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International Adventurers: Polar Exploration

Ernest and Jonathan Shackleton

“By endurance we conquer”.




Ernest Shackleton



This year marks the Centenary of Irish expolorer Ernest Shackletons legendary attempt to reach the South Pole. His cousin, Jonathan Shackleton, talks about what it is like to walk in his famous footsteps and how polar exploration is more accessible than ever.

We are sitting in front of a cosy fire in Shackleton’s beautiful Co. Cavan home, surrounded by shelf after shelf of exploration titles and reference books. Shackleton, whose stands over six foot tall, is wrapped up in a thick, red, arran sweater, with a cup of hot tea resting in his weathered hands.

Having studied botany and natural history in Trinity College, he says his interest in the Antarctic started after reading about his cousin’s famous explorations combined with his love of wildlife and natural history. “I would find a lot of inspiration from the wildness and remoteness of the place,” he says.

With an apparent love of family history, he says he spends a huge amount of time researching the Shackleton family. Taking the famous saying, “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you’ve been”” quite literally, he set off to discover the wonders of the Antarctic.

“I find something very important about knowing that there are places where I have been and I have walked where he once walked too,” he says.

Along with his cousin’s photos and diaries, Jonathan also posseses Shackleton’s original Sled which he used on his Endurance trip. It was a pure coincidence that he came across it one day while in New Zealand.

A couple were auctioing off their house and belongings and in the midst of all the junk there lay the sled of his heroic cousin. He knew in his heart he had to buy in and had it shipped back to Ireland within days.

One of his most memorable moments was visiting Ernest Shackleton’s grave in South Georgia 10 years ago.

When I was there for the first time I was the very same age as he was when he died, only 47. It’s a fantastic setting – a beautiful island with snow covered mountains and glaciers behind all the graves. It’s a really great place for him to be buried.

“Most people in the graveyard are Norwegian whalers and most of them would have actually met Shackleton so they are probably chatting away underground now,” he says with a smile.

On that same trip he tells me that he managed to land on Elephant Island, the very place where Ernest Shackleton and his crew – including Kerryman Tom Crean and Corkman Tim McCarthy – landed in their rescue boat after their ship Endurance, was crushed in the ice.

He looks at his watch and tells me that they actually landed on this very day, the 14th April.

“Elephant Island is a shocking place. Really gaunt and grim. With sheer slopes and glaciers forming the backdrop, its very hard to imagine anyone surviving there for more than a few days yet Shackleton’s crew had to wait there for over 4 months,” he says.

Antarctic exploration used to be for strong, hardy men willing to endure extreme living conditions, illness, starvation and possibly death. Now, thanks to modern technology, the ships are equipped with satellite navigation, rescue helicopters and even the internet.

For the Millenium, Shackletons whole family flew down to the Antarctic peninsula where they celebrated the night in a hollow, collapsed Volcano.

“There were four ships inside this nine mile wide volcano – it was absolutely crazy. We had this amazing dinner followed by a concert given by The Chieftans, Diana Krall and Paul Simon. It was very weird!”

In 2001, Shackleton led the first ever group of Irish students to the Antarctic on a trip he says they will never forget. “Its left its mark on all of them forever. It is a very inspiring place.”

Along with nature lovers, scientists and students, he has also played host to people like Baroness Jay of Paddington- daughter of former British Prime minister Jim Callaghan and South African Poet Ian McCallum.

He tells me one of the most amusing people so far was Kenyan paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey, whose family discovered the first Humanoid fossils in the world.

It was very fascinating hearing him talk about his views of the world.”

“Both Leakey’s legs were prosthetic,” Shackleton tells me, “and when he did his landing on the continent, he got out of the boat and you just saw these pale, bare legs, that would make you shiver just looking at them. Somebody said to me ‘why didn’t he put his socks on?!’ not realising that the legs were artificial!” he laughs.

Shackleton explains just how much things have changed in the last few decades.

“The real world is much closer now. Getting help is much more immediate and these trips are not as big a risk as they used to be. Back then there was no help and when the Endurance ship sank it took them more than a year to find it.”

Wildlife such as fur seals and penguin colonies, which now attract tourists to the Antarctic, were used for a very different pupose 100 years ago, Shackleton tells me.

I can’t remember reading any diary extract that mentioned Ernest commenting on the beautiful wildlife,” he laughs. “When they looked at an Emperor penguin, which I see as sacred, they saw 8 pounds of meat. It was a matter of survival.

“On South Georgia island alone there are about four million fur seals. In the 1930’s you would hardly find one. The sealers wiped them out for their fur skin,” he says.

At present there are more than 20 million penguins in the Antarctic, which act as one of the biggest temptations drawing Shackleton there. “They are very fascinating things. They are totally fearless. These three foot high birds just come up to you and peck at your boots. Then they just go away again,” he recalls.

“The birdlife is spectacular too,” he adds. “You are crossing the drake passage from Argentina into the Antarctic peninsula and you see these enormous albatrosses gliding around effortlessly. It’s a totally evocative sight. After Christmas you can see spectacular whaling sightings too; from humpback whales, minkies and the southern right whale to huge killer whales a short distance form the ship.”

Enticed by the wildlife, Shackleton has three more trips planned this year to see “the holy grail – Emperor penguins breeding on ice”. He also plans to visit King Penguin colonies in the Antactic peninsula and return to the grave of Ernest Shackleton for the third time.

In the mean time Shackleton continues to promote the life of his cousin and the Shackleton family through lectures, talks and guided Antarctica cruises. He is also hoping his book about the life of Shackleton will be a success. As the Shackleton Family motto goes, “By endurance we conquer”.