Why Shackleton fever is reigniting interest in Antarctica - Scotland on Sunday Travel

As the polar season gets into full flow, the granddaughter of the famous explorer talks about the future of polar travel.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.
Gentoo penguins in Antarctica. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.

Regarded as one of Britain’s greatest explorers, Ernest Shackleton has inspired millions of people to visit Antarctica and the island of South Georgia. Famously, one of his own expeditions ended in near disaster when his ship, the Endurance, was stuck in the ice. For almost two years, the charismatic leader and his men were stranded, remarkably surviving and eventually returning to safety.

Earlier this year, Shackleton’s ship was finally discovered as part of an expedition launched in the centenary year of his death.

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Ahead of her own guest lecturing trip in the icy south, his closest surviving relative, Alexandra Shackleton, shares her thoughts on the discovery and the legacy of her grandfather, who has inspired so many people from different walks of life.

The Endurance crushed by ice in 2015. Pic: PA Photo/Frank Hurley/Alamy.
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How did you feel when the Endurance was discovered?

“I was thrilled. It was the second attempt to find her, because they tried and failed a year or two ago. She’s 3,000 metres deep in the Weddell Sea, which is mostly covered with ice. The last time they tried, they lost six million quid’s worth of equipment in the Antarctic. I never thought they’d do it, but they did, and the images were so beautiful.

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“All my life, I thought they’d find a pile of wood, but because the seabed is flat where she’s sitting and the ice has preserved her, she’s in excellent condition. Another reason why she looks so spick and span is because there’s a jellyfish that eats algae – you might call it a housekeeper jellyfish cleaning up the ship.”

Who owns the ship now?

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Alexandra Shackleton. Pic: PA Photo/Polar Latitudes.

“She actually belongs to me. She was originally insured for £15,000 pounds, so when she suddenly sank, she went to the [insurance] companies. They had no interest. So she now belongs to myself and my first cousin. She’s also protected under The Antarctic Treaty.”

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Were you nervous when they announced coordinates of the ship’s location were made public?

“No, because she’s protected. She’s so deep. You don’t bring up wrecks these days, you observe them. And nobody goes that far into the Weddell Sea, because you’d get stuck in the ice. They managed to find her because it was a good ice year and they were very lucky. Luck is very important in the Antarctic.

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“No-one can get near her because of the Antarctic Treaty. She should be left as she was for over a century. Besides, she’s mine.”

Tourists on the Antarctic Peninsula. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.
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How else have you been commemorating the centenary of your grandfather’s death?

“I’ve been making a film in Ireland about the cabin where he died. A replica of that cabin will be part of the first dedicated polar Shackleton museum in the world at Athy Heritage Centre. A replica boat will also be there. It will open in 2023.”

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Why was he so popular?

“It was the way he treated his men. Expedition leaders 100 years ago mostly didn’t get to know their men. But when his team were going for months on the ice, he would personally decide who was going to be in which tent. He balanced the personalities because he knew them.

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Shackleton's Nimrod Hut at Cape Royds Ross Island. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.

“He was very, very romantic, but incredibly practical and very pragmatic. He made his men believe not only were they expected to be loyal to him, but he would be loyal to them.”

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What are your lasting memories of Antarctica?

“It’s a wonderful place worth preserving. I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t take photographs. When you’re cruising in the Zodiac amongst these incredible bright blue icebergs, everyone has their eyes in a viewfinder. I’m looking at the scenery, enjoying it.

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“When I went the very first time, I was seeing places my grandfather would have seen. It sounds like a cliché, but it did make me feel a bit closer to him. I went into his hut on my own and there was the smell of wood and leather. There were his socks in piles; it was as if he had just stepped out. I felt a huge wave of sadness that I hadn’t known him.”

How to plan your trip

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Alexandra Shackleton will be joining a 22-day voyage with Polar Latitudes to Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia , departing Ushuaia in Argentina on December 22, 2022. Prices from $18,126/£15,415pp in a triple share, excluding flights. Visit polar-latitudes.com.

Shackleton and his men on a British Imperial Antarctic Expedition in January 1909. Pic: PA Photo/Eric Marshall/Alamy.
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Shackleton's grave in South Georgia. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.