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The Whaling Demon

March 15, 2011

In March 1911, Roald Amundsen and his expedition were settling in to their winter quarters at Framheim on the Ross Ice Barrier. They had set off from Norway in June 1910, and planned to make their attempt to reach the Pole in the Antarctic Spring, in October, 1911. While the heroism of the ‘Southern Party’ has been much celebrated, little has been written about other aspects of the expedition, which Amundsen insisted was a scientific one. Among other things, it was hoped that a party would be able to map the ‘Bay of Whales’. This task was undertaken by Lieutenant K Prestrud, and is recounted in his chapter in Amundsen’s book The South Pole (1912), entitled ‘The Eastern Sled Journey’. Antarctica changed many of Prestrud’s views, from his culinary tastes (he decided quantity was better than variety), to his tolerance of cold (late in 1911, -20 C felt like a pleasant Spring day), but in some things he could not escape his time. Despite having ‘no special knowledge of the industry’. Prestrud viewed the Bay of Whales as a lucrative, but sadly inaccessible resource:

The name of the Bay of Whales is due to Shackleton, and is appropriate enough; for from the time of the break-up of the sea-ice this huge inlet in the Barrier forms a favourite playground for whales, of which we often saw schools of as many as fifty disporting themselves for hours together. We had no means of disturbing their peaceful sport, although the sight of all these monsters, each worth a small fortune, was well calculated to make our fingers itch. It was the whaling demon that possessed us.

Lastly, it must be said that, although in the bay itself huge schools of whales were of frequent occurrence, we did not receive the impression that there was any great number of them out in the Ross sea. The species most commonly seen was the Finner; after that the Blue Whale.

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