The men managed to retrieve five live eggs, keeping them inside their mittens for warmth. Two broke on the journey back to the base camp, but Wilson managed to cut open and remove the embryos from two of the remaining three eggs, which he pickled and eventually delivered to the Natural History Museum in London. Sliced and mounted onto slides, the embryos remained unexamined until 1934. By then, the evolutionary theory that inspired the expedition had been rejected.
Three years after Wilson’s harrowing winter trek, in August 1914, Ernest Shackleton led his second expedition to the Antarctic ice. The Endurance left the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island on December 5, 1914, and within two days, Frank Worsley, the ship’s master from New Zealand, was steering through sea ice. Worsley had enthusiastically signed up for his first voyage into the Southern Ocean. He was an experienced navigator and a meticulous man by nature, and his charts, logs, and diaries ultimately survived as the only written records of the expedition, providing the raw material for both his and Shackleton’s later accounts.
On January 10, 1915, Worsley sighted part of the Antarctic continent called Coats Land. The water was “turgid with diatoms,” and the nearby sea ice was crowded with an assortment of crabeater seals, seabirds, and Adélie and emperor penguins. This was a polynya, an area of open water, that formed and re-formed annually along the Weddell Sea coast as a result of strong katabatic winds.
As the ship steamed along the ice cliffs of the sea, the men on board spotted a group of 40 emperor-penguin fledglings and captured 11 as food or biological specimens. When they set three or four free, Worsley wrote, “the departing birds turned round, gave us a little bow, and then hopped over the rail onto the ice, where they again bowed and walked off. It was so extraordinarily human as to be almost uncanny.”
By the week’s end, the vessel was caught fast in sea ice and drifting away from the coast. These were midsummer months, but the temperature fell to –50 degrees Celsius (–58 Fahrenheit), and the sea ice eventually froze into a solid mass around the ship. The Endurance drifted in the pack for more than nine months. On November 21, 1915, it was finally crushed. An attempt to sledge to land failed, and Shackleton decided that the drifting ice floe christened Patience Camp would be their best chance of reaching safety.
For the next five months, the men experienced all that a drifting ice floe can offer: cracks suddenly opening up beneath their tents, leopard seals lying in wait for a meal of penguin at the edge of the floe, a shortage of fresh water while all around lay a vast desert of sea ice too salty to drink. But in spite of all the dangers in those liminal spaces between ice and water, penguins proved to be their most cherished companions. Then, as winter closed in and the last remaining penguins and seals disappeared, the men were left with the loneliness of the sea ice. “Our craving,” wrote Worsley, “to see some living, breathing creature, any creature at all, may be imagined when I say that we missed them as though they had been our personal friends.”