Early Antarctic exploration was an international endeavor

An Antarctic expedition is the worst way to have the best time in your life.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World (1922)

Anyone who has ventured to Antarctica can not help but have the highest respect for early explorers. How did these men, without the benefit of modern outdoor equipment, endure the harsh conditions of cold, starvation, isolation, scurvy, injury, ice storms, avalanches, and physical deterioration? Why do explorers past and present have such an obsession for experiencing nature in its extreme?

The early Greeks speculated that a great southern continent existed, but they never sailed there. During the Antarctic summer of January 1773, Captain James Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle at 66Ëš 33S latitude. New Zealand legends tell the tale of Maori warrior Ui-te-Rangiora sailing his canoe Te Ivi-o-atea into frozen waters as early as 650 AD, but the log of Cooks ship HMS Resolution contains the first written record. Cooks ship was not an ice breaker, so he never reached the coast of this seventh continent. But with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, expeditions sailed into the polar seas to places like Shetland Islands, harvesting seals for oil to light cities and lubricate machines. Animal populations were decimated. Even penguins were killed and boiled down for their oils.

Almost 50 years after Captain Cooks journey, Russian explorer Captain Fabian von Bellingshausen first saw the coast of the Antarctic continent, reportedly in January 1820. (British naval officer Edward Bransfield documented the coastline at nearly the same time.) The very next day, on 31 January 1820, skippers of two American sealing boats, allegedly sent some men ashore whose names were not even recorded in the ships log. They unknowingly became the first humans to set foot on Antarctic soil. With this unofficial record, no one country or individual can lay claim on the discovery of Antarctica. It was truly an international exploration.

Norwegian Carstens Borchgrevink captained the British ship Southern Cross that overwintered and collected the first scientific measurements of this icy continent in 1899. Two years later, Robert Scott was sent by the British to reach the South Pole and traveled as far as 82Ëš S. His team turned back some 772 kilometers from its goal. In 1911, Scott led a second team, using ponies for transport. The British erroneously felt that dogs would not work in the South Poles, and this proved an ill-fated oversight. The race to the South Pole became an enormous media event in the year 1910, perhaps more highly publicized than the sinking of the Titanic in that same era. The press created an international competition between Scott and his competitor, Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Thousands of people applied for a slot in Scotts British team.

Roald Amundsen, like Scott, had previously ventured into Antarctic conditions. He first experienced polar conditions in 1898 as part of the first expedition to overwinter there, where he witnessed the mental challenges of polar conditions including frostbite, scurvy, darkness, and adversity. Amundsen had also lived with the Inuit to learn about arctic survival. Having missed an opportunity to be first to the North Pole, he set his sights on the South Pole instead. Amundsen departed on October 20, 1910 (just before the Antarctic summer) and reached the Pole on December 15. He spent several days using navigational equipment to confirm that he truly had reached his goal.

Meanwhile, Scott arrived on January 17, only to find the Norwegian team had preceded him by almost a month. Crestfallen with defeat and overcome by exhaustion, cold, and physical hardships, Scotts team of five had to trek 800 miles back from the South Pole. Scott wrote in his journal until March 30th, his last entry after which they all perished. Scott allegedly died with his journal under his arm, which was later retrieved by rescue teams. Called ��The Worst Journey in the World, National Geographic rates Scotts amazing story (written by base camp survivor Apsley Cherry-Garrard) as one of the hundred greatest adventure tales of all times. Sir Ernest Shackletons subsequent attempt to walk across Antarctica in 1914-1918 and the exploits of his crew aboard the Endeavor remain unparalleled as the most daring story of exploration throughout history.

Antarctica is the only continent on Earth not permanently populated or governed by its own citizens. Today, only scientists and support staff of research stations inhabit the icy continent and its associated islands. Issues such as climate change, atmospheric science, ecology of organisms living in extreme environments, oceanic currents, fisheries, and water are studied by these rugged individuals who are willing to live in relatively harsh conditions. During my recent voyage to Antarctica, our team visited the Ukraines Vernadsky Research Station at 65Ëš 15 S and 64Ëš 16W where long term data on sea level and climate are monitored around the clock and relayed to large computer networks up North. This station, which sleeps sixteen, boasted a small doctors clinic and also its own pub, the Adelie House. Like many research stations where scientists work for long stretches in isolation, local legends abound. One tall tale at Vernadsky involved its unique ladies brassiere collection in the pub, where allegedly anyone who donates an undergarment receives limitless free vodka at the bar. Alas, no women in our party were willing to make a contribution and put the legend to test!

Although its discovery is relatively recent, Antarctica has quickly amassed legends of human feats and humorous foibles surrounding the exploration of this seventh continent.

Contributed by Dr. Margaret Lowman, New College of Florida and ESA Vice President for Education and Human Resources

This article first appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on January 28, 2007, and is used by permission of the author. Read more of Dr. Lowmans work at http://www.canopymeg.com/

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  1. Hello Meg!
    I was at the IPY inauguration ceremony yesterday morning. I was expecting more scientists in the room. IPY looks promising in the advances of monitoring and observational techniques and many interdisciplinary sciences! I hope that all the data collected from these thousands of scientists from over 60 nations don’t end up in a conference presentation or in a journal article. I hope these activities and research conclusions will help strengthen our environmental policies and motivate many young minds to pursue a scientific career.
    To all the students interested in polar research and would like to explore the sites described by Meg, keep your eyes open…there will be opportunities in the near future!

  2. Jorge,
    Glad you were at the IPY launch. I do not actually engage in polar research myself, but have been writing a public science newspaper column in hopes of educating the Florida public about science in general. This weekend — March 17 — the Explorers Club in NYC will host a gala celebration for several polar researchers. I will be there with my parka on!
    Meg Lowman

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