On June 27, 1911, Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers embarked, with Apsley Cherry-Garrard, on what Wilson described as “the weirdest bird’s-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be”. It was a painful, five-week odyssey, the best example of the lengths to which Scott’s men would go purely in the name of science. Scott called it “one of the most gallant stories in Polar history”.
“Why should three sane and common-sense explorers be sledging away on a winter’s night to a Cape which has only been visited before in daylight, and then with very great difficulty?” asked Cherry-Garrard in his book The Worst Journey in the World. Because the Emperor penguin – which was six feet tall, never stepped on land, laid its eggs on ice during the winter, rested the eggs on its feet and pressed them to its abdomen for incubation – was “probably the most primitive bird in the world”.
After three weeks, during which they were sometimes unable to travel more than a mile a day, and the temperature could descend to -75F, they found the birds. “We were witnessing a marvel of the natural world, and we were the first and only men who had ever done so,” enthused Cherry-Garrard. “We had within our grasp material which might prove of the utmost importance to science; we were turning theories into facts with every observation we made.” Men had seen the Emperors before but never with their eggs; and they had never collected undamaged eggs containing embryos. Wilson believed they might reveal the missing evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds – he was wrong, but the surviving eggs and embryos remain much asked-for treasures of the Natural History Museum.
Captain Scott may have failed to become the first to reach the Pole – but for his contributions to science, he will be remembered for ever.
BACK TO THE POLE?
Happy Feet, Lost Emperor Penguin, Swims for Antarctic Home. Follow the journey!