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The Early Explorers
"Great God, this is an awful place!" R.F. Scott (1911)

Antarctica Expedition 2003 - Port Lockroy

What compels people to explore Antarctica. The answer is simple, Antarctica is nature in its purest state; her power and beauty are at once humbling, confronting and exhilarating. Come and learn about the early explorers that dared to brave her sometimes cruel and deadly elements.

Thaddeus von Bellingshausen - Between the years 1819 and 1821, Bellingshausen, a captain in the Russian Navy, made a circumnavigation of the entire Antarctic continent with two ships. He sailed the Southern Ocean in a clockwise direction, completing the voyage in a body of water that now bears his name (Bellingshausen Sea). During this period, he is credited with discovering Peter I Island.

Carsten Borchgrevink - Borchgrevink, a Norwegian, led an expedition aboard the vessel Southern Cross, which became the first to winter over in Antarctica in 1899. His base of operations was on the Robertson Bay side of Cape Adare in Victoria Land.

Sir James Clark Ross - Between 1839 and 1843, Ross made three expeditions to Antarctica, the first of which was by far the most successful. Using two ice-strengthened wooden ships, the Erebus and the Terror, he sailed south and discovered Cape Adare on the first voyage. Continuing south, he named a large bay McMurdo and discovered what is now called Ross Island. Additionally, he encountered the famous 500-mile wall of ice that is popularly known as the Ross Ice Shelf afloat in the Ross Sea.

On the second voyage, Ross attempted to explore this great ice shelf but foul weather forced his return to Tasmania early. His third voyage was designed to pursue a different route south but he was not able to proceed further south than 71 degrees 30 minutes south.

Sir Douglas Mawson - Mawson was a member of the famous Ernest Shackleton voyage aboard Nimrod in 1908-09. In 1911, Mawson declined to join Robert Scott’s last voyage to the pole and, instead, led his own expedition aboard the vessel Aurora to explore the unknown regions west of Cape Adare. He discovered, and named, the Shackleton Ice Shelf and established his base of operations at Cape Denison, in Commonwealth Bay.

In his book The Land of the Blizzard, Mawson describes the losses his team suffered during this expedition and details his own solitary and brutal journey back to Cape Denison. During the years 1929-1931, Mawson returned, making two voyages in Scott’s old vessel, Discovery, which established the British-Australian foothold on the “Far Side” of the continent.

Roald Amundson - On January 14, 1911, Amundson established base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf and set out to become the first human being to reach the South Pole later that year on October 20, 1911. Amundson and four companions, along with dogs and sleds, crossed the ice shelf eventually reached the pole on December 14, 1911. Their journey took only ninety-six days. Once at the pole, Amundson left a letter for his competitor, Robert Scott, which the Englishman would discover nearly a month later.

Amundson, a Norwegian, arrived safely back at base camp on January 25, 1912. Amundson would later become the first to fly to the North Pole. He would be killed on June 18, 1928, while attempting to locate survivors of the Italia, an airship that had crashed on its return from flying to the North Pole.

Robert Falcon Scott - A Captain in the Royal Navy, began exploring the polar regions in 1902 using a specially constructed vessel, the Discovery. In 1911, he commenced the “Terra Nova” expedition, with the goal of being the first to reach the South Pole. The expedition turned to great personal disappointment when Scott and his team arrived at the pole, only to find a Norwegian flag and a note from Roald Amundson, who had beaten them by a month. What heartbreak the explorers must have felt after battling the elements, fierce weather and starvation only to lose the race to the pole. The expedition turned to tragedy when, during their return, Scott and his two companions died less than 150 miles from safety.

Sir Ernest Shackelton - Shackelton’s exploits in the Antarctic are, perhaps, the most famous of all the southern explorers. During 1908-09, Shackelton led an expedition aboard Nimrod, establishing base camp at Cape Royds. By November, 1908, Shackelton’s team had traveled further south than any expedition previous, discovering the Beardmore Glacier in the process. The team was 97 nautical miles from the pole when violent weather and deteriorating conditions forced them to turn back. In 1914, Shackelton launched the famous Endurance expedition.

The ship became locked in the ice flows of the Weddell Sea and the tea drifted at the mercy of the ice until finally the ship was crushed under the pressure of the shifting ice. From this point, Shackelton had abandoned his expedition goals and turned his attention to the survival of the crew. Using three small life boats from the Endurance, Shackelton and his crew battled their way to Elephant Island. Leaving the majority of the team on the relative safety of isolated Elephant Island, Shackelton and a handful of men set out in the James Caird towards South Georgia Island, a trip of nearly 800 miles in the stormy Southern Ocean. Miraculously, they arrived at the island…but on the wrong side! A whaling station existed on the opposite side of the island and in order to reach this station, they would have to cross a mountain range in their severely weakened condition.

Ultimately, they reached safety and launched three expeditions to rescue the men left behind on Elephant Island. Their story is one of great tragedy, human endurance and suffering but also one of great leadership and triumph.

Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau - In 1975, Jacques Cousteau, a world famous undersea explorer, set out for Antarctica to become one of the first to ever dive beneath the waters of this frozen continent. He would document his exploits in a series of television specials, bringing the world the first glimpses of the strange and beautiful world below the surface around Antarctica. Cousteau’s expedition would meet with tragedy when one of the divers was killed while exploring an ice berg.

The expedition vessel Calypso would extend her stay into the early parts of the southern winter and become trapped in Hope Bay during a fierce three day blizzard. The Calypso would suffer damage to one of her twin-propeller screws and would require an escort across the Drake Passage as she headed north to the safety of South America.

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Last Modified: December 21, 2009

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