Early History

Early Sightings and Landings

In the 4th Century B.C., Antarctica was a mere twinkle in Aristotle’s eye when he theorized that the landmass in the northern hemisphere must be balanced by a similar landmass in the south.

The constellation called Arktos, the Bear, shone above the north, so Aristotle called the opposite end of the earth Antarktikos. Later, the southern continent was called “Terra Australis Incognita,” The Unknown South Land.

Antarctica is the first continent to have been truly “discovered.” There were no indigenous people there first, and nobody was home to show visitors the ropes.

Cold… Cold… And Getting Colder

The first explorer to circumnavigate Antarctica was James Cook, who made three voyages from 1772 to 1775. He crossed the Antarctic Circle four times, making his first official crossing in January, 1773. Though he failed in his British commission to find the southern continent, he discovered and claimed South Georgia Island, which he named for the king of England. 

Based on his experience with ice, fog, snow storms, intense cold, and treacherous navigation around vast “ice hills or mountains,” Cook concluded that the southern continent – if it even existed – would never be explored. Others proved him wrong, though at a cost. 
Forty plus years after Cook, Russian captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen was the next explorer to circumnavigate Antarctica. He got closer to the continent than Cook, and he helped complete the survey of South Georgia’s coast and the South Sandwich Islands. 

Though Bellingshausen’s contribution is sometimes overlooked, he is credited with the first sighting of the southern continent when he viewed an ice shelf near the Haakon VII Sea. (Continental ice is considered part of the landmass.) He was also the first to sight land within the Circle, an extremely inaccessible island he called Peter I Oy. The Bellingshausen Sea west of the Antarctic Peninsula was named for this Russian explorer. 

Other players in the exploration game:


Sealer and surveyer William Smith and British commander Edward Bransfield saw and charted part of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1820 (soon after Bellingshausen). They reported rocky mountains vs ice. 

Also in 1820, Nathaniel Palmer entered Neptune’s Bellows to explore Deception Island.
The first landing was most likely completed by American John Davis on February 7th, 1821, possibly at Hughes Bay ( 65 degrees 13’S 61 degrees 20’W). Some historians don’t agree. They want to give it to Norwegian businessman and whaler Henryk Johann Bull in 1895 along the Davis Coast.

In 1823, British whaler James Weddell found his own sea and pushed further south than his predecessors. 

John Biscoe
, an ex-Royal Navy seaman, and the Enderby Brothers sailing company penetrated the Circle in 1831 and indisputably sighted the continent.
Frenchman Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville landed a boat on a small islet near the mainland in early 1840. His crew kidnapped a few unlucky penguins and named the area Adelie Land, after Dumont d’Urville’s wife. 

By sailing the coastline in the 1840’s, various British, American and French expeditions verified that there was indeed an immense southern continent. 
In 1898, Adrien de Gerlache stuck his vessel, the Belgica, in pack ice and his crew was the first to winter in Antarctica. 

Carsten Borchgrevink
 landed at Cape Adare in 1899, where his British crew built huts and were the first to winter on the Antarctic mainland. Some historians consider this the first real landing on the continent. 

Nationalism in early exploration was quickly replaced by the search for profit. Many sealers and whalers exploited the waters and islands around Antarctica throughout the late 1800’s and early 20th century. Some key species of seals and whales nearly became extinct. 

[TRIP TRIVIA: While we tourists enjoy gourmet meals and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, early explorers suffered from malnutrition and scurvy. Gerlache didn’t like the taste of penguin and seal, which helped prevent scurvy, and became very ill before his ship doctor Frederick Cook convinced him to eat penguin meat as medicine. Be grateful that we don’t have to!]

Who’s A Hero?

Antarctic exploration was clearly a matter of trial and error. Some expeditions were more successful than others, and some claims more credible than others. Figuring out who did what and when is not an exact science. 

A notable example is Charles Wilkes, an inexperienced American who led six ships to Antarctica and only brought back two. They never reached the continent, though Wilkes reported sightings that historians consider “suspect.”  Even Wilkes station, which was established by the U.S. in 1957 and transferred to Australia in 1966, was abandoned. It created removal and rehabilitation problems for both countries. 

Despite years of polar experience in the Arctic, James Clark Ross also had trouble during his 1842 expedition when two of his ships collided while avoiding icebergs. Ross still got a lot done. He discovered Victoria Land, verified that the edge of the Barrier ice was indeed floating, and discovered an active volcano in Mt. Erebus (so named by Ross). Ross also learned that the South Magnetic Pole is much further south than anyone thought. 

While these earliest of the early explorers don’t receive the attention that the celebrities of the Antarctic Heroic Age do, they catapulted Terra Incognita from being a notion to a geographic reality. The Heroic Age heroes simply followed in their wakes.

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