Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge » SPRI Museum news skip to primary navigation skip to content


The Polar Museum: news blog

Posts Tagged ‘Antarctica’

Operation Deep Freeze: Return to the South Pole

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

On the 31st October 1956, Rear Admiral George Dufek, U.S. Navy and his companions flew towards the South Pole hoping to become the first people to stand at the South Pole since Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN and his companions had departed in 1912. Unlike Amundsen and Scott, who travelled south with dogs, ponies, motor sledges  and on ski and foot, Dufek and his men were in the comparative comfort of ‘Que Serra Serra’) a U.S Navy ski equipped version of the famous DC3 airliner and transporter. The plane was named after the popular Doris Day song, ‘Whatever will be will be, que sera serra’.

Hot air was blown through tubes to preheat the engines (source: US Navy)

Hot air was blown through tubes to preheat the engines (source: US Navy)

The purpose of the journey was to ascertain if a plane could land safely at the South Pole, where the Americans intended to build a scientific base for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). In preparation for the flight, photographs from Amundsen’s and Scott’s expedition were studied to see the depth of their footprints, indicating the thickness of the snow, and ascertain if the surrounding area was flat enough to land a plane. This information and reconnaissance flights indicated that a landing could be made but in the event of an accident two large aircraft accompanied ‘Que Serra Serra’ and were ready to drop survival equipment.  Commander ‘Trigger’ Hawkes, an experienced Antarctic pilot was chosen as pilot along with Lieutenant Commander C.S. Shinn.  Hawkes chose to give the Shinn, a younger pilot, the honour of landing the plane at the South Pole.

Captain Hawkes interviews Rear Admiral Dufek at the South Pole but the film had frozen solid (source: US Navy)

Captain Hawkes interviews Rear Admiral Dufek at the South Pole but the film had frozen solid (source: US Navy)

The flight south followed the route pioneered by Sir Ernest Shackleton and chosen by Captain R.F. Scott: departing from Ross Island across the Ross ice Shelf, ascending up the Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau and then on to the South Pole. Que Serra Serra arrived at the Pole and had a smooth landing. The American flag was raised and then Hawkes interviewed Dufek with a movie camera but later found out that the interview was not recorded as the film in the camera had frozen solid. A metal radar reflector was installed to assist future flights to find the same location.

Que Serra Serra prepares to take off from the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Que Serra Serra prepares to take off from the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Alarmingly, the men started to notice frostbite on each other’s faces and Dufek gave the order, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ Preparing to take off, the pilots revved up the plane’s engines but it would not move; the skis had frozen to the snow and ice. To assist with taking off, Que Serra Serra had Jet Assisted take Off (JATO) rockets which were normally ignited once the plane was moving. Each JATO provided the equivalent amount of power an engine for 30 seconds.  Realising that he was stuck, Shinn ignited four JATOs at once, then another four, then another four and then his last three. The pilot and crew of the aircraft flying above were horrified to see a great cloud of smoke and flame but suddenly Que Serra Serra appeared – flying, albeit low and slow. Arriving back at McMurdo Station, Ross Island the news was broadcast that forty-four years after Amundsen’s and Scott’s great expeditions the American Stars and Stripes now flew at the South Pole.

The first Americans to stand at the South Pole (source: US Navy)

The first Americans to stand at the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Bryan Lintott

Sewing Antarctica

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Sewing Antarctica2

Trying to communicate the sheer scale of the Antarctic and what the landscape actually looks like can be a tough job… The continent is more than fifty times the size of the UK and there are ice sheets, mountain ranges, crevasses, active volcanoes and lakes – lava lakes, meltwater lakes and huge lakes under the ice. We frequently use paper maps in our education and outreach sessions, but have been wanting to get our hands on something far more exciting and interactive. For some time, we’ve been wanting a tactile map which could be used as a multi-sensory resource for a range of people, and we’ve finally been able to commission local artist Jenny Langley to make us a textile map!

Keen to be as accurate as possible, we roped in a host of friendly academics from SPRI and beyond to advise. Dr Gareth Rees provided us with scale maps (winter and summer), and worked with us to look at lichen, the structure of ice and the colour of penguin guano (poo). Professor Julian Dowdeswell shared his knowledge about the Transantarctic Mountains, ice shelves and crevasses. Professor Clive Oppenheimer talked us through photos of strange lava tunnels, rock formations and vivid mineral colourings of Mount Erebus. It’s illegal to buy rocks and fossils from the Antarctic continent so Dr Peter Clarkson helped us source some plausibly Antarctic specimens. And we spent a lovely day at the British Antarctic Survey talking to Dr Katrin Linse and Dr Huw Griffiths about some of their exciting deep sea finds. All of this information will be added to the map.

Word spread and soon a number of interested people were asking about progress and sharing ideas, which led to a fun Friday evening with Jenny and a group of staff and volunteers. Fuelled by a glass or two of wine, we stitched krill, starfish, rocks, ice, lichen, penguin guano and sea – all of which will be added to the mat.

The map will be delivered at the end of August. We know there’ll be three-dimensional mountains; we know there’ll be pockets in which to hide treasures such as rocks and fossils; we know there’ll be flaps which will lift up to reveal deep sea creatures and hidden parts of the continent; and we know there’ll be a secret lake. But what we don’t know is just what the final result will be – and we can’t to see it! We do know that it will be extremely beautiful and we will definitely be sharing the finished map so that everyone can begin to marvel at the sheer size and incredible geography of the Antarctic!

Naomi C.

Rocks rock for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project

Monday, July 6th, 2015


Work is continuing apace on the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, with over 600 objects examined, described and condition assessed. Working by object type (which makes life much easier in terms of accessing the objects in the store, and facilitates description and condition assessment as you know what to look out for), Sophie, Christina and I have now worked our way through all of the goggles, medals, boots, clothing, snowshoes, crampons and skis housed in our main store (this excludes those items in the auxiliary store and in the gallery, which we will deal with at a later date).

Having spent two-three months working on the clothing, which included socks and slippers, mittens and gloves, hats and scarves, trousers, jumpers and endless numbers of anoraks, it made a very pleasant change this week to whizz through the entire collection of geological specimens in a single day. Not being a geologist, there’s very little I can say about a rock, so describing them was really rather easy and all I had to do was take a few measurements! Thankfully, many of the geological specimens had already been identified and this was recorded in the catalogue, but there were still quite a few with the really helpful description of ‘rock’ – although occasionally there was a bit more detail, like ‘small rock’.

The great thing about SPRI is that you are surrounded by people who know about polar things, so there’s usually someone in the building with the required knowledge. So we turned to SPRI’s resident geologist, Dr Peter Clarkson, who spent 22 years working as a geologist with the British Antarctic Survey, to help us out. Unfortunately, with such small samples and so little contextual information for the rocks identified as needing the ‘PCT’ (Peter Clarkson Treatment), we weren’t able to get an identification for everything. However, Peter was extremely helpful and filled in a lot of gaps, even if it did mean pointing out that some of the samples were of very doubtful Antarctic provenance and that others were really nothing special and it wasn’t quite clear why they were even in the collection! And, having run everything by a geologist, we’re almost certain that we’ve got identifications for all the things that we’re ever likely to be able to identify.


We then moved onto to natural history specimens, which largely consists of eggs (also pleasingly quick to examine). But it’s not just penguin eggs! I always forget that, for the purposes of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, ‘the Antarctic’ doesn’t just refer to the continent of Antarctica, but also includes Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, where wildlife is more diverse. However, I think that many of these eggs may also be of doubtful Antarctic provenance (for example, a group thirteen eggs collected by Edward Adrian Wilson, doctor and artist on Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 which may well have been collected in the UK), but unfortunately we don’t currently have a resident ornithological expert – so if anyone’s good at identifying birds’ eggs, we’ve got a good selection!

sperm whale ear drum

And I really shouldn’t forget to mention that we have a bone from a sperm whale’s ear – just because.