Early Explorers

Pythagoras calculated that the earth was round in the sixth century BC. Aristotle believed that as there was a landmass in the northern hemisphere, that there must be a balance of land in the southern hemisphere. The northern most land was named Arktos, meaning the bear, for the constellation Arktos. Then, Aristotle named the supposed opposite end in the south, Antarktikos, meaning opposite of the north. Throughout early history, there were many theories about what might lie to the very south of the planet Earth, including belief that there were a lot of people in a lush land to the south.

Fabian von Bellingshausen

Sir Francis Drake reached 57 degrees south in the late 1570’s. And, between 1772 and 1775, Captain James Cook sails within 100 miles of Antarctica. Finally, in 1820, the Russian explorer, Fabian von Bellingshausen was said to sight land in Antarctica for the first time. It is also claimed, in different expeditions that year, that Antarctic land was also seen by William Smith, Edward Bransfield, and Nathaniel Palmer.

Most likely, it is believed that American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on Antarctica in 1821. And, in 1841, Sir James Clark Ross claimed Antarctica for Queen Victoria of Britain.

The true age of Heroic Exploration began in the early 1900’s. There were many names associated with this period of voyages into unknown inland areas, but the four that stand out are, Douglas Mawson, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and Robert Falcon Scott.

Robert Scott

Robert Scott led his first expedition to Antarctica from 1901 to 1904. This was The Discovery Expedition. This was both a journey of exploration and one of scientific discovery. Ernest Shackleton was with Scott, but was sent home early, due to exhaustion, while Scott discovered the Polar Plateau. Shackleton did not go home without a protest. Scott went home a hero. Although his second expedition to Antarctica, on the Terra Nova, proved to be a one-way journey. The Terra Nova Expedition began in 1910 and ended in a frozen death in March 1912. This is the expedition where Scott was tricked into a race to the Pole with Roald Amundsen. Scott was intent on reaching the Pole as a goal for taking this expedition, but he did not plan to compete with Amundsen. In fact, a big part of the expedition, once again, was devoted to scientific research. Scott’s scientific work was so important in the early years of exploring Antarctica. After he died, 35 lbs of fossils, meteorological logs, a diary, and notes were found in his tent when a search party found his body eight months later. Among the fossils, was found an extinct beech like tree that was 250 million years old!

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen, from Norway, had originally planned to go to the Artic, but upon hearing that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary had both claimed to be the first to make it to the North Pole, Amundsen changed direction and went south. His ship, The Fram, made it to Antarctica in 1910, and the rest is history. Amundsen was in Antarctica for one purpose only, to become first to the South Pole. He was better prepared, as he and his team were excellent skiers, trained to use their well-chosen dog team, and took a different route to the Pole. Amundsen and his advance team made it the the South Pole on the 14th of December, 1911. Scott and his advance team arrived on the 17th of January, 1912, devastated to find that Amundsen had already been there. Scott and his team died due to bad luck, bad weather, and physical exhaustion the end of March, 1912.

Douglas Mawson

Douglas Mawson was born in England, but moved to Australia as a small child. He was trained as a geologist. He was the first person to ascent Mount Erebus in Antarctica, and part of the first team to reach the South Magnetic Pole. He turned down an expedition on the Terra Nova with Robert Scott in 1910 in order to lead his own expedition in 1911. During this expedition, terrible luck came upon Mawson during a three-man exploration team. Two of the men died, one falling into a crevasse, and the other dying from eating dog liver, causing death from extreme levels of vitamin A, found in husky liver. Mawson made it to reach his ship, only to find out it had just left and he had to wait another in year staying in Antarctica, before going home.

Ernest Shackleton

One of the most impressive stories in Antarctica is that of Ernest Shackleton. Born in Ireland, but moving to England at the age of 10, he grew up to become a Merchant Navy Officer. He was interested in going to Antarctica when the opportunity arose. His first voyage was on The Discovery (1901-1903),  led by Robert Scott. The purpose of the journey included scientific and geographical work. Shackleton joined Scott and Edward Wilson to journey further south, and they achieved being the first to reach the furthest south, at a latitude of 82°17′. Unfortunately, the men were worn down, and Scott ended up demanding that the weakened Shackleton return home.

On the 1st of January, 1908, Shackleton left New Zealand, leading the Nimrod expedition to Antarctica. On the 9th January, 1909, Shackleton, Frank Wild, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Adams, reached a new record south of 88° 23′, which was only 112 miles (180 km) from the South Pole.

In 1914, Shackleton embarked on his most famous voyage, The Endurance. At this point, Amundsen had already become the first person  to reach the Geographic South Pole in 1911. Shackleton had a new goal, and that was to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot. He would only bring dogs this time, and 27 men.

A wonderful choice was made in enlisting James Francis Hurley as the expedition photographer. To this day, we have many incredible photos that tell the story of this journey, including some moving pictures!

Frank Hurley

To make a long story short, The Endurance ran into ice packs and was stuck in the Weddell Sea in January 1915. The ship remained frozen in place for 326 days, until the ice broke up, then the ship broke up and sank! The men escaped onto the ice floe, which was about 300 miles (484 km) from land. They lived for months on this floe, eating penguins and seals.

tombstones shackleton nine big
The Endurance

They finally decided that they had to move on. They launched out in the lifeboats towards land. They had to sadly put the dogs down, as they could not bring them. This broke their hearts, as they loved these dogs. After seventy stormy difficult days, the team reached Elephant Island. While this was land, it was clear that the men could not stay there for long. There was no food source other than penguins and seals. It as desolate, cold, and unwelcoming. Shackleton decided to leave the bulk of the team to hold out on Elephant Island, while he took 5 men with him in the strongest of the lifeboats, the James Caird. The boat was prepared by the ship’s carpenter for the long voyage. The remaining lifeboats were used to build a shelter for the remaining men awaiting rescue.

Shackleton and the five chosen men left for an 800 mile (1,290 km) journey towards South Georgia Island, where they knew there was help to be had at the whaling station there. After 15 days at sea in ferocious storms, they spotted the island. While it was difficult to land, they finally made it to shore, only to find that they had a mountain between them and help. They succeeded in crossing this inhospitable terrain in 36 hours and were able to then return back to Elephant Island, after three attempts, to rescue the remaining men. This was the 30th of August, 1916. Not one life was lost during this entire period of time and the men all made it back home safely.

In September of 1921, Shackleton decided to take a last expedition to Antarctica. He left with his team on The Quest. He was not feeling very well along the way, but continued his journey. On the 5th of January, 1922, Shackleton died of a heart attack while at South Georgia Island. His wife requested that he be buried in his beloved Antarctica, and he is buried on South Georgia Island.

He will always be remembered for his courage, selflessness, perseverance, and incredible leadership. He never let any of his men down. Shackleton lived life to the fullest, and accomplished more than most people do in twice as long a life!

Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen-The Race to the South Pole 1910-1912.

The story of Douglas Mawson’s fight for survival.

The amazing survival of Ernest Shackleton and his team.