On February 15th, 140 years ago, the great British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton was born.
Over the course of his life he would lead several expeditions into Antarctica, in hopes of reaching the South Pole. Now a recent discovery sheds some new light on one of his last expeditions.
Antarctic researchers have uncovered old film negatives left behind by one of Shackleton's teams 100 years ago. As part of our series, Picture This, we thought we'd call up one of the researchers in charge of this discovery.
Nigel Watson of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust joins the show to talk about these enlightening images.
On the expedition huts used by early polar explorers:
"This is one of a handful as the early explorers tried to battle and reach the South Pole, a number of them set up these expedition bases along the way, these huts as we call them. Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott left these early bases. They're now under our care, the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, so they date from just over 100 years ago, but they are a fantastic time capsule, still filled with the original explorer's provisions and supplies."
On what the huts are made out of:
"They were all made of wood and they were prefabricated. This find was at Captain Scott's last expedition base, it was prefabricated and brought from London, and it was the largest building in Antarctica in the so-called Heroic Age of Exploration. It was about 15 meters by eight meters, and it's a place where 25 men lived."
On what other items can be found in these expedition huts:
"These huts are stocked, crammed with the original provisions, the biggest excitement has been caused, if not by these photos, by a discovery we found in Shackleton's hut at Cape Roy's a few years ago, which was the whisky that he left behind, so that was certainly a tipple, which lasted through the ages."
Who was Ernest Shackleton?:
"He was Anglo-Irish, he was born in 1874, he went to sea in the Merchant Navy at 16 and probably his first break in the Antarctic was going down with Captain Scott on Scott's first expedition. Shackleton was a very forceful, charming personality. He became most famous for a subsequent expedition where he tried to traverse the continent.
"That's where, aboard the Endurance, which was crushed in the ice in the Riddell Sea and what has been described as the greatest small boat journey. That's of interest because not only that story has had huge significance, but a little-known aspect of that expedition and Shackleton, was his Ross Sea Party, which was to lay provisions for him on the other side of the continent as he traversed. And that's where these photos that we've discovered have come from."
On what it was like to find the photos:
"When we were working through the dark room at Scott's hut where Shackleton's men were basing themselves at the time, we came across a congealed stack of negatives, which we realized might have some images. But it was really difficult and challenging to try and identify what they were. Of course, there was huge excitement from our team of conservators and what we needed really was to get some good conservation work done on them to be able to expose those images."
On the photo of Alexander Stevens posing with his hands on his hips:
"He was Scottish, he was the chief scientist and a geologist by training. He was part of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party and his focus was around working on meteorology, glaciology, oceanography. He took part in laying some of those supply depots in early 1915 for Shackleton, but then based a lot of his time back at the hut while a lot of the other continued further south in laying depots over the subsequent seasons.
"I think one of the most interesting parts that comes out of this is all the scientific work he did over that expedition and the scientific records were lost on the return journey. The ship carrying those records was torpedoed in the English Channel because you must remember we were back here in the great war. A lot of that research was lost."
On why Alexander Stevens looks so stern and grave in the photo:
"I think there's a steely determination around that. Behind the virile young men going down there 100 years ago, its that scientific endeavor and zeal and the chance to be on a great adventure. By this time Shackleton was a big name, he was very famous, there were lots of people wanting to get involved with these expeditions and he was a young scientist trying to make his mark. Despite his looks, I think he was on the adventure of a lifetime."
On the places we see in these pictures:
"We can still recognize some of those landmarks. We see in here the area around Ross Island. We've got Mount Erebus, which is the world's southernmost active volcano, which is still very prominent today."
On whether global warming has affected the area:
"They do to a large extent, and I think remarkably this part of Antarctica has changed very little in 100 years except for a lot of increased activity from government programs — both New Zealand and the United States national programs operate out of Ross Island. But the features that are present within these photographs are still visible today."