Pilgrimage to the grave of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton

Underwater explorer Dr. Joe MacInnis makes a pilgrimage to the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, on remote South Georgia Island, in the extreme South Atlantic Ocean. In so doing, the first person to dive under the North Pole, pays homage to the man who completely dominated South Pole exploration.
Explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874 - 1922) ultimately turned the dismal failure of losing his ship into a resounding success by rescuing every one of his stranded men from Antarctica. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Underwater explorer Dr. Joe MacInnis makes a pilgrimage to the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, on remote South Georgia Island, in the extreme South Atlantic Ocean. In so doing, the first person to dive under the North Pole, pays homage to the man who completely dominated South Pole exploration. **This episode originally aired December 9, 2014.

A Visual Essay by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Ernest Shackleton an inspiring example for world leaders today

Dr. Joe MacInnis is a Canadian physician, author and diving expert, and the first scientist to do a dive beneath the North Pole. (Courtesy Joe MacInnis)
One hundred years ago, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton failed—in absolutely spectacular fashion. But Dr. Joe MacInnis believes that Shackleton's historic 'failure' — and how he responded to — itprovides an inspiring example for world leaders dealing with the crisis of climate change.
The science from NASA, numerous National Academies of Science, and the International Energy Agency confirm that our planet is in peril. Sea levels are rising. Desserts are expanding. Weather around the world is increasingly and unpredictably violent. There are food shortages and flash floods. The future of the human species is on the line.

"Shackleton inspires us to look deep inside ourselves, to see if we have the right, bright stuff to navigate the risks of climate disruption", says MacInnis, a deep-sea explorer who now studies leadership in high-risk environments. MacInnis recently accompanied James Cameron on his epic mission to explore the seven-mile deep Marianna Trench.

The expedition in 1914 by Shackleton & in 2014 by Dr. Joe MacInnis 

In 2014, Dr. Joe made a pilgrimage to Shackleton's grave on remote South Georgia Island, in the Southern Ocean. He travelled on board the National Geographic "Explorer", with an international team of naturalists and scientists.

In 1914, Shackleton planned to cross Antarctica, trekking 29,000 km. from west to east, passing directly over the South Pole. Five thousand British adventurers volunteered to join his expedition team. Many were selected using somewhat unorthodox criteria. Meteorologist Leonard Hussey was known to play a mean banjo. Renowned physicist Reginald James was chosen because he could sing.

On January 19, 1915, the expedition ship — Endurance — became trapped in the polar pack ice. Ten months later, the ice crushed the wooden-hull vessel and she sank. Under Shackleton's leadership, the men built a camp and spent the next five months drifting on the ice of the Weddell Sea. Finally, they made their way to Elephant Island.

England and Europe were pre-occupied with the First World War. No one had any idea they were on the island. Knowing they had to find help, Shackleton launched a refitted lifeboat with five men and set off for South Georgia. They sailed 800 miles across a wind-swept, near-freezing ocean. Seawater flooded the boat. Spray froze the deck. A rogue wave almost sank them. They landed — exhausted, hungry, cold-soaked.  Then Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley hiked 56 kilometers in moonlight mist, and fog across unmapped mountain ridges and glaciers to the whaling station at Stromness.

 "We need leaders who have the ability, and the 'endurance', to move the countries of the world towards an understanding of what is now occurring on our planet. And we don't want to leave anybody behind.", says Marylou Blakesley, a naturalist from Alaska, who accompanied MacInnis.

Turning failure into success

Shackleton turned failure into success by rescuing all of his men. He commandeered a whaling vessel and recovered the 22 men on Elephant Island. In 1922, at age 47, he was on his way back to Antarctica when he died of a heart attack. Lady Shackleton agreed that her husband should be buried on South Georgia Island, because that's where he belonged.

"He was a master explorer, not because of what he discovered, but because of the leadership principles he used to save his men. Shackleton searched for the hard simple truths inside his own character, and in all the places he explored. He released himself into those truths, and followed their paths, no matter how difficult, or how dangerous", says Dr. Joe MacInnis.

Antarctica and the Arctic are warming much faster than the rest of the planet. Glaciers that Shackleton trekked across a hundred years ago are melting more rapidly than scientists imagined. In the Canadian Arctic, huge sections of ocean are no longer covered with summer sea ice.

What can be learned from Shackleton?

Can we learn anything from Shackleton? He embodied the principles of deep empathy, eloquence, and endurance. Are there elements of his inspiring leadership that might help us navigate the climate crisis?

The odds seem to be stacked against us. But when the going gets tough, the tough get transformative. Shackleton somehow managed to save everybody on his ill-fated expedition. Our job is nothing less than saving the entire planet.

Participants in this episdoe:

  • Oliver Kruess, Captain of the National Geographic Explorer, from Germany.
  • Mary-Lou Blakesley, Naturalist, from Alaska.
  • Dr. Jack Putnam, Familly Physician from Seattle, Washington.
  • Eduardo Shaw, Naturalist and Guide.
  • Eric Guth, Naturalist and Glaciologist.
  • Lisa Kelly, Expedition Leader from Buffalo, New York.
  • Gabriella Roldan, Naturalist from Argentina, via Christ Church, New Zealand.

**This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy.


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