The History of Antarctic Exploration
Discover and learn more about the incredible stories of Antarctic exploration in the 20th century.
Many people have never given Antarctica much thought at all. According to "Exploring the Last Continent: An Introduction to Antarctica," even the first person to get close to spotting it, James Cook, dismissed the landmass out of hand. Cook believed that because the waters surrounding the continent were so icy and the path so dangerous, no one would ever venture farther than he had to properly discover the continent. He wrote in his diary that even if someone did, "The world will derive no benefit from it."
Thankfully, James Cook was wrong. Here's a brief look at the history of Antarctica, and why Cook vastly underestimated what this continent had in store:
To really explore the continent's history, we have to go back far before Cook first crossed the Antarctic Circle. The idea of a large southern continent had been around for ages - in fact, the name "Antarctica" was coined far before anyone was even close to actually finding it. The Ancient Greeks supposed that such a continent could exist - it was a lucky guess, based mostly on the assumption that there had to be some land mass to balance out the northern continents. The North Pole was called the "Arktos," the Greek word for "bear," after the constellation that hung in the northern sky. Greek philosophers assumed there must be an anti-Akrtos continent on the south pole.
The concept of such a landmass was carried through the years, and captured the imaginations of explorers. As time went on, many people thought they had found the great southern continent - for example, Ferdinand Magellan, when sailing through the straight that would later take his name, thought the land south of him could be it. This land was, in fact, simply a small string of islands. Despite many false "discoveries" of Antarctica, those exploring the world's southern waters were still hoping to find the elusive continent.
Cook dismissed Antarctica's potential in 1774, after crossing the Antarctic Circle and deciding that if there was a continent at all, it was too small and cold to be of much use to anyone. That didn't dissuade the most adventurous and ambitious sailors from packing up and heading south, however. On Jan. 27, 1820, Fabian von Bellingshausen became the first person to spot land south of the Antarctic Circle. Later, John Davis was the first to land on Antarctica, and he stepped onto the continent in 1821.
Although today you can easily and safely visit Antarctica, the first voyages there were more harrowing journeys. The ice was a big problem for ships that had neither the strength nor technology to stand up to the pressure as the frozen water expanded. If crews did manage to land, their time on the continent was spent facing the risk of frost bite, starvation and dehydration. Still, many were called to the glory of getting to know the continent the world has been attempting to find for so long.
In 1911, two groups of explorers began the race to become the first to reach the south pole. Roald Amundsen, an explorer from Norway, originally wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole - a title that was taken before he had finished planning the voyage. Instead, he decided to head south. This was at approximately the same time that Captain Robert F. Scott, a British naval officer, was also leading a crew to Antarctica. Amundsen, eager to reach the pole first, began his expedition ahead of schedule. This paid off, despite being a risky move - Amundsen reached the pole well before Scott and his men. When Scott reached the pole and discovered he had been beaten, he and his companions turned around to return back home - they died on their way back to the ship.
Perhaps the most exciting story of Antarctic expeditions is that of Ernest Shackleton and his ship, the "Endurance." In 1915, Shackleton set out to cross the Antarctic continent - a feat that had never been achieved. As his ship approached land, however, the pack ice grew too thick to pass. As the ice expanded, the "Endurance" was slowly destroyed - it was trapped for 10 months before the pressure finally broke the ship completely. Miraculously, Shackleton and his crew survived - after camping on the ice for another five months, they were able to take a lifeboat on a 17-day journey until they reached civilization.
The Antarctic Treaty
In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the whole continent to peaceful collaboration for scientific investigation. In 1961, the treaty went into effect, and all territorial claims any country had made before that time were suspended. In 1991, the Treaty expanded to agree not to explore for oil or other minerals for at least 50 years. This is in effect until 2048, at which point it can be revisited. If all countries that are party to this agreement, of which there are 29, agreed otherwise, there could be mineral or oil exploration sooner. In total, there are 52 countries that have signed the treaty.
The treaty is meant to establish Antarctica as a zone free of military operations and nuclear development, to be used only for peace and international cooperation. It is also meant to ensure no countries dispute who owns Antarctica. The treaty means Antarctica has never been part of a war or a site of war.
Antarctica really isn't governed as we understand it, but there is an annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the state of things in Antarctica and make recommendations about what should happen to keep it in line with the treaty that governs it. There have been special meetings to address climate change and tourism, among other things.
Becoming part of history
Today it is much easier and far safer to reach Antarctica, and the continent has become a scientific research sit and a beacon for particularly adventurous travelers. Despite the modern ease with which people can visit, few people have. This means that each and every visitor who travels to Antarctica becomes a part of the continent's history. If you want to be included in the few who have visited the continent that inspired philosophers and eluded explorers, schedule your trip to Antarctica today.
It was the ancient Greeks who first came up with the concept of Antarctica. Their understanding of the Arctic came from ‘Arktos,’ the great bear constellation. They surmised that for the world to be balanced, a similar land mass must exist in the south. Thus, they named it ‘Ant-Arktos’, meaning ‘Opposite The Bear.’
Finding the Fabled Frozen Continent
The year is 1820 and the race to find the elusive southern continent is on. Who will discover it first? What follows is a story of human endeavor, tenacity, determination, and the will to triumph where others failed.
To tell the whole tale, we need to travel all the way back to ancient Greece. Greek scholars were among the first to suggest that a sizeable southern continent could even exist. Aristotle stated that the symmetry of a sphere meant that the Earth’s northern region had to be balanced by an equal southern region. This theoretical land was given the vague name ‘Antarktos,’ or ‘opposite Arktos,’
Fast-forward to the age of global European exploration in the 15th century. An imaginary land was widely printed in maps and labelled ‘Terra Australis Incognita’—Unknown Southern Land. For a time, Antarctica was dismissed as fiction, even if it challenged the boldest explorers’ imaginations. But sure enough, fantasy would soon become fact.
Crossing the Antarctic Circle
In 1773, James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time. He discovered isolated islands but found no continent. Little did he know that he had been been less than 80 miles from the Antarctic coast at one point in his journey. Cook famously declared, “I can be bold to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored.” It only took 48 years to prove him wrong.
On January 27, 1820, a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen crossed the Antarctic Circle for only the second time in history. The following day, he became the first explorer to ever lay eyes on the unknown continent—an honor denied to him due to an incorrect translation of his journal. Just a year later, explorer and sealer John Davis became the first person to set foot on Antarctica. The seventh continent had finally been proven beyond a doubt.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
The focus quickly shifted to the inevitable issue of which country and explorer would claim the enviable glory of reaching the South Pole first. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott sailed from England in 1901 and attempted to reach the South Pole in 1902. The harsh conditions proved to be impossible to surmount and the team retreated to 82°17’S.
Anglo-Irishman Ernest Henry Shackleton had been part of Scott’s expedition and barely survived. But he was determined to try again. In 1908, he pioneered the route up to the Antarctic Plateau and came within 112 miles of the South Pole before being forced to return.
Photo: Chelsea Claus and Andreas Kalvig Anderson
The race to the finish line
Two expeditions soon followed in 1910. Norwegian Roald Amundsen led one and Robert Falcon Scott led the other. By this time, Amundsen was a veteran of Arctic expeditions and had been first to cross the Northwest Passage entirely by ship from 1903 to 1906. This experience proved crucial for him and his team to achieve what others could not.
On December 14, 1911, after 99 days and 1,400 nautical miles, Roald Amundsen raised the Norwegian flag at the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott arrived 33 days later. His agony is recorded in his diary, “The worst has happened [...] All the daydreams must go [...] Great God! This is an awful place”. Tragically, neither he nor his companions made it back alive.
Powers for peace
In the years to come, several countries claimed rights in Antarctica and negotiations between Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Chile, Argentina, and the United States began in 1948. Finally, to prevent conflict in the region, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.
The treaty made Antarctica a demilitarized zone to be preserved for scientific research. The treaty was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War. To this day, Antarctica remains a site for scientific research—and a beacon for particularly adventurous travelers.
Now it’s your turn!
Exploration in Antarctica is a story of courage, adventure, and an unwavering desire to venture where no one has gone before. Fortunately, getting to Antarctica is a much safer endeavor today. We have explored some of the world’s most challenging waters since 1893 and started sailings to Antarctica 20 years ago. Join us on an unforgettable journey to Antarctica, so that you too can be part of the history of the frozen continent.