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A Christmas like no other? Captain Robert Scott’s 1910 expedition to the Southern Ocean


By late December, Captain Robert Scott’s expedition ship, the Terra Nova, had been on the Southern Ocean for almost a month. After a sea-sickness-inducing passage through the Roaring Forties and a ferocious storm in the Furious Fifties, photographer Herbert Ponting and his companions were glad to reach calmer waters and to see porpoises and dolphins circling the ship.

There was great excitement when the first iceberg was spotted, but it was not long before pack-ice was hugging the sides of the ship and slowing her progress. While Ponting filmed and photographed the ‘bergs’ penguins, apparently unafraid of the ship and those on her, stood almost motionless, while seals basked in the warm sun. Back on board, experienced navigators took turns on the bridge, plotting a route through the ice, or – as and when necessary - ramming the ship forward, towards their destination.

As the ship headed gradually south, Ponting would lie on a hastily-constructed outrigging, filming the Terra Nova’s bow carving through the ice – and hoping he would not be jolted from his perch and plunged, along with his expensive film-camera, into the freezing depths beneath.

As Christmas Day approached, Scott and his men found themselves imprisoned in the ice-pack which, to make matters worse, was drifting north, taking the ship with it. For those who had not been this far south before, Christmas 1910 would be like no other – trapped in an over-crowded, over-laden ship, far from family and friends.

By now the sun shone all day and all night – but that did not deter expedition cook Clissold from preparing a magnificent Christmas feast which, by common consent, was a triumph of the cook’s art. After everyone had toasted the success of the expedition, presents and messages from home (carefully stowed in London and New Zealand) were passed round and opened. The evening ended with carol-singing and general seasonal jollity which lasted until well after midnight.

After over two weeks of painfully slow progress, the ice-floes began to drift apart and the Terra Nova emerged from the pack-ice and could get up steam. Scott and his men had come through difficult times but, all being well, the worst was over. By 30 December, the ship was in clear water and by New Year’s Day Scott and his men had reached their destination, McMurdo Sound, where they build a base and embark on a year of scientific endeavour and an attempt to reach the South Pole.

No-one knew exactly what 1911 held in store, but for Ponting and his companions, there was no going back, all they could do was to look to the future.

By Anne Strathie

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