You might expect that most sounds you heard in the Antarctic would be those that you'd brought with you, perhaps augmented by the that of nearly continuous winds. When British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew made their ill-fated expedition there in 1914, they heard a variety of sounds. Even natural ones took on completely unnatural significance. Caroline Alexander tells the tale in her excellent book, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition.

After struggling for several weeks among the constantly-shifting ice pack of the Weddell Sea, following openings that would appear, close, reopen, shift direction and then close again, the ship was finally caught fast, a few miles short of the continent, on January 18th, 1915. From that point on the ice's movement determined the direction of travel, carrying the Endurance away from her goal until finally, nine months later, in October, it became obvious to everyone that the vessel's end was near. Shackleton gave orders to abandon ship; men and dogs moved off and settled into a camp nearby. Like relatives gathered around a terminal patient, all waited for the moment of death. Diaries report the sounds of the end.

The ship's captain Frank Worsley describes the sound of wind shrieking through the rigging, "...I couldn't help thinking that it was making just the sort of sound that you would expect a human being to utter if he were in fear of being murdered." When the wind would momentarily subside, the ice could be heard grinding against the Endurance's sides. The continuous sound reminded physicist R. W. James of the sound of London traffic you would hear sitting in a quiet park.

The Celts describe how a banshee, or domestic spirit, will wail at the moment of a death in the family, and the Endurance had more than one. On the evening of October 26th, as the ice began warping the deck of the sharply tilted wooden ship, twisting it from side to side, eight emperor penguins, an unusually large number to travel together, approached the ship in solemn procession. Author Alexander describes the action of the birds. "Intently regarding the ship for some moments, they threw back their heads and emitted an eerie, soulful cry."

The Endurance exhibit at New York's Museum of Natural History has film footage of the masts toppling in on the deck. The planking of the hull was forced apart and water entered faster than it could be pumped. Expedition photographer Frank Hurley took, "one last look around their old quarters...already a foot deep in water. The sound of beams splintering in the darkness was alarming...of all the sights and sounds, it was the clock still ticking comfortably in the cozy wardroom as the water rose that most unnerved him."

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte