During the early years of global circumnavigation by explorers and adventurers, several ships sailed down to the Antarctic seas, below the Antarctic Circle, but they did not venture far into the Antarctic waters as their ships were not built to withstand the severe weather and Antarctic ice pack that exists at these lower latitudes. Cook, Tasman, Ross, the Challenger expedition, are some who ventured far south. It was not until the late 1800s that serious expeditions were launched with the specific aim of exploring the Antarctic continent, surveying the coast and interior and being the first to reach the South Pole.
The year 1897 heralded the start of what came to be known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, a period that extended through to 1922. During this Heroic Age, the Antarctic region became the focus of intensive scientific and geographical explorations by 17 expeditions that were launched by nine countries during this period. These expeditions were feats of endurance as the resources available during this age were limited, this was before advances in communications and transportation revolutionized exploration of this region of the world. The “heroic” label was much later bestowed on this age, probably around 1953, to recognize the adversities which had to be overcome by these explorers, some of whom did not survive their ordeals.
The Geographic and Magnetic Poles were reached during this Heroic Age and being the first to the South Pole seemed to be the primary objective of many expeditions.
Although whalers and sealers had earlier traveled in these latitudes, and possibly the first landing on Antarctic land was by an American whaler in 1821, none had been able to successfully penetrate the vast barriers of sea ice that hid the land proper.
The impetus for the renewed exploration of the Antarctic is vague and contested. However, in 1895 the Royal Geographical Society passed a resolution calling on scientific societies throughout the world to promote the cause of Antarctic exploration and was the impetus to the 17 expeditions that took place in the period between 1897 and 1922, involving ships from diverse nationalities. Three ships survive to this day, with two ships being lost during their expeditions. The remaining ships continued on with their maritime duties and were sunk or wrecked between 1907 and 1962.
Some of these expeditions were privately funded and others were organized by governments with the objective of bringing discoveries to every branch of science.
A timetable of expeditions and ships
|1911-14||Aurora||Australia & NZ|
24 explorers died during these expeditions, their deaths resulting from several different causes:
- Starvation and cold
- Various Injuries mostly on-board ships
- Heart failure
- Falling into a crevasse
- Fall through sea ice
- Washed overboard.
Frostbite was a major problem during these expeditions as the mostly heavy wool clothing and rudimentary boots were far from ideal for the extreme temperatures that men found themselves exposed to. Roald Amundsen however, eschewed wool and adopted the Inuit-style furred skins; most likely from his early experience in Arctic exploration. It should be noted that it was only men who participated in these expeditions; there were no women aboard these ships. It was not until 1935 that Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian whaling captain, became the first woman to set foot on the Antarctic continent.
Without sled dogs, many of the expeditions would not have been successful. Shackleton initially tried using ponies but they could not survive in the harsh terrain and climate. Sled dogs hauled supplies for Roald Amundsen who was the first to reach the South Pole in 1912 and both Robert Scott and Shackleton used sled dogs in their three expeditions. The first dogs were used in the Swedish Expedition in 1901. Most sled dogs were Huskies, although some Samoyeds where brought to the Antarctic by Robert Scott in 1911 but being smaller than Huskies and used to smooth Arctic snow surfaces not the rugged Antarctic terrain they were not well used.
In the early 1990s all sled dogs were to be removed from the Antarctic, the last to leave was in 1994. It was in 1991 that members of the Antarctic Treaty implemented the Protocol on Environmental Protection which banned all non-indigenous species, except humans, due to fears of bringing diseases to the continent, specifically distemper which could infect the seal population.
Ships and Explorers that Participated in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expeditions
RV Belgica – 1897-99, Belgium
The first expedition in the Heroic Age was by the Belgian ship RV Belgica. She was a barque-rigged steamship built in 1884 in Norway as a whaler and is generally considered to have launched this era of exploration, led by Adrien de Gerlache. Roald Amundsen, later to become the first man to reach the South Pole, was the first mate on this expedition. Belgica was purchased in 1896 and refitted as a research ship participating in this first Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1901. This was the first expedition to overwinter south of the Antarctic Circle after she became icebound in the Bellingshausen Sea. She also participated in expeditions to the Arctic in 1905 and 1907-09.
In 1916 she was sold and converted into a passenger and cargo ship. She was requisitioned by the British in 1940 and used as a depot ship. Her end came when she was scuttled during the French-British expeditionary force evacuation of Harstad, Norway, in 1940.
SS Southern Cross – 1889-1900, Great Britain
The SS Southern Cross was built in Norway and launched in 1886 as the steam-whaler Pollux. Carsten Borchgrevink purchased the Pollux and renamed her Southern Cross. Led by Borchgrevink, Southern Cross headed the Southern Cross Expedition to the Antarctic, also known as the British Antarctic Expedition, 1898-1900. This was the first British venture in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
During this first Antarctic expedition for the ship, it made marine history by breaking through the Great Ice barrier to the unexplored Ross Sea, and for being the first to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland.
Carsten Borchgrevink was an Anglo-Norwegian polar explorer and pioneer of modern Antarctic travel. The expedition’s success received only moderate interest in Britain, where attention was focused on Scott’s upcoming Discovery expedition.
Southern Cross’ post-expedition life was short. She was sold to a Glasgow company and took up seal hunting off Newfoundland. In 1914 Southern Cross was a part of a fleet that left St John’s in March. She was never heard from again. A court of inquiry determined that she sank in a blizzard, but this could never be confirmed.
Discovery – 1901-04, Great Britain
SY Discovery was built in 1900 as a barque-rigged auxiliary steamship for Antarctic research. She was the last traditional three-masted ship built in the United Kingdom and was held to be at the time of her launch the strongest wooden ship ever built.
The Discovery Expedition 1901-1904
Discovery’s first mission in 1901, was to carry Ernest Shackleton on his first and successful journey to the Antarctic known as the Discovery Expedition, officially known as the British National Antarctic Expedition. The expedition was led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. The Antarctic coastline was sighted on 02 Jan. 1902. In preparation for winter, Discovery was moored in McMurdo Sound in a bay sheltered from the prevailing winds. There she remained locked in by pack ice for the winter, which she weathered for the next two years. The expedition determined that Antarctica was a continent and they re-located the Magnetic Pole.
The expedition’s scientific results covered extensive discoveries in biology, zoology, geology, meteorology and magnetism. The existence of snow free valleys were discovered which contained Antarctica’s longest river. Also discovered was the Polar Plateau on which the South Pole is located. The expedition tried to reach the Pole travelling as far south as 82° 17’S. Ross’s second expedition in 1910 did reach the South Pole, but this was a month after Amundsen had reached the Pole and becoming the first man to do so.
The expedition was the first to launch a balloon in the Antarctic. Used for photographic reconnaissance.
Discovery returned to the UK and was sold to the Hudson Bay Company as the expedition was in serious financial trouble.
She was used to carry wartime supplies during WWI until in 1923 when the British government purchased her for further survey work.
On her return from her last expedition in 1931 she was moored in London as a static training ship and visitor attraction until 1979. After extensive restoration she became the centrepiece of a visitor attraction in the city of Dundee, where she was built.
She is one of only two surviving expedition ships from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, the other being the Norwegian ship Fram.
Gauss – 1901-1904, Germany
Gauss was built in Germany and launched in 1901. She was modelled after the Norwegian Antarctic vessel Fram and was rigged as a barquentine. She had a steam engine that could propel her at up to 7 knots.
Between 1901 and 1903 Gauss explored the Antarctic in the Gauss Expedition, the first German expedition to the Antarctic led by Erich von Drygalski. The expedition’s objective was to explore the unknown area of the Antarctic south of the Kerguelen Islands. During the expedition, the ship paid a visit to Heard Island, certainly the most remote place on earth. Heard Island is uninhabited and the nearest land masses are 4,000 km to Perth, 4,200 km to South Africa and being 1,600 km north of Antarctica.
Although Gauss became entrapped in ice for 14 months, the expedition did discover Kaiser Willhelm II Land and its volcano, Gaussberg. The expedition returned to Germany in 1903. Eric von Drygalski published 20 volumes and two atlases documenting the expedition.
Antarctic – 1901-03, Sweden
Antarctic was a Swedish steamship, built in Norway in 1871. She was a three-masted barque equipped with a steam engine.
In 1895, Antarctic put a boat ashore at Cape Adare, at the northern extremity of Victoria Land, where six men, including Carsten Borchgrevink, went ashore to be the first confirmed landing on the continent. Borchgrevink was an Anglo-Norwegian polar explorer and pioneer of modern Antarctic travel.
Antarctic was used on several research expeditions to the Antarctic from 1898 to 1903.
Otto Nordenskjold led the 1901-1904 Swedish Antarctic Expedition, commanded by Carl Larsen, which dropped off Nordenskjold’s party at Snow Hill Island, just off the Graham Land Peninsula.
In Dec. 1902, the ship was trapped in pack ice near Hope Bay, on the Graham Land Peninsula. She broke free but once again became trapped. She again broke free but was damaged and leaking. The ship sank some 40km off the coast on 12 Feb. 1903.
The expedition, which recovered valuable geological samples and samples of marine animals, earned Nordenskjold lasting fame at home, but left him in serious debt.
Scotia – 1902-04, Great Britain
The SY Scotia was a barque built in 1872 as a Norwegian whaler. She was purchased by William Bruce and refitted as a research vessel for use by the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (SNAE).
Scotia sailed in Nov. 1902 for the Falkland Islands and then on to Laurie Island and the South Orkney Islands. Scotia overwintered in Scotia Bay where she was frozen in for eight months. Once freed from the ice, she sailed to Buenos Aires for a refit then returned to Laurie Island and the Weddell Sea.
In 1904, she departed the Antarctic for home, calling in at St. Helena on the way. Once home, she was sold at auction to recover some of the costs of the expedition. There had been a plan to see her used by Scottish universities as a research vessel but this plan fell through.
Français – 1903-05, France
Jean Baptiste Charcot decided to represent France in the upsurge of interest in Antarctic exploration starting in the 1890s. He was a wealthy man and invested part of his fortune in the construction of the Français, a small, 250 ton, three-masted schooner.
He sailed south in 1903, heading south to the Graham Land Peninsula. There Charcot discovered a place at Wiencke Island that he named an inlet Port Lockroy, which would later become the site of a British base during Operation Tabarin in WWII.
In Jan. 1905 the ship struck a rock near Adelaide Island. Damage was done and the engine, underpowered to begin with, was working poorly. They made some repairs and limped back north to reach the Argentinian port of Puerto Madryn. The extent of the damage was considerable and the Argentine government offered to purchase her. She was sold and the crew and 75 crates of scientific equipment left for France on board the liner Algeria. Charcot arrived back in France to be welcomed as a hero.
SY Nimrod – 1907-1909, Great Britain
The SY Nimrod was a 334-ton schooner built for whaling and sealing; launched in 1867, wrecked in 1919. Ernest Shackleton used Nimrod in his 1908 Antarctic Nimrod Expedition for the South Pole. She was underpowered and so overladen with supplies that there was no room for adequate coal supplies and she had to be towed to the edge of the ice pack.
The British Antarctic Expedition in Nimrod was the first of three expeditions led by Shackleton. Its main target was to be the first to the South Pole. He did not achieve this, the party got within 100 miles before turning around. After landing supplies and setting up a base, Shackleton decided to give the expedition impetus by attempting to climb Mt. Erebus, 12,450 feet. A group of five, which included Douglas Mawson, reached the active volcano crater on 9 March.
Shackleton had included ponies and a motor car as transportation for the expedition. The car turned out to be unable to function over the rough ice surfaces and the ponies had a difficult time traversing the rough ice, four had to be shot after succumbing to the effort. There was much personal antagonism emerging at this point and soon it was realized that there were not enough supplies to be able to reach the South Pole and so they turned around and returned to their base.
10 years after her return from the Antarctic, Nimrod ran aground off Norfolk where she was battered to pieces, with only two of her crew of 12 surviving.
Pourquoi-pas? – 1908-10, France
Pourquoi-pas? was a three-masted barque designed for polar exploration and was equipped with an engine; she also had on board, three laboratories. She was built in France and launched in 1908. This was Jean-Baptiste Charcot second Antarctic expedition. He set out in 1908-10, wintering at Petermann Island situated off the north-west coast of Graham Land. He returned to France in 1910 laden with scientific discoveries.
From 1918 to 1925 Charcot took the ship on various scientific missions in the North Atlantic, the English Channel, the Mediterranean and the Faroe Islands.
In 1936, returning from a mission to Greenland, she was caught in a violent cyclonic storm and driven onto the reefs of Alftanes, Iceland. 23 of crew were lost and 17 of the survivors died before rescue came, leaving one survivor. Charcot was one of the dead.
Kainan Maru – 1910-12, Japan
In 1910-12, the ship Kainan Maru undertook the first expedition by a non-European nation. It was the brainchild of Nobu Shirase who led the privately funded expedition. The first season was a failure and they were forced to winter in Australia. The second season was successful although no major scientific or geographic discoveries were made. However, some other achievements were recorded, such as:
The first landing on King Edward VII Land
The fastest recorded sledging journey
The most easterly point along the Antarctic coast reached by a ship to date.
On his return to Japan, Shirase and his team were treated as heroes, but interest died swiftly. Outside of Japan the expedition was generally ignored or dismissed and it was only many years after Shirase’s death in obscurity that Japan began to honour his achievements.
Kainan Maru was a converted fishing boat which was considerably smaller than other expedition ships of the era. Built in 1909, her fate is unknown. Although seriously underpowered, she did complete a journey of some 50,000 km.
Fram – 1910-12, Norway
Roald Amundsen, Norwegian, was the first man to reach the South Pole on 14 Dec. 1911. In 1928, Amundsen was killed in an air crash near the Norwegian Tromsø coast after searching for the crew of the airship Italia which had crashed returning from the North Pole.
In 1909, Amundsen had planned to embark on a mission to be the first man to the North Pole when he learned that American Robert Peary had reached the North Pole. He then changed tactics and decided to sail for Antarctica in an attempt to reach the South Pole, an expedition that England’s Robert Scott had embarked on.
Amundsen arrived and set up his camp in early 1911, 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October both explorers set off with Amundsen using dog sledges and Scott using tracked vehicles and Siberian ponies. Amundsen dispensed with the usual heavy woollen winter clothes worn by most expeditions in favour of Inuit style fur clothing, far warmer and lighter. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen arrived at the South Pole. The Scott expedition was less fortunate as his vehicles broke down and most of the ponies had to be shot, so Scott and four of the team continued on foot to reach the South Pole, arriving a month after Amundsen.
Terra Nova – 1910-12, Great Britain
Robert Scott made two expeditions to the Antarctic, the first in the Discovery Expedition with Ernest Shackleton which reached 82°16′ S, within 500 miles of the Pole. The second expedition in the Terra Nova did reach the South Pole, but Amundsen had preceded him by five weeks; a huge disappointment to the deflated party. This journey included the use of motorized sledges, Siberian Ponies and some dog sledges. The vehicles broke down and the ponies had a hard time surviving in harsh sub-arctic conditions; many of them had to be shot. The last segment was undertaken on foot by a four-man team who arrived at the Pole on 17 January, five weeks after Amundsen. With their spirits demoralized, the return journey of 860 miles was made more difficult due to poor weather. Their final camp was 12 miles short of the One Tone food depot at 80°S. There they were hit by a fierce blizzard and after nine days being stuck in their tent their supplies ran out and they froze to death on 29 March 1912. The frozen bodies of Scott and his companions were discovered by a search party 11 months later. Next to their bodies lay 35 pounds of Glossopteris tree fossils which the group had dragged on hand sledges. These were the first fossils collected from the Antarctic, proving that the continent had experienced warmer climates at some time in the past. Their bodies were left in the tent and a snow cairn built over it with a cross of skis erected on top.
Although Scott was early on recognized as a hero, displaying that “the pluck and spirit of the British was still alive and well,” later on in the mid 1900s, several biographers highlighted Scott’s failures with his leadership characterized by a lack of foresight and his character as flawed and haphazard. Another biography described him as a heroic Bungler.
Deutschland – 1911-13, Germany
The Deutschland was built in Norway as a whaling vessel in 1905, she was sunk by a torpedo in 1917.
She was purchased by Wilhelm Filchner for the Second German Antarctic Expedition to the Weddell Sea and sailed south in May 1911. She became trapped in ice in the Weddell Sea and spent eight months drifting while trapped in ice around the Weddell Sea until breaking free of the ice in November 1912. She reached South Georgia but by this time the expedition was in total disarray with the crew degenerating to violence and morale was rock bottom. She then sailed to Argentina where she was temporarily loaned to the Argentine government. Deutschland returned to Germany in late 1913. The vessel was sold to wealthy backers in Austria and renamed Osterreich.
SY Aurora – 1911-14, Australia & new Zealand
SY Aurora was a 580-ton barque-rigged steam yacht built in Dundee, Scotland in 1876. She was built as a sealer/whaler and was massively strengthened to withstand heavy weather and ice.
In 1910, Aurora was bought by Douglas Mawson’s deputy, Captain King Davis, for his Australasian Antarctic Expedition. She departed Hobart in Dec. 1911, arriving at Cape Denison Jan. 1912 where the main base was built. When Aurora returned to Cape Denison in Dec. 1912, to find that the sledging expedition of Mawson and two others was overdue. After waiting until 09 Feb. Aurora left but turned around after receiving a radio message that Mawson had reached the Cape Denison base. However due to bad weather he could not land a rescue boat.
The story of Mawson’s trek across the land and ice back to Cape Denison was a tragic one. One of the party fell into a crevasse taking with him six of the best dogs and the sled with supplies, the tent and food. returning to Cape Denison they subsisted on eating their sled dogs which turned out to be fatal for one of the two men. He ate the Huskies livers, which was more tender than the meat, but it contained very high amounts of Vitamin A which is extremely toxic in large quantities. Mawson continued on alone and so was the only survivor when he reached Cape Denison. There Mawson and six men, who had remained to look for him, over wintered until Dec. 1913.
Mawson’s Book Home of the Blizzard describes his experiences. During his time in the Antarctic he had explored large areas of the Antarctic coast, including closely defining the location of the South Magnetic Pole.
Aurora was refitted in 1917 for the rescue of the Ross Sea Party. Aurora was last seen in 1917 when she departed Australia for Chile with a cargo of coal. It is believed she was a casualty of WWI and hit a German mine that had been laid by a merchant raider.
Endurance – 1914-17, Great Britain
Endurance was a Norwegian-built, three-masted barquentine which carried Shackleton and his crew on an ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. She was launched in 1912 and crushed by ice in 1915
The British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917.
The expedition left England on 06 Aug. 1914 on a course to Buenos Aires. Endurance arrive at the whaling station Grytviken, South Georgia on 26 October. Heading south, Endurance encountered heavy pack ice. She eventually became icebound and spent some 8 months trapped in ice drifting around the Antarctic. In October of 1915 the hull became crushed by the pressure of the ice and the ship had to be abandoned. The crew took off all of the supplies and equipment they could and in November the wreck sank into the ocean when a pressure crack opened up and she was no longer kept afloat by the ice pack.
Shackleton and the crew setup a camp on an ice floe hoping it would drift towards Paulet Island, 250 miles away, where stores had been cached. They got within 60 miles of Paulet when the floe began to break up. They took to their boats and found land, Elephant Island, after 5 harrowing days at sea. It is a very isolated island and they knew they could not remain there for long, far from any shipping lanes. Shackleton chose 5 men to sail the lifeboat James Caird to South Georgia, a 15-day journey through stormy seas and cold temperatures, a distance of 830 miles. Once landed at Elephant Island, they walked overland to a whaling station where Shackleton set about organizing a rescue effort to collect the men remaining at Elephant island.
Aurora – 1914-17, Great Britain
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton tasked Aurora to help set up supply depots along the route for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After being delayed by sea ice, Aurora managed to make her way south and send teams off to set up the depots. In May, Aurora became trapped in ice and was carried out to sea, stranding the men that were setting up the depots. She remained trapped in ice for the better part of a year and drifted some 1,600 nautical miles. It was not until Feb 1916 that the ship escaped the ice and sailed to New Zealand.
Quest – 1921-22, Great Britain
Quest was a converted Norwegian sealer. She was a low-powered schooner-rigged steamship launched in 1917, she sank in the Labrador Sea in 1962.
Dr. Alexander Macklin was the surgeon on Shackleton’s previous expedition on the Endurance.
In 1922, Macklin joined Shackleton, together with some former Endurance crew members, on board the Quest on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition; John Rowett, an old school friend of Shackleton’s, had financed the expedition. This was to be Shackleton’s last Antarctic project and the final venture in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Shackleton died on board the Quest after its arrival at South Georgia. He had fallen ill leaving Rio de Janeiro mid-December but refused to be examined. On 05 January 1922 he had a severe paroxysm and died. This put an end to prospects of carrying out the original program of exploring the Antarctic coastline of Enderby Land. The expedition returned to England in 1922 having posted disappointing results that were attributed to the replacement commander Frank Wild’s alcoholism and deficiencies in Quest’s performance in polar sea ice.
The Aftermath of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
When the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration ended with the death of Shackleton in 1922, exploration of the continent and surrounding seas continued in 1928 with aircraft now being used to explore and map the area and modern steel hulled ice-strengthened ships capable of pushing through sea ice becoming common place. Modern radio also became a much more reliable method of communication. No longer was there the risk of death during an expedition.
In 1947, the US sent the largest expedition to date of 4,700 men, 13 ships and 23 airplanes to Antarctica. Most of the coastline was photographed by this expedition for map making.
By 1958, 12 nations had established 60 stations on the continent and in 1961 the Antarctic Treaty came into effect which was the beginning of international cooperation and an agreement that the Antarctic be used only for peaceful purposes and become “non-national.”
The risks of men sailing to the Antarctic in small wooden ships is now a distant memory, with the best chance of rescue being “If I’m not back next year, please come and look for me the year after.” There are now many permanent research stations manned by scientists and support workers often spending a year or more in bases, and cruise ships now sail down to these latitudes carrying tourists on Antarctic sight-seeing trips.