Seal Mummies, Penguins and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod Hut’

Ernest Shackleton lead his first of three British expeditions to Antarctica in 1907-1909, overwintering with his crew at Cape Royds in this building, the Nimrod Hut (named after his ship), at this coastal spot near McMurdo Sound. (Alex Mass/Last Degrees)

One of the coolest (literally) blogs going these days is written by University of Colorado Boulder graduate student Alex Mass, who is on her third research season in Antarctica.

In Mass’ blog, “The Last Degrees,” a reference to the highest latitudes and lowest temperatures on Earth, she recently reported on mummified seals, an “infamous enigma” of the Dry Valleys, a parched, high altitude region dozens of miles from the shoreline. The blog is presented in the  newsletter from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU.

“Seals aren’t uncommon in Antarctica, but they live in the ocean and generally only make landfall for shorter periods, very close to the coast,” Maas posted last month. “What brought them 45 miles inland and up to elevations of 5,900 feet above sea level is the mystery.”

Scientists generally believe the seals became disoriented, hauling themselves astray and disoriented up into the mountains, where they eventually starved, she reported. Recent carbon testing of  the mummified  seals determined that the remains were up to 2,600 years old.

Alex Mass in Antarctica.

Alex Mass in Antarctica.

More recently, Maas posted on visiting Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “Nimrod Hut,” preserved as an Antarctic historic site,  where the intrepid British explorer spent the winter with his crew during the first of his three expeditions to Antarctica in 1907-1909.

“After Shackleton’s arrival at Cape Royds in February 1908, fifteen men spent nine months in the hut over the dark, harsh Antarctic winter until a four-man expedition to the South Pole was attempted in October 1908,” Mass wrote. “While Shackleton’s initial goal had been to reach the South Pole, he never made it quite that far, reaching 97 miles from the pole before turning back.”

While in the neighborhood, the young scientist and her research partners also observed the planet’s southernmost Adelie penguin colony, with an informative report and beautiful nature photography as one result.

More formally, the McCurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Program is a complex study of ecosystems in an ice-free region of Antarctica, where life approaches its environmental limits.


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