Sublieutenant José María Sobral
When the Swedish expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld reached Buenos Aires aboard the Antarctic on December 16, 1901, twenty-one-year-old Sublieutenant Sobral was appointed to join it as a crew member during the navigation and the wintering period in Antarctica.
This way, the order that a navy officer should follow the expedition given by Lieutenant Ballvé, chief of the Observatory on the Isla de Año Nuevo, opposite Isla de los Estados, was executed.
He had three days to get ready to set off. So, he went shopping to secure himself the necessary clothes in order to stay in Antarctica over the winter. In Argentina, nobody had any experience in that sort of enterprise, and polar gear did not exist. So, he decided to buy: “three very thick suits and a cap, five pairs of warm boots, two or three guanaco skins, half a dozen sets of first-quality woolen underwear, a waterproof canvas bag, a canvas sweater with a pointed hood, woolen clothes, gloves, and socks...” Later, he realized only the underwear was useful. Luckily, experience and his mates’ goodwill helped him spend two winters instead of one.
On December 21, Sobral set sail from Buenos Aires and started to slowly get used to the Swedish lifestyle, with its different dishes and with a language he would later master. However, at the beginning, the crew had to speak to him in English.
During his stay in Snow Hill, Sobral worked as Nordenskjöld’s assistant, helping with the meteorological and magnetic observations. He traveled around the Peninsula several times.
Their return to join the other group failed, as the Antarctic had been destroyed by the ice and the three groups of Swedes were separated by the shipwreck.
In front of Paulet Island, in the Weddell Sea, twenty members of the crew and the Norwegian captain, Karl Anton Larsen —a whaler who had worked in the area at the end of the previous year collecting fossilized plants which proved the existence of flora typical of warm climate during the Tertiary— took refuge. There, the shipwrecked built a shack using the abundant slabs found in the area and the woodwork and canvas of the ship, which was bound and destroyed by the ice in the semi-frozen Weddell Sea.
Another three members of the expedition, Andersson, Duse and Toralf Grunden, disembarked before the shipwreck in the northeast area of the peninsula, with the intention of reaching Snow Hill by land. That was the place where Nordenskjöld’s group stayed while the ship sailed towards Malvinas and Ushuaia for replenishing. The three men could not reach Snow Hill, because they unexpectedly found the waters of Prince Gustav Channel thawed, preventing their crossing. So, they returned to Hope Bay to embark again and, when not finding the vessel, they built a shack with slabs, like the group on Paulet Island, where they could winter. The original artifacts of this shack were rescued and are shown in the exhibition.
Meanwhile, in Snow Hill, Nordenskjöld and five men —Sobral among them— had a comfortable and warm wooden house, prefabricated in Sweden. The shelter was 6.30 meters long and 4 meters wide, with double walls and covered with tarred cardboard on the exterior. Two packs of dogs, one from Malvinas and the other one from Greenland, formed the teams that had to transport the members of the expedition during their survey and research outings. All of them worked tirelessly until they were rescued two years later, in 1903. They brought back fossils, plants and animals as well as important meteorological and gravimetric data.
It was the first exploration on sleighs in the area of the Weddell Sea and the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Back in Buenos Aires, Sobral stayed with the Navy and asked permission to go and study Geology in Sweden. Unfortunately, when his request was denied, he applied for a discharge, which was granted in December 30, 1904. Clearly, both parties made a mistake.
In Sweden, apart from obtaining his PhD and MA in Geology, he got married. He came back to Argentina with his wife, his four children and his degree in 1914, and devoted himself to his profession at the Dirección General de Minas, Geología e Hidrología [General Direction of Mining, Geology, and Hydrology], where he was the director until 1931. Afterward, he worked as Consul in Norway and he finally retired as a geologist after working with the state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales.
He was acknowledged not only in Sweden but also in Norway and the United States because of his scientific work. He died in Buenos Aires on April 14, 1961, at the age of 81.
(Antarctic Museum. Exhibit halls 1, 2, 3, and 17)