THE TIME OF DISCOVERERS
Between 1772 and 1775, the Englishman James Cook sailed around Antarctica reaching unprecedented latitudes. Sailing most of his way south of the Antarctic Circle (66º 33” S), he found the San Pedro islands and renamed them South Georgias to pay tribute to his King.
During the same period, a series of voyages organized by commercial and shipping companies were undertaken. These companies requested their captains to carry out scientific observations in order to acquire better knowledge of the hunting areas with a view to achieving better and more likely returns. As a result, these companies indirectly contributed to the improvement of the Antarctic knowledge, and their expeditions can be considered a prelude to the scientific research that would be carried out in the following years.
From that commercial-scientific activity, it is worth mentioning the names of — George Powel, who, along with Nathaniel Palmer, discovered the South Orkneys; James Weddell, discoverer of the homonymous sea; Henry Foster, explorer of the area of the Antarctic Peninsula; and John Biscoe, who circumnavigated Antarctica and explored the northern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, naming it Graham Land.
THE TIME OF SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL ANTARCTIC COOPERATION
Between 1819 and 1820, the Russian expedition led by Fabián Thaddeus von Bellingshausen and Mijail Lazarev, aboard the vessels Vostok and Mirny, explored the South Georgias and Sandwich Islands in the first place, discovering a large number of islands which were named after the officials of the expedition. Then, they crossed the Antarctic Circle to reach the southernmost possible latitude. Aboard the Vostok, the commanding officer of the vessel, Bellingshausen, navigated the sea which today is named after him. During this expedition, on January 28, 1820, at 69º 7’ 30” South and 0º 16’ 15” West, Captain Bellingshausen sighted, according to a detailed report, “a solid ice surface that stretched from the East, towards the South up to the West”. It was the edge of the continent, sighted by men for the first time.
Between 1837 and 1843, the following expeditions are worth mentioning — the one led by Dumond D’Urville aboard the Astrolabe and the Zelée (1837-1840), which sighted continental land that was named after the expedition chief’s wife, Adélie. Contemporaneously (1839-1841), the American expedition made up of five ships headed by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and with a good scientific team, went beyond the 70º South along the Bellingshausen Sea, making a major cartographic contribution. Afterward, the British expedition led by James Clark Ross (1840-1843) made three voyages aboard the Erebus and Terror along the sea named after the expedition chief, reaching 78º 04’ South, the southernmost latitude navigated at the time. He named the eastern coast Southern Victoria Land, and called a mountain chain they discovered Admiralty Range. On that range, he sighted two volcanoes —one of which was active— and named them Erebus and Terror.
The most peculiar heroic deed at the beginning of the 20th century was the one in which Adrien De Gerlache de Gomery, aboard the Belgica, played a leading role, following the recommendations of the 6th International Geographical Congress. Future personalities were part of his scientific team — the Polish geologist Arktowsky; the American physician Frederick Cook; the geologist Emile Danco, who died during the expedition; and Roald Amundsen, future hero of a great polar deed. The expedition sailed the Bellingshausen Sea, exploring and studying the strait that today is named after the expedition chief. The following information was obtained: a good cartography of the Drake Passage, a survey of its waters, the verification of the lack of a continental shelf between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, coastal surveys on the South Shetlands, and meteorological, magnetic, and biological data.
An expedition that also took place during that period was the one led by the British Carsten Borchgrevink, which explored the area of Adare Cape using dog sleighs.
Within the same period, but without following the recommendations given by the Seventh International Congress of Geography, the Scottish expedition headed by Dr. William S. Bruce (1902-04) was undertaken. This expedition was closely related to our Polar history. Aboard the Scotia, he sighted the Orkney and Sandwich islands and disembarked at the bay he then named “Scotia”, on Laurie Island, after a failed attempt to navigate the Weddell Sea. There, he installed a hut equipped with a set of instruments to perform meteorological and magnetic studies, and a shack in which they could winter. He named this shack “Omond House”, and it was the origin of the National Observatory of the South Orkney Islands. In November, 1903, leaving a small garrison on the island, he returned to Buenos Aires aboard the Scotia, at the time when the Uruguay corvette with the Swedish members of Nordenskjöld’s expedition was also arriving. The British expedition led by Robert Scott aboard the Discovery (1901-04) navigated the Ross Sea, explored the coast of McMurdo Bay and then, along with Ernest Shackleton, reached the 82º of South latitude. On a hot-air balloon, the Ross Ice Shelf was flown over.
The Swedish expedition led by the geologist Otto Nordenskjöld aboard the Antarctic (1901-03) was closely related to our own history, not only because the Navy Sublieutenant José María Sobral took part in it as a scientific observer, but also because the members of this expedition were rescued by our corvette Uruguay in 1903. The Swedes brought with them a collection of fossils, plants and animals as well as important meteorological and gravimetric data. It was the first exploration on sleighs in the area of the Weddell Sea and the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The German expedition (1901-03) was headed by Erich Von Drygalsky aboard the Gauss. It explored the Antarctic area corresponding to the Indian Ocean and discovered Kaiser Wilhelm II Land. It was the first expedition that carried out aerial exploration on barrage balloons.
The fourth expedition organized following the recommendations of the Seventh International Geographical Congresswas the one led by Juan B. Charcot aboard the Francais (1903-05). This expedition recognized Bismarck Strait, the Palmer Archipelago and Alexander I Island. The members wintered at Charcot Port on Booth (or Wandel) Island, and carried out observations and surveys in adjacent areas. To the west of Tierra de San Martín (Graham Land, Antarctic Peninsula), Charcot discovered a group of picturesque islands which he named “Argentinas”, to pay homage to the Argentine Republic. He did the same as regards Roca Cape and Roca Islets, which he named after the Argentine President who had supported his expedition. Charcot returned to Antarctica in 1908-10 aboard the Pourquoi-Pas?, traveling around the South Shetlands and mapping the area of Gerlache Strait.
THE “HEROIC” PERIOD
THE ASSAULT ON THE SOUTH POLE
The 20th century started with the first three attempts to reach the South Pole. Between 1907 and 1909, the Englishman Ernest Shackleton made his first attempt by means of sleighs pulled by Siberian ponies. The animals, overwhelmed by the effort, had to be put to sleep. The expedition finally reached 88º 23’ South, and three of its members reached the magnetic South Pole. In 1914, Shackleton made a second attempt, but he also failed because of the shipwreck of the Endurance, commanded by him, in the Weddell Sea. The men boarded an ice floe on which they drifted until they reached Elephant Island, one of the South Shetlands, on their boats. Shackleton left part of his crew there, while he and five men headed for San Pedro Island, South Georgias, and disembarked on the southwestern coast. They crossed mountains and glaciers in extreme conditions until they arrived at Gritviken Port, at the opposite coast, the base of the whaling factory. Its manager, who was a friend of Shackleton’s, offered the tired and intrepid men every help they might need. From that place, Shackleton left towards the Malvinas Islands, from where he tried to rescue the shipwrecked but failed because of the ice condition. He then came back to Malvinas and, after many failed attempts, the Chilean tender Yelcho finally rescued the crew. The members of the expedition went back to London, putting an end to one of the most notable odysseys ever experienced in Antarctica.
The Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the British Robert Falcon Scott did reach the South Pole. The first one arrived using light dog sleighs, and contributed extensive geographical data when taking a route which had never been covered before. He arrived in the South Pole with four sleighs and four men on November 14, 1911, and named the surrounding land Haakon VII. For his expedition, Scott took Siberian ponies, which were inappropriate for that purpose, as proven by the previous attempt (1903). Clearly, he did not take advantage of that experience. He reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, but felt terribly disappointed when finding out the Norwegians had arrived a month before. The unwise decisions as regards logistics resulted in the dramatic end of the members of the expedition, as all the men who reached the Pole died. The ponies had to be put to sleep shortly afterward the departure, as it happened during Shackleton’s attempt in 1908. As a result, the members of the expedition had to make a big effort to complete the exhausting journey on foot or by means of skis with bad weather conditions, and this led to their terrible end.