Life at the Antarctic – Scenes and Incidents Described (Early 20th Century)

Stories from the Dundee Year Books of the late 19th and early 20th Century

By W. G. Burn-Murdoch


"Pile on the coal, fireman; let her have another pound of steam, engineer. Make her go at any cost. Let us get into Dundee by Sunday, and off to our homes. We have had enough of sea life, of calm and storm in the Tropics and the Antarctic ice. We are tired of pulling and Hauling, of salt junk and hard ship's biscuits. We long with an inexpressible longing for the good things of shore life—fresh meat, pure water, bread, and green food —for the feeling of stones and grass under foot. We long to meet our friends on shore — sisters, mothers, and brothers—to see them actually before us, the light of welcome in their kind ayes, to feel the warm grasp of their hands, and the soft touch of a cheek. Nearly nine months have passed since we left Dundee, and six months have passed since we last heard from Scotland. What may have happened in that time? Let us pull and haul and shout altogether till these three long days before us are gone; then for home in the Shetlands, the Highlands, and the Lowlands. The CookThe old Balaena can look after herself, and take a long well-earned rest in the Camperdown Dock."


As I write we are passing Folkestown, steering up Channel, all square sails stowed, and our small 65-horse power engine doing its level best to please us all. We have sailed "all the way from Danger Islands," as the saying goes, and from further south than that—from the great icebergs and ice-packs in the unknown seas of the Antarctic, where the great seals bask in the pale midnight sun and the snow is untrodden by the foot of man.


A strange, weird world it was—silent, still as a dream—white and grey—painted with ghostly colours from a palette of pearl. No sound broke the long stillness but the sad hollow sigh of the great whales blowing their feathery jets of steam into the still, frosty air. Almost no sound, I should say, for sometimes a splash, startling in its unexpectedness, broke the quiet—some piece of snow falling into the lilac sea. Sometimes a muffled rumble came over the calm water as an ice-cliff broke and fell. Birds and beasts were mute, or nearly so. At times the penguins made a strange clanging sound as they showed their heads above water for a moment to take breath, "Quangk, quangk," they cried, a deep, melan­choly, sad sound, sudden, unexpected. Again, the soft tweet-tweet of the snowy petrels flitting by might have been called a sound. Very gentle it was, and in keeping with the pretty white bird and its white surroundings. They hunted in twos and threes along the ice edge, dipping into the dark sea for food, much as sea swallows do at home, the black eyes and beaks being often all we saw of them against the background of snow.


The silvery yellow seals made no sound. As our black ship threaded its way past them, through the dark canals, winding in and out among the ice islands, they raised their heads from the sunny snow and gazed at us with a calm, half-contemptuous look in their great dark eyes, then laying heads down again, with such an utterly weary expression as if they had lived from times unknown, and knew how short and trifling were the affairs of little man.


The penguins made a humorous element in what without them would have been a sad, severe world. Their black backs, when they stood on the snow, like lines of pigmy, diminutive volunteers, gave emphasis to the pale whites, greens, and blues of the snow. Unlike our divers at home that live on the water's surface, these little fellows live below the water, and only pop their heads up to breathe, then swim away below again. Apparently when travelling they jump out of the water perhaps a foot into the air and dive in again with scarcely a ripple. Every 40 yards or so they do this, and to see perhaps a score of these black and white flashes jumping in a line is one of the everyday sights of Antarctic life that never failed to amuse one.


Our crew called them monkeys; rather a good name, as they were just as funny and waggish, and no matter how tired, cold, or hungry we might be, whenever these little fellows jumped on to the ice and waddled about we always went into tits of laughter. They walk upright, and their feet are flesh colour with black soles, and look so cold in the snow. If you were to put a small boy in sack, black behind and white in front, and let his toes out at the corners and make him run in a race, you would get an idea of the pen­guin's motions. They have what might be called by compliment wings; they are, however, flippers covered with little stiff feathers just like the small one found in a woodcock's wing. Of course these appendages are of no use for flight, but they act as oars under water. When the penguin is in a great hurry going over snow he lays his glistening white waistcoat on the snow, shoves off with his pink feet behind, rows with the flippers, and gets along at a surprising rate. But they use their flippers to best purpose as a means of expression. When Mr Penguin wishes to tell his friends that his liver is out of order he hangs these expressive flippers in front of him, hunches his black silk back, droops his head between his shoulders, and looks the picture of misery. Now, he couldn't do this with his face alone. There is no expression in his black head at all, neither laugh nor frown, and his black eye with white rim has only one look—a sort of what-a-surprise expression. The living penguin's friend, as you see in the sketch, comes and tells him that "It's just these rooks he's been taking to flavour his shrimp." His wife I think it is in the sketch who is preening what she possibly calls feathers, thus silently expressing disdainful indifference. Another friend,- No. 3 on the right, hints that some small pebbles taken before meals will do him all the good in the world. He has tried them himself, "And look here," he says, "how fat I am." No. 4 puts his flippers behind. "I'm off," he says. "I can't listen to these chaps. Exercise for me and some more shrimps, and pebbles afterwards."


It was curious to find stones inside these birds. The shrimps going about boiled in these cold parts astonished us—boiled at least to all appear­ance; they were bright red. They had a great many curious ways these penguins. They played several different kinds of games on the smooth snow. I picked up the rules for some of them, I think, but it would take too much space in these columns to describe them fully. The favourite one was "King of the Castle," then "Quaker meetings" and "soldiers." They often played soldiers with us when we came on to the ice, but we didn't stick to the rules, and whacked them on the head with our ice-picks, and took them on board and ate them.


I am quite sure their friends were just as dis­gusted with us as they could be. But they were good—tasted just like jugged hare with a flavour of oysters. I would strongly recommend our poulterers and game dealers to introduce them to the notice of our "upper succles." They might make a good thing out of it if they did: they cost nothing.


Penguins on IceBut enough of these trifling matters. Let me tell of the "grand commurrcial aspecs o' the expedeetion."
The Balaena mysticetus, whalebone whale, right whale, Bowhead whale, or Greenland whale, or whatever the reader may choose to call it, is, as perhaps he already knows, of great value. This is owing to its peculiar adaptability for making umbrellas and destroying women's waists—particularly for the latter purpose. The bone in the jaws of one whale sometimes is worth two or three thousand pounds. Naturally a valuable whale producing such useful and valuable material has been much sought for, and in consequence has become so scarce or so shy that of late years Arctic whalers have found their formerly profitable industry almost a failure.

Picking a Seal
To make a new start the Nimrods of Peterhead,the three brothers Gray of Arctic fame, proposed sending their ships to the Antarctic to look for whales there. From the account given by Sir John Ross of his voyage of discovery in 1842 there was reason to believe that all that was neces­sary to make a "full ship" was just to sail down south and haul the bone out of the whales' jaws, so plentiful and tame were they supposed to be down there. Glorious castles in the air were built on this prospective endless supply of bone and blubber.One of these threeHauling skins whaling brothers — Mr J. M. Gray, I believe, the eldest and most successful fisher of the trio—started a Company with this object in view in 1891, but failed to collect sufficient capital. Next year Mr R. Kinnes, of Dundee, followed Mr Gray's example, and succeeded in equipping four ships for the purpose —the Balaena, Active, Diana, and Polar Star, all barques with auxiliary steam power. The Balaena was the largest, being 260 tons register and 65 horse-power engine. The others were considerably smaller.


They went. Saw no right whales where Ross saw them. Filled the ships with mighty sealskins and blubber, and started off home again after two mouths in the ice, and are now, if not at home, in the neighbourhood. We of the Batena and crew are just now some 10 miles north of the Goodwin Sands. We have certainly not made such "a good thing of it" as if we had filled our ship with whalebone, still the net value of the 5500 very large sealskins that we have on board, and all the tanks full of blubber and oil, represents a pretty sum of money.Our Steward


In the future I think it highly probably that more ships will be sent out, and a station started at the Falkland Islands, so that two or even three trips might be made to the ice in the three summer months. The shiploads would then be discharged at the Islands, to be brought home in steamers, the whaling vessels being left to winter in some of the perfect natural harbours of the Falkland Islands. The seals alone would make such an industry profitable, besides there is still the prospect of meeting with the right .whale. Our railing to do so by no means proves that it does not exist in the Antarctic. If we had met with the field ice, near which it is usually found in the Arctic, we would have better reason to Bay that there is no right whale in the South.


As our instructions were to look for the whales where Ross saw them in 1842, our search was necessarily quite restricted. The ice we fell in with was in the form of bergs from a few miles long by 50 or sometimes 200 feet high, to the largest we saw, which was fully 30 miles long by about 200 feet high. Besides these bergs, which .we met in great numbers, there was pack ice, composed of, streams of scattered pieces of flat cakes and broken bergs driven together, forming large islands with a very rough surface, covered with a thick coating of snow, with here and there large pieces of berg kept enclosed. Another kind of berg we fell in with, principally to the westward, in the neighbourhood of Joinville's Land and the South Shetlands, was flat and low, generally 10 to 20 feet high, varying from 100 yards in length to 500 or 600. Apparently they were detached pieces from similar ice that was fast to the low plains of Joinville's Land and the land to the south of that.


SkinningThe greater part of the time we were in the ice we were occupied in killing seals, skinning them, and cutting the blubber from the skins on board. We worked with eight boats, with crews of five and six in each. Generally the whole six boats were away together, but on days when the seals were scarce two or three boats' crews would go sealing, whilst the men on board "made off" the blubber. This "making off" is tedious, back-breaking work. Generally it was carried on when the weather was too bad for us to go out in the boats, or rather when it was too cold for the seals to come on to the ice. With a southerly gale, coating the black rigging with snow, smothering the deck, the crew had but a poor time of it.


When I began to write this article I intended to describe at length a day in the boats sealing, but I find when I recall those days of labour and bloodshed that the horrible details are so pain­fully fresh in my memory that I cannot bring myself to the task. There was mtich that was pleasant in these excursions in the boats amongst the ice islands, but the blood, the killing, and the incessant work all day and half the night, seven days in the week, without a moment's rest, on the meagre, tasteless diet, was enough to break down the strongest of us.


But far worse than cold and fatigue was the depressing gloom on board ship. Onoe away from the ship in the boats, pulling away with good comrades, the life was compara­tively pleasant even though the work was terribly hard. Nine to 12 hours' constant rowing with heavy oars, plunging over waist-deep snow, slashing and cutting at. seals' carcasses, hauling their great heavy skins over the snow, was work best suited to men of iron muscle and endless endurance, and men, too, who could work like giants, with biscuit and butter for lunch. One day of this was enough to satisfy most reasonable beings. The reader can imagine our condition after weeks of it, weeks of seven days, too.


PenguinThe redeeming feature was the feeling of being in actual contact with this strange Antarctic world. From the ship's deck we saw it, but felt in an immediate atmosphere of the nineteenth century. In the boats, rowing beneath green ledges of snow ice, bringing down showers of jingling icicles with our long black oars, we felt as if in a new country. It was a fairyland in white, tinted with faintest violets, rose, and delicate yellows, with deep blue ice caves and glittering pinnacles shimmering and shivering under a silky opal sky, flecked with feathery cirris and crossed by big ribands of low-toned white. Sometimes we felt awed by the stillness, and oppressed by the loneliness and the feeling of the great age of this frozen world. The uncouthness of the birds and beasts added to this sensation. The great black seal, with the head like a huge lizard, seemed to belong to the mammoths of some prehistoric period. The featherless, wingless birds, too, how old and calm they looked; the great king-penguin especially. What an extraordinary bird he is. What a royal dignity there is in the way he stands on deck, surrounded by strange figures, hustled and shoved, barked at by our ship dog—nothing moves him; one flash of its beak, and Fanny has learned to respect it. We men stand round him in a circle and marvel, and go and come again and marvel. For surely there never was such a strange animal heard tell of, combining at the same time such strange and opposite character­istics. He has the waddle of a fat alderman and the calm and awful dignity of a sphinx. It seems with its little black eye to observe the 'slightest trifle, the faintest motion of one of ourselves or our dog Fanny. Yet he has an inward look besides that, as if he saw far back into the dim ages of the past, when the rocks that rise precipitously out of yonder snow-clad mountains were clothed with rich tropical palms and other vegetation. We took hours to kill him. Even then he was not dead, as someone remarked. He simply got up bleeding, and resumed his old position. Surely he has lived for ages if he takes so long to die. Then, his strength ! He is only about 3.5 feet high, but five men could scarcely hold him down. With one man at each of his flippers, one at each leg, and a man holding both hands clenched round his short neck, we could scarcely hold him with all our force. And then, he only seemed to move, as it were, uneasily, as if we annoyed him, but to struggle with us was beneath his dignity.


I give you his portrait. The drawings one sees of penguins in books are quite unlike. They have been done from skins, and the necks have become elongated, and no bird-stuffer would dare to give the body the bulky proportions that they really possess.


I give a sketch of one of the large black seals, and some of our young fellows "picking" it. This is rather a risky game, as these big fellows measure 12 feet in length, and have a mouth that could swallow a policeman's thigh, in one gulp. Their teeth resemble a bear's, but are larger, if anything. We found penguins inside these seals, small red shrimps, and rocks—rather a varied diet, reminding one of the story our first mate, Mr Adams, tells of the Irishwoman who sold a "salmon to the late Captain Adams, of Arctic renown; sold it by weight, and first tilled it with stones. When expostulated with, she replied, "Sure, and your honour wouldn't have the poor baste to go to sea without any ballast on board."