Collecting in Antarctic Seas

PUBLISHED: 16:28 18 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:08 20 February 2013

Collecting in Antarctic Seas

Collecting in Antarctic Seas

Three scientists from Plymouth took part in hazardous expeditions to the Antarctic led by Scott and Shackleton. Guy Baker tracks their journeys and achievements

Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton

Three scientists from Plymouth took part in hazardous expeditions to the Antarctic led by Scott and Shackleton. Guy Baker tracks their journeys and achievements

Ask a Plymothian for directions to the old aquarium, and chances are they will direct you to the Citadel Hill laboratory on the Hoe. The limestone building is home to the Marine Biological Association of the UK (MBA), one of the most respected marine research institutions in the world. 2011 marks the centenary of the Terra Nova expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, one of three polar expeditions between 1901 and 1915 in which scientists from the MBA took part.

This was the age of heroic exploration and huge commitment to the scientific aims of expeditions; fortitude and stoicism were needed to carry out scientific duties in unimaginably harsh conditions, with none of the lightweight clothing or equipment we take for granted today. Another factor that carried the explorers through the rigours of life down South was the sense of camaraderie in the face of adversity. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote: The mutual conquest of difficulties is the cement of friendship... We had plenty of difficulties; we sometimes failed, we sometimes won; we always faced them we had to.

Thomas Vere Hodgson (1864-1926)

Appointed Directors Assistant at the MBA in 1895, marine biologist Thomas Vere Hodgson worked on the identification of a collection of crustaceans from the Southern Cross Antarctic expedition (1898-1900). He found the preservation of these samples to be poor, and this must have given him insight into the need for care in the future. In 1897 he was appointed as the first curator at the Plymouth City Museum and continued his scientific links with the nearby MBA. At the age of 37, he was appointed biologist with the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04, later known as the Discovery expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Muggins (as he became known, perhaps due to his stoical and determined nature) was the oldest member of the expedition and a reliable sort who took the ribbing by his juniors in his stride. Once the Discovery was frozen into the shore ice in March 1901 in McMurdo Sound for the first winter, as planned, Hodgson devoted his attention to developing sampling methods through holes in the sea ice. Depths sampled in McMurdo Sound ranged from 8-180 fathoms, including trawl hauls from small boats (whalers) in open water. His 1907 account On Collecting in Antarctic Seas includes details of the 6ft square holes dug through the ice, and surrounded by a wall of ice blocks making a circular shelter 6-10 ft high. In these shelters he says: one could work in comfort... all through the winter... however they were very difficult to find in the dark. From the holes he and his fellow scientists deployed plankton nets, bottom dredges and fish traps all the year round.

As to the results: Jeffrey Bell, on completing the publication of 50 memoirs, in 6 volumes describing the fauna and flora collected by the Discovery Expedition wrote: The Antarctic Region, instead of being, as we might imagine, with its inhospitable climate, almost devoid of life, teems with species, of which 227 new forms are described in these volumes... there stands out the observant care by Mr Hodgson and Dr Koettlitz as collectors.

Hodgson became an expert on the Pycnogonida (sea spiders) and his work on the Discovery expedition gave us the first descriptions of the abundant and diverse Antarctic sea floor communities.

Thomas Hodgsons grave is in Plympton St Marys churchyard.

Edward W Nelson (1883-1923)

Edward W Nelson, who came from the Shetland Islands, first met Dr Edward A Wilson in the Orkney Islands in 1910, just before they both joined Scotts last polar exploration, the Terra Nova expedition (1910-13). Nelson was the shore party biologist. During his time at the shore base he took samples of plankton and fish through holes in the sea ice but he was also a regular member of sledging expeditions into the interior, including the one that eventually found the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. One of the sledges Nelson used during the Terra Nova expedition now belongs to the MBA and can be seen at the Plymouth City Museum.

Nelsons plankton work began at the Marine Biological Association with the Director, E J Alle,n in 1901 and continued after the Terra Nova expedition until 1921. By isolating individual cells, Allen and Nelson were the first to culture persistent strains of planktonic diatoms in the laboratory. These pioneer studies opened the way to present-day research into the role of phytoplankton, and to the commercial development of mariculture by making available the means of providing food for shellfish. The sledge used by EW Nelson on one of the scientific explorations of the Terra Nova expedition belongs to the MBA and is on display at the Plymouth City Museum.

Robert Selbie Clark (1882-1950)

Robert Clark was working as naturalist in charge of fisheries investigations at the MBA when he took up the position of biologist on the Endurance expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, 1914-17), which planned to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole.

The expedition was ill-fated; the Endurance was crushed in the ice-pack of the Weddell Sea with the loss of all scientific collections and data. The crew was forced to camp on the ice with the surviving lifeboats for five months until the ice broke up enough to allow them to sail to Elephant Island. Robert Clark was one of the party of 24 men marooned there for many months, sheltering under the lifeboats and surviving on a diet of penguin and seal.

They were rescued following Shackletons legendary journey to South Georgia in the 22 whaler James Caird.

On his return to Plymouth, Clark first served in the Navy and in 1919 rejoined the MBA, where he continued his earlier study of larval and post-larval fishes, laying the foundation for a series of observations which have continued to this day.

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