How early Arctic explorers survived starvation, scurvy and months of boredom

Almost 500 years ago, whaling expeditions to Svalbard forced a band of polar explorers to get creative to survive in the harshest winter on the planet. Mick O'Hare tells their story

Saturday 20 February 2021 21:30
<p>A killer whale chases herrings in the Arctic Circle</p>

A killer whale chases herrings in the Arctic Circle

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In 1553 English explorer Hugh Willoughby attempted to live through an Arctic winter. He and his crew of 62 were the first non-native humans to try. It was not out of choice. Willoughby had been the leader of an expedition of three ships attempting to find a northeastern route from Europe to the far east and the trading opportunities they hoped to secure there. Two of the ships, including the one captained by Willoughby, never returned, although their journals describe what befell them.

Separated from the third ship and using ambiguous maps and unreliable instruments, they became trapped in a bay off the Kola Peninsula of far-north Russia as the sea froze around them. Their equipment was rudimentary, their clothing inadequate. Their bodies were found by fishermen the following spring. Some had frozen to death ridden with scurvy, others were apparently poisoned by carbon monoxide from stoves as they attempted to insulate the ship from the ravaging cold outside.

Where Willoughby failed, Willem Barentsz – after whom the northern sea between Russia and Norway is named – succeeded (just). The Dutch navigator also had no intention of spending the winter above the Arctic Circle. Yet 43 years after Willoughby, he too became stuck in the ice off the coast of the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya while searching for a northeastern route to the east. Five crew members died but 12 survived by spending time both aboard the ship and on land, building a wooden lodge for shelter. They were resourceful and fortunate.

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