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  • Writer's pictureLouise Delhaye

Waste Site Story: A bittersweet success story on the waste of Brabant Island, Antarctic Peninsula.

Updated: May 16

Almost 40 years after the British Joint Services Expedition to Brabant Island, on the western Antarctic Peninsula, the remains of their camps and supplies are resurfacing as the ice gradually releases them. A clean-up had already been started by the UK Royal Navy in 2014 and 2017, but the difficult conditions then forced the efforts to be put on hold. Recently, by a twist of circumstances, a blog posted by APECS Belgium about the documentary “Observations at 65° South” brought to their attention the fact that global warming had made accessible more remains of the expedition. As a result, a team of the HMS Protector returned to the site last February and removed an additional three tonnes of waste from the island.

Corporal Kerry Gill looks through the opening of the light tent that has been their shelter for almost a week; the mountainous landscape, usually in black and white, has been an unrelenting wall of white for several days now. He tries to hide his pessimism as he closes the tent, but the strong whistle of the wind doesn't fool his injured companion, Commander Clive Waghorn. Their chances of survival diminish with each passing hour, and so do their reserves of food and morphine. It is March 1985 and their rescue attempts are making headlines in the UK, but from the loneliness of their fragile shelter over 760 m high on Brabant Island, Antarctic Peninsula, the two members of the British Joint Services Expedition certainly feel helpless as the blizzard doesn't seem to be clearing.


1984

The story of the Brabant Island waste actually began a year earlier, on the 8th of January 1984, when the HMS Endurance dropped off the participants of the first summer leg. It was an ambitious project in which the scientific objectives were almost superseded by the adventurous ones, given the harsh living and working conditions combined with an extremely hostile environment. To prepare for the island's notorious inhospitality, the members had followed a strong 18-months preparation back in the UK and Norway. Brabant Island had supposedly only been visited six times since its discovery by Adrien de Gerlache in 1898. Located off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, the 56-km long island is crossed by two mountain ranges reaching up to 2500 m in altitude. At the time, the large majority of its surface was covered in ice.


The British Joint Services Expedition was organized in three phases and included a total of 35 men. The first summer leg was organized from January to March 1984, the winter leg then lasted until the 29th of December and finally, the second and last summer leg took place from December 1984 to March 1985. Most of the members of the expeditions weren’t university-level scientists but rather experienced mountaineers. This gap was however filled by the support of numerous research institutions including, among many others, the Belgian Antarctic Committee. An impressive total of 60 scientific projects were carried out, covering topics ranging from natural sciences to sociology and human physiology. “This diversity of aim is, we believe, only possible in a Service expedition such as this free from the constraints of publication, academic rivalry and the need for immediate results. Thus many projects can be accepted that would not, in themselves, justify a journey to Antarctica'' (JSE Brabant Island 1983-85, Interim Report).


Photo taken by Jed Corbett, photographer of the expedition. Source: J. Kimbrey, Alpine Journal, 1986

At the start of the expedition, supply shelters were set up in various places on the island, with the main one being located at Metchnikoff Point, a point located at an altitude of 70 m at the extremity of a peninsula. A plaque commemorating the expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache almost a century earlier was then laid by his own grandson, François de Gerlache, who was a member of the winter leg of the British Joint Services Expedition.


Schematic map of the main locations of the British Joint Services Expedition to Brabant Island.

Despite the repetitive “misery” provoked by the island’s inhospitality, some notes from the first summer leg’s interim report suggest that the hardship did not affect the harmony between the members of the expedition. Amid serious notes, it is for example reported that “Furse et al [was] renamed Cosmic Campsites Ltd by De Silva who is then captured by Crevasse Monster”, or that a member of the expedition "is now suffering severe chocolate withdrawal symptoms". Introducing the perspectives of the winter team, the report then mentions that “Many might consider that mere survival would be a sufficient achievement for the over-winter party; they, however, have more grandiose ideas”. The plan was for them to achieve most of the exploration of the island, conquer peaks such as Mount Parry (2522 m, successfully ascended on the 29th of October) as well as carry out the rest of the scientific tasks.


Far from being a peaceful journey, indeed, the first incident of the expedition occurred during a geological expedition led by the winter team to Duclaux Point. One of the eight members fell down 15 m into a crevasse but was successfully rescued after three days. Strong winds and multiple avalanches affected scientific surveys during the winter while several objects were lost to the weather.


Photo taken by Jed Corbett, photographer of the expedition. Source: J. Kimbrey, Alpine Journal, 1986

Eventually, the weather became too bad so they stayed in the basecamp until food started to run out; the members then had to head south to other supply shelters. Affected by a duodenal ulcer, one member had to return to the basecamp, where he waited alone until November to be rescued by the RRS John Biscoe. Meanwhile, the other members had split into three groups, carrying out various scientific activities. One of the parties was at Astrolabe Point, where 96 rations of food had been washed out to sea. Having been confined in a snowhole by a storm for twelve days, they had eaten only the equivalent of 14-days portions of food in the last 22 days when they were rejoined by the two other groups. They all returned to Metchnikoff Point in December 1984, where they were relieved by the second summer party on the 29th


During this turnover, new supply shelters were placed across Brabant Island and two new groups were formed: the land and the boat parties. In February, the members of the land party divided again in two groups: one working in the north and one in the south. As they were going back to their main shelter, the southern group heard on the radio (they only had three radio sets on the whole island) that an accident had occurred in the north. Meanwhile, the boat party was circumnavigating around the island and reached the group with the injured member. Luckily, the US oceanographic ship MV Polar Duke was passing by, allowing the member with a fractured leg to be rapidly evacuated while the boat group started to paddle further north. 


After a few days, one of the boats capsized and multiple motor failures occurred, forcing the group to leave three people there while the four others skied back to the basecamp. On their way to Metchnikoff Point, however, a fur seal bit Waghorn’s leg and caused a one-week delay as his injury had to be stitched. As they finally resumed their journey, on March 3rd, Waghorn fell 25 m down a crevasse and broke his femur. 


“Dangling 40 feet below on a rope wrapped around my waist was Clive. He was barely conscious. All that stopped us both from plunging to our deaths were my fingernails and the toes of my boots. It was the most horrifying moment of our ordeal.” – Kerry Gill to Weekly World News

The three members managed to get him out of the crevasse and placed him inside the last tent they had. The next day, as the blizzard was starting, two members skied back to Metchnikoff Point where they were able to call for help. The HMS Endurance and the RFA Olna left the Falklands, more than a thousand kilometers north, upon the radio call, while a Twin Otter aircraft quickly spotted Gill waving outside their tent, on Cushing Col. However, the strong winds and poor visibility then repetitively hampered the rescue operations, preventing helicopters to reach the zone. On the 8th of March, finally, a very short, fleeting, clearing in the weather brought Waghorn and Gill out of their freezing whistling hell.


Source: Weekly World News, 1985.

The rest of the expedition’s members were recovered a week later but the continuing harsh weather didn’t allow them to collect all stores and camps around the island. In Alpine Journal, Kimbrey reports that when building the basecamp, “[it] had to be marked and carefully recorded for soon it would be buried in snow.”. This also suggests that parts of the supplies had likely become unfindable, buried under large amounts of snow. 


2009

And buried in oblivion, the waste remained so until 2009, when a report was sent to the UK authorities concerning their presence. Upon reception, they quickly started to make plans to clean up the site, as required by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty which was implemented in 1994 in the UK. Following Annex III to the protocol, “Past and present waste disposal sites on land and abandoned work sites of Antarctic activities shall be cleaned up by the generator of such wastes and the user of such sites.”


2014-2017

However, the inhospitable environment of Brabant Island and unfavorable weather conditions meant that the HMS Protector was long unable to reach the site and the clean-up could only begin in 2014. It took three more years before another opportunity occurred, so the operations continued on the 3rd and 4th of January 2017. Visible waste that had been assembled during the previous campaign were collected while more sites with remaining stores were uncovered around the island. During that year’s operation, 14 “Hippo Bags” of waste, a sledge and many scaffolding poles were removed but waste buried in the ice or that had degraded in smaller pieces were not reachable at the time and their removal was postponed to a future expedition.


2019

At the request of the Belgian government, a team of Belgian scientists returned to Metchnikoff Point in 2019 to inspect the condition of Adrien de Gerlache's commemorative plaque. While the latter was in very good state, the amount of waste around it surprised the researchers: plastic bags, cans, syringes, lipsticks, mercury thermometers, among many others. In total, the team was able to clean 40 kg of waste, but the extent of the remains was too large for them to clean everything and bring it back on their sailboat. Upon their return, however, they published a documentary about their adventure in which a few minutes are dedicated to the waste of Brabant Island.

"Hopefully, we can raise a little bit of awareness about who did that because maybe they can come and clean it up, that would be great" - Observations at 65° South (minute 35 ~)

2023-2024

About a year ago, in January 2023, we published an article on the blog of APECS Belgium, advertising the documentary. By a combination of circumstances, the blog, shared on our Facebook page, attracted the attention of a friend of one of our members, who had met each other on an oceanographic expedition to Antarctica. The latter then made the UK Polar Regions Department aware of the documentary.

“[…] We did receive updated information [from the movie], which helpfully clarified that the warming conditions at Brabant Island meant that there was considerable additional material now exposed; and as a result of this, we raised the priority for HMS Protector to return to the site for further clean-up activities, which they were happily able to fit into this year’s schedule.” – Ms. Jane Rumble, Head of Polar Regions Department  

One year after the publication of this blog on our website, we received a message referring to a publication of the UK Royal Navy, explaining this twist of events. In early February, 29 members of the HMS Protector returned to clean up three additional tonnes of waste that were now accessible on the Island of Brabant.


Source: UK Royal Navy


Almost 40 years after the expedition, the island has not yet finished unveiling all of its stores and camps, but the positive actions undertaken in recent years offer a glimpse of the possibility that it could, one day, be cleaned up completely. A victory that is however somewhat tinged with bitterness, as it is global warming that is freeing the waste from their frozen embrace.


Sources:

Furse, C. (1987). “Joint Services Expedition to Brabant Island, Antarctica, 1984/85”, The Geographical Journal, 153(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.2307/634467 

Hankinson, K.W. (1984). “JSE Brabant Island 1983-85, Interim Report”, June 1984, RAF Finningley, archived at the Mountain Heritage Trust, https://www.mountain-heritage.org/

Kimbrey, J.(1986). “Joint Services Expedition to Brabant Island, Antarctica”, Alpine Journal 139-144, 1986. URL accessed in March 2024.

Royal Navy (2024). “Royal Navy sailors clear waste off Antarctic Island”, Royal Navy, 6 February 2024. URL accessed in March 2024.

Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2017). “Report on Clean-up at Metchnikoff Point, Brabant Island”, Report presented by the United Kingdom to the XL Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, Beijing (China), 18 April 2017. Available online here.

Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (2024). “The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty”. URL accessed online in March 2024.

Tuohy, W. (1985).  “Stranded 5 Days in Blizzard : 2 Britons Rescued on Stormy Antarctic Peak”, Los Angeles Times, 9 March 1985. URL accessed in March 2024.

UPI (1985). “British, U.S. and Chilean forces are trying to rescue…”, UPI Archives, 7 March 1985. URL accessed in March 2024.

UPI (1985). “Pilots flew Royal Marines and a doctor through fog”, UPI Archives, 8 March 1985. URL accessed in March 2024.

Weekly World News (1985). “Saved from an icy hell. They endured a 5-day nightmare.”, Weekly World News, 23 April 1985. URL accessed in March 2024.


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