Robert Falcon Scott’s final letters

November 11, 2019 • 11:30 am

Many of you know of Captain Robert Falcon Scott‘s final entry in his diary, written as he lay freezing to death in his tent on his return from the South Pole. He had made it to the Pole with five companions, only to find that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beaten him to the prize by about a month.

Here’s the famous picture of Scott’s team at the Pole, presumably taken with a self timer. The caption: “Party at the South Pole, 18 January 1912. L to R: (standing) WilsonScottOates; (seated) BowersEdgar Evans“.  They certainly don’t look happy.

On the return, one of Scott’s men, Edgar Evans, died of a concussion. Another, Titus Oates, frostbitten and near death, walked out of their tent into a blizzard to his demise after famously remarking, “I am going outside. I may be some time.” Oates had hoped that his suicide by freezing would prolong his companions’ lives by removing himself from their care and leaving more food.

Oates’s departure didn’t help the team. Scott and the remaining two men, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson froze to death, confined to their tent by a severe storm. They were only 11 miles from a food depot that could have saved them, but they couldn’t move in the blizzard.

Scott spent his last days writing in his diary and composing letters to his family, friends, and associates. The most famous thing he wrote at this time was the final entry in his diary, expressing the stoicism of a true Brit. It was presumably written on the day he died: March 29, 1912. The diary and his letters were found eight months later when a search team spotted a mound that was Scott’s snow-covered tent, a tent enclosing three frozen bodies. The bodies were left in place and covered with a snow cairn, but the papers, diaries, and fossils (yes, the team was dragging fossils right up to the end), were brought back and sent to England.

I saw this diary entry in the British Museum years ago, and you can see the full diary online courtesy of the British Library, where it now resides. There are 165 pages, and the final entry, written in pencil, reads:

Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.


For God’s sake look after our people.

Here’s the last page:

Greg Mayer and I have both wondered whom “our people” refers to? The British public? The remaining expedition team? Or Scott’s family?

I suspect the last answer is the correct one, at least as judging from Scott’s “message to the public“, detailing why he thought the mission had come a cropper and ending with two tacit appeals for the British public to look after Scott’s family:

“For four days we have been unable to leave the tent – the gale howling about us. We are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for.

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”

But the most poignant message was Scott’s final letter to his wife, found in his pocket. It was made public only in 2007, nearly a century after he died. Here’s the text (the bit in bold is mine). The “to my widow” salutation is heartbreaking.

“To my widow,

Dearest Darling – we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through – In our short lunch hours I take advantage of a very small measure of warmth to write letters preparatory to a possible end – the first is naturally to you on whom my thought mostly dwell waking or sleeping – if anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart.

I should like you to take what comfort you can from these facts also – I shall not have suffered any pain but leave the world fresh from harness and full of good health and vigour – this is dictated already, when provisions come to an end we simply stop where we are within easy distance of another depot.

Therefore you must not imagine a great tragedy — we are very anxious of course and have been for weeks but in splendid physical condition and our appetites compensate for all discomfort. The cold is biting and sometimes angering but here again the hot food which drives it forth is so wonderfully enjoyable that we would scarcely be without it.

We have gone down hill a good deal since I wrote the above. Poor Titus Oates has gone — he was in a bad state — the rest of us keep going and imagine we have a chance to get through but the cold weather doesn’t let up at all – we are now only 20 miles from a depot but we have very little food or fuel.

Well dear heart I want you to take the whole thing very sensibly as I am sure you will — the boy will be your comfort. I had looked forward to helping you to bring him up but it is a satisfaction to feel that he is safe with you. I think both he and you ought to be specially looked after by the country for which after all we have given our lives with something of spirit which makes for example — I am writing letters on this point in the end of this book after this. Will you send them to their various destinations?

I must write a little letter for the boy if time can be found to be read when he grows up — dearest that you know I cherish no sentimental rubbish about re marriage — when the right man comes to help you in life you ought to be your happy self again.

I hope I shall be a good memory certainly the end is nothing for you to be ashamed of and I like to think that the boy will have a good start in parentage of which he may be proud. Dear it is not easy to write because of the cold — 70 degrees below zero and nothing but the shelter of our tent.

You know I have loved you, you know my thoughts must have constantly dwelt on you and oh dear me you must know that quite the worst aspect of this situation is the thought that I shall not see you again. The inevitable must be faced — you urged me to be leader of this party and I know you felt it would be dangerous — I’ve taken my place throughout, haven’t I?

God bless you my own darling I shall try and write more later — I go on across the back pages. Since writing the above we have got to within 11 miles of our depot with one hot meal and two days’ cold food and we should have got through but have been held for four days by a frightful storm — I think the best chance has gone. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last for that depot but in the fighting there is a painless end so don’t worry.

I have written letters on odd pages of this book — will you manage to get them sent? You see I am anxious for you and the boy’s future — make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games — they encourage it at some schools — I know you will keep him out in the open air — try and make him believe in a God, it is comforting.

Oh my dear my dear what dreams I have had of his future and yet oh my girl I know you will face it stoically — your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast and the one in the little red Morocco case given by Lady Baxter. There is a piece of the Union flag I put up at the South Pole in my private kit bag together with Amundsen’s black flag and other trifles — give a small piece of the Union flag to the King and a small piece to Queen Alexandra and keep the rest a poor trophy for you!

What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. How much better it has been than lounging in comfort at home — what tales you would have for the boy but oh what a price to pay — to forfeit the sight of your dear dear face.

Dear you will be good to the old mother. I write her a little line in this book. Also keep in with Ettie and the others — oh but you’ll put on a strong face for the world — only don’t be too proud to accept help for the boy’s sake — he ought to have a fine career and do something in the world.

I haven’t time to write to Sir Clements — tell him I thought much of him and never regretted him putting me in command of the Discovery.”

Well, somehow Scott’s son, only a few months old when his dad left on the fatal expedition, did get interested in natural history. For that “boy” became  Sir Peter Scott (1909-1989), a conservationist, artist, ornithologist, and science popularizer—the David Attenborough of his day. After I gave my lecture on the science of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, several older Brits came up to me and said they were avid listeners to Peter Scott’s radio broadcasts—in the days before every home had a television.

As for the “try to make [Peter] believe in a god” advice, well, I’ll just ignore that.

Oh, and Scott is a bit infamous for naming the Loch Ness Monster (Greg Mayer reminded me of that). Wikipedia says this:

In 1962, [Peter Scott] co-founded the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau with the then Conservative MP David James, who had previously been Polar Adviser on the 1948 film based on his late father’s polar expedition Scott of the Antarctic. In 1975 Scott proposed the scientific name of Nessiteras rhombopteryx for the Loch Ness Monster (based on a blurred underwater photograph of a supposed fin) so that it could be registered as an endangered species. The name was based on the Ancient Greek for “the monster of Ness with the diamond shaped fin”, but it was later pointed out by The Daily Telegraph to be an anagram of “Monster hoax by Sir Peter S”. Nessie researcher Robert H. Rines, who took two supposed pictures of the monster in the 1970s, responded by pointing out that the letters could also be read as an anagram for, “Yes, both pix are monsters, R.”

Greg adds this:

Sir Peter Scott was also the describer, along with Robert Rines, of the Loch Ness Monster, giving it the name Nessiteras rhombopteryx in a paper published in Nature (although, notably, in the “News” section, not in “Articles” or “Letters”, the sections where ‘regular’ scientific papers appear). The stated intent was to secure legal protection for the Monster, which can only be extended to a described taxon.

The Scott expedition did an enormous amount of scientific research, but I talk about that in my shipboard lecture and won’t bore you with it today. However, I do mention in Why Evolution is True the expedition’s discovery of Antarctic Glossopteris fossils, which helped document that the continents were once united in a single supercontinent.

The disgusting sex life of the Adélie penguin

August 9, 2019 • 10:30 am

I’m writing a series of lectures to deliver when I’m a guest speaker on two Antarctic cruises this October and November. One of my talks will be on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-1913, in which Scott and his crew, arriving in Antarctica aboard the eponymous ship, attempted to reach the South Pole. Scott actually made it along with four of his men, only to find that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him to the Pole by a little over a month. What a bummer it was for them to see the Norwegian flag flying over their destination!

And, as you may know, all five of Scott’s team died on the way back: one from a concussion, one (Titus Oates), suffering from severe frostbite, walking to his death in a blizzard so he wouldn’t slow the other three, and then the last three, including Scott, freezing to death in their tent—only 11 miles from a cache of food that they couldn’t reach in the blizzard conditions.

One of the reasons Amundsen may have beaten Scott is because a major part of the Terra Nova expedition was to do science, which might have slowed them down. (Scott’s group, for example, dragged 30 pounds of Glossopteris fossils behind them on the way back from the Pole.) Scott’s group was constituted and instructed to make observations on zoology, geology, weather, ice movement, paleontology, and, of course, to collect specimens.

My talk will be on the science of the Terra Nova expedition, with an emphasis on evolutionary biology. Two of the aims, for example, were connected with evolution: collecting fossils (and they found some of the first evidence that Antarctica was once part of the large continent of Gondwanaland), and to determine, by looking at Emperor Penguin eggs, whether birds really were descended from reptiles. Getting the eggs, which ultimately failed to produce the kind of evidence they wanted, involved a horrendous journey to a breeding colony during the dark Antarctic winter. It was so cold that the men’s teeth froze and shattered. That story is a major part of the best book about the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World (he’s referring to the Penguin Expedition, though it could also refer to Scott’s dash to the pole.)

Not mentioned in this book, but something I found in my researches, was that some of the important knowledge gleaned by the 12 scientists on Scott’s voyage never saw the light of day—at least until 2012.

The physician George Murray Levick, looking for observations to make, decided to spend twelve weeks observing the very large colony of Adélie Penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) on Cape Adare. This location is (or was) the largest breeding colony of these animals in the world, harboring several hundred thousand individuals. Here’s the location and a picture of the colony.

And here’s Levick with one of these delightful birds, which, as you’ll see, he didn’t find so delightful:

Levick filled two notebooks with his observations, and, when he returned to England, published two books on penguins, Antarctic Penguins—A Study of Their Social Habits, and the more technical Natural History of the Adélie Penguin. But he left out an important aspect of Adélie biology—their sexual habits.

What Levick found was that Adélies practiced all kinds of sexual behaviors that he found disgusting. They forcibly copulated with dead females, with chicks and their own offspring, and males bonked other males as well as living but resistant females. They also practiced autoerotic behavior, with males sometimes ejaculating spontaneously onto the ice.

Steeped in Victorian mores, Levick saw these as no different from human pedophilia, necrophilia, masturbation, homosexuality, and rape. And so, though he recorded all these behaviors in his notebooks, he never published them, except in a four-page pamphlet that was circulated privately, and in only 100 copies.

I found the whole story in this paper from Polar Record, which reproduces Levick’s pamphlet at the end (I’ve put it below; it’s short). Click on the screenshot to read the paper, which is short and very interesting! Scroll down at the end to see a video of Adélies.


Here’s one of Levick’s notebooks, which includes photos. But it also includes some notes in English transliterated into the Greek alphabet!

Here’s an example from the notebook, where he suddenly lapses into transliterated Greek (not translated, but simply English words written using the Greek alphabet):

Apparently what shocked him the most was seeing a penguin try to copulate with a dead individual of its own species. Here, taken from the paper above, is an example of the transliteration. If you know the Greek alphabet, you can read the Greek into English.

Now it’s not clear exactly why Levick lapsed into Greek; perhaps he didn’t want people going through his notebooks to read the English (sometimes he pasted the Greek transliteration over notes in English), and if you saw just the Greek you would assume it was real Greek and ignore it.

Levick was especially upset by the behavior of bachelor males, which he called “Hooligan Cocks” (“cocks” are males, not penises). Here’s a passage from his second published book, drawing a veil over the penguins’ behavior (my emphasis):

Many of the colonies, especially those nearer the water, are plagued by little knots of ‘hooligans’ who hang about their outskirts, and should a chick go astray it stands a good chance of losing its life at their hands. The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness (Levick 1914: 97–98).

And this is what he wrote in his notebook after he saw males repeatedly try to copulate with a hen who, temporarily paralyzed with cold, was crawling towards her nest:

There seems to be no crime too low for these Penguins.

By assuming that penguin behavior evinced the same kind of immorality as humans engaged in “similar” acts, Levick was too embarrassed to publish these observations. In fact, though they all turned out to be correct, they weren’t replicated until David Ainley observed them in the 1960s and 1970s.  (Ainley even did an experiment, showing that males would try to copulate with just the frozen head of a penguin.) Thus, the anthropomorphizing of penguin behavior delayed the progress of penguin science for half a century.

Here’s the pamphlet that Levick kept from public view (click to enlarge), a document recovered and reprinted by Russell et al.

To lighten your mood after all that sexual misbehavior, here’s a video showing Adélies. They are not criminals!



Live: 2000 meters below the sea!

March 10, 2016 • 2:29 pm

As Matthew just wrote me excitedly:

The Okeanos mission is at 2000 m below the Pacific. Have it on your computer in a window – amazing marine biology!

Indeed it is–all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures! Click on the screenshot below to go there, and keep it open as Matthew suggests (click on the arrow when you get to the site):

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 2.27.19 PM

Guess what the creatures above are (yes, they’re animals):

From the website:

From February 25 to March 18, scientists will continue 2015 Hohonu Moana expedition efforts to explore deep-water habitats in and around Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The expedition will include work on seamounts in the Mid-Pacific Mountains while en route to port in Kwajalein.