Sir Ernest Shackletons 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 



date of issue:  22nd December 2005 at Halley Research Station, British Antarctic Territory

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Introduction to Sir Ernest Shackletons 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and his dogs 

The object of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was to complete the last major journey in the Antarctic, by making a crossing from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole.  This was never achieved and the expedition as an expedition was a failure although the Caird Coast was discovered along the eastern shore Weddell Sea.   There were two parts to the expedition, each with its own ship.    

Shackleton sailed with Endurance into the Weddell Sea where she was beset on 19th January 1915 when only some 125 nautical miles from her goal of Vahsel Bay in the Filchner Ice Shelf.  Here, Shackleton proposed to establish his base camp from which the Antarctic crossing would commence the following austral summer of 1915-16.  As it would be some 1800 nautical miles via the South Pole, a chain of depots needed to be established over the latter part of the route from foot of the Beardmore Glacier to the Ross Sea at McMurdo Sound.  These depots were to be established by the Ross Sea Party which sailed from Hobart, Tasmania, in Aurora under Captain Ćneas Mackintosh.

 Although Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition was unsuccessful, it provided two of the most courageous stories in the Heroic Age of polar exploration and perhaps some of the most evocative polar photographs ever taken.  These were Shackleton’s open boat voyage across the Scotia Sea to seek rescue for his men marooned on Elephant Island and the Ross Sea Party’s harrowing return trek from laying  depots for Shackleton’s crossing party, which of course they had no means of knowing would never come.  The expedition photographer on Endurance was the Australian Frank Hurley who had recently returned from Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition.  It is through Hurley’s images that the world has a unique record and visual account of the loss of Endurance and the plight of the Weddell Sea Party.

 The Dogs

Accounts vary as to the number of sledge dogs Shackleton embarked on Endurance in Buenos Aires in November 1914.  It is likely that there were at least 54 large husky-like mixed-breed dogs comprising husky-collie, husky-St Bernard and husky-wolf crosses from various parts of Arctic Canada.  They were accommodated on Endurance in kennels built along the upper deck.  This afforded shelter but it was far from ideal in rough weather.  Once the ship was beset, they were soon to become companions of the men trapped on the ice.  Throughout the long winter months and they provided interest, activity and excursions.  When Endurance was abandoned after she was crushed on 27th October 1915 there were seven dog teams.  These were used in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a supply depot on Paulet Island at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  It was placed there for the rescue of Otto Nordenskjőld, some 10 years before whose ship Antarctic had also been crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea.  However hauling the boats over the hummocky ice pack proved too exhausting.  Ocean Camp was thus established on a solid floe and the dog teams were used on sealing trips and to salvage some three tons of supplies from the stricken Endurance one and a half miles away.  At the end of December 1915 there was another attempt to reach Paulet Island, but that too proved impossible over the rotting ice and a second camp, Patience Camp, was established on another solid floe.  Throughout the Antarctic summer the men awaited the break-up of the ice so that they could take to Endurance’s boats and sail to the nearest land, now the Elephant Island group.  As the summer advanced, seals became scarce and with too many dog-mouths to feed it was with reluctance that all but one of the dog teams was put down.  By 30th March, the pack ice was breaking up and the men could feel the movement of the sea below their floe.  They now accepted grim reality and the last of their faithful friends were put down shortly before they took to the boats on 9th April 1916 to sail for Elephant Island.

 In contrast there were a number of true bred Canadian huskies amongst the 27 dogs which travelled to McMurdo Sound with the Ross Sea Party in Aurora.  There was a need to set up a depot at 80°S, some 150 nautical miles further to the south on the Ross Ice Shelf in case Shackleton made the crossing that season.   The huskies were in poor condition after their voyage and totally unfit for the rigours expected on the autumn depot laying trip. They had to be put to serious and arduous work the moment the ship arrived to lay the depot.   However, not only were the dogs not hardened for this work, they were given far too little food, and in consequence they all perished, leaving only four to assist the main depot laying journey to Mt Hope the following summer, 1915-16.