In 1910, the Terra Nova Expedition went to the South Pole to collect specimens of the Emperor Penguin to study the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. Most of them died along the way.
Both the North and South poles have always been places of great interest throughout history. For some ancient civilizations, they represented where the world started and ended, and they also represented having reached the unknown. The Arctic circle was given this name before the second century AD, and in that century Marinus of Tyre named the Antarctic in the South, meaning they already had knowledge of this vast land. However, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century when the first expedition would cross the circle for the first time. Led by British explorer and cartographer James Cook, the Royal Navy headed towards the Antarctic in 1773. His expedition discovered many islands and was able to upgrade the existing maps of the time, yet they didn’t actually reach Antarctic land.
This wasn’t achieved until the early 20th century, when two other expeditions set sail to this unknown land. The first one was Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian navigator who knew the race to reach the South Pole was about to start and decided to go ahead of everyone and become the first country to reach it in 1911. Not long after, British captain Robert Falcon Scott reached the pole and discovered that he’d been beaten by Amundsen. However, his Terra Nova expedition became way more famous and popular than the Norwegian one. Although probably not for the right reasons: the expedition, which took about three years (from 1910 to 1913), was as Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of the passengers) named his book, The Worst Journey in the World.
Cherry was one of the few surviving passengers. He managed to escape this inhospitable stretch of land thanks to a stroke of luck, although he thought at the time that it was the worst curse any explorer could face. While it might sound like a random and stupid excuse, it saved his life and let him live to tell the tale of all the adversities and horrors they endured. Right in the middle of the expedition, he was forced to turn back because his glasses kept getting foggy with the temperature changes. He did as he was told and waited for days in a nearby spot for his friends and colleagues to come back, but it was in vain since most of them died of cold and starvation.
The expedition’s main goal wasn’t only to reach the South Pole. A team of zoologists was part of the expedition, and they wanted to collect some emperor penguin eggs to take back to Britain for further examination. They believed this particular species was one of the only remaining primeval bird species and the only ones with a direct connection to the reptile family. Because of this, they wanted to get evidence and analyze the separation and evolution of birds. Yes, they went through all that trouble for a species that also lives and reproduces in another environment that's not as hostile, but hey, they didn’t know that.
I guess we can imagine the extreme weather and even think it’s not as hard as it sounds to survive it. But we’re talking about early twentieth century, and even with all the technology available, this was an unexplored region of the world. For that reason, Cherry’s book is great evidence of this particular expedition, but it also makes us think of all the perils people endured in their eagerness to reach every single corner of the globe. As for the Terra Nova expedition, Cherry writes about not only the official data and facts, but also all the experiences they had and even the emotions they felt each time someone had an accident or died. His narration of the weather is both overwhelming and so vivid that it automatically transports you to that exact time with that exact crew.
As for the eggs, we can say that the expedition was a success after all. The crew had already collected three of the coveted specimens, but Scott’s ambition was even bigger than that. He wanted to prove that they could go farther than they'd planned, and after collecting the eggs, they set out on one last unplanned journey, the one that Cherry couldn't participate in. After learning that his colleagues had perished in their attempt, he took the eggs back to England and delivered them to a team of specialists who analyzed them. In 2012, a century after the expedition, the Natural History Museum in London exhibited one of the eggs for the first time in a hundred years. According to the curator of the museum’s egg collection, Douglas Russell, their evolutionary hypothesis was proved wrong, but the specimens and the hard work it took to retrieve them have huge historical value and are thus worth exhibiting.
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