Season 4 Episode 3 | Into the Dark Antarctic Night

Hear about the harrowing story of the Belgica: an early polar expedition gone terribly wrong.

Season 4 Episode 3 | Into the Dark Antarctic Night

Hear about the harrowing story of the Belgica: an early polar expedition gone terribly wrong.

Season 4 Episode 3: Into the Dark Antarctic Night

In episode three, Alok Jha chats to journalist and author Julian Sancton about the harrowing and epic survival story of The Belgica, an early polar expedition gone terribly wrong with a ship frozen in ice and its crew trapped inside for months of endless polar night.

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Season 4 Episode 3: Transcript Into the Dark Antarctic Night

Alok Jha; Let me take you on a journey. To the coldest place on earth, and its last and greatest wilderness. On a voyage to Antarctica…

Hello and welcome back to A Voyage to Antarctica, brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I’m Alok Jha. 

Today, I’ll be talking to journalist and author Julian Sancton about the harrowing survival story of the Belgica; an early polar expedition that went terribly wrong – the story involves a ship frozen in ice and its crew trapped inside for months of endless polar night. 

Julian is an editor at The Hollywood Reporter. His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, and Playboy, amongst others. He has reported from every continent, including Antarctica, which he visited while researching Madhouse at the End of the Earth – his gripping book about the Belgica

A graduate of Harvard College, where he majored in History, Julian lives in Larchmont, New York, with his partner, Jessica, and their two daughters.

 Alok Jha: So Julian, how did you get interested in Antarctica, and specifically the Belgica expedition?

Julian Sancton: Like many people, I had what I call a pub quiz knowledge of polar exploration, which means that I knew about Shackleton. I knew about Robert Falcon Scott, and I knew about Amundsen. But beyond that, I didn't know all that much.

I wasn't a polar nut or anything, but I was quite interested in stories of exploration, of adventure. I'm an avid fan of nonfiction, and I'd been looking to find a topic for a book for a long time, but I couldn't quite find a subject that had been unexplored to the point where I could contribute something to it. 

One day, about eight years ago, I was reading a copy of the New Yorker magazine, and it was an article that promised to be pretty fascinating about NASA's preparations for deep space missions and extended missions to Mars, and how to prepare for such missions when it would be the first time for anybody to go that far.

And there was no previous analog. The article began in classic New Yorker fashion by backing into the story, by telling a story that happened 120 years ago, it began with the story of the Belgica, which I had never heard of. As you say, it's not the most famous polar expedition, but in those first few paragraphs, I was absolutely hooked.

Alok Jha: Put the mission into context for us. So when did it happen and why was Belgium a country that wanted to have an expedition to the Antarctic? Again, bearing in mind the missions we've talked about, Scott and Amundsen and all these other ones that people perhaps know of in the ‘golden age’ of Antarctic exploration were in the first few decades of the 20th century. So when was the Belgica expedition? 

Julian Sancton: Well, the Belgica arguably kicked off this heroic age that you mentioned. It left from Antwerp this three-masted runt of a whaler, in 1897. At that point, this was well before Scott and well before Shackleton, there was the geographic societies of Western Europe and of North America. Determined that the utmost priority for human exploration was the southernmost continent.

There was a race, among the great maritime powers, be it England or the Netherlands or Germany to reach the South Pole and to see which country could organize the first successful expedition. As time went on, no expedition was put together until a plucky young naval lieutenant named Adriaen de Gerlache, decided that why not him?

Why not Belgium? Belgium was a relatively new country. There are plenty of reasons why not Belgium. It didn't have much of a maritime tradition to speak of. It had only 60 kilometers of coastline. And yet De Gerlache himself was an experienced sailor and was fascinated by the extremes of the earth and decided to mount one himself.

He had actually wanted to take part in one, but had been rejected by everybody. So he ended up putting together an expedition that under the auspices of a scientific mission – the justification was to be the first to document the flora, fauna, geology, magnetism of the Antarctic peninsula, and eventually to reach the South Magnetic Pole, which was on the other side of Antarctica towards Victorialand. At least that's where it was suspected to be back then.

And so he put together a ragtag crew consisting of, uh, what few Belgian sailors he could scramble together and supplemented the ranks with Norwegian sailors, Eastern European scientists, and was about to leave Antwerp without a doctor because one after the other had quit for one reason or another. It was by great fortune, one of his few great hiring decisions was to hire Frederick Cook, who was the only experienced polar explorer aboard the Belgica.

Alok Jha: So before we talk about the expedition itself, just tell me a bit more about these three main characters that sort of led the expedition. So De Gerlache, you've mentioned  And then also the other two main ones, the – Frederick Cook and of course, Roald Amundsen, who'd later become famous. Who were these characters and what made them get together?  

Julian Sancton: It would be best to begin with Adriaen de Gerlach because the expedition really started with him. He was of aristocratic background. His father and grandfather were both military men, yet his great aspiration was to become a sailor. To the disappointment of his father who saw this as beneath him, the idea of his son scrubbing decks and being a deckhand on  transatlantic steamers did not seem to be the future that he had in mind for his son.

And yet that idea of Sailing off to the horizons and living up to the great heroes he read about in his narratives of seagoing adventure never abandoned him. This notion stuck with him and he ended up becoming a naval lieutenant and actually rising quite high in what passed for Belgium's Navy, which was a bare bones organization.

The only thing that the Belgian Navy was really responsible for was a ferry service between Belgium and Dover. He met the king and the king was impressed with him and would later offer de Gerlache as one of the great hopes of the bare bones Belgian Navy to help him chart the river system in the Congo, which was the king's colonial project.

De Gerlache was not so tempted by that. He said he was not a freshwater sailor. He was really tempted by the colder horizons of the poles. And so He decided to rebuff the King's request and mount his own expedition to Antarctica. Because he had rebuffed the King's request, he did not have any help. He had to figure out how to raise the money just by a campaign of reaching out to the wealthiest people in Belgium and eventually raised some money that way, but then mounted a national subscription thanks to the Royal Belgian Geographic Society and ended up scrounging together a very, very modest budget.To mount the first scientific expedition to Antarctica. 

One of De Gerlache's few great hiring decisions was to tap a young 26 year old Norwegian sailor named Roald Amundsen to be his first mate. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in ambition and in aptitude. Amundsen was a giant of a man, a modern day Viking, 200 pounds, 6'2 and clearly had been dreaming of polar exploration ever since reading about Friedhoff Nansen's crossing of Greenland and his Arctic expedition where he let his ship be encased in the ice and drifted quite close to the North Pole.

And these stories proved an inspiration to Amundsen. From a very young age, he dreamed of being a great polar explorer and tried to prepare himself for this by, for example, sleeping with the window open in his native Oslo to inure himself to the cold or trying to cross the great harrowing plateau north of Oslo with his brother because it was very similar to the polar environments he dreamed of exploring.

And came very close to death a few times. 

Alok Jha: I'd say that was a crazy thing to do, but it clearly worked. 

Julian Sancton: It clearly did. I mean, he was encased in a sarcophagus of ice when he fell asleep and it was entombed in snow and was saved by his brother in the nick of time. He was almost masochistic in his pursuit of, uh, polar glory.

He felt that the more he suffered, the more he was gaining, the more he learned, the closer he was getting to his goal. 

Frederick Cook, he had been the surgeon with, uh, Robert Peary's 1890 to 1891 expedition to the northernmost regions of Greenland to determine the insularity of Greenland. He had gone back several times.

He was fascinated, not just by the environment and by the grueling nature of exploration and by going to the extremes of the earth, but also in particular by ways of being, the folkways and the traditions of the Inuit people. He considered himself not just an explorer, but also an anthropologist at a time where anthropology was still a nascent discipline.

He was fascinated by these civilizations and quickly came to the conclusion that the Inuit had a much better understanding of these glacial environments and that western explorers would do well to emulate those styles of dress, of travel, of diet. As the  1890s went on, he wanted to mount his own expedition to Antarctica, in which he would apply a lot of these lessons that he learned from the Inuit.

And he struggled, as Desjardins did, to raise the budget, never actually succeeded, even though he almost got Carnegie to bankroll the whole thing, but then Carnegie backed out at the last second. So he realized that his dreams of being a polar explorer were quickly dissipating. And when he saw that De Gerlache was mounting his own expedition, he sent a telegram to the Belgian commander and offered his services.

And at first they were ignored, but he eventually responded to Frederick Cook and said, uh, meet us in Rio, which is where the good doctor reunited with the expedition and met his future shipmates. 

Alok Jha: Something to pick up on there. You were saying that Frederick Crook was looking at how the Inuit people survived in cold weather, and thrived even. Was it something that just wasn't on the radar of people trying to explore the poles? It seems in hindsight to be quite obvious to talk to the people who actually know how to live in those places.

Julian Sancton: It does, doesn't it? When you read the history of Arctic exploration, most notably with the Franklin Expedition, these lessons just were never learned. It was out of, you know, Eurocentric arrogance, uh, probably out of some form of racism. 

Alok Jha: They knew best or something. 

Julian Sancton: Yeah, that they knew best and that, that European civilization was best prepared for this and with the most technologically advanced and that we should, there are no lessons to be learned from quote unquote savages.

Or primitive civilizations, and this arrogance was a form of hubris, obviously, and led to the death of many explorers. There's stories of the 130 or so men of the Franklin Expedition dying of starvation, disease, and despair. And meanwhile, you've got, uh, Inuit people coming by and offering to help, and just being able to traverse these environments with little difficulty and it's, there's no better illustration of the arrogance of those explorers.

Alok Jha: Just remember us when the Franklin Expedition was, just for context, 

Julian Sancton: his would've been in the 1840s, uh, I think it lasted a few years. They were caught in the Canadian Arctic Terror and the Erebus led by John Franklin of the Royal Navy. Two ships were caught in the ice, the Terror in the Erebus, and were.

Eventually, uh, crushed by the pressures and, and sank and leaving the men stranded in this environment. And they're believed to have been no survivors. So these stories like this, and of the Jeanette, which, uh, suffered a similar fate in the Bering Strait, loomed large in the minds of the men of the Belgica, which is why it was absolutely clear to all of them involved that there was no desire to winter in the Antarctic ice because they would be even less of a chance of survival in a continent so far away. I mean, actually, not a continent in the regions so far from human civilization where there were not known to be any native inhabitants at all.

So the Belgica had made such a slow progress by the time the Antarctic winter ice began setting in, in February, March, 1898, that De Gerlache feared that he would have nothing, he wasn't nowhere close to his goal of reaching the South Magnetic Pole, which was one that had electrified the Belgian public back home and that everybody was counting on and had not reached a southernmost record.

And so he decided that he would have to have some story to tell. And when there was a very violent storm at the edge of the pack ice, he decided to seek refuge in the pack by following a lead. Into between two massive pans of ice, and he went much further than he needed to to avoid the storm and decided to go as far as he could south, knowing very well what would happen, which was that the ship would become encased in ice.

He felt like this would. Give the Belgica and the men of the Belgica something to tell, a story to tell, and give them, most importantly, one of the great firsts of polar exploration, which is that they became the first men to winter and to suffer the cruelties of an Antarctic winter. 

Alok Jha: At the same time, that particular story of sailing into the pack ice unnecessarily far tells you a lot about the sort of mindsets of people who wanted to explore these places, which are terrifying and unknown.

They're concerned that their legacies are not good, I suppose, and so therefore they'll push themselves to kind of extreme situations and it kind of also then explains why so many of them didn't come back because they wanted to be the first at something. They wanted something in the history books, I guess

Julian Sancton: No, but it's true because you mentioned the idea that people were hungry for these harrowing stories and You know, there's one little footnote, which is that James Clark Ross, it was an expedition in the early 1840s, was quite successful, and there was not much suffering. I mean, of course, it was not a cakewalk, but the men returned after a successful expedition to Antarctica, having discovered and staked out Victoria land.

It didn't get that much attention back home. And The Gazette, I guess, was the newspaper of the Admiralty or the publication of the Admiralty. Ross was told by somebody at the Admiralty that they wanted to hear more about bloodshed and that these were the things that would capture the public imagination and bloodshed and suffering and death and that there was not enough of it in his expedition.

And so that's why it didn't become quite as notorious as the other expeditions. 


Alok Jha: Well, let's talk about the itinerary then, just to show that people get a sense of where this expedition went and where it picked up its passengers and what happened. Just give us a brief expedition map.

Julian Sancton: In August 1897, the Belgica left from Antwerp and after a quick false start, after an engine malfunction, it left again and reached at first the island of Madeira and had a brief idle there drinking wine and eating good food and eventually, after that stopover, went straight to Rio de Janeiro and crossed the equator on its way.

And that was a first for many, and they endured the traditional line crossing ceremony and the tribute to Neptune. That was a form of ritual humiliation and hazing for a lot of the men. And in Rio, they met up with Dr. Cook. And were greatly feted by the geographical societies of Brazil, still full of hope and optimism.

From there, they went to Montevideo, and Montevideo, you started seeing signs, worrisome signs of a breakdown in discipline. Then, from there, down the coast of Argentina, and across the Magellan Strait to Punta Arenas, Chile, where the mutiny  took place and where several of the men were kicked off.

By this point, the expedition no longer had a cook, which would become a great source of frustration and actually become quite a dangerous development later on in Antarctica. 

Alok Jha: Tell us about the mutiny. Why did that happen? What was going on there? 

Julian Sancton: Part of it is because De Gerlache was so concerned with the reaction of the press back home in Belgium, and particularly with the fact that the press had started raising doubts over the patriotic nature of the expedition because there were so many non Belgians aboard. As I mentioned, there was not a thriving maritime tradition in Belgium, and so De Gerlache replenished  the ranks with Norwegian sailors, and I guess Only about half of the people on board were Belgian, and none of the scientists were Belgian. And then you had Dr. Cook to boot, which threw off the balance even further.

So, there's a roundabout way of saying that De Gerlache was very concerned with the balance of nationalities, and the Belgian sailors knew this and realized that this gave them some kind of cover, that they could act rowdy and take as much time on shore drinking and carousing as they wanted, because they couldn't be kicked off the ship, because he was so afraid of people saying that the Belgian expedition was not actually all that Belgian.

Alok Jha: So they had him over a barrel, basically. 

Julian Sancton: They had him exactly. They had him over a barrel. They started, uh, actually blackmailing him and shaking him down for money and an extra shore leave that led to a total breakdown that only grew the more the men saw that they could run all over him. Eventually,  LeQuant and Amundsen, who were much better at handling other men and much sterner and more authoritative disciplinarians, ended up quashing the budding mutiny.

Guns were brandished and nobody was killed, but it was still quite a frightful situation. Eventually, held the situation down until the Chilean Navy came and frogmarched three of the men off the ship. Another foreboding sign was a few weeks later, the Belgica ran aground in the Beagle Channel on its way to Ushuaia, and the expedition almost ended before it started.

The ship keeled over when the tide went out, and it was only through the help of native Patagonians. And the great efforts of a local farmer that the ship was brought back afloat. All these signs would not augur well for the first scientific expedition to Antarctica.

Alok Jha: Okay, so they've had these problems getting to Ushuaia, they've been helped out by the locals there. They eventually reach Antarctica and as the title of your book suggests, things don't go well. Things have already gone wrong, so how much worse do they get once they reach the ice? Do they even reach the ice and get on there and answer any of the grand scientific questions they've got?

Julian Sancton: During the month or so, let's say, that they were on the Antarctic Peninsula, the scientists, Emil Rakovitsa, Antoni Dobrovolski, and Henryk Artkowski, did tremendous scientific work. They were young, but they were really towering scientists, as their later lives would prove. But that was just about a month-long, and the expedition's goals were to reach Victoria Land on the other side of the continent.

Not that it was known that it was a continent yet. That was one of the great mysteries at the time because of the delays that do in part to the mutiny and to the  other incidents that pushed back the arrival date.  The pack ice was growing and the likelihood of reaching Victoria Land before it was blocked off by a skirt of ice was diminishing by the day.

And so in the Bellingshausen Sea, de Gerlache decided that he would go for a southernmost record in that region rather than try to reach the South Magnetic Pole on the other side of the planet. In pursuing this record, he let the ship be encased in the ice, which is something that he expected would happen, but that he had assured everybody else on board early on he would never seek to do, which was to winter in the ice.

And so this was seen as the first great betrayal. And, uh, in retrospect, sure, I would not have had a book to write. If he had not done that, but it was an extreme decision and quite a questionable one to put his men in harm's way in that fashion, as would be confirmed by what would happen to the expedition as winter set in depression set in.

Gloom, despair, physical and mental breakdown, after several months, a wave of scurvy set in  that would bring the men to death's door, and in one case, kill De Guerlache's closest friend, Miltanko. It was a questionable decision to say the least. 

Alok Jha: Your book sort of tells the story of that time. Can you paint a brief picture of what it might have been like for the people on the expedition to live through the Antarctic night?

You know, the Antarctic night, for anyone who isn't familiar, it's unending. It's for many, many months of the year. There's no sunlight whatsoever. The scientists or whoever else have to live there over the winter, they struggle today with it. So the idea of being there with, you know, a century old equipment as well, and not knowing when you're going to get out, having no communications with the outside world is intense.

Julian Sancton: Especially knowing that you were the first to experience this. And nobody even knew whether such an experience was survivable. 

Their Antarctic night, because they were slightly below the Antarctic circle, their Antarctic night would last about 80 days. There was maybe at best a slight gloaming around noon, but the sun would never break the horizon.The endless darkness had a devastating effect on the men's well being. 

Alok Jha; How much artificial light did they have? I mean, at the time they wouldn't have had electrical lights, I'm assuming, but 

Julian Sancton: No electricity. They would have had. They would have had the fires in the furnaces, and they would have candlelight, but that's about it.

But since you mentioned light, Cook noticed that the men's bodies were breaking down, and he attributed it to the lack of light, in part. He saw their, their heartbeats would either race for no reason or dropped down to an alarming level for no reason. And he said, it's without the sun, the body is like an engine without a governor.

He had this intuition  that the sun and that sunlight were key to human welfare. And these are things that he was far ahead of his time. We are only starting to realize the extent to which that's true. Now that humans have almost plant like qualities in that sense. Our bodies can trap photons in the same way that chlorophyll can.

Of course, he didn't know the complexities of that, but his intuition was right. And so he decided that since he couldn't bring the Belgica to the sun because it was trapped in ice, he did his best to bring the sun to the Belgica, in a manner of speaking. by making the men stand naked in front of a blazing fire in the hopes that the light and warmth would replenish what had been taken away from them by the lack of sunlight.

This is the first known case of what we call phototherapy today, which you use very bright lights to treat seasonal affective disorder, for example, and other light related form of depression. 

Alok Jha: Do we know if it worked? Do we know if it sort of stopped any episodes of bad behavior or illness or anything like that?

Julian Sancton: Well, we know it works today. Do we know if it worked then? The men certainly thought it did. This could be the placebo effect and just the sense of being taken care of, maybe the raw magnetism of Cook. In having a routine, in doing something about your own fate, having some sense of agency and some sense of hope, the light that would have been emitted by those fires would not have included the kind of ultraviolet waves that are known to have a beneficial effect today.

Alok Jha: So Cook was clearly an important figure then in keeping the men sane and, you know, at least trying to keep them healthy. But what about Amundsen? What was he up to during this sort of time of mutiny and darkness? 

Julian Sancton: He saw the Belgica expedition as a kind of apprenticeship, and so he was constantly going out on little expeditions within the expedition. He would ski across the pack ice as far as he could to various icebergs that had been trapped in the ice or he spent a lot of time just taking notice of his symptoms and writing everything down for posterity and also to draw lessons for his own future expeditions that he was planning.

As everybody else was suffering though, he was thriving. Everybody was complaining about the food and the similarity of it and the tastelessness of it, the insipid nature of the food. He didn't mind at all. You know, the more he was suffering, the more he felt he was getting out of it. Everybody was missing the company of women, uh, never once in his diaries is there any mention of this.

He doesn't seem to care. The most important thing I think that he got out of it was the friendship with Cook. He was fascinated by Cook's descriptions of the Arctic and of Cook's just general  sense of pragmatism and of his great intuition and of his abilities as a polar explorer. So there was a kind of a master apprentice relationship between Cook and Amundsen that would draw them close and seal them in friendship that would last for the rest of their lives.

There was one situation that sort of illustrates the natural leadership of Amundsen. At one point at the beginning of the long night, a flashing blue light appeared on the horizon. And this was terrifying to many of the men, but also could have been a source of hope if ever there had been native Antarcticans.

So who did they ask to go meet these possible Antarcticans? They asked Amundsen, who was the strongest, bravest, and most physically fit and intimidating man aboard. And so he skied out as everybody was watching and found that the blue light was, in fact, bioluminescent algae that was bobbing up and down in the water.


And so, uh, there goes all the hope of being rescued by Antarctic natives. I think the story very well illustrates the natural charisma and leadership skills of Amundsen.  


Camilla Nichol: Hello, I'm Camilla Nichol, CEO of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. 

As a charity, we work to preserve and protect Antarctica's unique heritage, from the wreck of Shackleton’s Endurance and historic huts of early pioneers, to the amazing discoveries in climate science. Our mission is to inspire more people to discover, value and protect this precious wilderness.

If you enjoy what you hear today, please do support us. Share this podcast with others and visit our website to make a donation. You can play a part in Antarctica’s future by making a gift towards the conservation efforts. Visit [spell out U-K-A-H-T], or search UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Thank you - enjoy the rest of the show.

Alok Jha: In writing about this, you said There was a lot of documentation. Why do you think that this story, which sounds harrowing and should be up there along with the stories of Shackleton and Scott and others who faced such hardship down south, well, why is this expedition sort of consigned to just the academic sort of records there rather than books like yours?

Julian Sancton: I think the, there's very simplistic answer is that the record was  in so many different languages. It took a lot of time for me to get all of these translated, and French is my mother tongue. So that allowed me to read through all these archives, and I'm not the only bilingual historian out there, so that can't be the only explanation.

But of course, there was also records left in German, in Polish, in Norwegian, and in Flemish, which is Dutch. I think that was one major obstacle. And otherwise, I just think that the polar traditions, or certainly the knowledge of and pride taken in polar expeditions, was much greater in, let's say, the United Kingdom than it was elsewhere.

And I think that that sort of fed into an Anglo Saxon tradition, where schoolchildren would learn about these expeditions, and it would just become much more part of general knowledge. And over the course of the century, the memory of the Belgica kind of faded away. Particularly, I think that people remember Shackleton because of his incredible survival story in the Endurance Expedition.

And it's taught in business schools now as an example of great leadership. And he didn't lose a man and it was, it was just such a transfixing story. We remember Scott and Amundsen because of the dramatic nature of the race to the South Pole in 1911 and 12. And these are easy things to wrap your mind around, whereas the Belgica, it was a much more complex set of characters, they were flawed men, there wasn't a great quote-unquote first.

Wintering in the Antarctic I consider a great first, but it still did not quite have the headline quality of these other expeditions, and yet I find it to be much more narratively satisfying, I would say. 

Alok Jha: You actually visited Antarctica as well as part of your research in this book, right? I mean, that must have been an incredible experience. 

Julian Sancton: I went down in December of 2018, so it was the beginning of the Austral summer. When I mentioned to a friend of mine, an editor friend, a mentor of mine, that I was going to Antarctica, he says, well, this is not a first person book. This is a, why don't you just rely on the diaries? And he just suspected that I might be trying to justify and write off the cost of a bucket list trip to Antarctica.

He was partly right, but I also felt that I needed to go there myself to be able to render this environment, which was so crucial to the men, and so such a crucial part of the story, in as vivid detail as possible to capture the sights, sounds, and even smells. of this environment, which is such a central part of this story.

Alok Jha: How did it feel seeing that for the first time when you've read all this stuff about it and the danger and the horror that you know about? 

Julian Sancton: I knew that the horror took place in the Bellingshausen sea when they were trapped in the ice. And I was very happy to rely on the diaries to capture that. I was not in a rush to be encased in ice myself.

My impression, to tell you the truth, when we were cruising down the Gerlache Strait was one of having been there before. It was very odd, as dreamlike as it was, Frederick Cook had taken so many photos of those very shores, and I recognized some of these features of the landscape just from those photographs.

Of course, they didn't capture the vivid color that can emanate from icebergs and the sort of undertones of a wide spectrum of blues that the ice can emit and it didn't capture the squawking of the penguins or the stench of penguin rookeries. It was shocking to me and surprising and beautiful to recognize features of the landscape. 

It was almost as if nothing had changed. And of course, as I was quickly made clear to me by the scientific personnel aboard the ship I was on, things have been changing at an alarming rate. Even if it's not visible to the human eye, the level of salinity of the water is greatly dropping because of the ice melt from the glaciers. And with that, comes a shift in the entire ecosystem.

Alok Jha: Now there are some linkages between the expedition you've written about and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust too. I mean, the Belgica and the sites of Port Lockeray, for example, and Damoy, which the UKAHT maintains. And so Weincke Island, the home of Damoy, was named after one of the crew who died on the expedition. Did you visit any of these places at all?

Julian Sancton:  I did. Yeah. Weincke Island is named after the man who was washed overboard , Carl August Weincke. I visited also – at Port Lockroy there's a wonderful exhibit there, sort of a time capsule. And I believe it's also the, what is it, the southernmost host office in the world?

Alok Jha: Did you post anything? 

Julian Sancton: I did. And it arrived about eight months later,  but it did get there. it was a wonderful experience there. And I still have a few magnets on my fridge to commemorate it.

Alok Jha: That's fantastic. I mean, your book is an example of the fact that whenever we hear about the stories of exploration gone wrong. They seem to capture so much more attention than the ones that go right. I guess that's just the nature of human interest in storytelling, I suppose. And I wonder why that is, but also in the end, I think you conclude in your book that the expedition, the Belgica expedition, wasn't actually a failure.It left quite a good legacy. So just talk me through that. Firstly, why are we interested in these terrible stories, but also what you think the legacy of the Belgica is? 

Julian Sancton: Well, we learn by trial and error, and if there's no error, we don't really learn. I'm being a little bit glib, but, you know, if you look at the Arctic expedition of Friedhoff Nansen, when he let himself be encased in the ice and drifted in the gyre around the Arctic to an area very close to the North Pole. That was a very well planned, very well executed expedition that lasted longer than the Belgica, and yet the men did not really suffer. They were very well prepared. Nansen was himself also inspired by Inuit ways. He didn't suffer anywhere nearly as much as the men of the Belgica. And so there was little really to learn from it because he didn't know what obstacles there were to overcome because he was a superman in many ways. He was, you know, six foot seven. He's looked like a Marvel hero. And so there is less to be learned from that as there is from the Belgica, which was confronted with all these dangers and experienced many of them and found ways to overcome them. And those that it didn't find ways to overcome, they documented so well that we're able to understand how to avoid those fates. And I know that Shackleton read those accounts very closely to prepare for his expeditions.

And you mentioned the legacy of the Belgica. Well, beyond the scientific legacy and the bounty of data and material brought back from that expedition, which took decades to sort through and document in total, there is a legacy, which brings us back to the article that I first read about the Belgica and the article about the space exploration.

There are many lessons to be learned specifically from the observations of Frederick Cook that can be applied to space exploration, his psychological surveys, his attention to the mental well being of the men, his attention paid to the food and to the variety of food and the importance that food plays in long term expeditions.

Those are all things that are very directly being applied to the plans for deep space and long term explorations to Mars, for example, or to other locations in space. I spoke to a man named Jack Stuster, who is an anthropologist and a consultant for NASA, who has studied polar explorations in hopes of applying its lessons to space exploration. And he says, when I'm designing the role of the physician for these expeditions, I think of Frederick Cook, which I found to be quite a powerful statement. 

Alok Jha: That's fascinating, because the idea of spending one or two or three years on a mission round trip to Mars for astronauts is, I mean, you have to have the sort of mental resolve of a real ice cold person to be able to deal with the same six people for three years with no communication back to Earth. And I know that NASA researches this a lot to work out exactly the composition of these people. So it's fascinating to see the roots of that going back 120 years. 

Julian Sancton: Oh, yeah, but the closest earthly analog.And in fact, in many ways it was more isolated because I guess theoretically there would be at least some lines of communication during those three years, depending on the alignment of the planets. Put it this way, Marconi developed the wireless telegraph while they were stuck in the ice. And so they just missed that development by a year. In fact, Cook even says in his diary, we are so hopelessly lost as to be on the surface of Mars. How prescient is that? 

Alok Jha: That's amazing. That really does sort of wind up the story very nicely, doesn't it? 

Do you hope that this story of the Belgica gets the same fame and notoriety as the other major expeditions that we know about when it comes to Antarctica? So, Scott, Shackleton, all of the others. Does it deserve a place amongst those?

Julian Sancton: Absolutely. And I really hope it gets one. De Gerlache’s decisions might have been questionable, as I mentioned, but their bravery should not be discounted. Their suffering should not be discounted. Their humanity shouldn't be discounted. And I think the fact that they were first to confront this environment and managed to come back to tell the tale is a great tribute to their courage and it should definitely be told. I mean, I consider it a satisfying story, so I'm hoping that if people do want to learn about it, at least my book will have been a record of it. The more people want to learn about it, the better it is for me, but I do think that the achievements of these men deserve to be remembered.

Alok Jha: Just before we finish, can I just ask you, why does Antarctica matter to you?  

Julian Sancton: It's a source of so much coiled power, and I mean that in several ways.  The most immediate one is the amount of Freshwater ice that threatens to pour into our seas as the temperatures rise and raise sea levels and cause incredible havoc for all of humanity.

It's just there is no greater time bomb on Earth than the ice of Antarctica. And hopefully we're able to figure out how to address these problems before,  you know, miles worth of ice,  raise sea levels and drown all of civilization. So I mean, just that fear that I was mentioning earlier, that sense of malevolence that was emanating from the poles, as imagined by the novelists of the 19th century and the Gothic horror, like Edgar Allen Poe's descriptions of the southernmost regions.

Of course, it's not a ghost story. It's nothing spooky like you read about in H. P. Lovecraft. But nevertheless, the potential for destruction is absolutely awesome. And there's still something quite terrifying about Antarctica. 

But I also feel like even though it has been explored thoroughly, It's still a source of great mystery, and I almost feel guilty for having seen it. I almost like it better as an idea, as awesome and as sublime as the experience was. For me, Antarctica still represents the power of nature and the inaccessibility of nature, and I would like it to preserve a little bit of that mystery. 

I love the idea that there are some mysteries remaining on the planet. And I think that Antarctica at this point still is one, and I hope it continues to be one. 

Alok Jha: Julian Sancton, thank you very much for your time. 

Julian Sancton Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.


Thank you for listening. A Voyage to Antarctica is brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, and made possible by support from Hurtigruten Expeditions. 

To find out more about our guests and how you can support the Trust, please head to our website at, or find us on social media. If you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to follow and rate us, wherever you get your podcasts. It makes a huge difference to us.

Next time, I’ll be talking to award-winning cartographer and leading scientist at the British Antarctic Survey Dr Peter Fretwell about Antarctica’s most iconic residents – emperor penguins – and the threats they’re currently facing. 

A Voyage to Antarctica was presented by me, Alok Jha. Theme music is by Alec Hewes, and Editing and Additional Music is by James Stickland. The show is Produced by Jessica Norman. 

See you next time.