Around 200 million years ago, Antarctica was joined with Australia, Africa, South America, India and New Zealand in the supercontinent Gondwana. Ten million years later, Gondwana began the enormously slow process of breaking into the pieces we recognize today, and the continents, subcontinent and islands began moving into their present positions. By about 70 million years ago, the continents were becoming widely separated and what is now known as the Drake Passage opened. After making its final detachment from the Australian continent, about 40 million years ago, Antarctica settled into its present polar position and began to cool dramatically.
Among the fossil evidence found in Antarctica that clearly supports the supercontinent theory is a deciduous conifer (Glossopteris), a fern (Dicroidium) and a terrestrial reptile (Lystrosaurus). All of these species lived on Gondwana and their fossil remains have been found in rocks of the same age in such widely separated locales as India, South America, Australia, Africa and Antarctica. Because Glossopteris’ seeds and Dicroidium’s spores could not have been blown, and Lystrosaurus could not have swum across the oceans that separate these continents, their fossilized remains offer certain proof that the continents were all once united.
- The ancients
- The explorers
- The sealers
- Dumont d’urville
- De Gerlache
- Scott’s discovery expedition
- Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition
- Scott’s Terra Nova expedition
- Shackleton’s endurance expedition
- The contemporary era
- Operations Highjump & Windmill
- International Geophysical Year (IGY)
Antarctica, unlike any other continent, was postulated to exist long before it was actually discovered. The ancient Greeks, beginning with Pythagoras in about 530 BC, believed the earth to be round. Aristotle supported and refined the idea, suggesting that the symmetry of a sphere demanded that the earth’s inhabited northern region should be balanced by an equally inhabited – or, at least, inhabitable – southern region. Without it, the top-heavy globe might tumble over. This idea of earthly balance gave rise to the name we give the southern continent today: Antarktos, or ‘opposite Arktos, ’ the constellation in the northern sky. In Egypt Ptolemy agreed that geographical equilibrium required an unknown southern continent, but he believed the unknown land would be populated and fertile. A map he drew c AD 150 showed a large continent linking Africa and Asia.
Two factors conspired, however, against anyone going to look for this mysterious undiscovered continent. First, ancient thinkers as far back as Parmenides (460 BC) believed that between the earth’s two temperate regions would be found a zone of fire and perhaps even monsters. This may have been wisdom somehow gleaned from an early traveler who had experienced a tropical summer. This torrid zone was thought to be impassable and deadly. If mortal fear was not enough to dissuade would-be discoverers, perhaps eternal damnation did the trick, for the Catholic Church found the idea of a southern continent – with its own population, and thus its own separate relationship with God – unacceptable. The idea that the Creator could possibly have made two sets of humanity was deemed heretical, and the flat-earth theory was given full backing.
Intrepid voyagers nevertheless pushed back the boundaries of their known worlds. As early as 700 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus records, a Phoenician fleet sailed from the Red Sea south along the African coast and around Cape Agulhas to the Strait of Gibraltar. This incredible voyage was not to be repeated for nearly 2000 years. In AD 650, according to Rarotongan legend, a Polynesian navigator named Ui-te-Rangiora sailed so far south that he reached a place where the sea was frozen. These voyages were neither repeated nor widely known, however, and it was not until late in the 15th century that further progress was made on answering the question of Antarctica.
The Portuguese made the first important penetrations south, beginning with a naval voyage in 1487–88 led by Bartholomeu Días de Novaes and João Infante, who sailed around the southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, as far as present-day Mozambique. Their voyage opened the way for another naval expedition, led by Vasco da Gama in 1497, to discover the way around Africa to India. These expeditions proved that if there was a great southern continent, it was not attached to Africa.
Likewise, Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan), leading the first circumnavigation of the globe from 1519 to 1522, discovered and named Tierra del Fuego (‘Land of Fire, ’ named not for the ancients’ torrid regions, but for the campfires built by the native Yámana people that had been spotted onshore). By sailing through the straits that now bear his name, Magellan proved the southern land was not connected to South America, either, although it remained possible that it was attached to Tierra del Fuego.
What’s remarkable about these discoveries is that their makers were disproving rather than proving the existence of a great southern land. Antarctica was a mysterious place whose extent was originally imagined to be enormous: it was thought to cover the whole Southern Ocean and connect to the southern extremes of the known continents. Although each subsequent voyage of discovery pared off great sections of open ocean where Antarctica was obviously not located, few people seemed able to conceive that the continent might not exist at all; instead the belief persisted strongly that Antarctica – a greatly diminished Antarctica, to be sure – must lie just a little further south. But the Southern Ocean’s terrifying storms and impenetrable pack ice conspired to keep the continent’s white face shrouded from inquiring eyes for centuries more.
Terra Australis (Southern Land) – the term was first used by Flemish mapmaker Oronce Finé in 1531 – continued to exert its attraction, however. Englishman Francis Drake, sailing in Pelican (later named Golden Hind), made the second circumnavigation of the globe from 1577–80. Drake discovered the passage now named for him, definitively proving that no southern continent was connected to either South America or Tierra del Fuego. As the sub-Antarctic and Southern Ocean archipelagoes (the Falklands, South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia, Bouvetøya, Îles Kerguelen) were found in succession, some were initially thought to be northerly projections of Terra Australis, but each eventually proved merely insular. Dutchman Abel Janszoon Tasman’s voyages, charting parts of Tasmania and New Zealand in 1623–25 and again in 1644, also sparked hope that they might be part of the great missing continent, but they were not.
Yorkshireman James Cook (1728–79), once apprenticed to a shopkeeper, was the widest-ranging explorer who ever lived. He circumnavigated the globe three times, discovering more territory than anyone else in history. Aged 40, he undertook the first of his three great voyages. Between 1768 and 1771, he found New Zealand and the whole east coast of Australia, claiming them for Britain. On his third voyage, from 1776 to 1779, he explored the Arctic coasts of North America and Siberia before being killed by natives in Hawaii in 1779.
Cook’s Antarctic discoveries came on his second voyage, beginning in 1772 aboard HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure. Like HMS Endeavour, Cook’s previous ship, these vessels were colliers from the north country of England. Part of Cook’s genius lay in persuading the Royal Navy of the value of these ships that he had come to know in his earliest seagoing days as a deckhand on the coal run from Yorkshire to London: he knew that these shallow-drafted barques could explore close inshore without risk of running aground. On his second voyage with the ships, Cook’s expedition sailed 109, 500km and penetrated further south than anyone before. They crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773, becoming the first people to do so, and crossed it twice again without ever sighting land, despite pushing to a record 71°10´S. On their third pass through the pack ice, Cook and his men landed on South Georgia, which he called the Isle of Georgia, and discovered the South Sandwich Islands.
Despite his remarkable first circumnavigation of Antarctica – done without losing a single crewmember – Cook failed to find the southern continent itself. It’s almost more remarkable that he didn’t find Antarctica, given that he managed to get so much further south than anyone before. Cook simply had poor luck: in the longitudes where he managed to penetrate furthest south, the coast of Antarctica itself also swerved southward. Upon leaving the frozen southern seas for the last time, Cook wrote:
Thick fogs, Snow storms, Intense Cold and every other thing that can render Navigation dangerous, one has to encounter and these difficulties are greatly heightned by the enexpressable horrid aspect of the Country, a Country doomed by Nature never once to feel the warmth of the Suns rays, but to lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice.
If there were any remaining doubt how Cook felt about the prospects of a still-undiscovered Antarctica, he later underscored this opinion:
...whoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than I have done, I shall not envy him the honour of discovery, but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it.
So convincing were his pessimistic sentiments that Cook discouraged other explorers from seeking the great southern continent for decades afterward. But he also recorded his observations of large numbers of seals and whales – and others, more commercially minded than the Royal Navy, took notice.
During the sealing era from about 1780 to 1892, more than 1100 sealing ships visited Antarctic regions (both the peri-Antarctic islands, and the Antarctic Peninsula), compared to barely 25 exploration ships. The sealers came from Britain, the Cape Colony (now part of South Africa), France, Tasmania and New South Wales (in present-day Australia), New Zealand and the United States. Most were motivated by profit, not discovery, though a few firms, notably Enderby Brothers of London, spent vast sums on exploration.
Fur seals have two layers that make up their coats: stiff, outer ‘guard hairs’ to protect the body when they clamber over rocks, and a dense layer of underfur to trap insulating air bubbles and keep the skin dry. Preparing the pelts required the removal of the guard hairs, a technique for many decades known only by the Chinese.
Sealing was an extremely hard life. Gangs were typically dropped off on a promising beach and left for months at a time while the ship continued in search of other sealing grounds. The sealers lived in tents, rude huts, or small caves among the rocks. All offered little shelter from the wind and weather.
The brutality of their work impressed even the sealers themselves. ‘By having our hands daily imbued in the blood of animals, ’ wrote American William Dane Phelps in 1871, ‘our natures were so changed, that acts of cruelty, which, one year previous, would have been revolting to us, we now seemed to enjoy…’
Greed was the watchword as the sealing gangs slaughtered without thought for the future. Captain James W Budington, a Connecticut sealer who worked in the Antarctic for more than 20 years, testified to the US Congress in 1892:
We killed everything, old and young, that we could get in gunshot of, excepting the black pups, whose skins were unmarketable, and most all of these died of starvation, having no means of sustenance, or else were killed by a sort of buzzard, when the mother seals, having been destroyed, were unable to protect them longer... The seals in all these localities have been destroyed entirely by this indiscriminate killing of old and young, male and female. If the seals in these regions had been protected and only a certain number of ‘dogs’ (young male seals unable to hold their positions on the beaches) allowed to be killed, these islands and coasts would be again populous with seal life. The seals would certainly not have decreased and would have produced an annual supply of skins for all times. As it is, however, seals in the Antarctic regions are practically extinct, and I have given up the business as unprofitable.
Another Connecticut sealer, George Comer of East Haddam, testified to the Congress in the same year about the enormous waste of life involved in sealing:
In the first part of a season we never disturbed the rookeries we visited, always letting the seals come on shore; then we would kill them on land with clubs or rifles. During the latter part of a season the seals became very wild, and we used to shoot them in the water from boats. When we shoot them in the water, we lose certainly three out of five we kill by sinking, and we also wounded a great many more. Shooting seals in the water is the most destructive method of taking them as compared with the number of skins we have to show for our work.
Elephant seals also were hunted for the oil that can be rendered from their blubber rather than for fur, which they lack. Elephant seals grow to massive sizes, particularly males, but the sealers found ‘sea elephants’ easy prey. ‘To the skilful hunter their overthrow is but the work of a moment, ’ wrote one sealer on Kerguelen. ‘He fearlessly approaches the animal in front, and, as it raises the left forepaw to advance upon him, with great address plunges his lance, 10ft or 12ft [3m or 3.6m] long, into its heart.’
Sealing voyages far outnumbered expeditions that could be called strictly scientific. Nearly a third of the peri-Antarctic islands were discovered by sealers. But sealers considered their discoveries proprietary and kept the information to themselves (although drunken sailors were not always able to restrain from boasting about newfound sealing grounds). So it remained for kings, czars and governments to send out exploring expeditions, in hopes of extending their sovereignty over ever-greater empires.
Fabian von Bellingshausen (1778–1852), a Baltic German and captain in the Russian Imperial Navy, participated in the first Russian circumnavigation in 1803–06. In 1819 Czar Alexander I dispatched Bellingshausen on a voyage to the Southern Ocean, a dream assignment for Bellingshausen, who had long admired Cook’s voyages. With his flagship Vostok (East), a newly launched corvette with a copper-sheathed hull, and the older, sluggish transport ship Mirnyy (Peaceful) which constantly slowed the expedition, Bellingshausen sailed from Kronstadt, an island off St Petersburg, in July 1819.
The expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 26, 1820, and the next day became the first to sight the Antarctic continent. Through a heavy curtain of falling snow, at 69°21´S, 2°14´W, Bellingshausen saw ‘an icefield covered with small hillocks.’ Not realizing the importance of his discovery, however, he merely noted the weather and position in the ship’s log before continuing. The two ships sailed eastward, pushing further south than anyone before, reaching 69°25´S. Eventually they tacked north to escape the oncoming winter, spending four months in the South Pacific in 1820. Turning south again, they crossed the Antarctic Circle six more times, eventually probing as far as 69°53´S, where they discovered Peter I Øy, the southernmost land known at that time. They also found a second piece of ice-free land south of the Circle, which Bellingshausen called Alexander Coast after the czar. It is now known to be an island joined to the Antarctic Peninsula by an ice shelf.
Returning north through the South Shetlands, Bellingshausen met American sealer Nathaniel Brown Palmer, in Hero, who claimed to know well the coast Bellingshausen had just explored. A legend created by Palmer’s biographer, sealer Edmund Fanning, insists that Bellingshausen was so impressed by Palmer’s claims of knowledge that he named the new territory after Palmer. But the meticulous Bellingshausen never noted this alleged act in his diaries or charts; the story appears to be fantasy.
Despite Bellingshausen’s discoveries – and his duplication of his hero Cook’s circumnavigation of Antarctica – he returned to Russia to find that his countrymen had little interest in his voyage. It took nearly 120 years and the start of the Cold War before his accomplishments were fully appreciated – by a Soviet Union newly anxious to assert its right to authority in the Antarctic.
English merchant Captain William Smith (1790–1847), sailing in the British ship Williams in early 1819, set a course well south of Cape Horn while bound for Valparaiso, Chile, probably to avoid difficult winds. He sighted the South Shetlands on February 19, but made no landing. Returning eastward from Chile in June, Smith headed south again, reaching 62°S, but this time he was too far west and missed the islands. On his third voyage that year, again in Williams, Smith landed on King George Island on October 17. He claimed it for George IV, naming it first New South Britain, then New South Shetland. The islands were thus the first part of Antarctica (south of 60°S) to be discovered. On October 18, he sighted the island now named for him (Smith Island). Smith returned to the islands again later in the year with Bransfield.
Although Edward Bransfield (c 1783–1852) was once credited with being first to sight Antarctica, it is now agreed that Bellingshausen beat him to that honor by three days.
After Smith announced his discovery of the South Shetlands in 1819, the Royal Navy chartered his ship, Williams, to survey the islands. Bransfield was put aboard Williams, and they sailed south from Valparaiso, Chile. On January 22, 1820, they landed at King George Bay (perhaps at Turret Point) on King George Island and again claimed the islands for Britain. Two months were spent charting the South Shetlands.
Continuing south, Bransfield sighted the Antarctic Peninsula on January 30, 1820, calling it Trinity Land. One of his midshipmen, quoted in the Literary Gazette and Journal of Belle Lettres, called it ‘a prospect the most gloomy that can be imagined…the only cheer the sight afforded was in the idea that this might be the long-sought Southern Continent.’ They surveyed the islands along it for another 20 days before being stopped by pack ice and turning north.
American sealer Nathaniel Brown Palmer (1799–1877), son of a shipyard owner, left his home of Stonington, Connecticut at age 14 to go to sea. On his second sealing voyage to the South Shetlands in 1820, commanding the sloop Hero, Palmer sailed south with a small fleet of other sealers. Hero carried five crewman, including Peter Harvey, born in Philadelphia in 1789, the first recorded black person to reach such a high southern latitude (although there is a good chance that Cook’s ships had black crewmembers, since up to 10% of Royal Navy crews of that era were black, with many former slaves remaining aboard their ships).
Upon his arrival in the South Shetlands, the need for a more secure anchorage for the five ships drove Palmer to push south ahead of the others. He anchored inside the caldera of Deception Island, almost certainly the first person to do so. On November 16, either from a high lookout at Deception or from Hero’s masthead, he saw Trinity Island to the southeast and probably the Antarctic Peninsula beyond. The next day Palmer sailed to investigate, but due to heavy ice thought it imprudent to try to land. In later years, Palmer claimed that he had found the Antarctic continent, calling his discovery Palmer Land. But even if he did see Antarctica on that occasion, his sighting came 10 months after Bellingshausen’s (January 27) and Bransfield’s (January 30) earlier that year. Later that summer, in January 1821, while searching for seal rookeries, Palmer took Hero south along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula as far as Marguerite Bay.
A year later, commanding the sloop James Monroe, Palmer was searching for seals in the South Shetlands with British Captain George Powell of Dove. Finding no seals, they steered east, and on December 6, 1821, sighted a large island of a new group. Since there were no seals, Palmer had no interest in the discovery, but Powell went ashore and claimed it for the British crown, calling it Coronation Island, and the group, ‘Powell’s Group, ’ now known as the South Orkney Islands.
Another Briton, John Biscoe (1794–1843), joined the Royal Navy at age 18 and fought in the 1812 war against the US. Dispatched by the London firm of Enderby Brothers in July 1830, he made the third circumnavigation of Antarctica, sailing in the brig Tula, accompanied by George Avery in the cutter Lively. The vessels sighted what they called Enderby Land on February 24, 1831, and confirmed the discovery three days later – the first sighting of the Antarctic continent in the Indian Ocean sector. Biscoe was also struck by the beauty of the aurora australis, which, he recorded, ‘at times (appeared) not many yards above us.’ Oncoming winter forced the ships north to Hobart, but scurvy so ravaged Tula’s crew that only Biscoe, three other men and a boy were able to work. Aboard Lively, which had become separated from Tula, all but three of the crew died of scurvy or other diseases.
Sailing again with both ships in October 1831, on what was, after all, supposed to be a commercial voyage, Biscoe spent three months searching for whales or seals off New Zealand. Finding none, he headed south once more, sailing eastward and discovering Adelaide Island (which he named for the consort of King William IV) on February 16, 1832. Biscoe found more land (now thought to be Anvers Island) on February 21, and claimed the territory for King William IV. Still seeking seals or another valuable cargo, Biscoe was forced to sail for England after Tula damaged her rudder. (En route home, Lively was wrecked in the Falklands.) Although he returned to London in January 1833 with empty holds and one ship missing, Biscoe was fortunate to have extremely open-minded bosses. Instead of reproach, he received the highest award of the newly established Royal Geographical Society.
After Biscoe’s return, the coast he discovered was named Graham Land, for James RG Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. Although this was in fact a southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula, which had already been sighted by Bransfield, Smith and Palmer, the name eventually came to be applied to the entire Antarctic Peninsula on British maps, while the name Palmer Land was used by American chartmakers. This difference continued until 1964, when the US and the UK agreed to use the name Antarctic Peninsula for the entire northward-reaching extension of the Antarctic continent, with the northern part to be called Graham Land and the southern, Palmer Land.
British discoveries in the Peninsula region had not escaped the attention of the US government. After nearly a decade of being urged to do so, the US Congress voted to send ships south to explore the region.
By the time American Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) was offered command of the US Exploring Expedition in 1838, the position had been declined by several senior officers. Perhaps they knew something Wilkes didn’t, for this inauspicious beginning foretold great hardship for the expedition. In the words of British polar historian Laurence P Kirwan (The White Road, Hollis & Carter, 1959), it was ‘the most ill-prepared, the most controversial, and probably the unhappiest expedition which ever sailed the Antarctic seas.’
For a start, the six ships selected were ill-suited to polar exploration. Warships Vincennes, Peacock and Porpoise had gun ports that admitted heavy seas; Sea Gull and Flying Fish were former New York pilot boats; the sluggish storeship Relief rounded out the sorry fleet. As might be expected of an expedition planned by committee, the US Ex Ex, as it became known, lacked focus. Antarctica was to be just one area of its endeavor, and a minor one at that: Wilkes was also directed to explore the whole of the Pacific, from Chile to Australia to the northwest coast of North America. A jealous Navy Department, meanwhile, did all it could to exclude civilian scientists from the expedition, though Wilkes did manage to take with him artist Titian Ramsey Peale.
By the time the expedition sailed on August 18, 1838, a depressed Wilkes confided to his private diary that he felt ‘doomed to destruction.’ After sailing down the east coast of South America to Orange Harbour, near the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Wilkes divided the fleet in three. He directed Peacock and Flying Fish to sail southwest to try to better Cook’s southing record. Vincennes and Relief were to survey the coast of Tierra del Fuego.
Placing himself aboard Porpoise, Wilkes set off south with Sea Gull to see how far they could penetrate the pack ice. The ships soon lost contact with one another, each undergoing its own trials. Gales blew out sails and tangled rigging, boats were crushed by ice, men were injured and frozen. Wilkes himself, in the flagship, narrowly missed running aground on Elephant Island in fog. Sea Gull was lost off Chile with all hands. But Peacock and Flying Fish managed to cross the 70th parallel, little more than a degree away from beating Cook’s record.
Now diminished by two (Relief had been sent home as unsuitable for ice work), the expedition reconvened in Sydney in November 1839 after surveying in the South Pacific. After a month’s recuperation, the four ships sailed south again on December 26, with Wilkes commanding Vincennes. On board was one of the first recorded canine visitors to the Antarctic, a dog acquired in Sydney and named after that port. Again the ships were quickly separated, and in late February Flying Fish gave up its search for the others and returned to New Zealand alone.
The other three vessels managed to rendezvous, however, and on January 16, 1840 – three days before Dumont d’Urville made his discovery – they sighted land in the region of 154°30´E, putting a boat ashore three days later to confirm it. Separating again, Vincennes continued west, sighting and charting discoveries until reaching the present-day Shackleton Ice Shelf, which Wilkes named Termination Land. The massive ice shelf, which today extends nearly 290km out to sea, convinced him that it was time to head home, which he did on February 21.
Having followed the Antarctic coast for nearly 2000km, Wilkes announced the discovery of an Antarctic continent upon his return to Sydney. Later, James Clark Ross, to whom Wilkes gave a manuscript copy of his tracing of the Antarctic coastline, announced that he had sailed over positions Wilkes laid down on his chart as land. Ross was equally dismissive of Wilkes’ claim for an Antarctic mainland, but Wilkes insisted that he had limned a continent.
Subsequent investigations have proven the accuracy of most of Wilkes’ delineation of the Antarctic coastline he followed. Antarctic atmospheric conditions sometimes combine to create a phenomenon known as ‘looming, ’ in which geographic features beneath the horizon—as far as hundreds of kilometers distant—appear much closer than they are. Wilkes was hardly the last Antarctic explorer to be misled by the occurrence, and aerial photo-mapping has confirmed the integrity of his Antarctic cartography.
Wilkes’ only reward upon homecoming in New York was a court-martial. Petty jealousy of some officers, coupled with his harsh shipboard discipline, entangled Wilkes in a messy trial in a Naval Court of Inquiry held at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Two long months later, all of the charges against him – save one – were dismissed. Found guilty of ordering a too-severe punishment for some thieving seamen, Wilkes was officially reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy. The US Congress, however, handed Wilkes his bitterest defeat, authorizing publication of just 100 copies of the expedition’s official report. Today, the full set of the Narrative is one of the rarest and most valuable polar books.
Frenchman Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville (1790–1842) was a veteran of two circumnavigations (and fluent in English, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish), when he sailed from Toulon in 1837 with Astrolabe and Zélée, clad in copper for protection from the ice. Although Dumont d’Urville hoped to reach the South Magnetic Pole – magnetism was then one of science’s hottest questions – his orders from King Louis Philippe were simply to proceed as far south as possible in the Weddell Sea. Indeed, the explorers were promised a bonus of 100 gold francs each if they reached 75°S, with another 20 francs for each additional degree gained toward the Pole.
But the ice in the Weddell Sea that season extended much further north – its normal configuration – and much to his frustration Dumont d’Urville was unable to penetrate nearly as far south as Weddell. At the end of February he discovered (or rediscovered, since sealers had probably already landed there) Louis Philippe Land and Joinville Island at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. By this time, scurvy plagued his ships; on the return to Tierra del Fuego a sailor died of the dreaded disease.
Following a year-long ethnological voyage in the Pacific, during which 23 men died of dysentery and fever, Dumont d’Urville and his crews headed south again in January 1840. On the 19th, they saw what they felt certain was land, confirmed the next day by a clearer sighting. Unable to go ashore because of massive ice cliffs, they sailed west before coming upon a group of islets just a few hundred meters offshore. A party was landed, a few chips of granite hacked off as proof that they had found terra firma, and the discovery claimed for France. An officer who had anticipated success brought out a bottle of Bordeaux and a toast was raised to the King.
Honoring his wife by naming the new territory for her, Dumont d’Urville was the only early explorer to so honor his wife, though another Frenchman, Charcot, later followed his example. Terre Adélie was, Dumont d’Urville wrote, dedicated to ‘the devoted companion who has three times consented to a painful separation in order to allow me to accomplish my plans for distant exploration.’ The Adélie penguin likewise commemorates Madame Dumont d’Urville.
Heading east in search of the Magnetic Pole, Dumont d’Urville’s lookouts were astonished one afternoon to see an American man-of-war emerge from the fog, running before the wind straight toward them. The ship was Porpoise, part of Wilkes’ US Ex Ex, but thanks to a misunderstanding, the two vessels did not stop to communicate. Each side later blamed the other for raising sail and blowing past. Returning to France in November 1840 to great acclaim after their 38-month voyage, Dumont d’Urville and his men were rewarded by the French government with 15, 000 francs, to be divided by the expedition’s 130 surviving members.
Scotsman James Clark Ross (1800–62), considered one of the most dashing figures of his time, had all of the advantages for Antarctic exploration that Wilkes lacked. After joining the Royal Navy at the tender age of 11, Ross went on to a career of Arctic discovery. Between 1818 and 1836, he spent eight winters and 15 summers in the Arctic. In 1831, as second-in-command of a voyage led by his uncle, John Ross, he located the North Magnetic Pole. In 1839 he was asked to lead a national expedition to explore the south, and if possible, to locate the South Magnetic Pole. The contrast between his commission and Wilkes’ could not have been greater. With his government firmly behind the effort, both philosophically and financially, Ross was given excellent ships, officers and provisions; his sailors were volunteers on double pay.
Sailing in September 1839 in Erebus and Terror, three-masted barques specially strengthened for ice navigation, the expedition stopped in Hobart en route. There, the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was John Franklin, himself a veteran Arctic explorer who would later sail Arctic waters again – in the same Erebus and Terror – before disappearing and triggering the greatest polar search in history.
In Hobart, Ross heard troubling news: both Wilkes and Dumont d’Urville were exploring the area in which he intended to search for the magnetic pole. Ross reacted quickly, changing his plans to a more easterly longitude for the push south.
Good fortune was to be on his side, although the elements made Ross earn it. Sailing south along the 170°E meridian, he pushed through pack ice for four days. On January 9, 1841, he broke through to open water, becoming the first to reach what we know today as the Ross Ice Shelf. The next day, Ross sighted land, an unexpected development. A boat was put ashore two days later on Possession Island, the new territory claimed for Queen Victoria.
Ross’ goal, however, was the South Magnetic Pole, which had been calculated to lie both north and west of his current position. To follow the coast south and eastward would appear to be the ‘wrong’ way to get there, but to sail west would mean following in the tracks of Wilkes and Dumont d’Urville, equally unappealing. Ross may have been thinking of the Arctic islands and channels he knew well; perhaps sailing south and east would reveal a passage back toward the expected pole. So he stayed his course, discovering High (now called Ross) Island, and naming its two mountains – Erebus and Terror – for his ships.
Lying in Ross’ path, however, was a formidable obstacle, what he called simply ‘the Victoria Barrier, ’ a wall of ice towering 60m above the sea. It was, Ross wrote, ‘a mighty and wonderful object far beyond anything we could have thought or conceived. What was beyond it we could not imagine.’ This barrier, today known as the Ross Ice Shelf, also frustrated him: ‘We might with equal chance of success try to sail through the Cliffs of Dover, as penetrate such a mass.’ The two ships cruised along the Barrier for 450km, the sailors in awe of its unchanging face, oblivious to even the most gigantic wave crashing against it. After calculating on January 22, 1841 that he had surpassed Weddell’s furthest south, Ross turned for Hobart.
Sailing south again in November 1841, Ross aimed for the eastern extremity of the Barrier, reaching a new record south of 78°10´S on February 23. After surviving a horrifying storm among ice fragments as ‘hard as floating rocks of granite’ that nearly destroyed the rudders of both ships, they met an even greater hazard.
The two ships barely missed catastrophe on March 13, 1842 when, traveling together in darkness after midnight, they were blown by a gale into a group of icebergs. To avoid instant collision with one of the bergs, each ship put the helm over hard, but they crashed into one another. Rising on an enormous wave, Terror landed on Erebus, breaking away Erebus’ bowsprit, foretopmast, booms, yards and stays.
One of Erebus’ anchors was driven right though the hull’s copper sheathing into the side of the ship. ‘If both Ships was forty Seconds Longer in contact They would Gow down together and no Person would live to tell the tale, ’ wrote one of Erebus’ crew. When they separated, each ship still faced great danger: Erebus, now just 8m from the giant berg, somehow managed to slip past. Terror likewise narrowly avoided collision with the floating mountain.
Following this unnerving crash, the ships again reached the Barrier. It appeared to join a range of mountains, but winter’s onset forced a retreat. Ross’ third season was equally disappointing: trying to best Weddell’s southing record in Weddell’s namesake sea, Ross found conditions similar to those encountered by everyone but Weddell. He was forced to head home after reaching 71°30´S.
The expedition reached England on September 2, 1843, after nearly 4½ years away. When Ross married later that year, his bride Anne’s father set one condition: he must promise to end his exploring days, a pledge Ross made and faithfully kept – with one exception. In 1847–48 he returned to the Arctic to search for John Franklin, who had disappeared after sailing in Ross’ old ships Erebus and Terror in 1845 to try to navigate the Northwest Passage.
After Ross’ important discoveries, Antarctica was once again ignored by the rest of the world, which was distracted by things such as the slave trade and the Crimean War.
Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen (1860–1924) went to sea at age 14, and at 25 became master of his first whaling ship. Later, he sailed in Jason on the same voyage that carried Fridtjof Nansen to Greenland for his famous east–west crossing in 1888. Whaling entrepreneur Christen Christiansen dispatched Larsen in Jason in 1892 to search for whales in the Antarctic. In 1893, having found fur and elephant seals, but no whales of any species that he could catch, Larsen returned home. He went south again independently later that year, this time with three ships: Jason, Hertha and Castor. The expedition explored both coasts of the northern Antarctic Peninsula, discovered Oscar II Land and made the first use of skis in Antarctica. Larsen also found petrified wood on Seymour Island. He went on to captain Nordenskjöld’s Antarctic in 1901, and to establish South Georgia’s Grytviken whaling station, Antarctica’s first, in 1904.
Norwegian-born Henrik Johan Bull (1844–1930) traveled to Australia in 1885 and set himself up in business. Sure that a fortune could be made by reviving the Antarctic whaling trade, but unable to convince any Australians to join him, Bull returned to Norway in 1893. There he persuaded Svend Foyn, wealthy inventor of the exploding harpoon gun, to back an expedition to assess the Ross Sea’s potential for whaling. Whales in the northern hemisphere had been hunted to commercial extinction, and although petroleum products had to some degree replaced whale oil, baleen (whalebone) was still prized for women’s fashions.
Sailing from Norway in 1893 in a refitted whaling steamer, Antarctic (later to be used by Nordenskjöld), Bull’s expedition encountered many misfortunes and saw few whales. A £3000 profit made from sealing at Îles Kerguelen evaporated when the ship ran aground at Campbell Island. Putting in for repairs at Melbourne, the ship picked up Carsten E Borchgrevink, who signed on as assistant biologist in 1894. On January 18, 1895, Antarctic landed on the Possession Islands, where Borchgrevink discovered lichens, the first vegetation found south of the Antarctic Circle.
Six days later, a party went ashore at Cape Adare in what was claimed to be the first landing ever made on the continent outside the Peninsula. The landing was only one of several disputed ‘first landings’ on the continent. Penguins, rock specimens, seaweed and more lichens were collected. Although Antarctic’s voyage was commercially unsuccessful, it helped revive interest in Antarctica. Bull himself continued sealing and whaling, and at the age of 62 was shipwrecked on Îles Crozet for two months.
Belgian Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery (1866–1934), a lieutenant in the Royal Belgian Navy, persuaded the Brussels Geographical Society to finance a scientific expedition to Antarctica. Sailing in a refitted three-masted sealing ship (with an auxiliary engine) that he purchased in Norway and rechristened Belgica, de Gerlache left Antwerp in 1897 with a decidedly international crew. The Belgian Antarctic Expedition included a Romanian zoologist, a Russian meteorologist, a Polish geologist and a Norwegian who offered to join the expedition as first mate, without pay: Roald Amundsen. As the ship’s surgeon, de Gerlache signed an American, Frederick A Cook.
The expedition got a late start sailing south, leaving Punta Arenas on December 14. Some now speculate that this tardy departure was a deliberate attempt by de Gerlache to ensure that Belgica would be beset in pack ice and thus forced to remain in the Antarctic for the winter. Others have correctly pointed out that the Antarctic pack was known to be at its most navigable late in summer. By early February, the expedition had discovered and mapped the strait which now bears de Gerlache’s name on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the islands on the west side of that strait: Brabant, Liège, Anvers and Wiencke. Along the eastern side of the strait, they charted the Peninsula’s Danco Coast, named for the ship’s magnetician, who died during the expedition.
Photography was first used in Antarctica on this expedition. Cook recorded that ‘as the ship steamed rapidly along, spreading out one panorama after another of a new world, the noise of the camera was as regular and successive as the tap of a stock ticker.’
Belgica crossed the Circle on February 15, 1898. By March 1, already deep into the heavy pack ice, she reached 71°31´S. The next day began a long imprisonment in the ice. The ship would not be freed for 377 days – and then only by enormous effort and a great deal of luck. During this, the first time anyone had wintered south of the Antarctic Circle, the expedition underwent great hardships: midwinter darkness toyed with the men’s sanity, and the lack of vitamin C made them ripe for scurvy.
Cook, who had been on the North Greenland Expedition with Robert E Peary in 1891 and returned to Greenland twice more in the next three years, is probably responsible for saving the ship. To prevent scurvy, he urged de Gerlache to set an example by eating fresh seal and penguin meat, which the men detested. He organized elaborate betting games to take the crew’s minds off their desperate circumstances and encouraged them to think of things to amuse themselves. One popular event, held on Belgian King Leopold’s birthday, was the ‘Grand Concourse of Beautiful Women’ – 464 illustrations of beauties ‘representing all kinds of poses and dress and undress’ were selected from a Paris journal and judged according to 21 characteristics, including ‘rosy complexion, ’ ‘underclothes, ’ ‘most beautiful face’ and ‘sloping, alabaster shoulders.’ The men hoped that once the expedition returned to civilization, the winners would agree to appear before the committee to receive their prizes.
That they would return to civilization was by no means certain, however. By January 1899, Cook suggested that they attempt to liberate themselves by hand-sawing a canal 600m from a stretch of open water back to the ship. They worked like dogs for a month. When they were within 30m of the ship, a wind shift tightened the pack ice. Their hard-won canal closed within an hour. Two weeks later, the ice opened and they steamed into the polynya, only to be forced to wait another month until they could gain the open sea. Belgica finally reached Punta Arenas on March 28, 1899.
The primary achievement of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition – surviving the first Antarctic night – proved that bases could be set up on the continent itself, enabling a full-time program of exploration. That knowledge was crucial for the next phase of Antarctic discovery.
Adrien de Gerlache remained involved in Antarctic affairs. In 1903 he joined Charcot’s Français expedition, but resigned in Pernambuco, Brazil because he had recently become engaged and missed his fiancée too much to prolong the separation. He later launched a business venture he called ‘polar safaris, ’ taking tourists to East Greenland and Spitsbergen, but the enterprise collapsed in its initial phase. De Gerlache sold his ship, Polaris, a 270-tonne barquentine, to Shackleton, who renamed it Endurance. De Gerlache’s son, Gaston de Gerlache, joined the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1957–59.
Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink (1864–1934), son of a Norwegian father and an English mother, sailed with Bull in Antarctic in 1894. Landing at Cape Adare convinced Borchgrevink it was possible to survive an Antarctic winter ashore, so he decided to organize his own expedition to be first to accomplish it.
Failing to raise any money in Australia, Borchgrevink visited Britain, where he met with rejection after rejection – until 1897, when he convinced publisher Sir George Newnes to give £40, 000. Borchgrevink’s stunning fundraising success infuriated the British exploration establishment, headed by the Royal Geographical Society, which was preparing its own Antarctic expedition. Even more galling, Borchgrevink’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1898–90 was British in name only. Just three (two Englishmen and one Australian) of the 31 men were not Norwegian. The expedition’s Southern Cross, a converted Norwegian sealer, sailed under the Union Jack only at the insistence of its magnanimous sponsor.
Departing London on August 22, 1898, Southern Cross arrived at Cape Adare on February 17, 1899. Two weeks later, after a pair of simple wooden huts were erected on Ridley Beach, which Borchgrevink named after his mother, Southern Cross departed to winter in New Zealand. The 10 men left behind were some of the most solitary in history, having the entire Antarctic continent to themselves.
They had, however, plenty of canine companionship. Borchgrevink brought 90 sledge dogs, the first ever used in Antarctica. The expedition also pioneered the use of kayaks for sea travel, and was the first to bring to Antarctica the Primus stove, a lightweight, portable pressure stove invented in Sweden six years before. Although the kayak never became an important mode of Antarctic transportation, the Primus was carried by nearly every expedition that followed Borchgrevink’s. It is still in use today.
Unfortunately, the expedition marked another first – the first human death on the continent – when Norwegian zoologist Nicolai Hansen died on October 14, 1899. He was buried on the ridge above Cape Adare. Aside from Hansen’s death, there were other accidents – including a nearly disastrous fire and a narrow escape from coal-fume asphyxiation – but the expedition escaped the dietary and psychological dangers experienced by Belgica’s crew. When Southern Cross returned on January 28, 1900, to pick up the expedition, it had proven a critical fact: humans could survive Antarctica’s winter ashore, using a wooden hut as a base for exploration.
Borchgrevink’s expedition produced many positive results, including excellent maps of the Ross Sea area drawn by the expedition’s English surveyor and magnetician, William Colbeck of the Royal Navy, which would prove invaluable to later explorers. Nevertheless, Borchgrevink’s return to England was all but unheralded. The establishment was still embittered by his fundraising success – and absorbed by Scott’s impending expedition. Not until 1930 did the Royal Geographical Society award Borchgrevink its Patron’s Medal. He died in Norway four years later.
Erich Dagobert von Drygalski (1865–1949), a geography professor at the University of Berlin and leader of a four-year expedition to Greenland, was given command of the German South Polar Expedition in 1898. Drygalski and 31 other men sailed from Kiel on August 11, 1901, in Gauss, a three-masted schooner with auxiliary engines. Drygalski named the ship after German mathematician Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss, who had calculated the position of the South Magnetic Pole, the accuracy of which Ross had set out to test.
Stopping at Cape Town and Îles Kerguelen (where it met an advance party that had been landed previously and picked up coal, provisions and 40 dogs), the expedition sighted land on February 21, 1902, in the region of 90°E. Drygalski named the territory Kaiser Wilhelm II Land. On the same day, the ship was beset, soon becoming, in Drygalski’s words, ‘a toy of the elements.’
With Gauss trapped in the west-drifting pack, the men settled into a routine of scientific work by day, and card games, lectures, beer and music by night. With snow drifted up over the ship, its warm, humid interior was infused with a very German Gemütlichkeit (coziness). The expedition even published a shipboard newspaper, Das antarktische Intelligenzblatt (the Antarctic Intelligencer).
A sledging party journeyed 80km to the Antarctic coast, discovering along the way a low volcano they named Gaussberg after their ship. On March 29, 1902, Drygalski ascended 480m in a large, tethered hydrogen balloon and used a telephone to report his observations to the ship. The men recorded penguin sounds with an early phonograph, and undertook two more sledging trips to Gaussberg. On the last of these, Drygalski and his companions nearly were lost in the trackless white wasteland of snow-covered sea ice.
Being beset during winter was one thing, but when spring and then summer arrived, the men began to feel desperate, especially after sawing, drilling and even dynamiting the 5m- to 6m-thick ice did nothing to free the ship. Gauss’ captain suggested they toss message-filled bottles into the sea – and launch others by balloon – so a rescue party might find them.
A basic principle of physics, luckily observed by Drygalski himself during a walk on the ice, liberated them in the end. Drygalski remarked that cinders from the ship’s smokestack caused the ice on which they landed to melt, since the dark ashes absorbed the sun’s heat. He ordered his men to lay a trail of coal ash, supplemented by rotting food and other garbage, across the 600m of ice separating Gauss from open water.
As hoped, the ingenious trick worked. Soon there was a 2m-deep channel filled with water. Two months passed, however, before the bottom of the canal cracked open, on February 8, 1903, and the ship was freed. The expedition next spent seven weeks trying to chart the Kaiser Wilhelm II coast, but constantly shifting sea ice threatened to trap Gauss once more, and Drygalski reluctantly ordered the ship north on March 31.
After reaching Cape Town, he wired Berlin for permission to return to the Antarctic the following season. But the Kaiser, apparently disappointed that more new territory was not discovered and claimed for the Fatherland, refused the request. Despite his disappointment, Drygalski spent the next three decades writing up the expedition’s reports, which occupy 20 volumes.
Swedish geologist Nils Otto Gustav Nordenskjöld (1869–1928) had previously led expeditions to the Yukon and Tierra del Fuego, and his uncle, the North Polar explorer Nils AE Nordenskiöld, made the first transit of the Northeast Passage around Siberia. So he was well suited for the task assigned to him in 1900: leadership of the Swedish South Polar Expedition, the first to winter in the Antarctic Peninsula region.
Sailing in Antarctic, the stout former sealer used by Bull in 1893–95, the expedition left Gothenburg on October 16, 1901. At Antarctic’s helm was Larsen, the Norwegian who had already discovered Oscar II Land during a previous expedition in 1892–94. By late January 1902 Antarctic was exploring the western side of the Peninsula, making several important geographical discoveries (among them, the fact that the Orleans Strait connected with the Gerlache Strait, and not with the Weddell Sea, as had been believed) before sailing back to the tip of the Peninsula. There, they crossed between the Peninsula and off-lying Joinville Island, naming the strait for their ship, Antarctic.
Next the expedition attempted to penetrate south into the Weddell Sea, but its infamous ice stopped them. Instead Nordenskjöld and five men set up a winter base on Snow Hill Island in February 1902. Antarctic, meanwhile, sailed for the Falklands to winter there. Poor weather confined the Snow Hill party to its small hut for most of the winter, but in December Nordenskjöld was able to sledge to Seymour Island, directly north of Snow Hill, where he found some striking fossils – including the bones of a giant penguin – bolstering earlier fossil finds made on the island by Larsen in 1893.
However, December is midsummer in Antarctica, and the men were getting distinctly anxious about their ship, which should have arrived by then. Their fears were justified, although they were not to learn why for many months. After wintering in Patagonia and South Georgia, Antarctic had returned south, again surveying the western side of the Peninsula. Trying unsuccessfully to cross through her namesake strait to reach the Peninsula’s east coast – and the men at Snow Hill – Antarctic stopped at Hope Bay on the Peninsula’s tip to drop off three men, who would try to hike the 320km to Snow Hill.
The ship then sailed around Joinville Island and headed south, soon becoming caught in the pack ice, whose relentless grip inexorably crushed it. The end, on February 12, 1903, was recorded by one of the men, Carl Skottsberg:
Now the name disappears from sight. Now the water is up to the rail, and, with a rattle, the sea and bits of ice rush in over her deck. That sound I can never forget, however long I may live...the streamer, with the name Antarctic, disappears in the waves. The bowsprit – the last mast-top – She is gone!
The ship sank 45km from tiny Paulet Island, and the men spent 16 days sledging provisions and small boats to it.
The three men left at Hope Bay, meanwhile, found their way to Snow Hill Island blocked by open water, so they settled down to wait for Antarctic’s return, according to a prearranged plan. The Swedish Antarctic Expedition was now split into three groups, two living in very rough conditions, with no group aware of the others’ fates. How they all managed to survive is one of the greatest examples of good fortune in Antarctic history.
The Hope Bay trio, after eking out the winter in a primitive hut and living primarily on seal meat, set out again for Snow Hill on September 29. By a lucky coincidence, Nordenskjöld and another man were dog-sledging north on a research journey from Snow Hill at the same time. On October 12, the two groups met. Nordenskjöld was so struck by the Hope Bay men’s remarkable appearance – they were completely soot-blackened, and wearing odd masks they had fashioned to prevent snow blindness – that he wondered if they were from a previously unknown race. Nordenskjöld’s companion Ole Jonassen considered an unholstered revolver a necessary precaution in facing these disconcerting apparitions. But they quickly established the identities of their fellow expeditioners, renaming the point of their rendezvous ‘Cape Well Met.’
Antarctic’s crew, meanwhile, wintered on Paulet Island. They built a stone hut and killed 1100 Adélies for food before the birds left for the winter. On June 7, just before midwinter, Ole Wennersgaard, who had been sick for weeks, died. On October 31, Larsen led a group of five others in an open boat to search for the trio at Hope Bay. Finding a note the three had left at their hut, Larsen decided he would have to follow by sea the route that the Hope Bay men were taking to Snow Hill Island.
Even as Larsen’s group rowed their boat south, outside help was on its way to Snow Hill Island. Since nothing had been heard of the Swedish expedition, three search parties had been dispatched. Argentina sent a naval ship, Uruguay, to search for it in 1903. On November 8, Uruguay’s crew found two of the men from Snow Hill Island camped at Seymour Island, and after waking them, joined them in the short trek to Snow Hill – arriving, by incredible coincidence, only a few hours ahead of Larsen and his group. After a joyful reunion, all that was left to do (on November 11) was pick up the remaining Antarctic crew members back on Paulet Island. They, ironically, had just finished collecting 6000 penguin eggs, their first surplus food supply.
Although Nordenskjöld’s expedition is remembered primarily for its survival against nearly overwhelming odds, it also performed the most important research in Antarctica (including studies in botany, geology, glaciology and hydrography) undertaken up to its time.
Even as Nordenskjöld’s men were struggling for survival, British explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) was working from a base on Ross Island. The son of an upper-middle-class brewer, Scott joined the Royal Navy’s training ship Britannia as a cadet at age 13. He advanced through the ranks, and was promoted to commander in June 1900. A month later he was named leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition, which the country’s exploration establishment had been planning since the mid-1880s.
When Scott’s well-financed expedition sailed from England on August 6, 1901 in Discovery, a specially built wooden steam barque, it was the best-equipped scientific expedition to Antarctica to date. After stopping in New Zealand for refitting and reprovisioning, the expedition got off to an inauspicious start when a seaman fell to his death from the top of the mainmast. On January 3, 1902, Discovery crossed the Antarctic Circle, and six days later stopped briefly at Cape Adare.
Penetrating the Ross Sea, Scott cruised along the Ross Ice Shelf, discovering King Edward VII Land on its eastern margin. He also made the first flight in Antarctica, on February 4, 1902, in a tethered balloon called Eva. From a height of 240m, Scott saw the Ross Ice Shelf’s undulating surface rising toward the polar plateau. Camera-toting expedition member Ernest Shackleton went up next, becoming Antarctica’s first aerial photographer.
By mid-February 1902, Scott’s men had established winter quarters at Hut Point on Ross Island. Although a hut was built ashore, Discovery, frozen into the sea ice, served as the expedition’s accommodations. Officers and men were separated into wardroom and mess deck, befitting the quasi-naval expedition that it was. The hut was reserved for scientific work and recreation, including theatrical performances by the ‘Royal Terror Theatre company.’
Life in McMurdo Sound was not all research and games, however. In a violent snowstorm during a sledge trip, a young sailor named George Vince slipped over a precipice to his death. The winter passed fairly quietly otherwise, the group’s accommodations made cheerier by another Antarctic first – electric lights (powered by a windmill). With Shackleton as editor, the expedition published Antarctica’s first magazine, the monthly South Polar Times, and one issue of a more ribald alternative, the Blizzard, whose title page featured a figure holding a bottle, captioned ‘Never mind the blizzard, I’m all right.’
With spring, the expedition’s real work began. To the cheers of Discovery’s men, Scott set out for the South Pole on November 2, 1902, with Shackleton, scientific officer Dr Edward A Wilson, 19 dogs and five supply sledges hitched in train formation. Despite initial optimism and a large food depot laid by an advance party, the trio soon struck harsh reality, Antarctica-style. The men had never tried skiing or sled-dog driving; their inexperience produced predictably poor results.
Through sheer willpower, they reached 82°17´S on December 30 before turning back. Actually, Scott and Wilson reached that point, Shackleton having been ordered to remain at camp that morning to look after the dogs. This may not have been an intentional slight on Scott’s part (although certainly it was petty), but Shackleton smarted at the gesture.
For all three, the trip home was miserable. The remaining dogs by now were nearly worthless, and soon were hitched behind the sledge, which the men pulled themselves. On at least one occasion, a dog was carried on the sledge. As dogs weakened, they were shot and fed to the others. The men were also breaking down. Shackleton especially was suffering badly from scurvy – but accounts of the trip that say he had to be carried on the sledge are incorrect.
Two weeks before the southern party’s return home on February 3, the relief ship Morning arrived in McMurdo Sound. Morning’s captain, William Colbeck, had been the surveyor on Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross. Colbeck and Scott, upon his return, decided that with Discovery still frozen into the ice, Morning should not wait to depart. Seeing that he would probably have to remain another winter, Scott sent home eight men, including Shackleton, who went only upon being ordered. The following summer, after Scott led a sledging party in southern Victoria Land, Morning returned, in company with Terra Nova, sent by the British government. The two vessels bore distressing news: if Discovery could not be freed within six weeks, it was to be abandoned. After weeks of cutting and blasting, Scott was nearly ready to give up, but nature relented, and the ice gave way. One final charge, on February 16, 1904, released Discovery for the long journey home.
Scotsman William Spiers Bruce (1867–1921), the physician son of a surgeon, joined an Antarctic whaling voyage from Dundee as Balaena’s surgeon-naturalist in 1892. He would have joined Bull’s Antarctic expedition in 1894–95, but was unable to reach Melbourne in time to meet the ship. In 1901 he declined the offer of a position on Scott’s expedition because he was in the midst of planning his own Scottish National Antarctic Expedition.
Sailing from Troon on November 2, 1902 in Scotia, a renamed Norwegian steam sealer with extremely elegant lines, the expedition pushed south into the Weddell Sea. By 70°S, Scotia was beset, and after freeing herself, headed north to winter at Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. There the expedition set up a meteorological station, hand-built of stone and called Omond House, on April 1, 1903. Midwinter’s Day (June 22) 1903 was celebrated with a barrel of Guinness porter, a brew made more potent by the freezing of its water, unintentionally yielding concentrated alcohol.
At the end of the first season, Scotia sailed to Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Bruce asked the British government to continue staffing Omond House, but his request was refused. Instead, at the invitation of the British Ambassador, the Oficina Meteorológica Argentina agreed to assume responsibility for the station. This duty, which the Argentine government maintains to the present day, makes the station (now called Orcadas) the oldest continuously operated base in the Antarctic.
Pushing south again in January 1904, Bruce was able to penetrate the Weddell Sea to 74°S. There he discovered Coats Land, which he named for the expedition’s patrons, Andrew and James Coats of Paisley, Scotland. Scotia followed the coast for 240km, but the fast ice continually kept the ship two or three frustrating kilometers offshore. No landing could be made.
A remarkable series of photographs, documenting the first known use of bagpipes in the Far South, shows an emperor penguin, head thrown back and beak agape, being serenaded by a kilted piper. Although an observer noted ‘only sleepy indifference, ’ some photos show that the bird was tethered by a line to prevent escape.
Although Bruce later became a world authority on Spitsbergen in the Arctic, he must have retained a special love for the Antarctic. Upon his death in 1921, his ashes were carried south and poured into the Southern Ocean.
French physician Jean-Baptiste Etienne August Charcot (1867–1936) inherited 400, 000 gold francs and a Fragonard painting, Le Pacha, from his father, a famous neurologist whose work influenced Freud. Charcot used this entire fortune to finance construction of a three-masted schooner, Français, and to outfit it with laboratory equipment. His original intention had been to sail north to the Arctic, but when word arrived that Nordenskjöld’s expedition was missing in Antarctica, Charcot decided to go south. Meanwhile, French citizens rallied for the French Antarctic Expedition, contributing 450, 000 francs.
Français sailed from Le Havre on August 15, 1903 – into immediate tragedy. Just minutes off the quay a hawser parted, striking and killing a sailor; the expedition was delayed 12 days before departing without further incident. In Buenos Aires, the expedition learned that the Argentine ship Uruguay had already rescued Nordenskjöld and his men. Charcot decided instead to investigate the west coast of the Peninsula. He deliberately chose to avoid the Ross Sea, with its potential for international rivalry, an act for which Scott later called him ‘the gentleman of the Pole.’
By February 19, 1904, Charcot had discovered Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island. Sailing on, he decided to winter at a sheltered bay on the north coast of Booth Island, a place he named Port Charcot for his father. The bay was so small that the explorers were able to stretch a hawser across its mouth to keep out ice that might otherwise crush their ship. Winter passed with various amusements (including reading and discussing old newspapers) and sledging expeditions to nearby islands. The peace was marred only by the death of the ship’s pet pig, Toby, who once ate a basketful of fish – and the hooks that caught them.
After the spring breakup, the expedition sailed north, running into trouble on January 15, 1903, when Français struck a rock. Despite attempts at plugging the hole and round-the-clock pumping, the ship continued to flood. Temporary repairs at Port Lockroy enabled the expedition to continue to Tierra del Fuego and Buenos Aires, where Charcot sold Français to the Argentine government. Then he headed home to a hero’s welcome from all of France – except his wife Jeanne (a granddaughter of Victor Hugo) who divorced him for desertion.
Four years later, Charcot returned to Antarctica, this time leading an expedition sponsored by the French government, which granted him 600, 000 francs. On August 15, 1908, he again sailed from Le Havre, this time in the newly built and amusingly named Pourquoi Pas? (Why Not?), which he had once christened his toy boats as a child. Among those aboard was his second wife, Meg, who sailed as far as Punta Arenas. (Charcot had secured a prenuptial agreement from her that she would not oppose his explorations.)
After stopping at Deception Island’s whaling station, where Charcot saved a man from a hideous death by amputating his gangrenous hand, Pourquoi Pas? sailed on Christmas Day 1908, continuing the survey work on the western side of the Peninsula that Charcot had begun with Français. As on his previous voyage, unfortunately, Charcot struck a rock, damaging Pourquoi Pas?, which had pumps that were able to manage the water pouring in. The expedition pushed on, discovering and naming the Fallières Coast, circling Adelaide Island and proving its insularity, and discovering Marguerite Bay (named for Meg). Most useful for this survey work was a small, iron-prowed motorboat carried in Pourquoi Pas?. The ship also boasted electric lighting and a 1500-volume library.
Those amenities proved valuable during the winter of 1909, when the expedition wintered at Petermann Island, with Pourquoi Pas? frozen into the ice at a bay they called Port Circumcision. The group set up a shore station, with huts for meteorological, seismic, magnetic and tidal research, and passed the winter with reading, lectures, meetings of the ‘Antarctic Sporting Club’ and recitations from a novel being written by one of the officers.
At winter’s end, they headed north to re-coal the ship at Deception – where a whaling-company diver inspected the ship’s damaged hull and warned against further exploration. Charcot ignored the advice, turning south once more. On January 11, 1910, he made his most personally treasured discovery, sighting an uncharted headland at 70°S, 76°W. This he called Charcot Land (since proven to be an island) – not after himself, but after his esteemed father. Twenty-six years later, Charcot and Pourquoi Pas? were again sailing in treacherous waters, this time off Iceland, when a gale arose and claimed captain, ship and all but one of the 43-man crew.
Anglo-Irishman Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874–1922), second of 10 children born to a doctor and his Quaker wife, was badly stung by his breakdown on the return from Scott’s furthest south in 1902. Shackleton lived by his family motto: Fortitudine vincimus (By fortitude we conquer). Even as he was being invalided home by Scott, Shackleton resolved to return to Antarctica one day – which he did in 1908. An indefatigable worker with a charming, forceful personality, Shackleton inspired fierce loyalty and admiration. His men called him ‘The Boss.’
Following his return from the Discovery expedition, Shackleton married and fathered the first of his three children, at the same time holding a succession of jobs: magazine journalist, secretary of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society, (unsuccessful) candidate for Parliament and, finally, PR man for a big Glasgow steelworks. The works’ owner, William Beardmore, took a liking to Shackleton and agreed to sponsor an Antarctic expedition.
The British Antarctic Expedition sailed from Lyttelton, New Zealand, on New Year’s Day 1908, in Nimrod, a three-masted sealing ship with 40 years’ Arctic experience. To conserve coal, the ship was towed part of the 2700km to the ice edge by the steel-hulled Koonya. Although Shackleton had originally intended to use Discovery’s old base at Ross Island, Scott wrote to him describing his own plans for another Antarctic expedition and asked him to establish his shore base elsewhere. Shackleton agreed to seek his own headquarters, but when he arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1908, he was dismayed to find that the Bay of Whales, the inlet where Discovery had launched its balloon just six years before, had disappeared. Evidently the great ice shelf had calved, in which case it would be risky to establish a base atop it. But Nimrod was unable to push further east, due to pack ice, so Shackleton reluctantly decided to use Ross Island as his base – breaking his promise to Scott.
Unforgiving ice blocked his path to Hut Point, however, compelling Shackleton to build his hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, 30km further from his goal. While he didn’t bring sledge dogs, neither did Shackleton agree with Scott’s romantic notion that manhauling was ‘more noble and splendid’ than dog-driving. Instead, Shackleton brought Siberian ponies, unfortunately unsuited to the task. Although they managed to pull loads a considerable distance across the Ross Ice Shelf, they did not have dogs’ stamina or versatility.
With three companions – Jameson Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild – Shackleton pioneered the route up to the polar plateau (which he claimed, and named, for King Edward VII) via the Beardmore Glacier, named for the expedition’s patron. By January 9, 1909, the foursome had trudged to within 180km of the Pole before being forced by dangerously dwindling supplies of food to turn and run for home. It was the hardest decision of Shackleton’s life. He told his wife Emily later: ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’
Still, they had achieved a remarkable run, beating Scott’s furthest south by 589km, discovering almost 800km of new mountain range, and showing the way to anyone who would attempt the Pole after them. They also found coal and fossils at Mt Buckley at the top of the Beardmore Glacier.
The expedition achieved other firsts. Six men led by Professor TW Edgeworth David ascended Mt Erebus for the first time, reaching the rim of the volcano’s crater on March 10, 1908 after a five-day climb. While the polar party was out, Douglas Mawson and Alistair Mackay, with Professor David again leading, hiked nearly 1600km to the South Magnetic Pole, reaching it on January 16, 1909, the first time it had been visited. (Today the Pole is offshore in the Dumont d’Urville Sea, and Antarctic tour ships routinely sail over it.) The expedition tested Antarctica’s first motorcar, an Arrol-Johnston, at Cape Royds. It was no good in snow, but proved useful for transporting loads across the sea ice. The expedition also produced about 80 copies of Aurora Australis, the first – and only – book published in Antarctica.
Norwegian Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872–1928) was already a veteran explorer by the time he sailed in 1910 from Christiana (modern-day Oslo) on his way to what only he and a few others knew was Antarctica. Amundsen had been with the first group to winter south of the Antarctic Circle, the Belgica expedition. From 1903 to 1906 he accomplished the first navigation of the Northwest Passage, a goal sought by mariners for centuries. He spent three winters in the Arctic, learning from the native Inuit much about polar clothing, travel and dog-handling that would later prove invaluable.
The Arctic was Amundsen’s first interest. He had long dreamed of reaching the North Pole. He was well into planning an expedition where he would freeze his ship into the Arctic ice and drift with the current across the Pole when news reached him that American Robert E Peary claimed to have reached 90°N on April 6, 1909. Amundsen quickly – secretly – turned his ambitions 180°.
Amundsen’s Fram (Forward), used by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen on his unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole, sailed from Norway on August 9, 1910. Fram had a diesel engine, allowing quick start-up (as opposed to a coal-fired steam engine), as well as a rounded hull so it would rise out of pressing ice floes rather than being nipped like a standard hull. To prevent Scott from learning his plans, Amundsen kept quiet about his intentions – revealing them to just three members of the expedition – until he reached Madeira, where he told his stunned men. Soon after, sent his infamous telegram to Scott in Melbourne: ‘Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen.’
Amundsen did not share Shackleton’s fear of a dangerously calving Ross Ice Shelf. He established his base, Framheim (home of Fram), on the shelf at the Bay of Whales, where Scott had made Antarctica’s first balloon flight. In a small prefab wooden hut, nine men spent the winter. Outside, some of the 15 identical tents served as store sheds – and some as doghouses for the expedition’s 97 North Greenland dogs. From Framheim, Amundsen had the advantage of starting 100km closer to the Pole, but he also had to pioneer a route up to the polar plateau from the Ross Ice Shelf. Scott, following Shackleton’s lead, could take the charted course up the Beardmore Glacier.
Leaving Framheim on October 19, 1911, after making one false start too early in the season, Amundsen and his four companions had four sledges, each pulled by 13 Greenland dogs. Dogs and skis made the difference. As Norwegians, they were well trained in the use of skis. During his Arctic years, Amundsen developed excellent dog-driving skills. He also planned meticulously, took three or four backups of every critical item, and the previous summer had laid 10 extremely well-marked depots as far as 82°S, which together contained 3400kg of stores and food.
The five men – Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting – reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911, camping for three days at what they called Polheim. Amundsen claimed the polar plateau for Norway, calling it King Haakon VII Land, and wrote a note to Scott in the dark green tent he left behind. Then, they turned for home.
‘On January 25, at 4am, ’ Amundsen laconically recorded in his diary, ‘we reached our good little house again, with two sledges and 11 dogs; men and animals all hale and hearty.’ Despite his near-flawless success, there were those who felt Amundsen’s achievement was tainted by several factors. In some ways, he had made the polar journey look too easy. There was also the view taken by some that Amundsen’s surprise assault on the Pole had forestalled Scott, as though the British explorer had the ‘right’ to reach the Pole first (although Amundsen preceded him to the Antarctic). Finally, the tragic drama of Scott’s expedition was much more the stuff of legend than was Amundsen’s cool triumph of technical skill.
When Scott received Amundsen’s startling cable on Oct. 13, 1910 – the day after Terra Nova arrived in port – Scott became deeply distressed, but worked hard not to show it. He had first watched Shackleton come close to snatching what he regarded as his prize. Now a dangerous new threat had arisen.
Sailing from New Zealand on November 29, 1910, in Terra Nova, the old Scottish whaler that had been one of the two relief ships sent at the end of the Discovery expedition, Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition got off to a rough start. Three days out of port, Terra Nova was hit by a screaming 36-hour gale that nearly sank her. Arriving at Ross Island in January 1911, Scott found ice blocking the way to his old Discovery hut on Hut Point, so he established winter quarters at Cape Evans, named after his second-in-command, ERGR ‘Teddy’ Evans. As soon as the hut was built, Scott commenced an ambitious program of depot-laying. He also introduced a useful Antarctic innovation: a telephone line was established between Cape Evans and Hut Point. Ponies, motor-sledges and dogs (and, later, mules) were employed to set up supply caches, but once again, when these methods failed, the expedition resorted to the old British standby of manhauling.
The next spring, on October 24, Scott dispatched a party with two motor-sledges, and eight days later followed with a larger group of men and 10 ponies. Various teams relayed supplies and laid depots. On January 4, 1912, the last support party turned back. For the final push to the Pole, Scott had chosen his companion on his previous journey furthest south, Edward Wilson, along with Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. Henry Bowers was added only the night before, a tactical error, since the food, tent and skis had been planned for a four-man team.
What happened next is the most famous Antarctic story of all. The five arrived at the Pole on January 17, 1912, to find that Amundsen had beaten them by 35 days. Nothing tells the tale better than Scott’s diary itself, unless it is one of the many biographies that deconstruct what has grown to be a hoary legend. Their return home was a haunting, desperate run of barely sighted depots, slow starvation and incredible cold. A delirious Evans died on February 17. A month later, Oates was in such bad shape that he prayed not to wake upon retiring. The next morning, deeply disappointed to find himself among the living, Oates walked out of the tent in a raging blizzard, telling his companions, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ Another blizzard kept the three remaining men in their tent from March 21 onwards. Scott’s last entry was dated March 29. A search party sent out the following spring found them on November 12, 1912.
Among the effects the searchers found in the tent with the men’s bodies was Amundsen’s letter to the King of Norway. Scott had brought it with him as requested. Thus, one slightly ironic outcome of this tragic ‘race’ is that Scott ended up confirming Amundsen’s attainment of the Pole.
Despite being beaten to 90° South, Scott’s last expedition accomplished a great deal of important science. The push for research had itself contributed to the polar party’s destruction, since the men dragged a sledge that carried, among other items, 16kg of geological samples. The infamous three-man midwinter trek to Cape Crozier, which Apsley Cherry-Garrard chronicled so eloquently in The Worst Journey in the World, braved 24-hour darkness and temperatures as low as -59°C – so cold that the men’s teeth cracked in their mouths and they were ‘beginning to think of death as a friend, ’ as Cherry-Garrard wrote – all so that they could be the first to collect emperor penguin embryos. A separate Northern Party, led by Victor Campbell, discovered Oates Land (memorializing Lawrence Oates) and spent a winter of terrible privation in a snow cave at Terra Nova Bay on the Ross Sea’s western shore. A six-man group led by geologist Griffith Taylor explored the mysterious, otherworldly Dry Valleys, which Scott found on the Discovery expedition.
Coming from a country with no tradition of exploration, Nobu Shirase (1861–1946), a lieutenant in the Japanese Army and eldest son of a Buddhist priest, was a surprise visitor to Antarctica. Despite the Japanese public’s outright scorn of his fundraising efforts, Shirase organized an Antarctic expedition in 1910. Sailing from Tokyo on December 1 in Kainan Maru (Southern Pioneer), the expedition reached Victoria Land in March 1911. Unable to land, it returned to winter in Sydney, where Shirase and his countrymen set up camp in the garden of a well-to-do resident of suburban Vaucluse.
By mid-January 1912, Kainan Maru was back in the Ross Sea, this time with 29 Sakhalin sledge dogs. It met Amundsen’s expedition at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf. Amundsen – and Scott, too – had by this time already reached the Pole, although Shirase, of course, could not know it. Despite being far behind, Shirase and six of his men formed a ‘dash patrol’ and in a symbolic gesture, headed south with dogs and sledges. First, however, they had to claw their way atop the Ross Ice Shelf, which towered nearly 90m over the sea where Kainan Maru stood offshore. The patrol dashed 260km to a furthest south of 80°5´S, reached on January 28, 1912. There, Shirase claimed all the area of the Ross Ice Shelf within sight as the ‘Yamato Yukihara, ’ or ‘Yamato Snow Plain’ (‘Yamato’ being a poetical name for Japan). This claim has never been taken seriously (even by Japan), since Amundsen had already crossed the area on his way south to the Pole. The expedition had to abandon a score of dogs, eerily prefiguring the dogs marooned at Syowa station 46 years later. Nevertheless, Shirase’s team was welcomed as heroes when they returned to Yokohama on June 20, 1912.
Australian geologist Douglas Mawson (1882–1958) had been asked by Robert Scott to accompany Terra Nova, but he declined the invitation in favor of leading his own expedition. Already a veteran of Shackleton’s Nimrod, Mawson wanted to explore new territory west of Cape Adare. With the Australian government granting over half the expedition’s cost, Mawson escaped some of the financing worries that plagued other explorers.
The Australasian Antarctic Expedition sailed from Hobart on December 2, 1911, in Aurora, an old sealer with years of Arctic experience. Its master was Captain John King Davis. Aboard was the first airplane taken to the Antarctic, a Vickers REP monoplane that had crashed during a test flight before the expedition left Australia. Mawson brought the wingless aircraft anyway, hoping to use it as an ‘air tractor, ’ but its engine seized while towing a heavy load.
Aurora arrived at the ice edge in January 1912, then headed west and followed the coast to new territories, which Mawson called King George V Land and claimed for the British crown. At Cape Denison on Commonwealth Bay, he set up his base, unaware that the roaring katabatics make the spot one of the windiest places on earth. He later gave it the memorable name ‘the Home of the Blizzard.’ Eight men led by Frank Wild, another veteran of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, were landed at the Shackleton Ice Shelf, 2400km west of Cape Denison.
Battling wind speeds that occasionally reached more than 320km/h at Commonwealth Bay, the expedition systematically explored King George V Land, as well as neighboring Terre Adélie, during summer 1912–13. On one sledging trip, the first Antarctic meteorite was found. The expedition also made the first radio contact between Antarctica and another continent, on September 25, 1912, using a wireless relay at a five-man station the expedition established on Macquarie Island.
Despite those accomplishments and the comprehensive research done by the expedition, it is remembered primarily for the ordeal its leader endured on a deadly dog-sledging journey. With British soldier Belgrave Ninnis and Swiss mountaineer and ski champion Xavier Mertz, Mawson left Cape Denison on November 10, 1912, to explore eastward. By December 14, after crossing two heavily crevassed glaciers (later named for Mertz and Ninnis), they had traveled 500km from their base. That afternoon, Ninnis disappeared down an apparently bottomless crevasse with his team of dogs – and most of the party’s food, all of its dog food and its tent. ‘It seemed so incredible, ’ Mawson wrote later, ‘that we half expected, on turning round, to find him standing there.’
They immediately began a harrowing trek home. Battling hunger, cold, fatigue and, possibly, vitamin A poisoning from the dog livers they were forced to eat, Mawson and Mertz struggled on. Mertz died on January 7, when they were still more than 160km out. Mawson sawed the remaining sledge in half with a pocketknife to lighten his load. By now his body was literally coming apart: hair falling out, toenails loosened, even the thick soles of his feet sloughing off. Somehow he reached Cape Denison – a few hours after Aurora had sailed.
Six men had remained behind at the hut, hoping against hope that the missing party might return. Although they radioed the ship, heavy seas prevented Aurora from reaching Cape Denison. They were forced to spend another winter, arriving home in Australia in late February, 1914.
In 1929-31 Mawson returned to Antarctica, leading the two summer voyages of the British, Australian & New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) to the west of Commonwealth Bay, where they discovered Mac.Robertson Land, named for Sir MacPherson Robertson, an expedition benefactor.
With the Pole won, Bavarian army Lieutenant Wilhelm Filchner (1877–1957) decided to tackle another Antarctic question: whether the Weddell and Ross seas were joined by a channel, as some geographers posited. Educated at the Munich Cadet Corps and a veteran of a pioneering horseback journey through the Pamirs and another expedition to Tibet, Filchner hoped to cross the Antarctic continent, starting from the Weddell Sea, to solve this puzzle. Unable to raise the large amount of money a two-ship expedition would require, he decided merely to push as far south as he could into the Weddell Sea.
Sailing from Bremerhaven on May 4, 1911 in a Norwegian ship renamed Deutschland, the Second German South Polar Expedition called at Buenos Aires en route south. There, Filchner met aboard Fram with Amundsen, who was on his triumphant return from the Pole. By mid-December, Deutschland reached the Weddell Sea pack ice. After 10 days of pushing through narrow leads, the ship penetrated to the sea’s southern coast, William Bruce’s Coats Land. Sailing west, Filchner reached new territory, calling it ‘Prinz Regent Luitpold Land’ (now Luitpold Coast). He also discovered a vast ice shelf, naming it ‘Kaiser Wilhelm Barrier’ for his emperor (who later insisted that it be renamed after Filchner). Filchner then tried to establish a winter base (‘Stationseisberg’) on the ice shelf, but these plans had to be hastily abandoned when a huge section of the shelf carrying the expedition’s nearly completed hut calved into the sea.
The Antarctic winter closed in before Deutschland could escape to lower latitudes and the ship was beset and drifted for nine months. During this period of monotonous tedium, one crew member read an entire dictionary from A to Z. The expedition was also riven by a deep divide caused by the ship’s captain, Richard Vahsel, who was suffering from syphilis. He died in August 1912 during the drift and was, as Filchner later wrote, ‘committed to the sea in a sack, along with a heavy weight.’
Filchner led a three-man party on a dangerous midwinter dog-sledging trip over 65km of sea ice to the charted location of ‘New South Greenland, ’ which American sealer Benjamin Morrell claimed to have sighted in 1823. Finding nothing but frozen ocean, Filchner proved the nonexistence of Morrell’s ‘discovery.’ Successfully navigating back to the ship was a great feat, since the instruments were nearly destroyed by the -34°C cold – and Deutschland had drifted almost 65km with the current-driven pack ice.
On November 26, 1912, the decaying ice released the ship, which sailed to South Georgia and home. Back in Germany, armed with his newly won knowledge of the Weddell Sea coast, Filchner again tried to raise interest in a crossing of Antarctica, from the Weddell to the Ross Sea. But Germany’s attention, on the eve of WWI, was elsewhere.
After losing his most sought-after prize – but saving himself and his companions – on the Nimrod expedition, Ernest Shackleton had also set his sights on crossing Antarctica. The threat of a German expedition attempting the same journey helped Shackleton raise funds; nationalistic Britons sent in contributions to the ‘first crossing of the last continent.’ Shackleton’s plan was simple but ambitious: he would sail in Endurance to the Weddell Sea coast, establish a base, then trek across the continent via the Pole. At the top of the Beardmore Glacier, the crossing party would be met by another group, which would have been landed at Ross Island by Aurora, sailing from Hobart.
Even as Endurance prepared to sail, the firestorm ignited by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914 began engulfing Europe. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, and Shackleton immediately offered Endurance and her crew for war service. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wired his thanks, but the expedition was told to proceed. Endurance sailed from Plymouth on August 8 ‘to carry on our white warfare, ’ as Shackleton put it. After calling at Madeira, Buenos Aires and South Georgia, the expedition pushed into the Weddell Sea pack ice. Soon Endurance was squeezing through ever-narrower leads.
By January 19, 1915, Endurance was caught. The events that followed have grown to legend, becoming nearly as famous as the story of Scott’s last expedition. The ship, inexorably crushed by the grinding ice floes, finally sank on November 21. Shackleton and his men lived on the pack ice for five months before they sailed three small boats to Elephant Island. Since it was uninhabited, Shackleton and five others had to sail another 1300km across the open sea in one of the boats, the 6.9m James Caird (which the ship’s carpenter had decked over with spare timbers) to seek help from the whalers at South Georgia. After 16 exhausting days at sea, they landed at South Georgia, completing one of history’s greatest navigational feats.
But their landfall was at King Haakon Bay, on South Georgia’s bleak, uninhabited southwest coast; the whaling stations were on the island’s northeastern side. Although no one had previously penetrated further than a kilometer or so from the coast, Shackleton had no choice but to try to cross the island. He and two of the six men who had sailed James Caird with him, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, hiked for 36 straight hours over the 1800m-high mountains and crevassed glaciers to reach Stromness whaling station. As they neared the station, impassable ice cliffs forced them to lower themselves down an icy, 9m waterfall. Arriving at the station on May 20, 1916, their long beards, matted hair, ragged clothes – and fierce body odor, no doubt – caused the first three people they met to flee in disgust.
At the home of the station manager, where they bathed and were fed and clothed, Shackleton asked, ‘When was the war over?’ ‘The war is not over, ’ the manager answered. ‘Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.’ That night a whaler was dispatched to pick up the three men left behind at King Haakon Bay. After three failed rescue attempts over the next four months, Shackleton enlisted the help of Yelcho, a steamer lent by the Chilean government, and was finally able to pick up all 22 men stranded at Elephant Island on August 30.
Still, Shackleton’s troubles were not over – the Ross Sea party had encountered its own difficulties. Aurora had intended to winter at Ross Island, but a blizzard blew the ship from its moorings, stranding at Cape Evans 10 men who spent a miserable winter with minimal supplies. Aurora, meanwhile, was beset for 10 months, finally getting free on March 14, 1916. Shackleton met the ship in New Zealand and after an extensive refitting Aurora was able to relieve the marooned Cape Evans party on January 10, 1917. The war, meanwhile, raged for another 22 bloody months, long enough for two of Shackleton’s men to die in the fighting.
Shackleton himself lived to mount a final assault on the Antarctic, the ill-defined Quest expedition. Upon reaching South Georgia, he suffered a massive heart attack and died on January 5, 1922 aboard his ship, moored alongside at Grytviken.
Australian George Hubert Wilkins (1888–1958), a Balkan War combat photographer and veteran of two Antarctic expeditions including the one in Shackleton’s Quest, decided in 1928 that the time was right to attempt a flight in Antarctica. Wilkins had already flown 4000km across the Arctic Ocean earlier in the year, becoming the first to cross the region by air, and now he took the same pilot (Carl Ben Eielson) and the same plane (now called Los Angeles) south to tackle The Ice.
With his Arctic success guaranteeing him a well-funded expedition – including a lucrative US$25, 000 news-rights contract with American press lord William Randolph Hearst – Wilkins was transported on a whaling ship, Hektoria, which called at Deception Island. He also brought with him a backup pilot, Joe Crosson, and a second wood-framed Lockheed Vega monoplane, christened San Francisco. These planes were considered revolutionary for their time, having no wires or exposed controls that offered extra wind resistance.
Wilkins had equipped the Vegas with pontoons to enable it to take off from the protected waters of Deception’s Port Foster. But on test runs he encountered a uniquely Antarctic hazard: hundreds of albatrosses, attracted to the open water created when the ship broke the harbor ice. So Wilkins and his men – aided by crews from the nearby whaling station – cleared a runway on shore. It was rough, running 800m up a hill, down across ditches, up another hill and down to the harbor. If a plane hadn’t enough speed to take off by then, it would plunge into the water. On November 16, 1928, Wilkins and Eielson took off in Los Angeles, flying for just 20 minutes before the weather closed in. It was a useful shakedown – and made history as the first powered flight in Antarctica.
Little more than a month later, Wilkins and Eielson were ready to try a longer flight. Although they hoped to fly from the Peninsula to the Ross Sea, bad weather made this impractical. But on December 20, taking off again from Deception, they flew for 11 hours across the Peninsula and along its eastern side, covering 2100km and reaching as far as 71°20´S. Eight years before, on the British Imperial Expedition to Graham Land, Wilkins had been frustrated by ‘the slow, blind struggles’ to make progress over the difficult terrain. ‘This time, ’ he exulted, ‘I had a tremendous sensation of power and freedom – I felt liberated...for the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air.’ Important though the flight was, Wilkins was deceived by the appearance of the Peninsula from above. He wrongly concluded that it must be an archipelago.
Wilkins returned to the Antarctic the next summer, making more flights and discoveries. All told, he mapped 200, 000 sq km of new territory, proving beyond doubt the airplane’s efficacy in Antarctic work. He later supported Lincoln Ellsworth with his flights over Antarctica.
American flier Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888–1957) was scared of Wilkins. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Byrd had claimed in 1926 to be first to fly over the North Pole (the claim has been questioned). In 1927 he was narrowly beaten by Charles Lindbergh in the era’s greatest race: solo across the Atlantic. Soon after, he made it his goal to become first to fly over the South Pole.
Following his Arctic flight, Byrd raised nearly a million dollars from such eminent sponsors as Charles Lindbergh (US$1000), the National Geographic Society and the New York Times, which paid US$60, 000 for exclusive rights and the privilege of sending its own reporter, Russell Owen, on the expedition. Byrd’s United States Antarctic Expedition (USAE) was the best-funded private expedition to Antarctica in history. It sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, in August 1928, in the square-rigged City of New York with not one, but three aircraft. ‘Accompanied by business managers, physicians, cameramen, dog trainers, scientists, aviators, newspapermen, ’ Time magazine wrote of the departing expedition, ‘the size and diversity of its personnel suggests a circus.’
Little America, the expedition’s base, was established at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1929. Byrd quickly set up a flying program with his three planes – a big aluminum Ford trimotor Floyd Bennett, named for his North Pole pilot who had died of pneumonia earlier in 1928; a smaller, single-engine Fairchild, Stars and Stripes; and a single-engine Fokker Universal named The Virginian for Byrd’s home state.
In March the expedition suffered Antarctica’s first plane crash, but luckily no one was in The Virginian. A five-man party had been flown south to survey the Rockefeller Mountains (named for an expedition sponsor), when a blizzard blasted them for 12 days. Although the Fokker was tied down, so furious was the wind that when the pilot made a radio call back to Little America from inside the plane, he saw that the airspeed indicator read 140km/h. A few mornings later, the men awoke at their nearby camp to find that the plane had flown itself 800m to an inevitable crash. Byrd and the others eventually rescued the stranded party.
With winter’s onset, the two remaining planes were cached in snow shelters. The men settled down to an under-snow routine of research, repair work, radio training, and recreation, which included watching some of the expedition’s 75 movies, carefully selected for their unprovocative story lines. On August 24 the sun rose again, and preparations for the big flight began. By November, a fuel depot was set up at the foot of the Axel Heiberg Glacier (the same glacier Amundsen had used) leading up to the polar plateau, since Floyd Bennett’s fuel tanks couldn’t carry enough to reach 90°S and back.
On November 28, a field party working in the Queen Maud Mountains far to the south radioed Little America that the weather was clear. Four men – Byrd as navigator; Bernt Balchen, chief pilot; Harold June, second pilot and radio operator; and Ashley McKinley, photo surveyor – climbed into the big Ford trimotor. Flying up the Liv Glacier, an icy on-ramp to the polar plateau, the plane was unable to climb due to the cold, thin air, forcing the men to ditch 110kg of their emergency rations. Balchen, an experienced Arctic pilot, gained a little more altitude by throwing the aircraft into a hard turn toward the towering rock face on his right and catching an updraft.
From there, it was a four-hour drone to the Pole, praying that Floyd Bennett’s engines would keep beating out their powerful rhythm. They did. At 1:14am on November 29, 1929, the plane reached the earth’s southern axis. ‘For a few seconds we stood over the spot where Amundsen had stood December 14, 1911, and where Scott had also stood, ’ Byrd wrote. ‘There was nothing now to mark that scene; only a white desolation and solitude disturbed by the sound of our engines.’
Byrd returned to the US as a national hero, feted with ticker-tape parades, a promotion to rear admiral, and a special gold medal struck in his honor. He went on to lead four more Antarctic expeditions including the second USAE of 1933-35 (during which he nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning while living alone at a tiny weather station called Advance Base) and the massive US Government exercise known as Operation Highjump. But this was his finest hour.
American Lincoln Ellsworth (1880–1951), scion of a wealthy Pennsylvania coal-mining family, had whetted his appetite for polar exploration in 1925, when he made the first flight toward the North Pole with Roald Amundsen. The flight failed, but he reached the Pole in 1926, three days after Byrd’s flight.
In 1931 Ellsworth began what would become a long and productive association with Hubert Wilkins – with the goal of crossing Antarctica by air. For the first of their four expeditions together, Ellsworth bought a Northrop Gamma monoplane, which he named Polar Star, and a stout Norwegian fishing vessel, named Wyatt Earp after his hero, the gun-slinging marshal of the Old West, whose wedding ring Ellsworth wore and whose gun and holster he carried with him everywhere. For his pilot, Ellsworth chose Bernt Balchen, chief pilot on Byrd’s expedition.
The first Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition in 1933–34 ended after one short flight from skis in the frozen-over Bay of Whales. The plane was parked overnight on an ice floe, and a massive breakup early the next morning left the aircraft dangling by its wingtips from two separate pieces of the floe. The expedition was forced to retreat north, where Ellsworth’s money soon funded the plane’s repair.
In late 1934 he was back in the Antarctic, with a new flight plan: the expedition would fly from Wilkins’ old base at Deception Island to the Ross Sea via the Weddell Sea. But the season’s first try was another disaster – an engine seized after its heavy preserving lubricant was not drained before starting. The expedition again retreated north, to pick up a spare part that Ellsworth had flown in from the factory to a South American port. The next flight was equally frustrating: Balchen turned the plane around after little more than an hour, citing heavy weather to the south, though Ellsworth saw only a small squall. While he retained respect for Balchen, Ellsworth never hired him again.
The third try, in 1935, was lucky for Ellsworth, but only on the season’s third attempt. Ellsworth’s new pilot, Anglo-Canadian Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, made two false starts – the first aborted by a leaky fuel gauge and the second by a threatening storm. Polar Star finally took off from Dundee Island at the tip of the Peninsula on November 22, 1935, headed for the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf. As the pair flew south, sighting and naming the Eternity and Sentinel Ranges, Ellsworth was overcome by the realization that his years of effort were finally paying off: ‘Suddenly I felt supremely happy for my share in the opportunity to unveil the last continent in human history.’
The 3700km flight was intended to last just 14 hours, even with landings to refuel. Poor weather stretched the trip to two weeks, during which time the pair established four separate camps. Unfortunately, their radio went dead during that period, prompting fear that they had perished. Even on the last leg of the flight, problems plagued them: Polar Star ran out of fuel 25km from the Bay of Whales, and they trekked eight days to reach it. Australia, meanwhile, urged on by Douglas Mawson and John King Davis, dispatched a ‘rescue’ attempt, although Wilkins and Wyatt Earp had already made detailed plans to pick up Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon at the Bay of Whales after their flight. The Australians met the explorers at Byrd’s former base, Little America II, where the explorers had been living comfortably for nearly a month. Heavy ice, meanwhile, slowed Wyatt Earp, which arrived four days later. After returning to a heroes’ welcome in the US, Ellsworth made a final expedition to Antarctica with his faithful friend Hubert Wilkins in 1938, then retired from exploration for good.
Wilkins’ flight was one of the last large private expeditions made to Antarctica. WWII interrupted the plans of many explorers, although a secret Nazi expedition in 1938–39, led by Alfred Ritscher, was dispatched to Antarctica by Field Marshal Hermann Göring. Göring was interested both in claiming territory and in protecting Germany’s growing whaling fleet. The expedition used seaplanes to overfly vast stretches of the ice sheet, dropping unique 1.5m darts inscribed with swastikas to establish sovereignty – claims that were never recognized.
Later in the war, a German Hilfskreuzer (auxiliary raider), an armed merchant ship disguised to look like an innocent vessel from another nation, succeeded in a daring Antarctic raid that captured nearly the entire Norwegian whaling fleet – all without bloodshed or a single shot fired. On January 14, 1941, at 59°S, 2°30´W, (between the South Sandwich Islands and Bouvetøya), Schiff 33 (also known as Pinguin) stealthily approached and then captured one supply vessel, two factory ships and 11 whale-catchers – with a combined cargo of more than 18, 000 tonnes of valuable whale oil. All but one of the ships were sent as prizes back to Occupied France. One whale-catcher was retained and converted to another auxiliary raider.
In 1943 Britain began the permanent occupation of Antarctica, establishing Base A at Port Lockroy. After the war the cost of mounting a major expedition pushed nearly everyone but national governments out of the game.
In 1946 the US launched Operation Highjump, history’s largest Antarctic expedition. Officially called the US Navy Antarctic Developments Project, it was primarily a training exercise to give US forces experience in polar operations, which would have been valuable for them had the Cold War, then developing with the Soviet Union, flared into an all-out Arctic fight. Highjump sent 4700 men, 33 aircraft, 13 ships and 10 Caterpillar tractors to the continent. It used helicopters and icebreakers for the first time in the Antarctic. Tens of thousands of aerial photographs were taken along nearly three-quarters of the continent’s coast, although their usefulness for mapmaking was limited by a lack of ground surveys. A smaller, follow-up expedition the next year (later nicknamed Operation Windmill for its extensive use of helicopters) surveyed major features sighted by Highjump.
In February 1954, Phillip Garth Law and the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) set up Mawson station in East Antarctica. Named after Douglas Mawson, this was the first permanent scientific station established on the continent, and the only one outside the Peninsula. Today, Mawson is one of Australia’s three continental stations.
A growing interest in the earth and atmospheric sciences during the late 1940s prompted the declaration of the International Geophysical Year. The IGY, which ran from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, was timed to coincide with a peak level of sunspot activity. Its objective was to study outer space and the whole earth, with 66 countries participating from locations around the globe. But the IGY left its greatest legacy in Antarctica.
Twelve countries – Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK, the US and the USSR – established more than 40 stations on the Antarctic continent and another 20 on the sub-Antarctic islands. Among these were the US base at the South Pole, created through a massive 84-flight airdrop of 725 tonnes of building materials, and the Soviet Vostok station at the Geomagnetic South Pole. Many countries also operated tractor traverses across great sections of the continental interior. The British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Vivian Fuchs, was the first to cross the continent overland. The international cooperation promoted by the IGY led to the creation of the Antarctic Treaty.