Antarctica » Explorers
The Pura guide to Antarctica
A brief introduction to the early explorers of Antarctica. If nothing else, read about Shackleton’s expedition as it is truly one of the greatest stories of human endurance.
Most of us have heard about the expeditions of the great explorers such as Scott and Shackleton.
When you are in Antarctica and experience the remoteness and sense of wilderness first hand, you realise the scale of their achievements.
If you factor in the size of their boats and lack of any modern-day equipment you wonder how on earth they did it!
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story in particular is truly amazing.
The lectures on board, the documentaries in the cabins, and the books in the library all touch on the explorers. It is good to read up before you depart.
To get you in the mood here is an abridged version of Antarctic discovery:
The history of Antarctica stems from early western theories of a southern continent known as Terra Australis.
In 1773 James Cook was the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle and came within 75 miles of the Antarctic Peninsula before being blocked by pack ice.
Cook concluded that if there was a southern continent it must be inaccessible and of no economic value.
The first sighting of mainland Antarctica is disputed and cannot accurately be attributed to one single person.
Fabian von Bellinghausen of the Russian Navy came within 20 miles of the mainland in January 1820 and reported huge ice fields that were probably part of the continent although he didn’t know at the time.
A few days later British naval officer Edward Barnsfield reported sight of the Antarctic Peninsula. The first landing on the continent was probably just over a year later when American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on the ice but this is also disputed.
The first person to realise he had actually discovered a whole continent was Charles Wilkes, the commander of a United States Navy expedition, in 1840.
This discovery sparked a frenzy of expeditions. It culminated in 1895 when the International Geography Congress decided to make Antarctica the focal point of new exploration. This marked the beginning of the Heroic Age.
Nov 1902: Robert Scott, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton make the first serious attempt to reach the South Pole. They reach 82°16? S before turning back.
Jan 1909: Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams make another attempt at reaching the Pole. They reach 88°23? S (97 nautical miles short of the Pole) before being forced to turn back.
Jun 1910: British Antarctic Expedition led by Scott sets sail for Antarctica
Sep 1910: Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reveals to his crew they are heading for the South Pole. His original intention was the North Pole. Amundsen sends a telegram to Scott: “beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen”.
14 Dec 1911: Roald Amundsen arrives at the South Pole (90°00’S) after a 57-day trek with dogs.
17 Jan 1912: Scott, Bowers, Wilson, Evans and Oates arrive at the South Pole after a 78-day trek without dogs to find a tent with a note inside from Amundsen.
Feb 1912: Evans dies after a fall on the return journey from the Pole.
16 Mar 1912: Oates appears to committ suicide as he announces “"I am just going outside and may be some time” and walks into a blizzard of ?40.0 °C.
29 Mar 1912: Scott, Wilson and Bowers die in their tents from exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold.
Aug 1914: Now the race to the Pole was over, Shackleton turns his attention to crossing the entire continent via the Pole. He sets sail with his crew of 28 on Endurance.
Jan 1915: Endurance becomes trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea.
Oct 1915: After drifting for nine months in pack ice Shackleton decides to abondon Endurance as she is getting crushed. The crew set up camp on the pack ice and take the life boats from Endurance.
Nov 1915: Endurance sinks.
Apr 1916: Shackleton and his crew set off in three 22-foot open lifeboats and row to Elephant Island.
They arrive seven days later after an exhausting journey in some of the worst conditions imaginable. On arrival Shackleton knows there is very little chance of being rescued by passing ships so decides to head for South Georgia where he knows there is a whaling station.
He chooses the strongest boat – James Caird – and sets sail with five crew members. This is a journey of 1,300km across some of the world’s roughest seas. The rest of the crew build a camp on Elephant Island.
After 16 days they arrive on South Georgia but on the wrong side of the island. They trek for 36 hours across mountains to the other side and find help.
Aug 1916: On his fourth attempt Shackleton finally manages to rescue his remaining crew members from Elephant Island. Not one member of the original expedition team died.
5 Jan 1922: Shackleton dies of a heart attack just off the coast of South Georgia Island on his fourth expedition to the Antarctic. He is buried on the island.