Excerpt: Great White South by Herbert G. Ponting

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

During his lifetime, Herbert G. Ponting was widely known in England as a world traveler, master photographer, travel writer, and lecturer. He met Robert Falcon Scott in the autumn of 1909, at the height of his fame. Even from today's perspective he seems to be possibly the finest photographer so far to have worked in Antarctica. He worked arduously and artistically, despite the limitations of his photographic equipment. Ponting took many famous photographs, such as those showing Scott in the hut on Cape Evans. He was equally good at dealing with landscapes and with men and animals. Scott prized not only his camera work but his lantern-slide lectures about exotic places given to members of the expedition. Now Ponting is mostly remembered by the handful of admirers of his illustrations of Scott's last expedition, which form an invaluable record.

I had noted some fine icebergs frozen into the sea ice about a mile distant. The morning after our arrival, I was just about to start across the ice to visit these bergs, with a sledge well loaded with photographic apparatus, when eight killer whales appeared, heading towards the ice, blowing loudly. Since first seeing some of these wolves of the sea off Cape Crozier I had been anxious to secure photographs of them.... The whales dived under the ice, so, hastily estimating where they would be likely to rise again, I ran to the spot—adjusting the camera as I did so. I had got to within six feet of the edge of the ice—which was about a yard thick—when to my consternation it suddenly heaved up under my feet and split into fragments around me; whilst the eight whales, lined up side by side and almost touching each other, burst up from under the ice and blew off steam.

The head of one was within two yards of me. I saw its nostrils open, and at such close quarters the release of its pent-up breath was like a blast from an air-compressor. The noise of the eight simultaneous blows sounded terrific, and I was enveloped in the warm vapour of the nearest "spout," which had a strong fishy smell. Fortunately the shock sent me backwards, instead of precipitating me into the sea, or my Antarctic experiences would have ended somewhat prematurely.

As the whales rose from under the ice, there was a loud ‘booming sound'—to use the expression of Captain Scott, who was a witness of the incident—as they struck the ice with their backs. Immediately they had cleared it, with a rapid movement of their flukes (huge tail fins) they made a tremendous commotion, setting the floe on which I was now isolated rocking so furiously that it was all I could do to keep from falling into the water. Then they turned about with the deliberate intention of attacking me. The ship was within sixty yards, and I heard wild shouts of "Look out!" "Run!" "Jump, man, jump!" "Run, quick!" But I could not run; it was all I could do to keep my feet as I leapt from piece to piece of the rocking ice, with the whales a few yards behind me, snorting and blowing among the ice-blocks. I wondered whether I should be able to reach safety before the whales reached me; and I recollect distinctly thinking, if they did get me, how very unpleasant the first bite would feel, but that it would not matter much about the second.

The broken floes had already started to drift away with the current, and as I reached the last fragment I saw that I could not jump to the firm ice, for the lead was too wide. The whales behind me were making a horrible noise amongst the broken ice, and I stood for a moment hesitating what to do. More frantic shouts of "Jump, man, jump!" reached me from my friends. Just then, by great good luck, the floe on which I stood turned slightly in the current and lessened the distance. I was able to leap across, not, however, a moment too soon. As I reached security and looked back, a huge black and tawny head was pushed out of the water at the spot, and rested on the ice, looking round with its little pig-like eyes to see what had become of me. The brute opened his jaws wide, and I saw the terrible teeth which I had so narrowly escaped.

I wasted no time in sprinting the sixty or seventy yards to my sledge, by which Captain Scott was standing. I shall never forget his expression as I reached it in safety. During the next year I saw that same look on his face several times, when someone was in danger. It showed how deeply he felt the responsibility for life, which he thought rested so largely on himself. He was deathly pale as he said to me: "My God! That was about the nearest squeak I ever saw!"

There were two dogs tethered out on the ice near the scene of this incident, and we came to the conclusion that it was an organized attempt by the whales to get the dogs—which they had doubtless taken for seals—into the water. I had happened on the scene at an inopportune moment, and I have no doubt they looked upon me as fair game as well.

Captain Scott, at the end of his description of this incident in his journal, stated: "Of course we have known well that killer whales continually skirt the edge of the floes, and that they would undoubtedly snap up anyone who was unfortunate enough to fall into the water; but the fact that they could display such deliberate cunning, that they were able to break ice of such thickness (at least two feet), and that they could act in unison, was a revelation to us. It is clear that they are endowed with singular intelligence, and in future we shall treat that intelligence with every respect."

The Sun at this season is nearly as high in these regions at midnight as at midday, so if the light was not right on a subject at noon, the chances were that it would be twelve hours later. For the first four nights I scarcely slept at all, as this continuous daylight was too novel and too wonderful to permit of sleep; it seemed a waste of precious time to lose one single hour. I determined that lost opportunities should be as few as human endurance would permit. Afterwards I had cause for congratulation that neither time nor chances had been wasted, for the ice was rapidly decaying, and five days later it was so rotten round the stranded bergs that I was no longer able to approach them.

In one of these bergs there was a grotto.... It was about a mile from the ship, and though a lot of rough and broken ice surrounded it, I was able to get right up to it. A fringe of long icicles hung at the entrance of the grotto, and passing under these I was in the most wonderful place imaginable. From outside, the interior appeared quite white and colourless, but, once inside, it was a lovely symphony of blue and green....

During this first and subsequent visits, I found that the colouring of the grotto changed with the position of the Sun; thus, sometimes green would predominate, then blue, and then again it was a delicate lilac. When the Sun passed round to the west—opposite the entrance to the cavern—the beams that streamed in were reflected by myriads of crystals, which decomposed the rays into lovely prismatic hues, so that the walls appeared to be studded with gems....

Taylor and Wright came out to investigate the phenomenon in the afternoon, and with ice-axes cut steps up the floe that formed the outer part of the tunnel, whilst I kinematographed the Alpine feat. It made an excellent film. Then we all explored the cave, which closed up rapidly towards the further end. After squeezing through a passage with a "fat man's misery" in it, and climbing through a narrow sloping tunnel, we found ourselves high in the open air, near the summit of the berg. As we emerged, Wright had a slip and narrowly escaped falling into the water, fifty feet below. Fortunately he managed to regain his footing—thereby depriving a killer whale, which immediately afterwards spouted in the pool, for a change of diet for lunch.

This pool was a most alluring feature of the vicinity, and its beauties were perpetuated in many pictures. When unruffled by the breeze, it was a faithful mirror of the sky, and penguins were continually leaping out of it, to rest awhile or roost on the ice. They took little or no notice of me as I made my photographs. Whilst I was engaged on one of them, I heard a sound behind me, and on looking round I saw a killer whale—with open jaws, and eight feet of its length out of water—leaning on the ice, surveying me with interest. I didn't wait to pack my things. I almost threw them on to the sledge, and pulled off to a safer distance from the water—half expecting, as I did so, to feel the brute burst the ice under me, as I knew it was not very thick hereabouts.

When the temperature was comparatively high, the currents rapidly eroded the ice away underneath, whilst the appearance of the surface changed little. One might be walking along on sound ice; then suddenly tread on a place where it was not an inch thick.... I always threw myself flat when I felt the ice giving way underfoot, and I think it saved me a wetting, at least, more than once. Now, I shudder at the risks I took so recklessly in those first days, not realising the imminence of the dangers which, a week later, experience had taught me to hold in greater respect.

During those midnight days, when others slept and only the night watch and I were awake.... that I secured some of the best of my polar studies. One of these was "The Death of an Iceberg"—which represents a berg in the last stage of decay, from the action of the Sun and currents.... As I neared the bergs, I was perspiring freely from the effort of dragging my sledge; and the yellow goggles, which I wore as protection against snow blindness, became clouded over, so that I could not see. I was just about to stop to wipe them, when I felt the ice sinking under me. I could not see a yard ahead because of my clouded goggles, but I felt the water wet my feet, and I heard a soft hissing sound as the ice gave way around me. I realised instantly that if the heavy sledge, to which I was harnessed, broke through, it would sink like a stone, dragging me down with it. For a moment the impulse was to save myself by slipping out of the harness.... But I went to the Great White South to illustrate its wonders, and.... I therefore instantly resolved that I would save my precious kit, or go down with it. A flood of thought rushed through my brain in those fateful moments. I seemed to visualise the two hundred fathoms of water below me, infested with those devils, and wondered how long it would take the sledge to drag me to the bottom. Would I drown, or would an Orca snap me up before I got there?

Though the ice sank under my feet, it did not break; but each step I expected to be my last. The sledge, dragging through the slush, became like lead; and as the water rose above my boots, I was unable to pull it further. Just then, with perspiration dripping from every pore, I felt my feet touch firm ice. With one supreme, final effort, which sapped the last ounce of strength that was left, I got on to it, and managed to drag the sledge on to it too; then I collapsed. I was so completely exhausted that it was quite a long time before my trembling muscles ceased to quake. When finally my knees would hold me up, I took the photograph.

In adventure one never takes anything too seriously. Incidents of peril are quickly relegated to the limbo of the past. The moment such episodes are over—no matter how imminently life itself may have been at stake—they become mere reminiscences, to be cast aside and perhaps seldom or never referred to again, until the pen searches them out from the treasure-house of memory.

Having recorded a very beautiful polar scene, I lay down on the ice —at the edge of the pool where the reflections appear in the picture—to peer into the profundity that I had so nearly become more intimately acquainted with. A great shaft of sunlight pierced the depths like a searchlight, and, by shading my eyes, with my head close to the water, I could see a hundred feet down into the sea, which was all alive with minute creatures. As I watched, a slim silvery fish darted by, and then a seal rushed into the field of view, from the surrounding blackness—not in pursuit of the fish, but flying in evident terror. The cause of its terror immediately appeared. The horror hove into view without apparent effort, looking like some grim leviathan of war—a submarine; and a thing of war it really was for the seal. It was the dreaded killer whale again, in close pursuit of its prey. It came so close to me that I could distinctly see the evil gleam in its eye, and the whole outline of its sleek and sinister shape. For a single second I lay, transfixed with interest at the sight. Then I remembered, and fled to a safer place.