It has been only 100 years since humans first occupied the continent of Antarctica (1899), and a mere 180 years since seafarers first saw the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula (1819). Yet even before they laid eyes on it, most early explorers were convinced a large, southern continent existed. They called it Terra Australis Incognita--the Unknown Southern Land.
The idea went back to the ancient Greeks, who had a fondness for symmetry and balance. There must be a great continent to the south, they postulated, to balance the great land masses in the northern hemisphere. Two thousand years later, the great age of exploration brought Europeans far enough south to test the hypothesis.
In 1520, after he had sailed through the Strait that now bears his name, Magellan speculated that the land to his south, Tierra del Fuego, might mark the northern edge of a great continent. Fifty-eight years later, in 1578, Sir Francis Drake sailed his Golden Hind through Magellan's Strait. He encountered severe weather on the Pacific side and was blown to the south of Tierra del Fuego, then east around Cape Horn. It became obvious that Magellan's "continent" was merely a series of islands at the tip of South America. If there was indeed a southern continent, it had to be further south.
It seems ironic that the severe weather that makes the southern ocean so dangerous, particularly in the south Atlantic, was a key factor in the discovery of Antarctica. Time and time again, sailors blown off course by a storm discovered new land. Often, this new land was further south than any previously known. While attempting to navigate around Cape Horn in 1619, the Spaniards Bartoleme and Gonzalo Garcia de Nodal were blown off course, only to discover the tiny islands they named Islas Diego Ramirez. This would be the most southerly recorded land for another 156 years.
In 1622, the Dutch pilot Dirck Gerritsz reported being driven south to 64°S, where he supposedly discovered a land with snow-covered mountains, a land similar in appearance to Norway. The accuracy of his latitude calculation is suspect, but it is possible that he sighted the South Shetland Islands. In 1675, the British merchant Anthony de la Roch was blown far to the east and south of the Straits of Magellan, to a latitude of 55°S, where he found shelter in an unnamed bay. During his stay at what was almost certainly South Georgia Island, he also sighted what he thought to be the southern continent to the south and east. In fact, what he saw was most probably the Clerke Rocks, which lie 48 kilometers southeast of South Georgia. Their location corresponds to where the shore of Terra Australis Incognita was placed on the Dutch East India Company map of the time, which de la Roche had studied.
For the first 200 years or so of European exploration, most voyages were concerned either with commerce or with the investigation of the newly discovered American continents. The first systematic search for a southern continent didn't come until nearly the beginning of the eighteenth century. In September of 1699, the scientist Edmond Halley left England aboard the Pink Paramour to establish the true longitude of ports in South America and Africa, measure magnetic variations, and search for the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita. By January, he had crossed the Antarctic Convergence and on February 1, 1700 at 52°24'S, Halley made the first recorded sighting of tabular icebergs, which he sketched into the ship's logbook. However, the cold, stormy weather, and the danger of collision with an iceberg in the fog drove him north again.
During the 1700's, the French became active in exploring for new land to the south, and a possible southern continent was on their minds. Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier was searching for the fabled "Gonneville's Land" when he sighted land on January 1, 1739 at about 54°S latitude. He called it "Cape Circumcision," but it was actually an island (now called Bouvetmya, or Bouvet Island). It is the most isolated island on Earth. (Because his estimate of longitude was so far off, the island was not sighted again until 1808, though many explorers looked for it.)
Yves-Joseph de Kergulen-Trmarec set sail with two ships in 1771, with specific instructions to find the southern continent. On February 12, 1772, in the south Indian Ocean, he sighted a fog-shrouded land at 49°40'S but could not make a landing because of high seas and foul weather. A boat from his sister ship did manage a brief landfall to claim the island (Kergulen Island) for France. His firm belief in the existence of a fabled, hospitable, southern continent blinded him to the desolate reality of his find, though. He sailed back to France with wild tales of a populated, temperate paradise he called "New South France." His stories convinced the French government to invest in another expensive expedition. In 1773, Kergulen returned to his island with three ships but still did not personally set foot on the island that bears his name. Even worse, he was forced to accept the truth about his find and returned to France in disgrace.
In 1767, Alexander Dalrymple published An Account of the Discoveries made in the South Pacific Ocean Previous to 1764. In it, he made a strong case for a giant, unknown southern continent. According to Dalrymple, this continent's northern shore lay in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between 28°S and 40°S latitude. The English government listened. In 1768, Captain James Cook was sent to the South Pacific, first to observe the upcoming transit of Venus, and second, to proceed south in a search for this continent. He returned to England three years later with a wealth of new geographical, biological, and anthropological information--but no sign of a southern continent. Again, the shores had been pushed south from their presumed position.
In July, 1772, Cook sailed from England again, and this time, according to both the British Admiralty and his own inclination, the search for the southern continent was his primary mission. He also intended to confirm the existence of Bouvet's "Cape Circumcision" and Kergulen's recently discovered "New South France."
In early December, 1772, Cook crossed the convergence and came upon his first iceberg. After searching in vain for Bouvet's cape, Cook bore east and south. On January 17, 1773, at about 40°E longitude, he made the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle in history. At 67°15'S, the ice pack forced them north again, a mere 80 miles from the Antarctic coastline. In February, the Resolution and Adventure passed south of the position reported by Kergulen, making it clear to Cook that whatever the Frenchman had found was not part of any southern continent.
After spending the austral winter exploring the Pacific's more temperate and tropical latitudes (and further disproving Dalrymple's theory of a southern land between 28°S and 40°S), Cook headed south again in late November 1773. He crossed the Antarctic Circle for the second time in December, reaching 67°31'S. Once again, however, the pack ice forced him north. On January 26, 1774, Resolution crossed the Antarctic Circle for a third time, reaching 71°10'S at 106°54'W in the Amundsen Sea. This was further south than anyone had ever gone before.
Cook spent a second austral winter in the tropics before continuing his eastward circumnavigation of Antarctica. On January 14, 1775, after passing through the Straits of Magellan, he sighted new land. By January 16, he had named Willis' and Bird Islands and, 100 years after de la Roche, had re-discovered and named South Georgia Island. After exploring its northern shore for a few days, Cook headed south to investigate the other land that de la Roche had seen (and that Alexander Dalrymple had thought to be part of a continent), the Clerke Rocks. Finally, on January 26, the Resolution came upon the southern end of what are now known as the South Sandwich Islands. At close to 60xS latitude, they were at that time the southernmost land ever sighted.
Near the end of February, 1775, Cook crossed his track of 1772, completing the first circumnavigation of Antarctica and proving once and for all that the southern continent, if one existed, was neither as large nor as habitable as once thought. He did believe there was a southern land mass, but that it was of little use to anyone.
The Seal Hunters Arrive
James Cook's Antarctic circumnavigation stands as one of the greatest of all human voyages of exploration. His thorough investigation and reasoned dismissal of Antarctica's value was enough to dissuade governments from further expenditures. (In fact, except for one British and one Russian expedition, government funded exploration did enter a sixty year hiatus.) But Cook had not taken human greed into consideration. Ironically, it was Cook's own penchant for thoroughness that fueled the burst of activity that followed his voyage; he had noted in his log the large numbers of seals and whales he observed in the high latitudes. Before long, hunters were headed south.
Between 1784 and 1822, millions of seal skins were taken from South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, the Cape Horn region, the South Sandwich Islands, and the coast of Chile. As many as three million skins were taken from the Juan Fernandez Islands alone, driving the seal population there nearly to extinction. Sub-Antarctic islands, such as Kergulen, Crozet, Marion, Prince Edward, and Macquarie, were denuded as well, leaving the sealers hungry for new hunting grounds.
Whalers came south, too, to hunt the southern right whale and to take advantage of the abundance of seals and the high profits of sealing. While many whalers joined the slaughter of fur seals, others hunted the southern elephant seal. Millions of elephant seals were butchered and rendered into oil as a substitute for whale oil.
A new phase in Antarctic exploration, and exploitation, began in 1819. A merchant captain named William Smith was sailing around Cape Horn on his way to Valparaiso, Chile when he detoured to the south to avoid unfavorable winds. On February 19, he sighted previously unknown land and the next day, after the weather had cleared a little, he fixed its position at 62°17'S and 60°12'W, further south even than Cook's South Sandwich Islands. Smith had discovered Livingston Island in the South Shetlands. More importantly, he had discovered more seals.
Smith returned in October of the same year to take soundings and explore his find. On October 16, he made a landing on Desolation Island, planted a flag, and claimed the new land for Britain.
The seal hunters didn't waste any time. As soon as word of Smith's discovery got around the ports of Argentina and Chile, merchantmen were scrambling to take advantage of the new hunting grounds. The first ship to arrive in the South Shetlands was an chartered Argentine vessel. The crew took 14,000 skins in five weeks. On December 25, 1819, British sealers landed on Rugged Island, claimed it for Britain, and set about their business. The American sealer Hersilia (with Nathaniel Palmer as second mate) sighted Smith Island on January 18, 1820 and arrived at Rugged Island to join the British a few days later. The extermination of South Shetland seals had begun.
Meanwhile, the British Royal Navy had sent Edward Bransfield to determine if the new land was part of a continent or a string of islands. Bransfield was also ordered to chart harbors, collect natural science specimens, and take weather and magnetic readings. On January 16, 1820, he sighted Livingston Island, and on January 22 made a landing on King George Island, claiming the land (yet again) for Britain. Sailing southwest, Bransfield discovered Deception Island, Tower Island, and the Bransfield Strait. On January 30, Bransfield (or a member of his crew) was the first to lay eyes on the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula, a place he called "Trinity Land."
Bransfield continued his explorations until the middle of March, 1820, discovering Gibbs, O'Brien, Elephant, Seal, and Clarence Islands, and sailing into the Weddell Sea--the first person in history to do so.
At the same time that Bransfield was charting the South Shetlands, Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen was commanding Russia's first government-sponsored Antarctic expedition (and the last one until those of the International Geophysical Year, 135 years later). On January 15, 1820, Bellingshausen crossed the Antarctic Circle (just west of the Greenwich Meridian). His crew was only the second group of men in history to do so. The next day, Bellingshausen was prevented from going further south by a massive, continental ice shelf. This was the Finibul Ice Shelf, and the occasion marked the first sighting of the continent of Antarctica by human eyes. Bellingshausen had beat Bransfield by two weeks.
During the course of the next three weeks, Bellingshausen crossed the Antarctic Circle twice more, each time sighting a barrier of continental ice. On January 27 he recorded his position as 69°21'S, 2°14'W and on February 5 as 69°07'S, 15°W. Both times he noted the existence of an enormous ice shelf to the south, stretching away to the east and west. Since he was only a few miles from the coast of Antarctica each time, the ice shelf was undoubtedly the one that rims the Princess Astrid Coast.
Bellingshausen continued his explorations for the next year, becoming the first explorer to circumnavigate Antarctica since James Cook. On January 21, 1821, Bellingshausen reached 69°53'S and discovered the most southerly known land (Peter I Island). He saw the continent again on January 28 at 69°43'S and named it the Alexander Coast (now called Alexander Island). In the South Shetlands he encountered and spoke with Nathaniel Palmer, who by now was master of his own sealing ship, the Hero.
The sealers had been busy. During the 1820-21 summer season there were between 55 and 60 sealing vessels working the South Shetlands (accounts vary), with upwards of 1000 men. New sealing grounds were sought out and the seals dispatched with great alacrity. The slaughter was phenomenal. Perhaps a quarter of a million seals were eliminated in the space of three months. The carnage wasn't entirely one-sided, though; six vessels and an unknown number of men were lost to the hazards of the environment.
In his own search for virgin sealing grounds, Palmer explored to the south of the Shetlands, sailing a few miles west of Bransfield's track. On November 15, 1820 he observed the mountains of "Trinity Land," the second known sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula. He also discovered McFarlane Strait and Yankee Harbor. Although it is possible that other sealers had seen the Peninsula before him, their logs are lost and there is no record other than Palmer's.
The first recorded landing on the Antarctic continent took place on February 7, 1821. Men from the American sealer Cecilia, under Captain John Davis, landed at Hughes Bay (64°01'S) looking for seals. Though they were on shore for less than an hour, these men were the first humans to set foot on this new southern land. Davis correctly guessed that the land was a continent.
Another significant first took place in 1821. One officer and ten men from the British sealer Lord Melville were forced to spend the winter on King George Island after their ship was driven offshore by a storm and didn't return. This was the first time men had endured the Antarctic winter. They were rescued the following summer.
Ninety-one sealing vessels were operating in the Shetlands during the 1820-21 season, and all remaining fur seals were systematically exterminated. On December 7, 1821 George Powell, a sealer and amateur naturalist, joined with Nathaniel Palmer to search for new sealing grounds to the east of the Shetlands. Soon they had discovered the South Orkney Islands, but since there were no fur seals to be found there, Palmer left it to Powell to make an exploratory landing.
To their credit, these two sealers conducted science when time allowed. Powell took readings and samples, and Palmer on his final voyage had with him Dr. James Eights, the first real scientist to visit the Antarctic. During the voyage, Eights discovered pycnogonids and collected the first Antarctic fossils.
The next sixteen years saw several attempts by sealers to locate new sealing grounds. Many of these voyages were underwritten by the British whaling firm Enderby Brothers (formerly Enderby & Sons), whose owners were as eager to have their captains make new geographical discoveries as they were to have them turn a profit. As a result, new islands were discovered and thousands of miles of new coastline were charted. The outlines of the new continent began to take shape.
One of the first of these "sealer-scientists," however, was not an Enderby man. He was James Weddell, captain of the brig Jane. Weddell had taken part in the 1820-21 and 1821-22 sealing seasons in the South Shetlands and had made enough money to finance a third expedition. Like the Enderbys, Weddell was as interested in new discoveries as he was in filling his hold with fur seal skins. He was an avid explorer, naturalist, and geographer. He was also the first Antarctic conservationist, noting that with a little sensible management the South Shetland fur seal population could have provided a sustainable annual harvest of about 100,000 skins. Instead, greed had destroyed the breeding population.
Weddell's first destination was the little-explored South Orkney Islands. On January 15, 1823 he collected six skins of a new species of seal, the one that would later bear his name (Leptonychotes weddelli). Finding few fur seals, Weddell carefully charted the islands, then began to search in uncharted waters. He headed south for a while, then scoured the sea between the South Orkneys and the South Sandwich Islands. Finally deciding that if there was any new land it must be to the south, he once again set course that way. By February 17, 1823 Weddell was deep into the Weddell Sea. On February 20, at longitude 34°16'45"W, James Weddell fixed his position at 74°15'S, further south than anyone had ever gone before. It would be over 80 years before anyone could get that far south again in the Weddell Sea.
In 1830, the Enderby Brothers sent another captain, John Biscoe, south to look for seals and make new discoveries. Sailing in the small brig Tula and accompanied by the cutter Lively, Biscoe crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 22, 1831. On February 28, he sighted a headland he called Cape Ann (now Mount Biscoe) and the mountain tops of what he called Enderby Land. After wintering in Tasmania and nursing his crew back from scurvy, Biscoe headed south and east again. By the end of April, 1832, John Biscoe had become the third person to circumnavigate Antarctica. In the second year of the voyage he discovered Adelaide Island, the Pitts Islands, and the Biscoe Islands, and he had made the first landing on Anvers Island. He also made two other notable contributions to Antarctic geography and navigation: he informed the Hydrographer in London that the headlands he had seen were certainly those of a continent, and he advised all future voyagers that the prevailing winds in very high latitudes blow east to west.
In 1833, Peter Kemp, a sealer working for the rival firm of Bennett and Sons, was sent south to find seals, not make new discoveries. Nonetheless, on December 29 Kemp sighted a stretch of coast just east of Biscoe's discovery. (He didn't name it, but the area is now called Kemp Land.) Pack ice prevented him from landing, so he set a course to Kergulen Island and there hunted elephant seals for their oil.
The last of the great Enderby captains was John Balleny, who sailed from England in 1838 aboard the schooner Eliza Scott, accompanied by Thomas Freeman in the Sabrina. Like John Biscoe, Balleny's primary mission was to search for new land. On February 9, 1839, just south of the Antarctic Circle and sailing west as Biscoe had recommended, he sighted islands. It was two days before weather permitted a close approach and landing. Captain Freeman and a few men from the Sabrina rowed in and Freeman jumped out onto the beach long enough to grab a few stones. Brief as it was, this was the first landing below the Antarctic Circle. The islands are now called the Balleny Islands.
On March 2, at 64°58'S and 121°08'E, Balleny caught his one and only glimpse of the Antarctic continent, an area now called the Sabrina Coast. Perhaps the most important contribution to Antarctic exploration made by John Balleny was his observation that a possible passageway through the pack ice existed between 170°E and 180°E longitude. This would be the path followed by James Clark Ross, Carsten Borchgrevink, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Roald Amundsen.
Only twenty years had passed between Smith's discovery of the South Shetlands and the end of Balleny's voyage. In that time the rough outlines of the new continent had been sketched, and nearly all commercially valuable seals had been extirpated. Sealing activity had nearly ceased, but even as the sealers left governments once again became interested in the great land to the south.
The Search for
the South Magnetic Pole
Inspired by Weddell's deep foray into the Weddell Sea and by the tantalizing glimpses of land reported by the sealers, the French, British, and United States governments launched exploratory missions. All of them had two goals: discover new land and locate the south magnetic pole.
The first to sail was Jules-Sbastien-Csar Dumont d'Urville in the Astrolabe, with Charles Hector Jacquinot in the Zle as consort. During late February to early March 1838, d'Urville charted parts of the Antarctic Peninsula. After spending the austral winter sailing across the Pacific from Chile to Australia, d'Urville headed south to search for the magnetic pole. During this second southern excursion his ships got to within four miles of the continent. On January 21, 1839, several of his men landed on a small islet a few hundred meters offshore and claimed all the land they had seen for France. Dumont d'Urville named it Terre Adlie (Adlie Land) for his wife.
The American expedition was commanded by Lt. Charles Wilkes. His United States Exploring Expedition comprised six ships and 433 men, making it the largest expedition ever dispatched to explore the southern ocean. The fleet sailed in August 1838 with several naturalists and scientists. Wilkes' first foray to the south, in the Peninsula region, brought no new discoveries. On his second excursion, however, he charted several hundred miles of new coastline, starting with Cape Hudson in Terre Adlie on January 16, 1840 and ending with what is now called the Shackleton Ice Shelf on February 21. (There were several inaccuracies in Wilkes' positions, however, such that James Clark Ross later sailed over some areas where Wilkes had drawn land on his charts.) As with d'Urville, ice prevented Wilkes from reaching the magnetic pole, but much of the area he charted is now known as Wilkes Land.
Dumont d'Urville had been sent south largely to extend French influence in the southern ocean, and Wilkes had been instructed to chart the dangerous southern seas. Their searches for the magnetic pole had been secondary. James Clark Ross, on the other hand, was specifically tasked with finding the elusive pole. He had already found the north magnetic pole (in 1831), so it seemed fitting that he should search for the southern one.
Ross left England in early October 1839, in command of two ships. Ross' flagship was the Erebus, and Commander Francis Crozier was in command of the Terror. The men spent the 1840 austral winter in Australia, where Ross read of d'Urville's and Wilkes' discoveries. Their experiences convinced him to sail further east before bearing south. It was a key decision. On January 9, 1841, Ross pushed through the pack ice and into the Ross Sea. Two days later he sighted the most southerly land yet, a range of mountains he named the Admiralty Range. On January 12 he landed on Possession Island and claimed the land, which he called Victoria Land, for England.
By January 22, Ross had beat Weddell's furthest south. Discoveries followed one after the other. On January 27 he landed on and claimed Franklin Island. The next day, he discovered and named Mounts Erebus and Terror on Ross Island. His ships' southerly advance was stopped finally by the Ross Ice Shelf (which Ross called the Victoria Barrier). James Ross had sailed as far south as it is possible to do. He had also discovered that the south magnetic pole lay inland, inaccessible by sea.
His next two excursions south brought no further discoveries. On the second, in the 1841-42 austral summer, the Erebus and Terror were nearly destroyed by collisions with icebergs and each other. On his third excursion, in March of 1843, Ross managed to reach 71°30'S in the Weddell Sea before the ice pack forced him north.
After Ross' voyages there was, with a few notable exceptions, a fifty year hiatus in Antarctic exploration. The attentions of governments turned to the Arctic and the search for the Northwest Passage. However, commerce continued between Europe and the countries of the southern hemisphere. In one case, this resulted in a serendipitous discovery.
American merchant captain John Heard was sailing a great circle course in the southern ocean on his way from Boston to Melbourne when, on November 25, 1853, he sighted land. It was an island not found on any chart, and it was soon to be named Heard Island. (On January 4, 1854 the British Captain William McDonald discovered the group of islands lying to the west of Heard Island; the McDonald Islands.) It didn't take long for the hunters to follow up on Heard's discovery. There was an abundance of elephant seals on the island and by 1855 whalers (turned sealer) had landed and begun harvesting the crop. By 1880 over four million gallons of elephant seal oil had been rendered and shipped from Heard Island.
Another notable exception was the scientific voyage of the HMS Challenger. During her around-the-world oceanographic cruise, she became the first steamship to cross the Antarctic Circle (on February 16, 1874). In dredging the ocean bottom, her crew discovered continental rocks deposited by icebergs, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Antarctica was a continent.
The Hunters Return
During the early part of the nineteenth century, whalers had ventured further south to look for additional stocks of the rapidly disappearing southern right whales. They found only fast swimming rorquals for which their rowboats were no match, so these men fell back on taking fur and elephant seals. By 1825, most of the seals had been wiped out. Beginning in 1850, petroleum oil began to compete with whale oil, and by 1872 the number of whaling ships had dropped from 400 to 72.
The need for baleen kept the industry going, however. The invention of steam engines and explosive harpoons soon cleared northern waters of whales, so whalers once again made a tentative probe to the south. Their search for prey brought new geographical discoveries.
The first reconnaissance mission arrived in the southern ocean in 1873. It was German, under the command of Captain E. Dallmann. His was the first steam whaler to work Antarctic waters, but it was still no match for the rorquals. Dallmann managed to take a few fur and elephant seals (their populations were by now recovering somewhat from the depredations of earlier in the century) but no whales. During his time around the Peninsula in 1873 and 1874, Dallmann discovered the Bismarck Strait and the Neumayer Channel.
Dallmann's experience was sufficiently discouraging to keep other whalers away for another twenty years. Then, in 1892, the Dundee Expedition headed south to search for the whales that Ross had reported seeing in the Weddell Sea. Again, no right whales were taken, but his four ships returned home with holds full of seal skins and oil. These whalers also discovered Dundee Island.
During the same 1892-93 austral summer, a Norwegian whaling expedition under Captain Carl Anton Larsen was exploring the waters and shores of Graham Land. Again, only seal skins and seal oil were taken but the owner of the ship, whaling magnate Christen Christensen, sent it south again in 1893-1894 to investigate the Weddell and Bellingshausen Seas. Captain Larsen explored coasts on both sides of the Peninsula, discovering Foyn Land and King Oscar II Land. He also discovered petrified wood on Seymour Island. As in the previous season, he found no right whales but did bring home more seal skins and oil.
These and other opportunistic hunts in the latter part of the nineteenth century once again reduced the barely recovered Antarctic seal fur populations to near zero. Deciding to seek right whales in the Ross Sea, Norwegian businessman Henryk Bull and whaler Svend Foyn financed the 1893-94 whaling expedition of the ship Antarctic, commanded by Captain L. Kristensen. Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian immigrant, joined the ship in Australia. After taking seals in the sub- Antarctic islands, the crew of the Antarctic made for the Ross Sea. On January 16, 1895 they sighted Cape Adare but the ice kept them offshore. They landed on Possession Island and Borchgrevink discovered lichen on the rocks, the first time vegetation had been seen in the deep Antarctic. On January 24 they were able to land at Cape Adare, the first landing on the continent since Davis, and the first ever on the continental mainland. Several biological and geological specimens were collected before the crew headed back to Australia.
This landing, and the specimens collected, were to provide the fuel for the greatest upsurge in Antarctic exploration yet seen.
The Heroic Age of Exploration
In July of 1895, participants in the Sixth International Geographical Congress called for further exploration of the Antarctic regions. Scientists and explorers from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Scotland, Norway, Australia, and Japan soon heeded the call. Nearly all of the resulting expeditions were designed from the outset to conduct scientific investigations. The reasons for activity in the Antarctic had begun to shift away from profit and toward science (with a fair measure of national pride thrown in).
The Belgian Antarctic Expedition left Antwerp in August of 1897, under the command of Lt. Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache. Roald Amundsen, who fourteen years later would be the first person to reach the south pole, had signed on as the mate. By January 1898, the Belgica was off the west coast of the Peninsula (Graham Land). In the next two months, Gerlache discovered Gerlache Strait and Brabant, Lige, Anvers, and Wiencke Islands. He continued south into thickening pack ice, and by February 28, at 70°20'S, he was completely trapped.
Whether Gerlache intended his expedition to winter in the Antarctic is unknown, but winter they did, and most of the crew were not prepared for it. During the long, cold, winter night they suffered psychological problems, including depression and insanity. The situation may have been worse had not Dr. Frederick Cook, the ship's surgeon, taken charge of morale and devised ways to keep the mens' spirits up until the sun returned. Finally, on March 14, 1899, after drifting for 13 months across 17 degrees of longitude, the Belgica was freed from the ice to sail home.
Every other expedition of this period was initiated with the express intention of wintering all or part of the crew.
On December 19, 1898 Carsten Borchgrevink departed Hobart, Tasmania in the Southern Cross. He had raised the funds for and was in command of the first scientific expedition intending to spend a winter on the continent of Antarctica: the British Antarctic Expedition, 1898-1900. (It was so named because the wealthy British publisher Sir George Newnes had sponsored it. Only three of its members were actually British.) On February 18, 1899 Borchgrevink landed and established camp at Cape Adare.
Borchgrevink, nine other men, and 75 dogs spent the winter carrying out survey trips and collecting samples and meteorological data. The expedition zoologist, Hanson, died and was the first person to be buried on the Antarctic mainland. The Southern Cross returned in late January 1900 to pick up the remaining winter-overs. They proceeded south to make several landings--at Possession Island, Coulman Island, on the continent at the foot of Mount Melbourne, and on Ross Island. On February 16, Borchgrevink and two others climbed the Ross Ice Shelf and sledged south to 78°50'S. This was further south than anyone had ever gone, and it marked the beginning of humankind's penetration into the vast Antarctic interior.
Erich von Drygalski led a well provisioned, well prepared German expedition to Antarctica, arriving there in January of 1902. Drygalski planned to winter near the coast to carry out his scientific studies. However, on the same day he sighted and named Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, his ship, the Gauss, became trapped in the pack ice near 90?E, preventing him from getting any closer. This didn't prevent him from carrying out as much of his planned research as he could. In March, 1902, Drygalski made a balloon ascent. (It wasn't the first--Captain Robert Falcon Scott, on the other side of the continent, had beaten him by a few days.) During the winter, several sledging expeditions made it to the shore to carry out scientific studies. The next summer, fearful that they'd be trapped for another winter, Drygalski had his men lay a trail of garbage across the ice from the ship to open water, 600 meters away. The idea was to increase solar absorption and soften the ice so it would break up more readily. The scheme worked, and the Gauss was freed from the ice on February 8, 1903.
Five days before the Gauss had sailed from Germany (in August 1901), Robert Scott's first Antarctic expedition, the National Antarctic Expedition, left England aboard the ship Discovery. This was the first British vessel built specifically for scientific exploration in high latitudes. One of the main goals of this expedition was to reach the geographic south pole.
After investigating the Ross Ice Shelf and discovering King Edward VII Land, Scott decided on Ross Island as the place to set up his winter camp. Three huts were built on the shores of Hut Point, at the mouth of Winter Quarters Bay. Discovery promptly became frozen in, and she stayed that way for the next two years. Scott and his men made good use of the time. Numerous exploratory sledge trips were made from camp, discovering, naming, and mapping out new territory and geographic landmarks. Three journeys were of note: In an attempt to reach the south pole, Scott, Edward Wilson, and Ernest Shackleton reached 82°16'S on December 30, 1902. Snowblindness, an inadequate diet, and slow progress finally forced them to turn around. On January 4, 1903 a sledge team led by Albert Armitage was the first to reach the top of the polar plateau. And in November 1903, Scott led a team into the interior of the continent along the path established by Armitage.
Geologist Otto Nordenskjld's Swedish Expedition, with former whaling captain C.A. Larsen commanding the ship Antarctic, arrived in the South Shetlands on January 11, 1902. In February, Nordenskjld was put ashore with five others on Snow Hill Island to spend the winter. The following year, while on its way to retrieve the Nordenskjld party, the Antarctic was beset and destroyed by pack ice. Nordenskjld and his companions, unaware of the fate that had befallen their vessel, resigned themselves to another winter when the ship failed to appear.
Larsen had put three men ashore at Hope Bay to search for Nordenskjld, in case the ship was unable to penetrate the ice. When they found their way to Snow Hill Island blocked by open water, they returned to Hope Bay to wait. The Antarctic never came back to pick them up, though, and they were forced to spend the winter of 1903 in dismal conditions. They built a makeshift stone and ice shelter and survived on meager supplies and penguin meat.
Meanwhile, after the ship was lost, the rest of the crew laboriously made their way over broken sea ice to Paulet Island for the winter. They too built a stone hut and survived on penguin and seal meat. On October 12, 1903, the Snow Hill and Hope Bay parties met near Vega Island, then both groups returned to Snow Hill Island. The Argentinean ship Uruguay rescued everyone in November of 1903.
The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition had landed on Saddle Island in the South Orkneys on February 3, 1903. After a brief foray into the Weddell Sea, the Scotia, under William Bruce, returned to the South Orkneys to set up a winter camp at Scotia Bay on Laurie Island. The Scotia became frozen into the bay and wasn't freed until November. During the winter, crew members built the first station for scientific research, a stone hut meteorological laboratory called Omond House. The following season, Bruce and the crew of the Scotia made another foray into the Weddell where they discovered Coats Land. The Scottish Expedition conducted more science and collected more unknown specimens than any previous expedition.
The French Expedition, under Jean-Baptiste Charcot, settled in for the austral winter of 1904 in a bay on the coast of Booth Island, near 65°S on the western side of Graham Land. They conducted surveys and collected data and samples until their ship, the Francais, was freed in December. Exploring further south, the ship struck a submerged rock in January, 1905 and the expedition was cut short.
Ernest Shackleton's first expedition left New Zealand on New Year's Day, 1908 in the ship Nimrod. His primary goal was to attain the geographic south pole. After settling on Cape Royds, Ross Island as a wintering spot, Shackleton landed on February 3 and set up camp. Douglas Mawson was part of this team. He, Edgeworth David, and four others made the first ascent of Mount Erebus. Two other notable accomplishments were made during the expedition. On January 9, 1909 Shackleton and his pole party made it to a furthest south of 88°23'S on the polar plateau, a mere 97 miles from the pole, before being forced to turn around. On a separate journey, Mawson, David, and Alistair Mackay were the first humans to reach the long-sought-after south magnetic pole, claiming that victory for Britain on January 15.
Meanwhile, Charcot had organized a second French Expedition, which left Punta Arenas, Chile on December 16, 1908. On January 1, 1909, as Shackleton was still trudging south on the other side of the continent, Charcot discovered a natural harbor at Petermann Island, which he named Port Circumcision (after Bouvet's famous Cape Circumcision). Soon afterwards his ship, the Pourquois-pas?, ran aground on a hidden reef. Repairs were made at Petermann Island and Charcot headed south to continue his work of charting the coast of Graham Land and all offshore islands (work he had begun on the first expedition). He discovered and named Marguerite Bay, then returned to Petermann Island to prepare for winter.
The crew of the Pourquois-pas? built four huts for scientific work and spent the winter of 1909 gathering data. The following summer, Charcot headed south once more, discovering new land on the other side of Alexander Island. Charcot named it Charcot Land after his father, then turned his damaged ship north for good. In their three seasons in Antarctica, Charcot had surpassed everyone by a wide margin, even Bruce, in the volume and quality of his charts and scientific observations. In all, he had surveyed 1250 miles of coastline and new territory.
The final assault on the south pole began in January 1911 with the arrival of Roald Amundsen and his ship, the Fram, at the Bay of Whales and Robert Scott in the Terra Nova at Cape Evans, Ross Island. Both built substantial camps and settled in for the winter. On October 20, Amundsen and four others set out with sledges and dog teams to make the pole. On November 11, he spotted and named the Queen Maud Range. He passed Shackleton's furthest south on December 8, and on December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his team reached the geographic south pole.
Where Amundsen's overriding goal was to make the pole, Scott had planned substantial scientific studies as well. He sent a western party out to explore the Dry Valleys and the Koettlitz Glacier. A northern party was deposited at Cape Adare in February 1911, where they repaired Borchgrevink's two huts and built a third winter hut of their own. They spent the winter making exploratory surveys of the Victoria Land coast.
Edward Wilson, Birdy Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard embarked on a winter overland trip from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier to collect emperor penguin eggs. It was to be a journey forever labeled as "The Worst Journey in the World." The men endured temperatures below -50°C (one time as low as -61°C) for days on end and were battered relentlessly by vicious storms. But they survived to bring eggs back to Cape Evans.
On November 1, 1911 Robert Scott and his party left for the south pole. Where Amundsen had used sled dogs, Scott's party manhauled their sledges over rough snow and treacherous glaciers. The going was slow and difficult. On January 9, 1912, they reached Shackleton's furthest south. Finally, on January 17, they reached the pole, only to find Amundsen's tent and a Norwegian flag waiting for them. The sight destroyed their morale. Short of food and pinned in their tent several times by storms, all five of the pole party members died on the return trip.
In the meantime, on January 3, the northern party had been retrieved by the Terra Nova and dropped off for a brief survey at Terra Nova Bay. However, the ship couldn't get through the ice in February to pick them up and the six men were forced to spend a second winter, one for which they were not at all prepared. They lived in an ice cave on Inexpressible Island, under the most grueling conditions imaginable. They survived on seal meat and stayed warm by burning seal blubber. On September 30, 1912, coated with blubber grease and with their clothes in tatters, they made a break for Cape Evans. They arrived intact after a 40 day march.
On the other side of the continent, the second German Antarctic Expedition was steaming south in the Deutschland, under the command of Wilhelm Filchner. Filchner's plan was to make the first overland traverse to determine if a channel connected the Weddell and Ross Seas. On January 30, 1912, he sighted new land at almost 78°S in the Weddell Sea. It had taken 89 years, but someone had finally bested Weddell's furthest south on that side of the continent.
The land he discovered is now called the Luitpold Coast, and the previously unseen ice shelf where Filchner started to set up camp is named the Filchner Ice Shelf. However, the ice shelf broke up under them and ruined Filchner's plans. Their nearly finished camp hut was suddenly on a drifting iceberg and had to be quickly dismantled. The Deutschland ended up trapped in the pack ice and spent the winter drifting in the Weddell Sea. The Germans at least were able to collect some scientific data during their nine month imprisonment.
Between 1910 and 1912, a Japanese Expedition under Lt. Nobu Shirase surveyed parts of the Ross Sea, reaching Coulman Island in 1911 and the Ross Ice Shelf on January 16, 1912, just one day before Scott reached the pole. This expedition was ill prepared and ill supported and accomplished little of consequence except to establish a brief Japanese presence in the new land.
In early January 1912, Douglas Mawson, leading the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, discovered and named Commonwealth Bay. On January 8, he established a camp on a rocky promontory he called Cape Denison. By the time he realized he had selected the most relentlessly windy place on Earth, it was too late. Once the Cape Denison camp was under construction, the ship left to deposit the eight-man "western party" at the Shackleton Ice Shelf, where another camp was established. During the course of the next year, the western party mapped large areas of Queen Mary Land and discovered new penguin rookeries.
Mawson's group at Commonwealth Bay surveyed and mapped sections of George V Land and attempted to reach the south magnetic pole. On one sledging trip, Mawson lost both of his partners (one in a crevasse and the other to vitamin A poisoning) and very nearly perished himself. On one occasion he fell into a crevasse and had to extricate himself. Because he didn't return to Cape Denison in time to be picked up by his ship, he and several others were forced to spend a second winter. They were finally rescued on December 24, 1913.
Mawson's expedition is notable for several firsts. He established the first flagged road over the otherwise trackless snow. He discovered the first meteorite in Antarctica. Most notably, as a harbinger of what was to come, Mawson brought the first airplane to Antarctica (even though it never flew) and was the first to use a radio. In February 1913, two-way radio communication was established between Cape Denison and Macquarie Island. The airplane and radio would soon transform Antarctic exploration.
The final major expedition of the heroic era began when Ernest Shackleton left England in the ship Endurance on August 8, 1914. Shackleton's plan was to make the Weddell Sea-Ross Sea traverse that Filchner had envisioned but failed to accomplish. However, like Filchner, Shackleton became trapped in the Weddell Sea pack ice and drifted through the winter. Ultimately, the Endurance was crushed by the ice and sank on November 21, 1915. There followed the most incredible survival story in Antarctic history.
Shackleton and his men dragged and rowed their lifeboats over the ice and through the occasional lead until they made it to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and five others set out in the largest of the boats, the 6-meter James Caird, to cross 800 miles of the stormiest seas in the world. After fifteen grueling days, they arrived at the southern shore of South Georgia Island. Rough seas delayed their landing for two days. Shackleton and two others then climbed across the island (with no food, water, or shelter) to reach the whaling station at Stromness Bay.
Meanwhile, the twenty-two men left on Elephant Island survived by using upturned boats as shelters. Food was meager; at times they were reduced to eating stewed seal bones and seaweed. Finally, after several unsuccessful attempts, Shackleton returned to rescue them in the Chilean trawler Yelcho, 105 days after they had arrived.
Shackleton also had a party in the Ross Sea whose job it was to lay depots for the traverse team. These men became stranded when their ship blew away in a blizzard and were forced to winter at Cape Evans and Hut Point on supplies left over by Robert Scott. The men trapped at Hut Point (after laying depots for the now-nonexistent traverse) had it particularly bad. One died of scurvy and two others were lost in a blizzard. The remaining men were finally rescued in January of 1917.
Between 1920 and 1922 there were two other expeditions, but they accomplished little of consequence. One was the British Imperial Expedition, under John Cope, and the other was Ernest Shackleton's final expedition, led by Frank Wild after Shackleton died on South Georgia.
In the 27 years since Carsten Borchgrevink first set foot on Cape Adare, Antarctica had seen seventeen expeditions from eight countries.
The Whale Slaughter Begins
Even though Norway's late nineteenth century whaling expeditions to the Antarctic had not been successful, declining whale stocks in northern waters forced that country's whaling firms to take yet another look at the southern ocean. Whaling technology had improved by the early twentieth century; the advent of faster catcher boats and explosive harpoons finally permitted the taking of rorquals. The industry was re-established in Antarctic waters in 1904, when the first shore station was built at Grytviken on South Georgia Island by Captain C.A. Larsen. The first whale, a humpback, was taken by a steam powered catcher on December 22, 1904. Between December 1904 and February 1906, 236 whales were killed and processed at Grytviken.
In 1906, whaling magnate Christen Christensen sent the first factory ship to the South Shetlands. Soon other shore stations had been set up, including one at Deception Island. By 1912, there were six shore stations, 21 factory ships, and 62 catchers in Antarctica. That year, 10,760 whales were killed. The early factory ships had a limited range and were little more than floating oil cookeries. Whales were tied alongside for flensing, so relatively calm waters were required. In 1926, though, a new kind of factory ship entered Antarctic waters, one equipped with a chute for hauling whole whales on board. With this, Antarctic whaling entered a new phase.
Accompanied by their catchers, these ships could roam widely to seek out and exploit new hunting grounds. This freedom, in turn, permitted the whalers to engage in exploration. Though their primary business was the capture of whales, whalers (most of them Norwegian) began to spend considerable time exploring and mapping the coast and waters of Antarctica. Lars Christensen, the son of Christen Christensen and heir to the whaling company his father founded, was particularly interested in making geographical discoveries and gave his captains wide latitude to do so. Between 1927 and 1937, Christensen's men discovered and surveyed substantial new land on the Queen Maud Land and Mac- Robertson Land coasts. On February 20, 1935 Captain Klarius Mikkelsen discovered the ice-free Vestfold Hills. His wife, Caroline, accompanied him as he stepped ashore and became the first woman to set foot in Antarctica.
Alarmed by the diminishing stock of whales, the British government established the Discovery Committee in 1923. The committee's job was to conduct research on whale behavior, biology, and distribution. Members of the committee, using Robert Scott's ship Discovery, began work on South Georgia in early 1925. Thus began the first major scientific study in Antarctica. To complement their work on whales, Discovery scientists also conducted extensive hydrographic and biological work in the southern ocean. A second ship, the William Scoresby, was enlisted for whale marking and mid-water trawling. The Discovery II was built to replace the aging original, and between the years 1931- 1933 became the fourth ship to circumnavigate the continent, 100 years after John Biscoe's Tula.
The Discovery Committee's work ultimately led to whale conservation recommendations and regulations. In 1931, 26 countries agreed to a regulatory convention which entered into force in 1936. In 1937, nine countries agreed to minimum size restrictions. Nonetheless, during the 1937-1938 season, over 46,000 whales were killed, 9000 of them immature. By 1965, the industry was in decline, having committed the same error and suffered the same fate as the sealing industry before it.
Age of Exploration
The advent of more powerful engines, steel hulled ships, airplanes, and radios considerably enhanced the whalers' ability to hunt successfully in Antarctica. At the same time, these technological improvements greatly advanced the cause and execution of Antarctic exploration. The radio was particularly important; for the first time, Antarctic explorers were not completely isolated from the rest of the world.
One of the first to use the new aeronautical technology was Sir Hubert Wilkins. In an expedition supported by publisher Randolph Hearst and the American Geographical Society, Wilkins made the first Antarctic flight on November 16, 1928. On December 20, from a base at Deception Island, Wilkins flew over Graham Land and became the first Antarctic explorer to discover new land by air. He was also the first to use aerial photography for mapping.
Richard Byrd's first Antarctic expedition reached the Ross Ice Shelf on December 25, 1928. He had with him three airplanes, 95 dogs, and over 50 men. His goal was to fly over the south pole. After establishing his Little America camp at the Bay of Whales, Byrd made his first flight on January 15, 1929. On a flight two weeks later, he discovered the Rockefeller Mountains. Several other reconnaissance flights were made, then the planes were stored and the men settled in for the winter.
The next austral summer, on November 28, 1929, Byrd and three others took off in their Ford Tri-motor and headed south. After a harrowing climb over the Transantarctic Mountains, Byrd and his crew became the first to fly over the south pole, at 1:14 in the morning on November 29, 1929.
At the same time, Douglas Mawson was back in the Antarctic, leading the British-Australian-New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). Their goal was to conduct air explorations of the Mac-Robertson, Princess Elizabeth, Wilhelm II, Queen Mary, Wilkes, Adlie, George V, and Oates Land Coasts. On January 14, 1930, Mawson crossed paths with Captain Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, who was surveying the coast and waters of Dronning Maud Land. The Norwegian expedition had been organized by whaler and ship owner Lars Christensen, who had directed Riiser-Larsen to circumnavigate the continent, make surveys (some by air), and take scientific samples. The two men mutually agreed to limit their respective explorations to either side of the 45th eastern meridian. (Informal as it was, this was the first international Antarctic territorial agreement.)
Richard Byrd returned to Antarctica with another expedition on January 17, 1934, this time with scientific research as his primary goal. After re-occupying Little America for the winter, he and his team set about their work, which included more survey and mapping flights, ground-based geology, meteorology, biology, and atmospheric studies. Richard Byrd spent most of the winter alone at an inland camp, the Bolling Advance Weather Station, where he nearly perished from carbon monoxide poisoning.
This expedition could boast two notable accomplishments; Byrd proved once and for all that Antarctica was a single continent and that there was no channel between the Weddell and Ross Seas. This was also the first expedition to successfully use motorized transport on the ice (three Citron tractors).
The next year, John Rymill led the British Graham Land Expedition in a two-year aerial and sledge mapping effort on the Peninsula. The first winter (1935) was spent on a base in the Argentine Islands and the following winter (1936) in the Debenham Islands. Rymill discovered more fossils and, notably, put to rest the notion that there were ice-filled channels connecting the east and west sides of the Peninsula.
While Rymill was conducting his surveys on the west side of the Peninsula, the wealthy American Lincoln Ellsworth was at Dundee Island at the tip of the Peninsula, preparing to fly across the continent to the Ross Sea. This was to be his third attempt. The first, in January 1934, had been aborted when the plane was damaged and the second, in January 1935, had been canceled because of poor weather conditions. On November 23, 1935 Ellsworth and his pilot, Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, took to the air and headed south for what they anticipated would be a 14 hour flight. Twenty-two days later they trudged into Byrd's abandoned Little America camp, having had to finish the last 16 miles of the journey on foot when they ran out of fuel. Though they had been forced down by weather several times, they had nonetheless succeeded in being the first people to fly across the continent. They had also been the first to land and take off in unknown territory. During the journey, they had discovered the Ellsworth Mountains.
Lincoln Ellsworth returned to Antarctica in 1938-39 to make inland flights and claim land for America, claims that the U.S. government never pursued.
In 1938, Hermann Gring dispatched an expedition to map and claim vast areas of Dronning Maud Land for the Third Reich. (At the time of the Germans' departure, the area had not been formally claimed.) Flights penetrated 370 miles inland to take aerial photographs, but the resulting maps were useless because they lacked ground measurement controls. The Germans also dropped hundreds of aluminum darts inscribed with swastikas in an attempt to demonstrate occupancy of the land.
Throughout the history of Antarctic exploration, most expeditions had been privately funded. This pattern was particularly prevalent during the heroic era and up until the late 1930s (though in many cases a little government backing was thrown in). Most of these expeditions also owed their existence to their strongly self-motivated and often charismatic leaders. This pattern began to end as competition for whale stocks heated up, and as more and more government officials began to realize the potential strategic, economic, and scientific importance of the last continent. Governments began to lay claim to vast tracts of land, basing their claims on the prior discoveries of their countrymen or, in two cases, on the 1498 papal proclamation dividing the world between Portugal and Spain.
The oldest continuously occupied station is the weather station on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys, turned over to Argentina by W.S. Bruce in 1904. This history of occupancy forms a key element of the Argentinean claim to the Peninsula, but the first formal claim over Antarctic territory was made by Britain in 1908. In 1923 Britain handed over part of their claim, the Ross Dependencies, to New Zealand. In 1924, France laid claim to Terre Adlie. Australia claimed a large chunk of territory in 1933. In January 1939, Norway formalized its claim to Dronning Maud Land (largely to protect its whaling interests and preempt the anticipated claims of the German Schwabenland Expedition). Finally, in 1940, Chile became the third country to claim sovereignty over the Antarctic Peninsula (after Britain and Argentina).
Although the United States pursued no claims of its own, the flurry of international land grabbing may have encouraged the U.S. Congress to establish the U.S. Antarctic Service in 1939. From that moment on, the U.S. government assumed almost complete control of American Antarctic exploration. Other countries were soon to follow suit.
The U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition, commanded by Richard Byrd, arrived at the Bay of Whales in November of 1939. Unlike his first two expeditions, most of the personnel this time were military and the entire mission was funded by and under the auspices of the U.S. government. Two bases were established: West Base at the Bay of Whales and East Base at Marguerite Bay on the Peninsula. After hunkering in for the winter of 1940, scientific parties were sent out during the summer of 1940-41 for what amounted to a major research effort. War threatened, however, and both bases were closed and evacuated by March, 1941.
World War II interrupted any further research efforts in Antarctica, but the continent was not immune to wartime activity. On the night of January 13, 1941, German commandos boarded and captured two Norwegian factory ships in the sea north of Dronning Maud Land. By the end of the next day, the Germans had taken possession of three factory ships and eleven catchers. The German Navy subsequently used the waters of the Peninsula and the sub- Antarctic islands as a haven from which they could venture forth to attack allied shipping. Their main base was an obscure harbor on Kergulen Island. Mines laid by this German Antarctic fleet around the ports of Australia sank the first American vessel lost to enemy action.
In response to this activity, the British set up secret bases on Deception and Wiencke Islands and at Hope Bay. The Hope Bay base was destroyed by fire and evacuated in November of 1948. (When the British returned to re-establish the camp in 1952, an Argentine military party tried to prevent them from doing so by firing shots over the British heads. These may have been the first shots fired between competing claimants in Antarctica. Subsequently, Argentina and Britain went to war over the Falkland Islands and South Georgia in 1982.)
Almost immediately after the Second World War, modern, high- profile, government Antarctic activities began in earnest. In 1946 the United States launched the U.S. Navy's Antarctic Developments Project (also known as Operation Highjump). It was an exercise with a largely threefold purpose: provide cold environment training for the Navy, investigate potential Antarctic base sites, and establish a major U.S. presence in the Antarctic. All the new technology developed during the war would be brought to bear in the cause of scientific exploration. The Highjump expedition, still the largest single Antarctic expedition ever launched, entered the Ross Sea ice pack on December 31, 1946 with thirteen ships, 23 aircraft, and over 4700 men.
The task force was split into three groups, each with its own area to map and explore. Little America IV was established on the Ross Ice Shelf and mapping survey flights began. Over the next two months three major mountain ranges were discovered, the snow-free Bunger Hills were discovered, a weather station was set up at the Rockefeller Mountains, helicopters were used for the first time in Antarctica, hundreds of miles of new coastline were seen, and Admiral Richard Byrd flew over the south pole for the second time. In all, Highjump pilots flew a total of nearly 23,000 miles exploring the continent. Highjump also marked the first time an icebreaker was used in Antarctica. By March, 1947 the entire task force was heading home.
The next season (1948-1949) the Navy returned with the less ambitious Second Antarctic Developments Project (Operation Windmill) to take ground sightings. These sightings were used to construct maps from the many aerial photos taken during Operation Highjump.
At the same time Operation Highjump was winding down, what would be the last privately organized expedition to Antarctica for many years was sailing into the waters of the Peninsula. It was called the Ronne Expedition, under the command of Finn Ronne, a former member of Byrd's Antarctic Service Expedition. Ronne arrived at Stonington Island on March 12, 1947. His plan was to map previously uncharted territory at the southern ends of the Antarctic Peninsula and in the southwestern Weddell Sea. Like most other expedition organizers before him, Ronne had planned on spending the winter. Before leaving Antarctica in February of 1948 (after its ship was freed by the icebreakers of Operation Windmill), the Ronne Expedition had achieved its major objectives, and it bore the distinction of being the first expedition in history to have women as winter-over members.
Between February 1950 and January 1952, a Swedish-British- Norwegian international scientific expedition conducted glaciological and geological research from a temporary base (Maudheim) in Dronning Maud Land. The team occupied the base continuously for two winters and two summers. The main purpose of the expedition was to investigate and verify some of the findings of the German Schwabenland expedition, particularly in terms of the condition and depth of the ice sheet. However, the scientists also discovered unusual lichens, a moss, and two tiny mites, the continent's largest land animals.
The International Geophysical Year; Permanent Occupation of Antarctica
By the late 1940s Antarctic exploration had entered a new phase, and one not just due to increased government involvement. For the first time in history, permanent bases were established. The British had been the first when they erected their secret bases in the closing days of the war. Once their existence was known, however, the scramble to occupy the continent was on. On January 29, 1947 Argentina established a base at Gamma Island. A week later, a Chilean expedition set up a base on Greenwich Island in the South Shetlands. After that, base building escalated for the three nations laying claim to the Antarctic Peninsula. By the end of 1955, Argentina, Chile, and Britain had created twenty-one stations in the Peninsula region.
In January of 1950, France established a small, temporary station in Terre Adlie, near where Dumont d'Urville had made his first landfall. (This base was later re-occupied for the International Geophysical Year.) And in 1954, Australia constructed its first base in East Antarctica. Mawson Station was the first large, permanent base built specifically for scientific research.
In addition to the desire to give legitimacy to territorial claims by establishing occupancy, some of the base construction was in anticipation of the upcoming International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY had been conceived in 1950 as a continuation of the spirit and work of the International Polar Years of 1882- 1883 and 1932-1933. Most of the polar research effort of those previous international scientific cooperations had been in the Arctic. The IGY, scheduled for 1957-1958, would focus on the Antarctic, and most of the major nations on Earth were expected to participate.
In January 1955 the U.S. Navy sent the U.S.S. Atka to Antarctica to look for potential base sites. The men of the Atka surveyed the Ross Ice Shelf, searched for Highjump's Little America IV camp, then spent time scouting the southern shore of the Weddell Sea and the Dronning Maud Land coast.
By December of 1955, preparations for the IGY were well underway. Thirteen ships were en route to Antarctica, bearing personnel for seven separate expeditions. The largest of these was the United States Operation Deepfreeze I, which was responsible for setting up three stations: Little America V, Byrd Station, and the McMurdo Sound Air Operating Facility. (Byrd Station was not actually established until Deepfreeze II, in 1956-57.) The McMurdo Sound facility was to provide air support for the other bases and serve as the logistics center for establishing a base at south pole the following season. As winter 1956 closed in, there were twenty-nine separate parties in Antarctica from seven countries: British, Chilean, and Argentine outposts on the Peninsula, and French, American, Australian, Soviet, and British stations on the continent proper. In all, 508 people were wintering over.
Preparations continued during the 1956-57 austral summer season. Thirteen more stations were established, bringing the total on the continent to 42, representing 12 countries (Belgium, Norway, New Zealand, Japan, and South Africa had joined the effort). An additional 21 stations were established on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands.
On October 31, 1956, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral George Dufek stepped out of an airplane to become the eleventh person in history to set foot at the south pole, and the first since Robert Scott's pole party left there in 1912. The U.S. then mounted a massive air operation from the McMurdo Sound air base to transport 760 tons of supplies to the south pole for construction of South Pole Station. The station was complete by March 1957 and occupied for the IGY winter by eighteen men, under the leadership of Dr. Paul Siple. This would be the first time anyone had ever spent the winter at the southernmost point on Earth. (The Soviets had wintered in the interior of the continent the previous year, at Pionerskaya Station, 230 miles inland from Mirny Station.)
Two other large projects were undertaken at the same time. The Soviets were setting up two inland bases, one at Vostok near the Geomagnetic Pole and the other, called Sovietskaya, at the Pole of Inaccessibility. Although not as massive as the south pole effort, each required a traverse over unknown territory. The other large project, timed to coincide with the IGY, was the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This joint British-New Zealand project, led by Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary, intended to make the first over land crossing of Antarctica. In early 1957, Hillary established Scott Base on Ross Island to serve as a logistics center for the effort.
On November 24, 1957, Fuchs left Shackleton Base at Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea and headed south. On January 18, 1958 he reached the south pole and was greeted by Hillary, who had traversed south from Ross Island to meet him. They headed north together and on March 2 the two traverse teams rolled successfully into Scott Base.
By this time the IGY was well underway. During the summer of 1956-57, 42 bases and supporting ships accommodated 6,167 people in Antarctica, more than at any other time in history. In 1957-58 there were 44 continental bases, 21 island bases, and 5,362 people involved in the largest multinational scientific research effort in history.
The IGY was originally scheduled to last from June 1957 through December 1958. It was so successful, however, that all participating nations soon formed permanent research programs to continue their presence and activities in Antarctica. The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), which had proposed the IGY, formed the Special Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) to coordinate the continued scientific cooperation between treaty nations. The success of the effort, and the need to defuse competing territorial claims also led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. In essence, this treaty (ratified by all parties in 1961) set the continent of Antarctica aside for peaceful, scientific purposes and placed all territorial claims on hold.
Antarctic Population Dynamics
Since the IGY, scientific research in the Antarctic has continued at a steady pace. Though the number of Antarctic research stations dropped to 33 by 1960 and reached a low of 30 in 1964, there has been a slow increase ever since. In 1994 there were 37 active, year-round stations operated by 17 nations. At least five other stations are active during the austral summer, and there are nine stations on sub-Antarctic islands. This level of activity approaches that of the IGY.
There is a big difference, though, between the IGY and the present, and that difference is in the number of nations represented. Ever since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty by the 12 original members, other nations have either signed on as consultative members (those engaging in active research) or accedent members (those without active research but whose government agrees to abide by the treaty). As of 1996, there were 26 consultative nations and 16 accedent nations, for a total of 42 countries involved in Antarctic affairs.
Mirroring the decline in the number of stations following the IGY, both the summer and winter populations dropped. In the summer of 1958-1959 there were only 3,887 people in Antarctica. By 1960-1961 the population had dropped slightly, to 3,796. Since then, the number of people in Antarctica has grown steadily. By 1970-1971 the number had risen to 4,411, by 1980-81 to 6,481, and during the 1989-1990 summer season there were 8,340 scientists and support personnel working in Antarctica.
The wintering population pattern is slightly different. From a high of 893 in 1958, it dropped to 651 in 1961, grew to 846 by 1972, then dropped again to 743 in 1976. After that the growth was steady. By 1990 the number of people spending the winter in Antarctica had risen to 1,145.
Besides fostering international cooperation and furthering knowledge about Antarctica, the IGY had the unintended consequence of increasing public awareness and curiosity about the southern continent. As a result, tourism came to Antarctica. The level of tourist activity has fluctuated considerably, however. Chile began tourism flights in 1956 with 74 participants (66 passengers and 8 crew). During the IGY, 414 people paid to be taken to Antarctica by ship, and 47 more flew over it. Shipborne tourist traffic increased to 4,929 in 1974-1975, then dropped to a low of 830 in 1983-1984. Airplane sightseers increased to 5,051 in 1978-1979, until the Air New Zealand crash on Mount Erebus in 1979 put a halt to overflights from New Zealand and Australia. (There is now talk of resuming them.)
Cruise ship passenger levels have increased more or less steadily since 1986 (when only 995 tourists were carried to Antarctica). The greatest increase has come just in the last few years. While 3,730 tourists visited Antarctica on cruise ships in 1989-1990, during the 1995-1996 summer season there were 113 cruises carrying 9,212 passengers, a nearly 300% increase in traffic in only six years. In all, there are now 21 companies offering tour packages to Antarctica.
If tourists are added to scientific and support personnel, nearly 20,000 people went to Antarctica in 1995-1996. Only 54 years ago that number was 75.
The Impacts of Human Activity
Wherever humans go they have an impact on the environment, and Antarctica is no exception. Until recently, our record of stewardship has not been good. Within the last few years, though, government agencies involved in Antarctic research have become increasingly aware of the need to protect that continent's uniquely pristine status. Consequently, formerly polluted bases have been cleaned up, and new protocols have been approved by the Antarctic Treaty nations to limit pollution and other forms of environmental damage. It will never be possible to completely eliminate human impact, though, as long as people continue to travel and work in Antarctica.
The impact of human activity on the Antarctic environment can be roughly divided into three broad categories: exploitation, pollution, and disturbance.
To date, all human exploitation of Antarctica has been for biological resources. This may be due in no small part to the difficulty, even impossibility, of mineral and oil extraction in that environment. That situation may change as new technologies develop, though the Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty prohibits mining activity until at least the year 2041.
Most of Antarctica's biological resources are now protected to some degree. That was not the case in the early years of human activity. Captain Cook's 1775 report of plentiful seals and whales in Antarctic waters brought hunters in great numbers to the southern ocean. The fur trade with China was beginning to open up and there were large amounts of money to be made. British sealers began harvesting at South Georgia as early as 1778. In 1792, American sealers began operations at South Georgia and Kergulen Island.
Harvesting methods were brutal and efficient, and there was no regard to sustaining the breeding stock. Between 1790 and 1822 over 1,200,000 skins were taken from South Georgia alone, virtually exterminating the seals there. James Weddell noted that more than 100,000 South Shetland fur seal pups died of starvation during 1821-1822, after their mothers were killed and skinned. With a little prudent regulation, those islands might have provided a yearly harvest almost indefinitely. Instead, the population was rendered economically extinct.
By 1825, six species of fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella, A. forsteri, A. tropicalis, A. australis, A. phillipii, and A. pusillus) had been hunted to near extinction around the coasts of Chile and Argentina, and on most of the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic islands.
By the 1870s, after fifty years of being left alone, seal populations had begun to recover slightly. However, a brief resumption of "scorched earth" policies decimated them again. By the late nineteenth century, commercial fur seal hunting had effectively ended, and it has not been resumed.
The hunting of southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) for their oil continued at varying levels up until the early 1960s. At times when elephant seals were scarce, the sealers would turn to penguins. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, thousands of these birds were killed and rendered for their meager amount of oil. Penguin populations, however, were never decimated to the same degree as seals.
In addition to the organized slaughter of seals and penguins for profit, both were occasionally killed for scientific reasons. Also, most early Antarctic expeditions augmented their food supplies with penguin eggs and penguin and seal meat. (The Astrolabe sailors, hungry for fresh meat, compared penguin favorably to chicken. Bellingshausen's men found it to be more palatable after it had been soaked in vinegar for a few days. Adrien de Gerlache considered it inedible.) Fresh meat was considered an effective means of preventing or curing scurvy, a disease which haunted nearly all early explorers.
On occasions when an expedition's ship was unexpectedly beset or crushed by pack ice, the crew depended on seal and penguin meat for survival. The men in Nordenskjld's Antarctic expedition killed as many as 2000 penguins for food in 1903. Scott's northern party subsisted almost entirely on penguin and seal meat in 1912. They also depended on seal blubber to keep them warm, as did the men of Shackleton's marooned Ross Sea party in 1916. Because the species exploited for sustenance were usually different than those slaughtered for commercial purposes, the long term effect of these depredations was probably slight.
By the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, whales had become the target for exploitation. Whaling technology had advanced enough such that whalers were finally able to hunt the fast-swimming rorquals that populated Antarctic waters in such abundance. Several whaling stations were set up, including ones on South Georgia and Deception Island, and hunting began in earnest. The ocean-going factory ship made its appearance in 1923, accompanied by fast, steam powered catcher boats, and the industry grew rapidly. Species after species was hunted until it became difficult to find, then the hunt was transferred to another animal. After the prized southern right whale, blue and humpback whales were hunted preferentially. Then the hunt shifted to fin whales, then sei whales. Sperm whales were also taken. During the 1937-1938 season, 33 whaling expeditions killed 46,000 whales. Between 1956 and 1965, 631,518 whales were killed.
Up until 1935, England and Norway was responsible for about 90% of the catch. After 1937, Japan began to dominate the southern whaling industry, with the Soviet Union entering the scene in 1951. By the early-1960s, it became clear that whales had been overhunted. Catches per unit effort were declining dramatically (even though 41,000 whales were killed in Antarctic waters during the 1960-61 season). England ceased Antarctic whaling in 1963, and Norway followed suit in 1968. By then, though, many whale stocks had been reduced to small fractions of their estimated original populations; blue whales to 5%, fin and sei whales to 20%, right and humpback whales to 3%.
Currently there is a moratorium on Antarctic factory ship whaling, though a certain level of "scientific" whaling is permitted. Japan takes advantage of that loophole to kill about 300 minke whales per year. Nonetheless, the level of exploitation has been reduced to near zero.
The effect of the whale slaughter on the Antarctic ecosystem is still under study. Penguins that consume krill are abundant. Fur seals that use the same food source have not only recovered from the brink of extinction, but may in fact be more numerous than before they were hunted. In some areas they are overrunning breeding beaches and degrading the surrounding foliage, which in turn is destroying the breeding habitat of some sea birds. Whales take much longer to reproduce than seals and penguins, and it may be that the absence of these large predators from the ecosystem has provided extra food for their pinniped and avian competitors. This may be slowing the whales' recovery, since they are faced with increased competition for food. The equation is further complicated by human harvesting of krill. It is unknown how long it may take for the Antarctic ecosystem to return to its pre- exploitation equilibrium, if indeed it ever will.
The first negative effect visited on Antarctica by human presence was pollution; early expeditions simply tossed all of their garbage and sewage overboard. However, the small quantities of these pollutants generated by the expeditions of Kergulen and James Cook had a negligible impact. Later sailing expeditions also discarded their refuse into the environment, but the number of people involved and amount garbage generated was still relatively small.
In addition, the garbage discarded or lost to storm damage was natural in origin (foodstuffs, feces, wood, fabric, metal) and so could be expected to degrade at some level (albeit slowly). Natural items in relatively small amounts are also unlikely to adversely affect indigenous biology. Even the photochemicals discarded by early photographers like Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley were biodegradable.
At times the level of refuse was higher than others. When a vessel was beset and crushed by the pack ice, such as the Antarctic in 1903 and the Endurance in 1915, a comparatively large amount of anthropogenic debris was deposited into the environment. In the early nineteenth century, sealers left large amounts of debris and garbage on numerous Antarctic and sub- Antarctic islands, including building materials, personal goods, food containers, and rusting, metal try pots. Whalers were even more prodigious in the amount of garbage they left behind. Whole whaling stations, like those at Grytviken and Leith Harbor on South Georgia, lie abandoned and crumbling. On the shore, huge oil storage tanks disintegrate into rust and numerous buildings fall into disrepair, while catcher boats wallow in the harbor. On some islands huge piles of bleached whale bones attest to the former slaughter.
Despite the prodigious mess in some places, the level of historical pollution is still quite low when measured against the vastness of Antarctica.
The twentieth century brought three notable changes in Antarctic pollution. First, technology began to produce materials which had never existed in nature. The advent of airplanes, diesel powered vessels, and motorized vehicles meant the introduction of gasoline and other refined fossil fuels to Antarctica. These and other manufactured chemicals have a notably deleterious effect on the environment when they are spilled, as they often were. (The aviation fuel requirement for America's IGY effort alone was over a million gallons, of which 140,000 was spilled into McMurdo Sound in 1956 when a fuel barge was crushed between ice floes.) The wreck of the Bahia Paraiso in 1989 provided a recent and dramatic example of the kinds of damage possible from fuel spills; several breeding bird populations were severely impacted. Also, until recently hazardous chemical wastes (solvents, laboratory chemicals, and the like) were poured directly into the environment, with unknown consequences.
The modern era also brought with it other manufactured and synthetic products, like plastics, for which no biological breakdown system exists. In the cold and dry Antarctic environment, where unpainted wood can last for centuries, these synthetic products can be expected to persist essentially forever. Before they were banned as packing material, styrofoam peanuts were frequently shipped to McMurdo Station, where the persistent winds would blow them across the landscape. If one were to look hard enough, one could probably find bits of styrofoam along the entire length and breadth of the Ross Sea.
Second, the level of human activity increased dramatically. The 1946-1947 U.S. Navy Antarctic Developments Project was the largest expedition ever launched. While no records exist, it is reasonable to presume that the quantity of garbage discarded into the environment that summer season was commensurate with the large number of people involved. (Until very recently, all shipboard garbage was tossed into the sea, worldwide.) As human activity in the Antarctic continued to increase, through the IGY and beyond, so too did the amount of trash, sewage, and hazardous chemicals introduced to the environment.
In recent years, however, there have been some positive changes. The U.S. Antarctic Program, for instance, no longer dumps or burns garbage but removes all waste (except sewage) from the continent. Even better, most of this material is recycled.
Third, a dramatic change in the pattern of garbage dumping and accumulation came with the establishment of permanent stations. Until that time, waste was spread out as ships and ground-based expeditions dumped their refuse wherever they happened to be. Minor accumulations, two to four years worth perhaps, built up around the campsites of the heroic era expeditions of Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and others. (Many of these areas are now considered historical monuments, garbage and all.) Once stations became permanently inhabited, waste began to accumulate in one spot over a period of many years. Storms and high winds would spread some of the trash across a wider area, but most of it remained (or remains) localized. Before long many stations began to look like garbage dumps--and many of them still do. The impact of this waste concentration on the immediate environment has not been extensively studied.
In some cases, the waste was dumped into the sea, from where it is extremely difficult to remove. For many years the U.S. program piled unwanted metal waste on the sea ice and waited for it to melt through or be carried away. Piles of debris are now scattered widely on the sea floor of McMurdo Sound and it is unlikely the area will ever be completely cleaned up. Trash was also bulldozed into the sea near McMurdo Station and Scott Base. The sea floor in Winter Quarters Bay, around Hut Point, and at Pram Point on Ross Island is littered with large amounts of debris. It is likely that this pattern has been repeated at other stations around the continent and on the Antarctic and sub- Antarctic islands.
While it is obvious that the slaughter of animals and pollution of the environment clearly constitute a disturbance, the term is used here to refer to activities that do not fall specifically into either of those categories. For instance, the movement of ships through the pack and fast ice will displace (and may sometimes kill) seals and penguins. Helicopters and airplanes flying overhead will also disturb animals on the ice, causing them at times to scramble toward the water. As more and more vessels and aircraft operate in the Antarctic, this level of disturbance will increase.
Construction activities have been known to disturb indigenous animal populations. The most egregious example of this was the French Antarctic Program's construction of a gravel runway at Dumont d'Urville Station, which involved dynamiting parts of a penguin rookery. The runway was subsequently destroyed by a storm and is not operational.
In the course of their studies, scientists must often disturb animals and their environment. Researchers often capture and restrain seals and penguins to draw blood samples or attach depth recorders and satellite tracking devices. Long term population studies necessarily disturb the same animal groups for many years, and this may ultimately alter the animals' behavior toward humans. Recent penguin studies that used stomach lavage to study food preferences resulted in breeding failure and chick mortality. Other scientists have collected fish and invertebrate samples from the water column and sea floor, and these collections constitute a disturbance of the local ecology. How great is the disturbance caused by these activities is not known, but where collections have occurred for many years in the same place, it is conceivable that the local ecology has been altered.
Finally, the mere presence of human establishments and the constant levels of human activity in a previously unoccupied environment constitutes a disturbance of that environment. Currently, this type of disturbance is highly localized, occurring primarily at the permanent stations and the frequently visited tourist destinations. Animal behavior, and the growth and distribution patterns of both vertebrates and invertebrates, may be altered. Once again, the level of alteration and its ultimate effects have not been extensively studied and are not well known.
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