The History of Antarctic Exploration

1810 - 1917

Antarctica is the coldest, most isolated place on Earth. It is made up of treacherous mountain ranges and vast plains covered in ice and snow. In permanent darkness for three months each year, it is surrounded by vast seas of floating pack ice. Nobody had visited Antarctica, some even doubted its existence. That was until 1773, when Captain James Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle. And it wasn't until 1820 that William Smith and James Bransfield claimed to have first sighted land on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Antarctica drew adventurers from around the world, all hoping to be first to conquer the hostile Terra Incognita. Their stories are of adventure, bravery and endurance in one of the most beautiful, solitary places on Earth.

Experience the beauty and isolation for yourself on Antarctic holidays with Hurtigruten.

Start with the year 1810

Antarctica is the coldest, most isolated place on Earth. Comprising of treacherous mountain ranges and vast plains covered in ice and snow. In permanent darkness for three months a year, surrounded by vast seas of floating pack ice.

Antarctica drew adventurers from around the world, all hoping to be first to conquer the hostile Terra Incognita. Their stories are of adventure, bravery and endurance in one of the most beautiful, solitary places on Earth.    

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1810

Macquarie Island

Macquarie Island is discovered by Frederick Hasselborough, an Australian searching for new seal hunting grounds.
Antarctica Map
The Macquarie Island (2006)

The Macquarie Island (2006)

1819

William Smith and South Shetland Islands

Englishman William Smith discovers the South Shetland Islands by accident. He claims them for Great Britain. The South Shetlands are a group of 24 islands including Livingston Island, King George Island, Deception Island and Elephant Island.

Antarctica Map
Williams Point on Livingston Island, the land discovered by William Smith on 19 February 1819

Williams Point on Livingston Island, the land discovered by William Smith on 19 February 1819

1820

William Smith and the Antarctic Peninsula

William Smith pilots a Royal Navy ship tasked with searching the water southeast of the South Shetlands. On this voyage it is claimed they had first sight of the Antarctic Peninsula (this is disputed).

Antarctica Map
Antarctic Peninsula satellite image

Antarctic Peninsula satellite image

1820

Captain Bellingshausen - 1/2

Captain Bellingshausen, with two Russian ships the Vostok and the Mirny, is sailing round the globe. He claims to have made the first sighting of Antarctica (this is disputed). On first sighting of the continent he commented that is was an “icefield covered with small hillocks.”

Antarctica Map
Captain Faddey Bellingshausen with the Cross of the Order of St. Vladimir

Captain Faddey Bellingshausen with the Cross of the Order of St. Vladimir

1820

Deception Island

The first sighting of Deception Island is made by Edward Bransfield and William Smith, both British sealers. Later the same year American sealer Nathaniel Palmer spends two days exploring the island, and names it ‘Deception.’

Antarctica Map
Map created on the first scientific expedition to Deception Island in 1829 under the command of captain Henry Foster

Map created on the first scientific expedition to Deception Island in 1829 under the command of captain Henry Foster

1821

Captain Bellingshausen - 2/2

Bellinghausen returns to the Antarctic, he discovers Peter I Island (left pin on map) and the Alexander Island (right pin on map). He becomes the second person to circumnavigate the continent, after Captain James Cook in the 18th century.

Antarctica Map
Fossil Bluff base on Alexander Island

Fossil Bluff base on Alexander Island

1821

Captain John Davis

Captain John Davis, an American sealer, was the first person to land on Antarctica (this is disputed).
Antarctica Map
Davis, shown bottom left holding his backstaff, in a detail from Englands Famous Discoverers

Davis, shown bottom left holding his backstaff, in a detail from Englands Famous Discoverers

1821

Stranded in Antarctica

A party of men spent the winter in Antarctica. Men from a British sealing ship were stranded when their ship was driven off shore by ice and could not pick them up. They spent the winter in the northern Antarctic Peninsula, on King George Island, part of the South Shetlands. They weren’t rescued until the following summer.

Antarctica Map
1823

Weddell Sea

The Weddell Sea is discovered by British whaler James Weddell. He reached the furthest south anyone had been, 74° 15' S. No one would travel this far south for another 80 years.
Antarctica Map
1831

Enderby Land

John Biscoe, working for a sealing business discovers Enderby land – named after his employers, the Enderby Brothers Sealing Company.

Antarctica Map
1839

Balleny Islands

Another Enderby Brothers employee, John Balleny discovers the Balleny Islands.
Antarctica Map
The Balleny Islands and Antarctic coast from space, December 2007

The Balleny Islands and Antarctic coast from space, December 2007

1840

Wilkes Land

An American expedition sights Wilkes Land.
Antarctica Map
The ice front of Dibble Ice Shelf, a significant melt water producer from the Wilkes Land region, East Antarctica

The ice front of Dibble Ice Shelf, a significant melt water producer from the Wilkes Land region, East Antarctica

1840

Adélie Land

Discovery by Jules Dumont d'Urville of Adélie Land in 1840. This served as a basis for the French claim to this region in 1924.

Antarctica Map
Discovery by Jules Dumont d'Urville of Adélie Land in 1840

Discovery by Jules Dumont d'Urville of Adélie Land in 1840

1840

James Clark Ross

James Clark Ross takes two ships within 80 miles of the coast, but cannot land due to ice barrier – now known as the ‘Ross Ice Shelf’. He discovers Victoria Land, and the Ross Sea. Ross names the Antarctic active volcano Erebus, after one of his ships. He also discovered Ross Island, and identifies 145 new species of fish.

Antarctica Map
1892

Seymour Island

The Jason, captained by Captain Carl Larsen lands on Seymour Island near the Antarctic Peninsula. He finds fossils which provide evidence of a previously warmer climate.
Antarctica Map
Carl Anton Larsen

Carl Anton Larsen

1898

Trapped off the Antarctic Peninsula

Adrien de Gerlache captain of the Belgica makes the first scientific expedition to the continent. They become trapped off the Antarctic Peninsula in pack ice. Their ship drifts with the ice for the whole winter, making them the first group to survive an Antarctic winter.
Antarctica Map
The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

1899

Cape Adare

A British expedition led by Carsten Borchgrevink landed at Cape Adare. They built huts and were the first to spend the winter on the Antarctic landmass. (Some believe this was the first ever landing on the Antarctic continent.)
Antarctica Map
Adélie penguins on an ice foot at Cape Adare - photo by George Murray Levick, 1911 or 1912

Adélie penguins on an ice foot at Cape Adare - photo by George Murray Levick, 1911 or 1912

1901

The Discovery Expedition

Captain Robert Falcon Scott makes his first expedition towards the South Pole, accompanied by Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson. The party is forced to turn back after two months due to scurvy and snow blindness. They reached 82 degrees south and cover 3100 miles.

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The expedition ship Discovery in the Antarctic, alongside the Great Ice Barrier

The expedition ship Discovery in the Antarctic, alongside the Great Ice Barrier

“We are as near spent as three persons can be.”

Robert Falcon Scott

1902

Otto Nordenskjold

Otto Nordenskjold, a Swedish geologist is left on Snow Hill Island with five crew members. They spend two winters there. Their ship was crushed in an ice pack stranding them on the island. The crew of the ship miraculously survived the winter and made their way to Snow Hill Island and the whole party was finally rescued by an Argentinean relief ship in 1903.
Antarctica Map
1902

Wilhelm II Land

Erich von Drygalski discovers Wilhelm ii Land. His ship, the Gauss becomes stuck in ice for a year. The crew spends the time carrying out scientific research, creating twenty volumes of reports.

Antarctica Map
1904

Coats Land

The Scottish crew of the Scotia discover Coats Land, the first sighting of land south of the Weddell Sea.
Antarctica Map
1904

South Georgia

The first whaling station is built on South Georgia by Carl Larsen.

Antarctica Map
1907

The Nimrod Expedition

Ernest Shackleton attempts his second expedition to the South Pole. The crew are forced to turn back 97 miles away as their supplies are exhausted and they are in bad health.

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Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and Eric Marshall (from left to right) plant the Union Jack at their southernmost position, 88° 23', on 9 January 1909. The photograph was taken by expedition leader Ernest Shackleton.

Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and Eric Marshall (from left to right) plant the Union Jack at their southernmost position, 88° 23', on 9 January 1909. The photograph was taken by expedition leader Ernest Shackleton.

“The worse he felt, the harder he pulled.”

Jameson Adams, on Ernest Shackleton

1909

The Nimrod Expedition - Northern Party

Douglas Mawson, Edgeworth David and Alistair McKay reach the Magnetic South Pole, they are part of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition.
Antarctica Map
The northern party at the south magnetic pole; from left - Dr. Mackay, Professor David, Douglas Mawson (1909)

The northern party at the south magnetic pole; from left - Dr. Mackay, Professor David, Douglas Mawson (1909)

1910

The Race

The race for the South Pole begins.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott sets sail for Antarctica with the aim of being the first man to reach the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen sets sail for Antarctica, the world believes he is travelling north.

Antarctica Map
1911

The Race: The Fram Expedition

Roald Amundsen (left route on map) reaches the pole in December 1911 taking a new, uncharted route. Aware that he has beaten Robert Scott (right route on map) , he leaves a tent containing a letter to Scott, and his team members left letters to their families in case they did not make it back alive.

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Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting (l–r) at "Polheim", the tent was erected at the South Pole on 16 December 1911. The top flag is the Flag of Norway; the bottom is marked "Fram".

Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting (l–r) at "Polheim", the tent was erected at the South Pole on 16 December 1911. The top flag is the Flag of Norway; the bottom is marked "Fram".

“The breath of men and dogs freezes as soon as it hits the air.”

Roald Amundsen

1912

The Race: The Terra Nova Expedition - 1/2

Captain Robert Falcon Scott (right route on map) reaches the South Pole in January 1912. He has been beaten by Amundsen (left route on map) by 35 days. The five man expedition (Scott, Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson) never make it home. Due to terrible conditions and starvation they perish 11 miles from their next supply depot. The men’s bodies aren’t found until November. Also found are diaries, scientific specimens, notes and exposed film.

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Antarctica Map
The grave of the Southern party

The grave of the Southern party

"We are setting a good example to our countrymen...we could have come back through had we neglected the sick."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

1912

The Race: The Terra Nova Expedition - 2/2

Members of Captain Scott’s expedition at base camp give up hope of their ship, the Terra Nova returning for them before winter. They live for six months in a cave dug from a snow bank.

Antarctica Map
1912

The Aurora Expedition - 1/2

Douglas Mawson and his two companions set out towards the Ross Ice Shelf as part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
Antarctica Map
The start of the Far Eastern Party expedition, 1912

The start of the Far Eastern Party expedition, 1912

1913

The Aurora Expedition - 2/2

Douglas Mawson makes his way back to his base alone, his two companions had died along the route.

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Antarctica Map
The Western survey party

The Western survey party

“I could pull through myself with the provisions at hand but I cannot leave him. His heart seems to have gone. It is very hard for me—to be within 100 m of the Hut and in such a position is awful.”

Douglas Mawson

1915

The Endurance - 1/2

Ernest Shackleton returns to attempt the first crossing of the whole continent. Their ship Endurance is crushed by ice and they are stranded in Antarctica.

Antarctica Map
Crew members working to free the ship from the ice

Crew members working to free the ship from the ice

1917

The Endurance - 2/2

On his fourth attempt Shackleton reaches his crew stranded on Elephant Island, all his men survive.

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Ernest Shackleton leaves Elephant Island with five other members of the expedition, setting out to reach South Georgia Island.

Ernest Shackleton leaves Elephant Island with five other members of the expedition, setting out to reach South Georgia Island.

‘Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The Pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?’

Winston Churchill

The End

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