Antarctic history began before the continent was even discovered, with ancient theories simply proposing that it existed. Today, Antarctica is protected by the unique Antarctic Treaty, preserving the continent for peaceful scientific research, and bases are served by technology and linked to other continents by 21st-century communications. But, in between, Antarctica has been the site of some of the world's most extreme exploration, bravery and discovery, as humankind has sought to gain a foothold and understand this frozen, mysterious place.

Ancient Roots

Antarctica, unlike any other continent, was postulated to exist long before it was actually discovered. The ancient Greeks, beginning with Pythagoras, believed the earth to be round. Aristotle refined the idea, suggesting that the symmetry of a sphere demanded that the earth’s northern region should be balanced by a 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; a map he drew c AD 150 showed a large continent linking Africa and Asia.

Historical Overview

Explorers from the 15th and 16th centuries, such as Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, and James Cook in the 18th century, skirted the lands that rim the Southern Ocean, and slowly the peri-Antarctic archipelagos were discovered. But it wasn’t until the 19th century with Fabian von Bellingshausen’s circumnavigation and the far-flung activities of sealers and whalers that the continent itself was sighted in 1820, with humans landing on its shores in 1821. The race to find seals and whales heated up – and ultimately to explore and map the new terrain. Antarctica’s heroic age of explorers from the 1890s to the 1920s intensified the push for geographic and scientific exploration, and encompassed the dramatic first and second attainments of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott.

In 1954, Australia established the first permanent science station on the continent and by 1957–58, during the International Geophysical Year, 12 countries were operating 46 bases. This expanding activity made the Antarctica Treaty, signed in 1959, all the more relevant – the continent became reserved for clean peaceful science and exploration. In the ensuing years, despite some territorial claims, that has largely been the case. In the past decades, with the realization of Antarctica’s central role in climate change and the continued unique opportunities for scientific observations, the discoveries way down under continue apace.

The Explorers – Sea & Land

The Sealers

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.

Nearly a third of the peri-Antarctic islands were discovered by sealers. These hunters, however, considered their finds proprietary and kept the information to themselves (although drunken sailors were known to boast about newfound sealing grounds).

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, and the brutality of the seal-killing work itself impressed even the sealers.


In 1819, Czar Alexander I dispatched Fabian von Bellingshausen (1778–1852), a Baltic German and captain in the Russian Imperial Navy who had participated in the first Russian circumnavigation in 1803–06, on a voyage to the Southern Ocean. With his flagship Vostok (East), a newly launched corvette with a copper-sheathed hull, and the older, sluggish transport ship Mirny (Peaceful), he 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 S 69°21´, W 2°14´, Bellingshausen saw ‘an ice field 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 S 69°25´. They crossed the Antarctic Circle six more times, and circumnavigated the continent, eventually probing as far as S 69°53´, where they discovered Peter I Øy, the southernmost land known at that time. They also found a second piece of ice-free land, 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.


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. Upon his arrival in the South Shetlands, Palmer pushed south ahead of the others in search of a more secure anchorage. He anchored inside the caldera of Deception Island, almost certainly the first person to do so. On November 16 he saw Trinity Island to the southeast and probably the Antarctic Peninsula. The next day Palmer sailed to investigate, but due to heavy ice thought it imprudent to attempt a landing.

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 archipelago now known as the South Orkney Islands.


Scotsman James Weddell (1787–1834), an upholsterer’s son who became a master in the Royal Navy, rejoined the merchant service in 1819 and took command of the brig Jane on a sealing expedition to the recently discovered South Shetlands. Although the voyage was a financial failure, he independently discovered the South Orkney Islands, which had just been sighted by Nathaniel Palmer and George Powell.

On his next voyage, Weddell with Jane and the cutter Beaufoy reached the eastern end of the South Orkneys by late January 1823. At Saddle Island, Weddell went ashore collecting six skins of a new species of seal – now known as the Weddell. But by early February, Weddell had given up on finding a harvestable population of seals, so he changed course southward into a sea normally covered in impenetrable ice as far north as S 60°.

Constant gales soaked the crew, but on February 16, when they crossed the 70th parallel, the weather turned and they began a fine run south. Well aware of the remarkable conditions, Weddell noted, ‘not a particle of ice of any description was to be seen.’

By February 20, they had reached an amazing S 74°15´ – a new southing record, 344km further than Cook. But the season was getting on and, despite open water to the south, Weddell ordered a retreat. A gun was fired in celebration and the sea named for King George IV (the name was changed in the next century to honor Weddell).


When American Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798–1877) accepted command of the US Exploring Expedition in 1838, little did he know the expedition was in for great hardship.

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; while sluggish storeship Relief rounded out the sorry fleet.

After separating and undergoing numerous trials (gales blew out sails, boats were crushed by ice, men were injured and frozen, Sea Gull was lost off Chile with all hands) three vessels ultimately rendezvoused and, on January 16, 1840 – three days before Dumont d’Urville made his discovery – they sighted land near E 154°30´, putting a boat ashore, three days later, to confirm it. Separating again, Vincennes continued west, charting until the present-day Shackleton Ice Shelf, which Wilkes named Termination Land. Having followed the Antarctic coast for nearly 2000km, Wilkes announced the discovery of an Antarctic continent upon his return to Sydney.

Dumont d’Urville

Frenchman Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville (1790–1842) was a veteran of two circumnavigations, when he sailed in 1837 with Astrolabe and Zélée. Although Dumont d’Urville hoped to reach the South Magnetic Pole, his orders from King Louis Philippe were simply to proceed as far south as possible in the Weddell Sea.

But the ice in the Weddell Sea that season extended far north and much to his frustration Dumont d’Urville was unable to penetrate nearly as far south as Weddell had. 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 then, scurvy plagued his ships.

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 and on January 19, 1840 saw what they felt certain was land (confirmed the next day). Unable to go ashore because of massive ice cliffs, they sailed west and landed on a group of islets just offshore. Chips of granite were hacked off as proof that they had found terra firma, and the discovery claimed for France and named for Dumont d’Urville’s beloved wife, Adélie.

Returning to France in November 1840 to great acclaim, Dumont d’Urville and his men were rewarded with 15,000 francs (to share). Less than two years later, Dumont d’Urville, his wife and their son were killed in a train derailment.


Scotsman James Clark Ross (1800–62), considered one of the most dashing figures of his time, had joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of 11. Between 1818 and 1836, he spent eight winters and 15 summers in the Arctic, and in 1831, as second-in-command of a voyage led by his uncle, John Ross, he located the North Magnetic Pole. In 1839, he led a national expedition to explore the south and locate the South Magnetic Pole.

Sailing south from Hobart in Erebus and Terror (three-masted barques strengthened for ice navigation), Ross pushed through pack ice until he broke through to open water on January 9, 1841, becoming the first to reach ‘the Victoria Barrier’ (known 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, and the new territory claimed for Queen Victoria.

While continuing to search for the South Magnetic Pole, Ross discovered High (now Ross) Island, and named its two mountains for his ships: Erebus and Terror. Lying in Ross’ path, however, was the formidable ice shelf towering 60m above the sea. The ships cruised along the Barrier for 450km, the sailors in awe. After calculating on January 22, 1841 that he had surpassed Weddell’s furthest south, Ross turned for Hobart.

Sailing south again in November, Ross aimed for the eastern extremity of the Barrier, reaching a new record south of S 78°10´ on February 23, but winter’s onset forced retreat.

After a disappointing third season in the Weddell Sea, the expedition reached England on September 2, 1843, after nearly 4½ years away. When Ross married later that year, the father of his bride, Anne, set one condition: Ross must end his exploring days, a pledge he made and kept, with one exception. In 1847–48 he returned to the Arctic to search for John Franklin, who had disappeared in 1845 while trying to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Feature: Crash at Sea

On March 13, 1842, when traveling together in darkness, Ross’ Erebus and Terror were blown into a group of icebergs. To avoid collision with a berg, each ship put the helm over hard, but 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. When they separated, Erebus was just 8m from the giant berg, but somehow managed to slip past, as did Terror.


In 1893, Norwegian-born Henrik Johan Bull (1844–1930) persuaded Svend Foyn, wealthy inventor of the exploding harpoon gun, to back an expedition to assess the Ross Sea’s whaling potential. Sailing 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.

On January 24, 1895, a party went ashore at Cape Adare in what was claimed to be the continent’s first landing (although it was actually one of several disputed ‘first' landings). Penguins, rock specimens, seaweed and lichens were collected. Bull continued sealing and whaling, and at the age of 62 was shipwrecked on Îles Crozet for two months.

De Gerlache

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 three-masted sealing ship rechristened Belgica, de Gerlache left Antwerp in 1897 with an international crew including a Norwegian who offered to join the expedition as first mate without pay: Roald Amundsen.

By early February, the expedition had discovered and mapped the strait that 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.

Belgica crossed the Circle on February 15, 1898. By March 1, already deep into the heavy pack ice, she reached S 71°31´. The next day began a 377-day imprisonment in the ice. 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.

In January 1899, they attempted 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, closing the hard-won canal 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.


Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink (1864–1934), son of a Norwegian father and an English mother, sailed with Bull in the 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 the first to accomplish this feat – the British Antarctic Expedition of 1898–90.

Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross, a converted Norwegian sealer, arrived at Cape Adare on February 17, 1899. Despite the loss of one life, the daring expedition was ultimately successful.


Swedish geologist Nils Otto Gustav Nordenskjöld (1869–1928) had previously led expeditions to the Yukon and Tierra del Fuego. In 1900, he was assigned to lead the Swedish South Polar Expedition, the first to winter in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

Under Nordenskjöld’s leadership, experienced Antarctic explorer Norwegian Carl Larsen captained the Antarctic, the stout former sealer used by Henrik Bull. By late January 1902, they were exploring the western side of the Peninsula, making several important geographical discoveries 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.

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 in a small hut on Snow Hill Island in February 1902, while the Antarctic sailed to winter in the Falklands. It wasn’t until November 1903 that Nordenskjöld and his men were finally reunited with Larsen and the crew of the Antarctic.

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 that time.

Scott – The Discovery Expedition

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, and the well-financed enterprise sailed from England on August 6, 1901, in Discovery, a specially built wooden steam barque.

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.

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 accommodations.

In a violent snowstorm during a sledge trip, young sailor 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 expedition member Ernest Shackleton as editor, they published Antarctica’s first magazine, the monthly South Polar Times, and one issue of a more ribald alternative, the Blizzard, the title page of which featured a figure holding a bottle, captioned ‘Never mind the blizzard, I’m all right.’

To the cheers of the men from Discovery, 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. Inexperience with skiing and dog-sledging, however, resulted in this initial foray being unsuccessful.

The following summer, after Scott led a sledging party in southern Victoria Land, the relief ships Morning and Terra Nova arrived. If Discovery could not be freed within six weeks, it was to be abandoned. After weeks of cutting and blasting, nature relented. A final charge, on February 16, 1904, released Discovery for the long journey home.


Scotsman William Speirs Bruce (1867–1921), a physician, headed the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, sailing in Scotia, a renamed Norwegian steam sealer. The expedition pushed south into the Weddell Sea in 1902–03, but by S 70°, Scotia was beset. After freeing themselves, the group headed north to winter at Laurie Island, where they set up a meteorological station on April 1, 1903, the oldest continuously operated base in the Antarctic (now called Orcadas).

In January 1904, Bruce penetrated the Weddell Sea to S 74° where he discovered Coats Land, which he named for the expedition’s patrons, Andrew and James Coats. Scotia followed the coast for 240km, but the fast ice continually kept the ship two or three frustrating kilometers offshore.

Upon his death in 1921, Bruce’s ashes were carried south and poured into the Southern Ocean.


French physician Jean-Baptiste Etienne Auguste Charcot (1867–1936) headed the French Antarctic Expedition along the west coast of the Peninsula. By February 19, 1904, he had discovered Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island. Sailing on, the expedition wintered at a sheltered bay on the north coast of Booth Island, a place he named Port Charcot for his father. After the spring breakup, the expedition sailed north, running into trouble on January 13, 1905, when their schooner, Français, struck a rock. Despite attempts at plugging the hole, the expedition was forced to disband in Argentina. Charcot headed home, where his wife Jeanne divorced him for desertion.

In 1908, Charcot again sailed south on a French government expedition in the newly built Pourquoi Pas? (Why Not?), which carried the name Charcot had christened his toy boats with as a child. The group continued the survey work on the western side of the Peninsula that Charcot had begun with Français. He discovered and named the Fallières Coast, circled Adelaide Island and proved its insularity, and discovered Marguerite Bay (named for his second wife, Meg).

The ship boasted electric lighting and a 1500-volume library, which proved invaluable during the winter of 1909, when the expedition was icebound in a bay at Petermann Island. The group set up a shore station, with huts for meteorological, seismic, magnetic and tidal research.

Twenty-six years later, Charcot and Pourquoi Pas? were again sailing treacherous waters, this time off Iceland, when a gale arose and claimed captain, ship and all but one of the 43-man crew.

Shackleton – The Nimrod Expedition

Anglo-Irishman Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874–1922), second of 10 children born to a doctor and his Quaker wife, lived by his family motto: Fortitudine vincimus (By fortitude we conquer). An indefatigable worker with a charming, forceful personality, Shackleton was badly stung by his own ill health during Scott’s furthest south expedition in 1902.

Back in Scotland, Shackleton worked as a PR man for a big Glasgow steelworks. The works’ owner, William Beardmore, took a liking to Shackleton and sponsored his next Antarctic expedition. The British Antarctic Expedition sailed from New Zealand in Nimrod, a three-masted sealing ship with 40 years’ Arctic use. When Shackleton arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1908, he built his hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, before pushing for the Pole. Thwarted by diminished supplies, Shackleton and his men were forced to abandon their attempt only 180km from their goal.

Feature: Other Shackleton Firsts

In addition to the polar party reaching a furthest south, Shackleton’s Nimrod group also achieved these firsts:

  • Climbed Mt Erebus: Six men led by TW Edgeworth David reached the volcano’s rim on March 10, 1908, after a five-day climb.
  • Reached the South Magnetic Pole: Douglas Mawson and Alistair Mackay, with David again leading, hiked nearly 1600km, arriving on January 16, 1909.
  • Tested Antarctica’s first motorcar: An Arrol-Johnston, it proved no good in snow, but was useful for transporting loads across ice.
  • Published the first (and only) book in Antarctica: 80 copies of Aurora Australis.


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, de Gerlache’s 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, which would later prove invaluable.

The Arctic was Amundsen’s first interest. He had long dreamed of reaching the North Pole, but as he was planning an expedition the news reached him that American Robert E Peary claimed to have reached N 90° on April 6, 1909. Amundsen quickly, and secretly, turned his ambitions 180 degrees.

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 Robert Scott from learning of his plans, Amundsen revealed his intentions to just three members of the expedition, until he reached Madeira, where he stunned the others with the news. Soon after, he sent his infamous telegram to Scott in Melbourne: ‘Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen.’

Amundsen established his base, Framheim (home of Fram), on the ice shelf at the Bay of Whales. In a small prefab wooden hut, nine men spent the winter. Outside, 15 identical tents served as store sheds and doghouses for the expedition’s 97 North Greenland dogs. From Framheim, Amundsen had the advantage of starting 100km closer to the Pole than Scott would, but he would have to pioneer a new route up to the polar plateau from the Ross Ice Shelf.

On December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his men became the first explorers to reach the South Pole.

Scott – The Terra Nova Expedition

Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition sailed from New Zealand on November 29, 1910, with the renewed goal of reaching the South Pole. Arriving at Ross Island in January 1911 aboard Terra Nova, the old Scottish whaler that had been one of the two relief ships sent at the end of the Discovery expedition, Scott found ice blocking the way to his old Discovery hut, so he established winter quarters at Cape Evans, named after his second-in-command, Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell ‘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.

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. Despite finally reaching the pole on January 17, Scott’s expedition was tragically unsuccessful – not only did they fail to reach the pole first (that triumph went to Roald Amundsen), but Scott and the four men traveling with him perished on their return journey.

Among those left at the edge of the continent were the infamous three-man midwinter trekkers to Cape Crozier and a separate Northern Party, led by Victor Campbell. This party 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 had found on the Discovery expedition.

Feature: Polar Artifacts on the Block

In 1999 Captain Scott’s descendants auctioned artifacts from his last expedition. Parts of the Primus stove on which the three last members of the polar party may have cooked their final hot meal was brought £27,600. A Union flag found with the bodies, possibly flown by the party at the Pole, sold for £25,300.

A centenary auction in March 2012 saw Scott’s farewell letter to Sir Edgar Speyer fetch £163,250.


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 expedition, Mawson wanted to explore new territory west of Cape Adare.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition sailed from Hobart on December 2, 1911, in Aurora, an old sealer. Its master was Captain John King Davis (who was also on the Nimrod expedition with Mawson and Shackleton). They reached 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. Mawson set up his base at Cape Denison on Commonwealth Bay and groundbreaking science and hair-raising adventures ensued.

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 by Amundsen, Bavarian army lieutenant Wilhelm Filchner (1877–1957) tackled another question: whether the Weddell and Ross Seas were joined by a channel, as some geographers posited. Filchner hoped to cross the Antarctic continent, starting from the Weddell Sea, to solve this puzzle.

Sailing on May 4, 1911 in Deutschland, the Second German South Polar Expedition reached the Weddell Sea pack ice by mid-December. 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 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 ship’s captain, Richard Vahsel, died of syphilis in August 1912 during the drift and was, as Filchner later wrote, ‘committed to the sea in a sack, along with a heavy weight.’

On November 26, 1912, the disintegrating ice released the ship, which sailed to South Georgia and home.

Shackleton – The Endurance Expedition

After failing to reach the Pole on his Nimrod expedition, Shackleton set his sights on crossing Antarctica. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition would sail Endurance to the Weddell Sea coast, establish a base, and 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 landed at Ross Island (sailing Aurora from Hobart).

Endurance sailed from Plymouth on August 8, 1914, calling at Madeira, Buenos Aires and South Georgia, then pushing into the Weddell Sea pack ice. Soon Endurance was squeezing through ever-narrower leads.

By January 19, 1915, Endurance was caught. The incredible events that followed have grown to legend, and much of it was caught on film by expedition photographer Frank Hurley. 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 open lifeboats to Elephant Island through freezing waters. Since the island was little more than a windswept rock, Shackleton and five others were forced to navigate another 1300km across open sea in the 6.9m James Caird (which the ship’s carpenter had decked over with scavenged timbers) to seek help from whalers at South Georgia. After 16 exhausting days at sea, they landed at South Georgia, completing one of history’s greatest navigational feats. Frank Worsley used a sextant in deep cloud cover and amid 15m waves.

Unfortunately, their South Georgian landfall was at King Haakon Bay, on the bleak, uninhabited southwest coast; the whaling stations were on the island’s northeastern side.

When they reached Stromness, a ship was dispatched to pick up the three men left behind at King Haakon Bay. After three failed attempts over the next four months to pick up the 22 men stranded at Elephant Island, Shackleton enlisted the help of Yelcho, a steamer lent by the Chilean government, and recovered them all on August 30, 1916. Everyone on Endurance had survived.

Meanwhile, 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 10 men at Cape Evans. They spent a miserable winter with minimal supplies. Aurora was herself beset for 10 months, finally getting free on March 14, 1916. Shackleton met the ship in New Zealand and relieved the Cape Evans party on January 10, 1917.

Shackleton mounted a final journey to the Antarctic, the Quest expedition. Upon reaching Grytviken, South Georgia, he died of a heart attack on January 5, 1922 aboard his ship; he is buried at Grytviken.

Feature: Drygalski: Ingenuity on the Ice

Erich Dagobert von Drygalski (1865–1949), a geography professor and leader of a four-year expedition to Greenland, was given command of the German South Polar Expedition in 1898. Drygalski, aboard Gauss, a three-masted schooner, sighted land on February 21, 1902, in the region of 90°E and named it 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 a west-drifting pack, the men settled into a routine of scientific work by day, and card games, lectures, beer and music by night. Snow drifted up over the ship and its warm, humid interior became 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.

When spring and then summer arrived, sawing, drilling and even dynamiting the 6m-thick ice had done nothing to free the ship. Drygalski noticed 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 had his men lay a trail of coal ash, supplemented by rotting garbage, across the 600m of ice separating Gauss from open water.

The ingenious trick worked. Soon there was a 2m-deep channel filled with water. Two months passed, however, before – on February 8, 1903 – the bottom of the canal cracked open and the ship was freed.

Feature: The Earliest Antarctic Landings

Evidence suggests that in the summer of 1820–21 three sealing masters working from the South Shetlands independently landed on the Antarctic Peninsula – thus becoming the first humans on the continent. They were John Davis aboard Cecilia, a ship from Nantucket, on February 7, 1821, and John McFarlane and Joseph Usher aboard Dragon and Caraquette respectively, both from London but working out of Valparaiso, at unknown dates. Few details are known because no fur seals were found, thus the trips were of little interest to those involved.

Just two more continental landings by sealers during the rest of the century are known, one on the Antarctic Peninsula and the other in the vicinity of Cape Adare. Though other landings were probably made, the absence of seals meant they weren’t recorded.


Robert Headland


Robert Headland is a senior associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

Antarctic Aviators


Australian George Hubert Wilkins (1888–1958), a veteran of two Antarctic expeditions, including one on Shackleton’s Quest, mounted a well-funded expedition in 1928 (including a lucrative US$25,000 news-rights contract with American press lord William Randolph Hearst), and accomplished the first powered flights in Antarctica.

Wilkins returned to the Antarctic the next summer, making more flights and discoveries. All told, he mapped 200,000 sq km of new territory. He later supported Lincoln Ellsworth with his flights.


American flier Richard Evelyn Byrd (1888–1957), a graduate of the US Naval Academy, claimed in 1926 to be the first to fly over the North Pole (the claim though has been questioned). In 1927, he was narrowly beaten by Charles Lindbergh in the era’s greatest race: solo flight across the Atlantic. Soon after, he made it his goal to become the first to fly over the South Pole.

Byrd’s United States Antarctic Expedition’s base, Little America, was established at the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1929.

The expedition had three aircraft: a large aluminum Ford trimotor, Floyd Bennett; a smaller, single-engine Fairchild, Stars and Stripes; and a single-engine Fokker Universal named The Virginian. Near the Rockefeller Mountains (named for one of Byrd’s sponsors) The Virginian blew/flew 800m – unmanned – in a blizzard, to its destruction. With winter’s onset, the two remaining planes were cached in snow shelters.

The next season, on November 28, a field party working in the Queen Maud Mountains radioed Little America that the weather was clear, so Floyd Bennett took off. In the wee hours of November 29, Byrd and his crew of three piloted over the Pole.

Byrd returned to the US as a national hero, feted with ticker-tape parades, a promotion to rear admiral, and a 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) and the US’ massive Operation Highjump.


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 North Pole in 1926, three days after Byrd’s (disputed) flight.

In 1931, Ellsworth began a long, productive association with George Hubert Wilkins – with the goal of crossing Antarctica by air. Ellsworth bought a Northrop Gamma monoplane, which he named Polar Star, and for his pilot on the Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition he chose Bernt Balchen, chief pilot on Byrd’s expedition. Ellsworth’s third attempt, in November 1935, was successful.

WWII & the Modern Era


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 in both claiming territory and protecting Germany’s growing whaling fleet. The expedition used seaplanes to overfly vast stretches of the ice sheet, dropping 1.5m darts inscribed with swastikas to establish sovereignty – claims that were never recognized.

Operations Highjump & Windmill

In 1946, the US launched Operation Highjump, history’s largest Antarctic expedition. Officially called the US Navy Antarctic Developments Project, 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. The 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 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. Mawson remains one of Australia’s three continental stations.

International Geophysical Year

The International Geophysical Year (IGY; July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958) was declared to pursue global interest in the Earth and atmospheric sciences. Sixty-six countries participated from locations around the world, but the IGY left its greatest legacy in Antarctica. Twelve countries established more than 40 stations on the 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. The international cooperation promoted by the IGY led to the creation of the Antarctic Treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty

In the wake of the IGY, scientists and diplomats codified the spirit of international cooperation in the unprecedented Antarctic Treaty. Signed in 1959 by the 12 nations active in the Antarctic during the IGY, it has governed the continent since 1961.

The Antarctic Treaty (, which applies to the area south of S 60°, ensures that countries active in Antarctica consult on the uses of the continent. It is surprisingly short but remarkably effective, creating a natural reserve devoted to peace and science where there are no wars, where the environment is fully protected and where research is the priority.

Subsequent legislation has further codified environmental protections. Chief among these, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol; 1991) and its annexes established environmental principles for the conduct of all activities on the Ice, prohibited mining, and requires environmental impact assessments before new activities can be undertaken.

Similarly, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR; protects the species inhabiting the ocean surrounding Antarctica and manages fishing.

The 53 Antarctic Treaty members (as of March 2017) represent about 80% of the world’s population. Any state performing significant scientific research in Antarctica can become a ‘consultative party,’ or full voting member. Members meet annually to discuss issues as diverse as scientific cooperation, environmental protection measures, management of tourism and the preservation of historic sites – and make decisions by consensus.

Seven nations (Argentina, Chile, the UK, Australia, France, New Zealand and Norway) have territorial claims, which are not internationally recognized. The Antarctic Treaty ‘freezes’ territorial claims, but countries have employed various methods to try to reinforce their sovereignty over large sections of Antarctica. These include flagpoles, plaques and stamps, while Argentina has even sent pregnant women to the Ice to give birth. Most recently, from 2007 to 2009 the UK, Chile and Argentina all filed for rights to Antarctica’s ocean floor in the vicinity of their claims. Nevertheless, in 2016 they all agreed to establish the largest marine reserve in the world in the Ross Sea area.

International Polar Year 2007–08 & Beyond

International Polar Year 2007–08 (IPY; was a coordinated international science program, like IGY, that ran from March 2007 to March 2009. It saw a multitude of international projects advancing polar science and cooperation. For example, the EU’s Cryosat satellite and NASA’s GRACE satellites measure the mass and gravity of ice sheets and the data is shared freely.

Building on the IPY mentality of cooperation, in 2011 a US National Academy of Sciences committee proposed an international, multidisciplinary observation system in Antarctica. The committee foresees increased data-gathering and more accurate predictions – necessary in light of the rapid changes the continent (and the planet) is facing.

As tourism to the Antarctic has increased, so too have cruise-ship mishaps. In February 2007 Nordkapp ran aground in Deception Island’s Neptunes Bellows, ripping a 25m gash along her hull. Nearby sister ship Nordnorge picked up the 280 passengers for transport home. Then, in November, Explorer hit an iceberg and sank, requiring the rescue of more than 150 people. The sinking of the Explorer (with its fuel on board) highlighted the environmental risks of accidents in Antarctica and helped coalesce the final support needed to push through a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters (which took effect in 2011). Nonetheless, accidents continued to occur: in 2009 Clelia II ran aground and then in 2010 lost most of her power after being smacked by a huge wave. In 2012 Plancius suffered engine failure, stranding passengers and crew near South Georgia.

The 2011–12 season saw the centenaries of Amundsen’s and Scott’s attainments of the Pole and focused the spotlight on Antarctica. Media reports followed myriad international exhibitions and private expeditions to the Pole.

Between climate change, tourism and science (which is well-publicized over the internet), Antarctica and its mysteries are more central and more accessible to more of the world than ever before. By maintaining environmental protections while developing technologies, observing and predicting the effects of climate change, and creating international initiatives, much of what is revealed may come to serve humankind enormously in the century ahead.