the substantial cost of rescuing them. 

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