Art. LXIII.—Economic Antarctic Exploration.
Nearly half a century has elapsed since the Antarctic Expedition, under Sir James Ross, left the shores of England in Her Majesty's ships “Erebus” and “Terror,” and the account of the expedition, written by Sir James, is now so seldom met with that to most of my readers it is probably unknown. In putting down some thoughts suggested by reading Ross's volumes I shall not scruple, therefore, to make free use of notes and extracts taken at the time.
My chief objects in writing are: (1) to consider whether we in New Zealand might not attempt something in the way of Antarctic exploration, combined with whaling; and (2) to provoke others, with fuller information and more access to men and books, to take the matter up and clear the way by showing what the difficulties are that have to be faced, how they may best be overcome, and what advantages we may fairly expect to accrue. I hope, also, by dwelling on some interesting features of the South Polar regions, without, however, pretending to write for scientific men, to draw more attention to Ross's work, as the book seems less known in New Zealand than it ought to be. In his volumes are to be found all that we yet know about
the remarkable land discovered by him to the southward, and named after our reigning sovereign, a land supposed to be a continent, probably larger than Australia, and not very much further away; near enough probably to have a considerable influence on our climate and harvests, in at least the more southern parts of New Zealand. From Stewart Island to Cape Howe, in Australia, the distance is, in round numbers, something less than 1,000 miles, and to the North Cape of Victoria Land a trifle under 1,400 miles, or about the same as the distance by sea from Oamaru to Melbourne. In judging, however, of the effect of Victoria Land on our climate, we must consider not merely the intervening distance and the intensity of cold on its lofty ice-covered mountain ranges, but also, besides other matters, the effect of the numerous icebergs to which it gives birth, and which, with the ocean of fragments known as the “pack,” approach so much nearer to us. I believe it was by indications of the thermometer alone that Captain Cook came to the conclusion that there must be a large extent of land to the southward. The first of two chief reasons given by Lyell for the excess of cold in the higher southern, beyond that found in similar northern, latitudes, is the extent and height of Victoria Land. To a considerable extent this will probably apply to these latitudes.
Though it seems commonly assumed that we have an Antarctic continent, it may be that we shall never know whether the name is correctly applied. Land and ice together may be found possessing continental dimensions; and yet, with regard to much of it, it may be impossible to determine whether it is land or an ice-laden sea, or a group of islands connected by ice.
Ross's voyage was doubtless expensive, far beyond anything we could afford. Indeed, it would be a mistake to compare any exploring work we could do with his three years' voyage, the great scientific object of which was not exploration, but emphatically that of terrestrial magnetism. This involved an extensive series of observations, which necessitated his visiting many parts of the world. Thus it came to pass that though the expedition left England in September, 1839, it was not until fifteen months later that, being in New Zealand waters, he steered a direct course to the southward on the meridian of Campbell Island. He had no steam-power, and even in those days his ships were considered slow sailers; and yet within four weeks he had restored to England the honour of the discovery of the southernmost known land, with its magnificent ranges of mountains, their lofty peaks covered with eternal snow, and their valleys filled with glaciers projecting for miles into the sea and terminating in lofty perpendicular cliffs. Another fortnight sufficed to show the continuity of this land from about 70° to 79° of south
latitude, and for the discovery there of a grand active volcano, which was named by Ross “Mount Erebus,” while its sister mountain, an extinct volcano of somewhat inferior height, was named, after the second ship of the expedition, “Mount Terror.” Mount Erebus, which seems far more energetic in its action than our Tongariro, rises directly from the sea in the form of a regular cone, towering far up into the sky to about the same height as Mount Cook. Red glowing fires were visible at the summit, from whence issued a column of dense smoke, which rose at times to the height of 2,000 feet.
The appearance of this magnificent burning mountain, with its most interesting surroundings, never before and never since seen by mortal eye, must have been a grandly impressive spectacle to all on board of the two vessels, and they would gladly have wintered within sight of it if they had found a suitable place to secure the ships. Had they accomplished this, Sir James Ross might have had the honour of planting the flag of his country on both the north and south magnetic poles, their estimated distance from the latter being only about 160 miles. From Cape Crozier, at the foot of Mount Terror, the vertical icy cliffs of the great barrier stretched away to eastward as far as the eye could reach, while its smooth surface, only once seen from the mast-head over a lower part of the cliff, appeared like an immense plain of frosted silver. This vast unique ice-plain, or mer de glâce, is perhaps the most interesting of Ross's discoveries to the southward. It may, with its surroundings, be the best illustration extant of conditions that prevailed during the well-established glacial period of the Northern Hemisphere, also of the desolation that may be expected to reign in the distant future over all the now pleasant habitable parts of the earth, supposing that after the conflagration foretold in Scripture the planet is allowed, so to speak, to die a natural death. We know little about it—yet enough, however, to whet the curiosity of scientific men, and make them eager to learn more. Ross estimated its thickness at 1,000 feet, and traced the northern edge, a straight perpendicular wall varying in height from about 100 feet to 200 feet, to a distance of 450 miles to the eastward.
Many questions with regard to it suggest themselves readily to the mind—as, What is its extent? Are its dimensions altering? Is it in motion? If in motion, at what rate does it move, and in what direction? Does it rest chiefly on land or on water? Is it fed chiefly by glaciers, or by the snow that falls on its surface? In what manner does it waste away? I do not find such questions discussed by Ross, and the answers to some can only be guessed at in our present state of knowledge. As to the waste, most persons on first turning their thoughts to the subject are apt to think that in a climate of
such extreme rigour there can be no waste by thawing, and that such an ice-plain, or a circumpolar continent, must increase in height by the amount of the yearly snowfall. Let us see what this would lead to! Supposing that no more genial climate has existed there for the short geological period of a quarter of a million years, and that the snowfall increased the height of the ice by only 2 feet yearly, which would be equivalent to less than 23.0 inches of rainfall, a simple calculation will show that by this time the ice would form a stupendous mountain, in comparison with which the huge bulk of the mighty Himalayas would be a trifle—in fact, the ice-mountain would be eighteen times their height. Clearly, then, granting that our theoretic ice-mountain could not sustain its own weight, there must be yearly waste roughly commensurate with yearly nourishment. I think there can be little doubt that the ice-sheet is prevented from increasing in size and advancing towards us chiefly by the northern edge breaking off and floating away in the shape of icebergs, and by the thawing of the undersurface, due to some heat derived from the contiguous land or water, aided by the effects of pressure and friction, and yet that these combined causes would be comparatively powerless to hold it in check without the assistance of oceanic currents.
With regard to the feeding, Ross remarks: “Whether Parry Mountains again take an easterly trending and form the base to which this extraordinary mass of ice is attached must be left for future navigators to determine.” Special interest attaches to Parry Mountains from their being the southernmost land yet discovered. Over the edge of the westerly portion of the barrier their lofty summits could be seen stretching far away to the southward. Although at right angles to the barrier edge, I do not see why they may not form the “base,” without the supposition of an “easterly trending” being necessary. The ice, after descending from their slopes, though pushed off chiefly to the eastward, must surely be sufficiently plastic to spread northwards as well—the greater the resistance to its easterly advance, the more must it be pushed to the northward. Whether the chief nourishment is by glaciers from the Parry Mountains, (supposing that the ice-sheet is connected with no others), or from the snowfall on its own surface, may depend chiefly on the comparative areas of that surface and of the eastern slopes of the range. I am inclined to think that the glaciers play a subordinate though important part.
That motion should be imparted to such a vast mass by ice descending from the mountains may seem hard to credit, especially if we suppose the sheet to rest chiefly on land, and consider the enormous friction where in contact with the rocks below; but perhaps nothing could so efficiently act the part of a lubricant in lessening the friction as interposed water derived
from the thawing of the undersurface of the sheet. Whether supported chiefly by water or by land, (and I think the former supposition much the more probable), we can hardly refuse to believe that glaciers do impart motion, for if they had not the power of making room for themselves on their descent, by squeezing and pushing forward the mass of ice, their channels would become blocked, every hollow would in time be filled, and Parry Mountains, instead of appearing as a noble mountain range, beautiful to the eye, would assume the uninteresting aspect of a huge mound. Probably the ice-plain has attained its maximum thickness under existing climatic conditions, and perhaps an increased snowfall would only cause greater lateral extension.
Those who maintain that there has been a glacial period in the Southern Hemisphere, may picture to themselves the great ice-sheet spreading to these shores, or rather to these latitudes; for if ever there was such a period it must surely have been while yet the shores of New Zealand lay beyond the Campbell and Auckland Islands, else how could those solitary islands be now clothed with a rich and varied flora?
Ross afterwards made the barrier in longitude 160° 27′ W., and latitude 78° 11′ S. He found that its perpendicular cliffs had dwindled down to less than half their height at the foot of Mount Terror, or to about 100 feet. They were seen to diminish gradually to about 80 feet at some 10 miles further to the eastward, but beyond that distance they again rose higher. This fact of their rising again seems to me significant, pointing to a connection with other land to the eastward, or to the north of east, in which direction the face began to trend.
The seas in this high latitude appear to swarm with animal life: whales, seals, and huge penguins are seen in all directions. On Possession Island the penguins actually disputed the rights of the invaders, biting at the legs of the sailors. Innumerable multitudes of those birds covered the ground, and crowded the ledges of the rocks, tier above tier, to the very highest points of the island. Some of the great penguins stood more than half the height of a man, and one was shot that weighed 78lbs. By letting themselves down on their bellies they were able to scuttle along, outstripping a man on the snow.
We can guess by the great beds of guano that generations untold have held undisturbed possession there. Now, however, a fearful danger threatens to thin their ranks in perhaps the near future, for when steam whalers invade their seas, and a ship runs short of coal for the return trip, a few tons of their oily carcases would prove invaluable as fuel. Though the birds themselves may have no commercial value, the large deposit of guano may prove to be of superior quality. Certain bones of other large birds from our southern islands have been exported
in considerable quantities, for the purpose, I am told, of making pipe-stems, but for such a questionable benefit to humanity it seems a shame to kill numbers of unoffending birds.
I do not understand why Ross did not always try to avoid the pack, seeing that going through it involved such loss of time, and so much danger even to his vessels. Their situation at times amongst the rock-like masses of ice, dashing with fearful violence against each other and against the straining ships, was enough to fill the boldest heart with dismay. To ordinary unfortified ships it would have been destruction swift and sudden. For mere exploration or whaling it would surely be always wiser and better to endeavour to skirt the pack, as Ross did on his return journeys. On his second season he went through 1,000 miles of pack, which occupied 56 days, so that when he got through the season was almost over, and after making about 7° more of southing, he deemed it imprudent to remain longer. By then selecting a different route for his return, he got out without having to go through any of the pack, the time occupied in regaining the Antarctic circle from the point of greatest southing being only ten days. One obvious advantage in avoiding the pack when going south would be that, having found the clearest road out, the time required for returning by the same route could be calculated, and so also the time during which it would be safe to remain.
It seems a great pity that when it becomes necessary to go through the pack steam-power could not then be used, in order to shorten, as far as possible, a time of tedious delay and extra risk. It seems so important a matter that I would throw out a crude suggestion, without, however, feeling much confidence in its value. It is that an arrangement might be made so that, on entering the pack and hoisting up the screw-propeller, the steam might still have a certain propelling value, if used on the rocket principle. Two jets of steam, one on each side of the vessel, ought to be well under command, so that either jet could be stopped or reversed at a moment's notice, and in this way they could also be used for steering, in the event of the rudder being carried away—a most serious accident, not uncommon in the pack.
Doubtless, Ross had good reasons for going through the pack, perhaps in connection with the magnetic observations. It is impossible to read the narrative of his voyage without feeling that he must have been eminently fitted for such a command. With his large experience of ice in the Arctic seas—acquired while serving under such experienced commanders as his uncle, Admiral Sir John Ross, and Sir Edward Parry—and his high scientific attainments, he seems to have been also a thorough gentleman, an intrepid sailor, and a conscientious God-fearing man. It is easy to see that he could have accom-
plished ever so much more in the same time, besides running far less risk, if he had had the great advantage of steam-power. Even if he had had smart weatherly vessels, instead of his dull-sailing ones, it would have made a great difference. The expression “wore ships” is of constant occurrence; often he is unable to maintain his ground and is driven to leeward, perhaps with situations of peril. Again and again, when close-hauled, instead of keeping a straight course and passing quickly to windward of a berg, prudence compels him to bear away and lose much ground and valuable time by having to pass it in the “doldrums,” and amongst the loose ice to leeward. It was no small matter to have Dr. (now Sir Joseph) Hooker attached to the expedition; his accounts of the botany of various islands visited are extremely interesting.
In view of the present depression, I can see no way in which we could prudently attempt exploration, except by combining it with steam-whaling. Scotch steam-whalers have won a good name for themselves; but the fishery at home is at present in a bad way, and very few whales have been captured of late. This, then, ought to be a favourable time to arrange to have one or two good moderate-sized steam-whalers brought out. Two would be better than one; for, with the feeling of emulation and mutual support, much better results might be expected from them when amongst ice, either in whaling or exploring work, than from one unsupported vessel. Still, much has been and may be done by one good vessel; and it is worthy of note that the most appalling danger that befell Ross's two ships arose from the fact of there being two in company, as it was occasioned by one of them running into the other. If two captains could be found who by push and industry have got to be owners of the ships they command, they would be the best men to arrange with, our object being to get hold of men who will come to stay. As inducements for them to come out with their ships, it might be necessary to charter them to bring goods and passengers; or it might suffice to offer full freights at current rates. In neither case does it necessarily follow that there would be any expense to the colony before their arrival here. After that they might be paid entirely by results; a moderate bounty, say, for three years, on all bone and oil, could be given at very little real cost to the colony, because the bone and oil bring so much money to the place. Indeed, if their whaling is successful here, they will benefit the place in various ways from the very first. The great point, however, should be to get them to cast in their lot with us as colonists, in the hope that having them here to set an example, and show our people how money is to be made, their ships may form the nucleus of a steam whaling fleet belonging to the colony. To stimulate the captains and crews in the work of exploration, so much might be given for each degree of latitude
that they penetrate to the southward on any meridian beyond the furthest point reached by previous explorers. If it is contemplated to send out a staff of scientific men, such reward would have to be proportionately increased; and it would, of course, be proper to arrange for this from the first, stipulating perhaps that they must, if so required by our Government, consent to allow exploration to take precedence of whaling during three summer months, in any or all of the years during which the bonus is given. Without such stipulation they might object to do exploring work, because if they find that whales are plentiful near our shores it may seem to them that whaling pure and simple would pay better. Whaling need not be quite discontinued during exploration; it might be highly expedient to catch a whale or two in order to eke out coals, for which purpose any of the bones may be used, as they contain a large quantity of inferior oil. Indeed, the capture of a few whales and seals, while causing but little delay, would interest all on board, while the zoologist of the party might then reap his richest harvest. I have a suspicion that the “small fin-backed whale” mentioned by Ross may prove to be the interesting Neobalœna marginata.
The expenses of a cruise to the southward might be further reduced by landing a party of sea-elephant hunters on Macquarie Island, and picking them up with their spoils on the return trip. But unless we are prepared to expend large sums on exploration, and have perhaps naval men and naval discipline, I am strongly of opinion that payment by results, which is the very system to which whalemen are accustomed, would prove to be the most satisfactory plan to all concerned, giving less risk of failure, and of the time of the scientific gentlemen being wasted. Thus, if the chief object during one season is to reach the magnetic pole, let a handsome sum be offered as the reward of success—such sum to be divided in the usual way, so that every sailor on board has a stake in the issue. If they were to get only within a certain distance, but near enough to obtain valuable results, a smaller sum might still be allowed. If they were to succeed in circumnavigating Victoria Land, or in proving its connection with other lands discovered by D'Urville, Ross, Wilkes, and Biscoe, or in finding inhabited land in the Antarctic regions (an interesting possibility), surely no one would grudge them a substantial reward. If they were to find out some practicable way of reaching the surface of the great ice-plain with men and stores, that would open the door to what may turn out to be the most successful method of Antarctic exploration, namely, by means of sledges and dogs. If a list of such definite important objects were to be carefully drawn up, with the assistance perhaps of the President and Council of the Royal Society, or of the Geographical Society, and a certain fair
reward offered for the attainment of each; then, if we have to ask for assistance, it would surely be afforded much more readily if we can show that we have paved or are paving the way, by bringing steam-whalers out here to within a week's steaming of Victoria Land, and that no payment would be made without some corresponding result.
As to the probability of owners of steam-whalers being willing to come to us with their ships, it seems to me that while it would be well worth our while to offer very liberal inducements, if necessary, yet that their prospects here would be so much brighter than at Home, that at the present time very very little encouragement would be needed to induce enterprising men (and we want no other sort) to come and give the place a trial, simply in the hope of permanently bettering their condition. I cannot conceive any better way of getting the steam-whaling industry to take root here than to induce trained men to come and settle amongst us, bringing their whole capital, practical experience, and ships ready equipped for work. Their success here might probably lead others of the same calling to come to us, also with their ships, unless the northern fishery greatly improves.
I do not know that any of the steam whale-ships are owned altogether by their captains; but I believe it is common for the captain to own a considerable share of his vessel. In a matter of such importance, it might be well in such a case for our Government to buy up, in the first instance, part or all of the remaining shares, with the view of after-disposal to some commercial firm in the colony. The vessels that sail from Peterhead average, I believe, at least 500 tons. A vessel that size would probably lower six boats and carry a complement of about fifty men, all told. The value of a good vessel of this class is considerable, but I have been unable to procure exact information on this point. I think the price of “black” oil is about £20 per ton; but the accounts I have received differ. In the way of granting bounties, England has spent millions of money on her whale fisheries; but I gather from Mr. McCulloch's “Commercial Dictionary” that she never took a wiser step for their encouragement than when she was at the pains to induce fishers from Holland to come and settle amongst her people, bringing with them their capital, industry, and skill. “In consequence of this signal encouragement,” he writes, “the whale fishery of England was prosecuted with greater success than at any previous period.”
It seems a reproach to us that, while American whalers have year after year carried away so much wealth from our very doors, we have done so little yet in the way of whaling, although our situation is so superior to theirs. I have conversed with a very intelligent sailor who has served on board a
steam-whaler in the northern seas; and he is convinced that, if a pushing man were to bring a steam-whaler to these waters, he could have no surer road to a fortune. Not only has the northern fishery been unsuccessful of late, but in consequence of that, and of new uses being found for baleen, the value of that article has risen to the extraordinary price of £1,500 per ton. The baleen from our southern “right whale,” commonly known as the black whale, is not so valuable as that from the northern animal; but the difference in value is not great, and, as far as I can learn, it is not owing to the quality being inferior, but only to the average length being less. It has been said that we have two right whales, but I have not heard whalers speak of more than one; and I think Dr. Hector has come to the conclusion that we have but one, the Eubalœna australis. The animal closely resembles the right whale of the North; its capture is more easy than that of the sperm whale, and there seems no reason to suppose that men accustomed to the northern fishery, coming with their ordinary equipments, would find the southern fish less easy of capture than the northern one. Indeed, they would probably be more thoroughly in their element in dealing with our black whale than some southern whalers are who have given their attention almost exclusively to the sperm whale. Mention is often made by Ross, when in the seas to the southward of New Zealand, of numerous whales and seals being in sight. On the way south from Campbell Island, in latitude 63° S., he says, “A great many whales were seen in the afternoon.” At 7.20 p.m. the first icebergs were seen; and, next day, he says, “A great many whales were seen, chiefly of the common black kind, greatly resembling but said to be distinct from the Greenland whale. Sperm as well as hunchbacked whales were also observed. Of the common black species we might have killed any number we pleased; they appeared chiefly to be of unusually large size, and would doubtless yield a great quantity of oil, and were so tame that our ships sailing close past did not seem to disturb them.”
Again, when much further to the eastward, in about lat. 63° S., he says: “We observed a very great number of the largestsized black whales, so tame that they allowed the ships sometimes almost to touch them before they would get out of the way; so that any number of ships might procure a cargo of oil in a short time.” It is to be observed that in both these cases the whales were seen directly on making the ice, and in the same latitude. On Ross's other trip ice was met with sooner, in lat. 58° 30′ S.; but from there to lat. 63° 47′ mention is several times made of numerous whales being seen. Since that time the sperm whale has been chiefly sought after; but now that the value of sperm has fallen, while that of baleen has greatly increased, the black whale will doubtless be more in
request. The average yield of oil from our black whale is about 7 tons, and of baleen about 7 cwt., so that the value of the baleen from each whale would be about £500 sterling.
The advantages of steam-power for either whaling or exploring are so many that it would be tedious to enumerate them; but many of them are obvious. Good smart men will naturally ship in a steam-whaler in preference to another, because there is such constant life and stir; while in the ordinary South Sea whaler there is so much idle time that men are apt to fall into lazy habits. I may mention here one consideration in favour of our undertaking exploration in only some such economical way as that I am advocating. Were an expensive expedition to start now they would go out in utter ignorance of the present state of the ice. Now, we know that the position of the Antarctic pack varies in different years to a surprising extent. As an instance of this, Ross penetrated the pack for about 800 miles in about the 156th meridian of West longitude, and then found himself only about half a degree beyond Cook, who had found open water there. From this it seems not improbable that a succession of severe seasons may bring about conditions so unfavourable to exploration that any attempt would be likely to end in failure, if not in disaster; while several mild seasons in succession might open a road and make success comparatively easy. Steam-whalers belonging to the Colony might work the grounds near home during the colder months; but it would be short-sighted policy to work these grounds all the year round if the black whale abounds in higher latitudes.
If found necessary, some special encouragement might be held out to induce the men to push to the southward during the summer months in quest of the black whale, and from their reports on the state of the ice some judgment might be formed as to whether the time were favourable for exploration and for a scientific staff to go out. A yearly reconnaissance of the ice to the southward might prove very valuable to the farmers of Southland, encouraging them to lay down a good breadth of land in wheat when the ice was at a distance, and warning them to be content with chiefly the hardier sorts of grain when the ice had made any considerable approach to us.
Any scientific staff ought to be accompanied, if possible, by a really good photographer, for good photographs from the weird Antarctic regions would possess an interest for the civilized world. After some experience gained of the ice to the southward, an excursion trip might be attractive to many, and, if advertised beforehand in Europe and America, it seems not unlikely that scientific men there would eagerly embrace such an opportunity of studying glacial phenomena.
If such a field as we possess to the southward for the display
of spirited maritime enterprise had lain as near to Great Britain, we may feel assured that hardy mariners of England and sturdy Dutch navigators would have pushed their way to it hundreds of years ago, even in their small, badly-provisioned ships, destitute of steam-power and of many modern appliances. Verily, it would seem that, though their ships were more frail than ours, their hearts at least were not less stout. Daring spirits, however, are still to be found, many of whom now look with longing eyes towards those mysterious unknown regions, and daring deeds will doubtless yet be chronicled by future historians in connection with Antarctic discovery; but unless we bestir ourselves, and that quickly, it is to be feared that our descendants in New Zealand will not find it recorded that their ancestors took any part in the work; but, on the contrary, that though nearest of civilized peoples to the unexplored ice-continent, and seeming to aim at being the “Great Britain of the South,” they yet remained apathetically in the background and allowed others from a distance to come and do the work, and reap the honour that might have been theirs.
Putting together the facts here stated, I am led to the conclusion that the very first step towards economic Antarctic exploration is, on independent grounds, a highly important step, which it is very desirable to take; that the present time for doing so is opportune; and that, while the expense may prove to be quite trifling, we may yet expect it to lead to the establishment of a hardy and lucrative industry, the importance of which one can scarcely over-estimate. Any additional industry is important, and is a safeguard against times of depression in the future; but the importance of this particular industry being successfully established seems really paramount: for, besides being a source of wealth to the Colony, and besides making the great work of Antarctic exploration a matter within our reach, what better nursery could we have for a race of hardy seamen, on whom our children's children may yet have to rely to fight their battles by sea?
Thus I have sketched the only way, as far as I can see, by which we might manage Antarctic exploration ourselves. If, however, it is decided to send out a thoroughly equipped expedition on the grand scale, for scientific purposes only, then in order to have the best possible guarantee that the work will be done wisely and well, I trust that the Mother Country may be induced to undertake the whole management, selecting trained Arctic explorers, and accepting of assistance from the various Australasian Colonies in the shape of money, and by our provisioning the ships. England might, however, give a more willing and hearty assent if we had even one steam-whaler here, a fit vessel to despatch in quest of the others in case of any untoward event preventing their return.