skip to primary navigation skip to content

Polar Bytes - No. 46, January 2008

Polar Bytes - No. 46, January 2008

Sir Wally's birthday cake
Sir Wally's birthday cake
Photo © Robin Back

From the Chairman, Robin Back:

Happy and Prosperous New Year to all our readers and successful training to all our sledgers and trekkers preparing for their ordeal! It was a great pleasure to attend the opening of the SPRI's exhibition of Sir Wally Herbert's paintings back in October. Lady Herbert and Kari opened the exhibition which featured a mix of Arctic and Antarctic subjects and cut a 'birthday' cake in memory of Sir Wally, who died in June last year.

Cathy Cooper
Cathy Cooper
Photo © Rolf Williams

At our sledgers/trekkers evening at Dyers Hall in London in November, we heard a very encouraging Darren Liversedge from Across the Divide tell us what to expect in Norway and in Greenland. The latter reinforced by Julian, who of course has first-hand knowledge. The excitement is infectious including amongst those going again! Our photo is of Cathy Cooper - sledger extraordinaire - with her 'thank you' presents for all her hard work

Our AGM was held on 10th November following Tony Soper's fascinating lecture about the historic exploitation of the northern and southern seas by whalers and sealers from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Thanks to all the efforts of the Friends during the year we were able to make significant donations to the Institute. The year was particularly notable for the creation and initial funding of the Museums Acquisition fund in the Spring. This in turn has proved something of a magic key for unlocking matched funding opportunities.

The AGM allowed me to thank Wendy Driver, Rod Downie and Rossie Ogilvy for their strenuous efforts and support on the committee over the past four years and to thank them all as they step down after their terms of office. We welcome, Jane Chisholm and Alison Jolley to the committee and look forward to working with them in the future. More about Jane and Alison will appear in due course on the committee's web page. We also welcome Ellen Bazeley-White, Archives Manager at BAS who takes over from Rod Downie in the New Year.

Ice Bear - Sir Wally Herbert
Ice Bear - Sir Wally Herbert
© Kari Herbert

We were in a quandary about the dates for our AGM in 2008 as the 8th November is Guy Fawkes night. However, it is already in our Autumn lecture series so we will stick with it. Please put the date in your diaries. The Lent term lecture series begins very promptly on the 9th February. More details on the attached flyer. And the first lecture from Bob Smith on the future plans for the museum is a 'must'.

Other enclosures include a letter from Capt. Bob Tarrant of HMS Endurance and a proposal to amend Article 6 of our Constitution as foreshadowed at the AGM.

Finally, I must say I have hugely enjoyed my first year as Chairman. High spots included the Bonhams' exhibition and Friends reception, Celene's establishment in her new role of PA, the AGM and latterly the evening at Dyers Hall, all of which reinforce the feeling that one is truly among friends in the Friends.

From the Institute

A few words from the Director, Julian Dowdeswell:

The polar regions have been in the news more than ever over the past year, with both high latitude climate change and the UK's polar heritage featuring regularly. Staff at the Institute have worked hard to make sure that we are playing a full part in this important aspect of our public outreach, with many contributions to television, radio and the newspapers throughout 2007.

Plans are also proceeding for the refurbishment of the SPRI Museum, with Bob Smith working hard to coordinate architects, estates managers and planners. This work is a vital part of the second phase of our bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for over £900,000 towards the redesign and refurbishment project. If we are successful in our Phase Two bid, which is submitted in June 2008, we will also need to raise several hundred thousand pounds in matching funds - a significant challenge.

Our research work continues to prosper, with several new research grants from the Government's funding councils and from industrial and commercial sponsors. These funds allow us to employ research staff and to support research students working on both polar science and social-science projects.

It is a pleasure to thank you, the Friends of the Institute, for your very strong support of our activities during 2007 and to wish you a happy New Year.

Archives & Museum

From the Curator of Art, Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones:

Astonishing find in the Museum's basement!

Two fragile chalk drawings of penguins, sketched by the legendary explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, have been discovered at Cambridge University.

Priceless penguins!  Priceless penguins!
Priceless penguins!
© Huw Lewis-Jones

The sketches, which date from 1904 and 1909, were created by the renowned Polar explorers and were probably drawn to illustrate public lectures the two gave after returning from their respective Antarctic voyages in those years.

The blackboards were found lying together in the basement of the University's Scott Polar Research Institute having been in storage since 1998. Staff are now appealing for donations to help "save the penguins" and restore them so that future generations can visit them in the Institute's museum.

'People often compare Scott and Shackleton in terms of their achievements as explorers and their leadership qualities', said Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, a historian and Curator of Art at SPRI who found the images. 'Now, with a smile on our faces, we can judge their artistic abilities as well'.

'Some people may think they look a little crude but I think they are incredibly charming. They were drawn at public lectures in front of an enthusiastic audience, to laughter and to cheers, and then signed with a flourish. It's like having the explorers' autographs, only more wonderful, because each has signed their name next to a hand-drawn penguin'.

'Plans are also afoot to invite famous modern-day explorers to draw their own penguins, adding to the art collections at SPRI, particularly those of Antarctic wildlife drawn by polar pioneers.'

Stop press:

More on the penguin discovery from Huw Lewis Jones: "The penguins came to SPRI in 1998, through William Mills, having been rescued from a basement in Manchester in the 1930's, where they were originally drawn at lectures at Owens College. The family who gave the boards were very happy with the coverage, realising the necessity to make media stories, and grateful too that the penguins were rescued from obscurity."

Other News:

From the Antarctic:

M/S Explorer

Sadly, the most recent item to make international headlines, was the loss of the M/S Explorer in Bransfield Strait, approximately halfway between King George Island and D'Urville Island at the head of the Antarctic Peninsula, on Friday 23 November 2007. The vessel struck an iceberg in the early hours of the morning and began taking water. At 0320 GMT a distress call was transmitted and the order was given to abandon ship. The evacuation went very smoothly with no injuries and all passengers and crew (154 in all) were picked up from lifeboats and inflatable boats by M/V Nordnorge about 4 hours later. The ship proceeded to Maxwell Bay where they were transferred to the Chilean and Uruguayan bases at 2200. Some mild cases of hypothermia quickly recovered in the warmth of the bases. The Explorer is believed to have sunk, although it seems that nobody actually saw her sink to confirm this, and Chilean ships and aircraft are monitoring an oil slick at the site of the accident.

Further information can be found on the website of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO):

British Antarctic Survey

Professor Chris Rapley retired as Director of the British Antarctic Survey in August 2007 and moved on to become the Director of the Science Museum in London. He is succeeded by Professor Nick Owens, a marine scientist by training, who was the Director of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Further information on the BAS website:

Giant iceberg

In October 2007, examination of satellite images, collected from the European Space Agency's satellite Envisat using the Polar View monitoring programme, showed a huge iceberg 34 km long by 20 km wide, almost half the size of Greater London, that calved from Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. A long-term study of the glacier has shown that a large iceberg breaks off roughly every 5-10 years. The last was in 2001. At the present time the iceberg has already moved more than 1 km from the coast.

Satellite images of the coastline of Antarctica can be viewed on the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC):

Fossil penguins

In June 2007, palaeontologists in Peru discovered the skull of a new fossil penguin species, Icadyptes salasi. in the Atacama Desert. The ancient bird lived about 36 million years ago and stood about 1.5 m tall. Its long pointed beak suggests that it may have speared fish for food. Nevertheless, it is still not as large as one of the fossil penguins found on Seymour Island in the north-west Antarctic Peninsula that reached 1.8 m in height. The oldest known fossil penguins have been found in New Zealand in strata that are about 60 million years old.

From the Arctic

The Arctic seafloor

The constant search for new mineral resources led Russia to stake a claim to the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean by dropping a flag to the bottom beneath the North Pole. This action prompted the following "unofficial" response from Britain in a letter to The Times on 7 August 2007.

Sir, A Russian flag, as a national symbol, has been deposited deep in the Arctic Ocean ("Mineral war begins after Russia plants flag 2 miles under pole", August 3). In 1991 I was a lecturer in history and geography on board Sovetskiy Soyuz, on the first of a series of summer visits to take tourists to the North Pole. There were many ceremonies at the pole, and I took the opportunity of dropping a coin of the realm over the bow. Thus a British national symbol, with an image of Her Britannic Majesty, came to rest on the bed of the Arctic Ocean 16 years before a Russian flag. Perhaps their sovereign importance is equal.

R. K. HEADLAND, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.

Environmentalists may wish to complain in both cases about the unnecessary deposition of extraneous jetsam in the ocean!

Arctic sea ice disappearing

The BBC has reported research by US scientists suggesting that the Arctic may be close to a tipping point that sees all-year-round ice disappear very rapidly in the next few decades. The latest data indicate that the ice is no longer showing a robust recovery from the summer melt. In November 2007 the area of frozen sea was two million sq km less than the historical average, that is an area about the size of Alaska. In 2006 the sea ice reached its minimum extent on 14 September, making it the fourth lowest on record in 29 years of satellite record-keeping and only marginally greater than the all time minimum of 2005.

See further information at:

The BBC's itinerant environment correspondent, David Shukman, was seen recently on a ship sailing through an ice-free North West Passage. It is just 100 years ago that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen spent 3 years making the first transit of the North West Passage in his ship, Gjøa.

Endurance visit
Photo © Cathy Cooper

HMS Endurance visit

An earlier visit planned to HMS Endurance in the summer had to be postponed so a second visit took place in late September - another inclement day! This was an Affiliates day rather than, as in recent years, a specific day for the Friends but Captain Bob Tarrant was on hand to welcome SPRI committee members and the photo shows the group on the hangar deck.

We are most grateful that the ship's company are able to find time in their busy fitting out schedule to fit in tours of the ship and hope that next year's fitting out will not be as traumatic! We send them our best wishes for the success of their current work programme and their safe return home in the late spring.

From the Secretaries

Membership (Ann Bean):

Following my note in the last issue, that membership had dropped to 610, I am now very pleased to report that membership has bounced back up to 633, due in the main to the enrolment of another group of polar cruise passengers sponsored by Discovery Initiatives.

New Friends

A very warm welcome is extended to all new members.

Some Dates for your diary

At the Institute:

Lent term Lecture dates: 9th & 23rd February and 8th & 29thof March. (NB Easter is on 23rd March next year)
Arctic Sledging: 2nd - 8th March and 5th - 13th April
Summer Lunch: 7th June.
Greenland Trek: 18th -27th July
AGM: 8th November.


Plymouth: Friday, 6th June 2008 a dinner on the occasion of Captain Scott's 140th Birthday following a lecture by Dr. David Wilson. (Venue and other details to be advised)

LogoWe are most grateful to Discovery Initiatives for sponsoring this edition of Polar Bytes. More details at