The Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 - 2014

Australasian Antarctic Expedition

Wet & windy.
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History of Antarctic Exploration in 30 Objects

This emperor penguin egg was collected in 1911, on Scott’s final expedition to Antarctica.  Three of the Terra Nova’s team, led by Dr Edward Wilson, braved the harsh Antarctic winter to trek out to a remote emperor penguin rookery at Cape Crozier.  This egg is one of only three that were collected by the team.  A hole was cut into the shell to allow scientists to study the embryo inside in the hope of learning more about their evolutionary development.

Scott’s team had arrived at Ross Island on 4 January 1911 and quickly established their base at Cape Evans, hauling their supplies over the ice to their base for the next two years’s work.  A prefabricated hut was erected to serve as their home and a number of meteorological and magnetic stations were established by the team to collect data.  Scott was determined to use the remaining days of sunlight to explore the region, and make a start on the scientific programme.  A team led by Victor Campbell was sent out on the Terra Nova  eastwards along the Great Ice Barrier to search for landing sites on the coast.  On their journey the team encountered Amundsen’s expedition.  Scott’s team had been uncertain of where the Norwegians would base themselves and were shocked to find them so close and in an area they had planned to explore.  After stopping to have coffee with Amundsen, the Terra Nova returned to Cape Evans to relay the bad news.  It was clear that the British would have to choose an alternative area which they chose to the north.

On 23 April 1911, the sun set for the winter and the men at the main base settled into their routine; taking scientific measurements, preparing equipment, and exercising the dogs and ponies.  Edward Wilson was in charge of much of the biological work on the ice, observing local wildlife and collecting samples.  In particular, Wilson was fascinated by the emperor penguins and their lifecycle.  Having visited their rookery at Cape Crozier as part of Scott’s previous expedition, he was determined to return, excited by a theory that the penguins’ embryos might reveal an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles.  Although a winter Antarctic expedition had not been previously attempted, Scott allowed the small team of Wilson, Henry ’Birdie’ Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard to attempt to reach the rookery.

Leaving at the height of winter, the plucky team set out on what was to prove a harrowing journey.  Covering a distance of nearly one hundred kilometres, with temperatures often dipping below −60 °C, the team struggled through the darkness, dragging their sledges.  The extreme cold meant that the men’s clothing and sleeping bags often remained iced up, and the runners of the sledges froze in their tracks, slowing the team’s progress considerably.  At Cape Crozier the men established a small shelter and set about collecting five eggs.  Hit by blizzards, their refuge was nearly destroyed and the men were forced to abandon their plans to collect more eggs.  After rescuing their equipment, including their tent, the men decided to struggle back to Cape Evans.  On 1 August, the trio finally staggered back to base camp, their faces blistered and scarred, clutching their precious load of three remaining eggs. The worst journey in the world as Cherry was later to name their trip, had been completed.

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Currently on display at the The Natural History Museum, London

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