Synopsis of

In de voetsporen van Shackleton

A.J. Beintema, 1995. Atlas, Amsterdam. 269 p, 16 p colour photographs, numerous b/w ill. ISBN 90 254 12637.

(Shackleton's footsteps)

This is a book by a biologist of two expeditions to the Antarctic, to study temperature regulation in Penguin chicks. Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not a book about heroic adventures. Shackleton's footsteps have been chosen, because his legendary Elephant Island is one of the main scenes in the book.

This book is a sometimes humoristic account of two completely different expeditions: the first with a small group of Brazilian scientists, with no contact with the outside world except by radio with the Brazilian main base 200 km away, confined to a tiny hut with minimal comfort, the second with a group of over 20 Dutch scientists, including writing press and a cinema crew, housed on the Polish base Arctowski with another 20 scientists from Poland, with satelite fax and phone connections to home, and almost daily visitors from all over the world.

The book describes social life under these contrasting circumstances, cultural differences and similarities with the Brazilians and the Polish, the silly culture of stamp collecting, exchange of keyhangers, buttons, engraved plaquettes, teeshirts, social visits, flag hoisting, etcetera.

The book also describes the research on thermoregulation, and everything that can go wrong or went wrong, the life of penguins and other antarctic creatures, and some background information on the Antarctic Treaty, early exploration, and of course the adventurers of the 'heroic era', with Sir Ernest Shackleton is the key role.

Chapter 1: Antarctic tradition

This chapter gives a rather sarcastic view on the (absence of) Antarctic tradition in The Netherlands. It gives a very brief account of early exploration, the heroic era, later research, the International Geophysical Year, and the Antarctic Treaty. The year 1991 came looming up as a key year in Antarctic History, as this would be the year in which the Treaty Parties were going to vote on the future of Antarctica: dig up all the treasures, or leave them.

In the eighties, the Dutch Government realised that something had to be done, if they wanted to join in and vote for the best. In the wake of this I was able (with a colleague) to spend an Antarctic Summer with a group of Bazilians on Shackleton's famous Elephant Island (hence the footsteps; otherwise there are no similarities: no frozen beards, no hardship).

In 1989 The Netherlands tried to join the treaty, but we were vetoed by Chili. In order to join before 1991 something big had to be done. Thus, the Dutch Antarctic Expedition was born: over twenty scientists, hosted on the Polish base Arctowski. I joined again. And indeed, the next time Holland was admitted as a Consultative Party to the Treaty, providing we were going to continue to spend a substantial amount of money on Antarctic Research.

Chapter 2: Shackleton's footsteps

A summary of Shackletons expeditions, mainly focussing on his famous disaster in the Weddell Sea, where he lost his ship Endurance, and ended up with his men on Elephant Island. His heroic escape to South Georgia, with a handfull companions in a tiny sloop, the way he rescued his People from Elephant Island, like a 20th Century Mozes. And his later expedition with the Quest, where he died on South Georgia. After his death, the Quest revisited Elephant Island. Few people have visited the island since. There have been a few landings, and two larger exlorations, the Joint Services Expeditions of 1970-71 and 1976-77. In the eighties the Brazilians established a summer base, and in 1991 the Dutch sailor Beulakker landed, before sailing to South Georgia, in Shackleton's wake. But we were there before him. We were the first Dutchmen to set foot on Elephant Island.

Chapter 3: A project

In 1984, the Dutch Government suddenly felt the urge to do things in the Antarctic. This was also a result of pressure from national and international conservationists, who wanted Holland to join the voters against mineral exploitation. Thus, funds were being made available, and projects had to be sought to use these funds (usually it is the other way around: having a project but no funding).

Most funds went to geology, meteorology, glaciology, oceanography, and the like, but some remains were left for the biologists. We were able to adapt our research on thermoregulation in chicks of Dutch meadow birds (e.g. Lapwing, Black-tailed Godwit) to Antarctic conditions. After all, Antarctic birds might have chicks, and it might be cold out there.

Having no base, we had to find cooperation with a country with a base. Thus, we ended up with Brazilians. The chapter further describes in some detail the thermoregulatory problems we were going to study, and the choice of species to be studied: Chinstrap Penguin, Macaroni Penguin and Sheathbill.

Chapter 4: Penguins

An introduction to the Life of the Penguin. The wonderful adaptations to life in a cold sea, geography and distribution, a litle anatomy and physiology. Special attention is given to the penguin of all penguins: the Emperor Penguin, the only one which does not occur outside the Antarctic Continent, where it has to start breeding in winter, in order to get the chicks full grown towards the end of the summer. Thus, they nest standing on the ice, the eggs on their feet, huddled together in the darkness of the polar night, in raging blizzards at 40 degrees centigrade below zero.

This chapter also tells the story of the Worst Journey in the World, when Wilson and other members of Scott's last expedition went through the antarcic night, to collect emperor's egg at Cape Crozier. Utter hardship under the most extreme conditions one can imagine. Wilson later died with Scott, after their disastrous trip the the pole. The eggs were brought back to Britain by Cherry Garrard, who later visited the Museum with the late Scott's sister, only to discover that nobody knew anything about the eggs anymore.

Chapter 5: The South Shetland Islands

A description of the South Shetland Islands, their looks, their climate, their glaciers, and their flora and fauna: 70-odd species of mosses and lichens, two species of tiny flowering plants, the penguins, petrels, skuas etc, the marine mammals, the tiny stuff living safely at the underside of stones, and some small aquatic creatures, including a new species of flatworm just recently described by the Brazilians.

Chapter 6: Ilha Elefante

The Brazilians call Elephant Island 'Ilha Elefante'. In this chapter we meet the Brazilians in Brazil. We visit their institute, where we meet various staff members, and learn to drink maté, the national brew in Gaucho land. The night before leaving we have an inspiring party at the house of the head of the Ornithology Department. Music, dance, shared drinks, ending up in the swimming pool.

The next day we fly by hercules from Pelotas to Punta Arenas in Southern Chili. The Brazilians go disco again, but the Dutch are too tired. The hercules full of hangovers continues to the Chilean Base Teniente Marsh, at King George Island, where we are picked up by the Brazilian ship Barão de Teffe. Most Brazilians are dropped off at the large Brazilian Base 'Comandante Ferraz' in Admiralty Bay. Only eight people continue to Elephant Island: six Brazilians and us.

We are four men and four women. One of the Brazilian men is in fact a German, who has lived in Brazil for many decades. He is the spitting image of Konrad Lorenz, and knows everything. We take an instant dislike to him, but get along with the women fine. On Ilha Elefante we live in two huts: the old 'Engheneiro Wiltgen', and the newly constucted 'Emilio Goeldi'. The latter is hardly finished, and shows many construction faults, and a blatantly stupid design, with for instance all doors sitting in the way of all other doors. The design was made by Christina, a dark-eyed Brazilian beauty, who specializes in Antarctic architecture.

Chapter 7: Emilio Goeldi

Life in the hut. Fun and fighting. Learning Portugese, dealing with Brazilian culture. Contrasts between NW-European and Brazilian cultures: we go easily naked but have a touch-taboo. They touch all the time, but never show a square inch of bare skin. We conclude that combining a look-culture with a touch-culture would give rise to serious trouble. Also note that on Brazilian beaches you will hardly encounter top-less. Another difference: they have not much breast culture, but much more bottom culture. Differences or not, we have our weekly parties with wine and dancing, including Christmas and New Year's Eve, and we all continue to dislike the German Rolf, or as the Brazilians call him: Holfie.

Chapter 8: Research

Details on our work with chicks. A little theory, methods, technical problems. We use tiny, implantable radio transmitters to monitor internal body temperatures in chicks.

Chapter 9: Praia Grande

Like the other South Shetlands, Elephant Island has a 97% ice cover. Glaciers pour over all sides, only leaving small ice-free stretches of land, e.g. where the ice is forced apart by a hill. Thus, we are confined to an ice-free sub-island occupying less than 2 km coastline. Large part of this is a pretty black sandy beach, called Praia Grande.

The beach is full of life, with penguins, elephant seals, giant petrels, and fur seals. Each day has its own character, with the changeable weather, and the changes that take place in the colonies (growing chicks, growing stench). Each day has its own little adventures and dramas on the beach. Penguin life is not easy. Penguins are no clowns, no funny waiters, no beautiful black-and-white puppets. They are a bunch of agressive, narrow-minded, filthy, stinking, pathetic creatures, beating the hell out of each other.

Chapter 10: Mail

You have no idea of the amount of polar mail that is going all over the world to collectors. Kilo's of empty pre-addressed covers, to be stamped with an expedition rubber stamp, signed, and then sent back. We had covers from many countries (including Brazil!), through a Belgian coordinator. Some carried Brazilian stamps, some Chilean ones, some were left without a stamp. Perhaps we could buy stamps at interesting places.

Chilean stamped covers gave no problems, but the Brazilan ones did. By the time we were able to mail them at the base Comandante Ferraz, the stamps had become worthless, because of the heavy inflation in Brazil, and the base offered no stamps for sale. We signed them and took them home, and sent them back to Belgium.

It all worked out later: the covers were sent back to Brazil, were re-stamped, and again sent back and forth to Ferraz. The silliest empty cover travelled from a Brazilian collector to the Brazilian Cordinator, to Belgium, to us, with us to Brazil, to Elephant Island, back to Brazil, back to Holland, back to Belgium, to Brazil again, to King George island again, and finally to the collector in Brazil.

Chapter 11: Dutch Antarctic Expedition

How the Dutch Antarctic Expedition was born, what institutes participated, what struggles took place before everything went smoothly. No party in the chief's swimming pool this time. Introduction of 'Drupje' (droplet), the sweetest penguin on earth, photographed by me on the wet beach of Elephant Island, and now promoted to logo of the Dutch Antarctic Expedition.

Drupje featured on stickers, teeshirts, sweatshirts and letter headings. Drupje has also been stolen by American penguin researchers. New designs of rubber stamps for the mail collectors. Pre-departure press attention. Newspapers, radio, TV.

Flight route via Rio and Santiago de Chile. Revisiting Punta Arenas. Visit to spectacular Torres del Paine National Park, and Bruce Chatwin's Milodon Cave. Air transport by Chilean Navy to Teniente Marsh on King George Island, and then by helicopter to Arctowski, on the shores of Admiralty Bay, just opposite Ferraz with Brazilian friends.

Chapter 12: Arctowski

Life among the Polish. Cooking habits, drinking habits. One would expect that living with other Europeans would be more normal than living with exotic South Americans, but this is not true. It appears that Brazilians and Dutch have much more affinity in mentality, behaviour, sense of humour, (lack of) politeness, etc., than Dutch and Polish. A Brazilian macho man would never dream of kissing another man in public. The Polish do it all the time.

On a large base, a large proportion of the people is non-scientific, but technical: e.g. radioman, cook, driver. Some very simple types among them. Importance of video. Karate and X-rated movies. Description of the Dutch guests and their different projects.

Chapter 13: Admiralty Bay

History and natural history of beautiful Admiralty Bay. The American penguinologist Wayne Trivelpiece (whose wife stole Drupje) started a long term penguin project in Admiralty Bay in 1976. He was the only inhabitant that summer. He has seen a lot of change. Now the bay holds bases and huts of Poland, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, the USA, and the remnants of a destroyed Italian base. King George Island now has 20 bases, huts, refuges, or ruins, from 13 different countries.

Chapter 14: Bad luck

About the many things that went wrong with the research. Failing technical equipment, failing cooperation between colleaugues, and sometimes just bad luck. Not everything went wrong, so the balance is just barely positive.

Chapter 15: Deception Island

A small group from the Dutch Expedition was housed on Deception Island, some 200 km away. Deception is a circular volcanic island, with a large circular bay (crater), which is connected to the sea. Thus, it has a wonderful sheltered natural harbour, and therefore was the obvious choice for a whaling factory earlier this century. The plant has long been abandoned, and a nearby British research station was destroyed by a volcanic eruption as recently as 1970.

Much of the whalers' stuff is now covered by a thick layer of mud and volcanic ashes, so this was the ideal setting for archeologists, who could really dig up things. A larger party from King George visited Deception for a day, when the film crew had to be transported from the one island to the other. Visit of the ruins, tour to the impressive colony of chinstrap penguins at Baily's Head, bathing in a hot tub, dug out on the beach, heated by volcanic heat underneath.

Chapter 16: Visitors

Tourism. Visits of the Society Explorer, the Illyria, and the Ocean Princess. Shore visits by groups of tourists, all clad in red. We called them Red Penguins. Countervisit aboard the Ocean Princess, where we thought to go monkey watching. This was a mistake. It was monkey wat- ching all right, by we were the monkies. Look, this is what Antarctic Explorers look like.

Chapter 17: Tierra del Fuego

Leaving Antarctica aboard the Polish vessel Arctowski, crossing the infamous Drake Passage in three days. No wind, no big waves. Rounded Cape Horn and earned the diploma of the 'Brotherhood of the Horn'. A few days off in Ushuaia, on the Beagle Channel, with an excuresion to the Tierra del Fuego National Park in beautiful summer weather, and a lamb roast feast with tango. Some background information on the natural history of the region, and the sad history of the Fuegians. Crossing the path of Bruce Chatwin again.

Chapter 18: Ankeveen

Back home. Eleven degrees centigrade below zero, much colder that I have ever seen in the Antarctic, where the lowest we measured was just minus three. Ice skating on the lakes of Ankeveen, with glorious golden sunshine over the reedbeds. Meeting radio journalists on the ice, but they do not recognize me. It's over: no fame, no glory, back to normal.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic Treaty has voted against mineral exploitation. Holland's vote has not been crucial, of course, nor has our contribution to support that vote, but nevertheless. Every little bit helps. Antarctica is safe for the next fifty years.

So it has not been in vain.

Copyright A.J. Beintema, February 1997