Chronicles of an unknown continent

By Ricardo Capdevila


Toward the end of the 18th c, human activity in Antarctica has dropped drastically. As mentioned above, some sealers, such as William H. Smiley from Carmen de Patagones, and his disciple Luis Piedra Buena, still go on hunting. But the scientific world sets eyes on the less known region. This situation leads to two international geographical congresses that take place in London (1895) and Berlin (1899).

These academic meetings promote the project of an great scientific expedition to Antarctica. The main goal is to carry out observations and measurements simultaneously in different locations on the continent in order to analyze results as a whole and therefore determine the overall laws of nature that could have an influence on the rest of the planet. Besides, the expedition is aimed at improving the geographical knowledge taking into account the scarcity of the cartography available.


The first expedition inspired by these principles was the one headed by the Belgian Adrien De Gerlache de Gomery who, aboard the BELGICA, surveyed the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula in 1898. Having fulfilled this aim, the ship sailed the Bellingshausen Sea, where ice trapped her. The BELGICA was icebound from March that same year up to the same month the following year.

The miseries the expedition underwent were successfully faced by really brave men. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen was part of the crew and some years later he would reach the South Pole for the first time in history. While wintering, the seaman Emile Danco died, probably because of some heart disease. Despite the difficulties, De Gerlache and his men carried out scientific observations throughout the expedition. They contributed to the knowledge of Antarctica, and their experience as regards measures to be taken to render an eventual wintering less hard was useful for the people who followed the exploratory enterprise.

While in Europe other expeditions were getting ready, the Argentine Republic was preparing to take part in the polar advance guard to set up an observatory in the south of the continent to support and work simultaneously with the other polar stations. The station known as the "observatory of isla de los Estados" in fact was set up on an adjacent island that, from then on, is called Observatorio island. It is one of the most barren places in the world with constant wind, rain, and snow storms. Consequently, the first systematic meteorological and magnetic measurements were carried out in 1901 as part of a great international effort to learn about the new continent.

The new century: Mysteries and discoveries. The first wintering seasons

In the early 20th century, England, France, Germany, Scotland, and Sweden embark on the polar project, each one sending their own expeditions; some were state-run, such as captain Scott's to the Ross Sea, but most of them were private enterprises derived from the effort of men that wrote glorious pages of Antarctic history, such as the Scottish Bruce, the French Charcot, and the Swedish Nordenskjöld. Each one deserves his own special paragraph, but we will devote particularly to the Swede expedition because of its peculiarities.


Professor William Bruce was an experienced polar traveler and expert. As a naturalist, and together with Doctor Donald, he took part in the Antarctic whaling expedition to the Weddell Sea led by Captain Fairweather (1892-1893). Aboard his ship, the SCOTIA, he set himself to explore that sea in late 1902. Sea ice conditions prevented him from sailing further south as he intended to. Then he set sail for the South Orkney Islands and there he built a small house and a meteorological observatory, where his crew wintered in 1903. Back in Buenos Aires, he offered the facilities to the Argentine government, which accepted the offer and acquired them for an amount of $ 5,000. This operation is the origin of the first permanent man settlement in Antarctica, the meteorological observatory on Laurie Island. The observatory fell under the jurisdiction of the National Ministry of Agriculture. Uninterrupted since the beginnings, the observations of this station have provided greater accuracy to South Atlantic weather forecasts.

From January, 22nd to February, 14th, 2004, the Exhibit "Scotia sailed Love Willie" took place at the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia

Perito Moreno and William Bruce - Two Patriots One World Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902 - 1904 and the Bariloche Documents

Charcot: a French physician between science and adventure

A French physician, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, set sail bound for the east of the Antarctic Peninsula on his sailing ship the FRANCAIS. He wintered there on Booth island with his sailing ship trapped by ice at a cove. From that point, he set out on expeditions all over the area, he experimented with machines propelled by primitive internal combustion engines and obtained poor results, and collected a considerable amount of geographical information, naming different geographical features after Argentine personalities in acknowledgement for the financial support that our country offered for his enterprise. On returning to Buenos Aires, the government purchased his sailing ship to be stationed for the Antarctic service. Under the name AUSTRAL, she was detailed to replenish the observatory on the South Orkney Islands, mission that she could fulfill only once. When she set sail for a second relieve, also carrying the implements to set up a second permanent observatory on Booth island, where her former owner had wintered, she sunk and beached on Ortiz bank, in the Río de la Plata, and wrecked. (From Antártida, crónicas de un continente desconocido, by Ricardo Capdevila.)

NORDENSKJÖLD: a young Swede conquers the Pole

Buenos Aires was the main port of call for Antarctic expeditions. The Swede expedition under Doctor Otto Nordenskjöld arrives there in December 1901. This expedition headed by the Swede sage, who had himself conducted studies on Tierra del Fuego in 1895, urged by his friend the expert Francisco Pascasio Moreno, prepared to winter on the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. He had background information on the area from the expedition under the veteran of the polar seas, Carl Anton Larsen (1892, 1893). On that occasion, Larsen found and collected the first plant and marine fossils from Antarctica on Seymour island (Marambio base), nowadays kept at the whaler museum of Sandefjord, Norway. Although the veteran seaman was not a scientist, 2 December 1892 should be specially remembered by scientists since it was on that date that Larsen disembarked on Seymour and made his transcendental finding.

The Swede expedition aboard the ANTARCTIC set sail from Ushuaia, where she had refilled fuel, and headed south. On a first stage, she surveyed the western shore of the Antarctic Peninsula rectifying and ratifying the cartography drawn by the Belgian expedition under De Gerlache. Later, they sailed along the northern side of the Antarctic Peninsula and headed south to the Weddell Sea, in the area that Larsen had sailed about before, looking for the southernmost possible location in order to set up a wintering hut, but soon the icebound sea compelled them to return. The head of the expedition then decided to build the wintering house at a cove, seemingly sheltered, on Snow Hill island (Cerro Nevado).It was February 1902. The house, prefabricated in Sweden, was ready in a few days, and 6 members of the expedition stayed, including the Argentine José María Sobral. The ship set sail bound for Tierra del Fuego, the Malvinas Islands, and the South Georgias in order to do research throughout the wintering season. These works were under doctor Gunnar Andersson, the second in command of the scientific expedition.

In December 1902, the Antarctic refilled coal in Ushuaia and sailed off from Tierra del Fuego bound for the western shores of the Antarctic Peninsula to complete the survey and collecting works on fauna and flora and head later for the wintering hut. Unfortunately, the entrance channel to the Weddell Sea (Antarctic strait) was blocked with ice as far as the eye could see. Therefore, doctor Andersson, together with two volunteers, lieutenant Duse and sailor Grunden, decided to disembark on the outskirts and walk toward Cerro Nevado. Once there, they would wait for the ship, which would try to arrive by sailing around the Joinville Islands. If she could not make it in the time agreed, Andersson, Nordenskjöld and the rest would come back to the disembarkation site and wait to be picked up, a place known as Hope bay (Hoppet vik) since then.

The ship ventured the course agreed, but she was trapped by ice and, after a long struggle, destroyed by glacial pressure, she sunk southwest of Paulet island. Embarked on icebergs, the wreckers wandered to the sound of winds and currents for 18 days. Eventually, when they were at about 10 miles from Paulet island, they embarked the boats that carried the articles rescued from the wreck and after rowing for 6 hours, to the limit of buoyancy and endurance, they arrived on the northern shore of the island, where there is an important penguin rookery, the only accessible place all over that area. Once there, they built a hut made of stones where they were going to winter.

Meanwhile, doctor Andersson had failed to reach the wintering station because the sea was open south of Hope bay, so he went back to the place where they had disembarked. After waiting for the ship in vain, they built a small hut made of stone where, with the few survival elements left by the vessel, they got ready for the winter. Thus, the three groups were isolated, with no news from one another, their luck depending on the arrival of a rescue expedition that, at best, would arrive by the end of the year, i. e. many months later, when the lack of news sounded the alarm. In the meantime, winter was approaching with its cold, winds, and long polar night.

Seals and penguins made up for the lack of food for the three groups. The former provided meat for nourishment and fat for lightning, fire to cook and, heat to compensate for the poor shelter inside the huts. The latter offered meat and a few eggs because most penguins had started to migrate to the north.

The lack of news about the ship and the expeditionaries gave rise to a movement both in the country they came from as well as in Argentina. The expeditions that were getting ready to set sail for Antarctica tried to make the necessary arrangements faster in order to rescue the Swede. In our country, in response to a request by the expert Francisco Pascasio Moreno published in the newspapers, the government prepared an old gunboat, the URUGUAY, commanded by lieutenant Irízar, who set sail in October to try to rescue the wreckers. Once in Ushuaia, she waited a few days for the arrival of the FRITHJOF, sent by the Swede government and commanded by captain Gylden. But, as she was delayed, and the situation was distressing because a few days could mean lives, Irízar decided to set sail for the south.

Early in November the gunboat cast anchor at Penguins bay, southeast of Seymour island, where two of the wreckers were found camping and engaged in gathering penguin eggs in order to survive in view of an eventual third wintering. A series of auspicious events followed. Doctor Nordenskjöld had set out northward in October in other to leave signals of their situation at some extreme point of the peninsula. On crossing the Vega island, in a place called cape Feliz Encuentro [Happy Meeting] since then, he came across the three men at Hope bay who, with a miserable appearance and covered with soot and long beards, owing to the condensed fumes inside the small place they inhabited while wintering, were walking to Snow Hill. They were so unrecognizable that Nordenskjöld and his companion, Jonassen, got their weapons ready to shoot against such odd apparitions. Once recognized, they all went back to the wintering station.


On the other hand, captain Larsen had set sail from Paulet island on one of the boats rescued from the wreck and was bound for Hope bay. As he did not find neither doctor Andersson nor his people, he headed south until arriving at a wintering station after walking on the frozen sea for the last kilometers. This happened the same day that the corvette URUGUAY arrived. The story had a happy ending. At last, everybody was now on the rescue ship and heading north after rescuing the wreckers that were waiting on Paulet island, making land at Hope bay in order to rescue some implements and geological collections gathered by Andersson during the forced wintering at Hope bay.

The successful rescue expedition had, of course, considerable repercussions at the international level, especially among scientists and seamen, and in Buenos Aires there was a series of celebrations paying homage to the expeditionaries and the protagonists of the rescue.

Such was the end of the most important of Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th c, characterized by difficulties but mainly by its scientific achievements.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Antarctica, in the Ross Sea, captain Robert Falcon Scott was trying to get to the South Pole for the first time. On this occasion, he was sensible enough to stop when the lack of provisions and other logistic deficiencies made it necessary to return. Ernest Shackleton was a member of the team and, in 1915, he was going to be the protagonist of an epic that, maybe together with Nordenskjöld's, Larsen's and Andersson's, was to be one of the most important for mankind in Antarctica during the first half of the century.

In 1904, on returning from his polar expedition, captain Larsen founded, together with a group of porteño traders, a whaling company: the Compañía Argentina de Pesca Sociedad Anónima. The partnership was legally established in Buenos Aires. The factory was built in Grytviken (Pots bay) on the northern shore of San Pedro island (South Georgias). The veteran of the polar seas pioneered whaling activities in the South Atlantic. In that same location, and to support the new company, the Ministry of Agriculture set up a meteorological station. During the following years, other Norwegian companies founded factories on those islands.

In the early 20th c, while boundary disputes between Argentina and Chile were coming to an end, the first discussions about the sovereignty issue on Antarctic territories started between these two countries.

The Ross Sea: The starting point for the race to conquer the South Pole

At the Antarctic antipodes of the peninsula where the activities depicted by the accounts above have taken place, man also expands the knowledge of the southernmost continent. Between 1840 and 1843, James Clark Ross, a British seaman commanding the EREBUS and the TERROR, was in charge of one of the most significant exploration trips that contributed a lot to the geographical knowledge of the region. He discovered the sea named after him, sighted active volcanoes and ventured the South American area of Antarctica, surveying the archipelagos on the northern extreme of the Antarctic Peninsula. Captain Robert Falcon Scott commanded an expedition between 1901 and 1904. He built a wintering station on Ross island, from where he penetrated into the continent thus contributing with important information about Victoria Land, the Ross Ice Shelf, and King Edward VII Land, using a captive balloon that climbed up to 250 meters to conduct observations on the surface. Ernest Shackleton, who took part in this expedition, was going to organize his own between 1907 and 1909 with the aim of reaching the South Pole, which he failed when he was just 100 miles away from his objective. The team's health and some logistic flaws led him to give up.

Man reaches the South Pole

In the second decade of the 20th c, a singular event in the history of exploration takes place -man reaches the South Pole thus achieving one of the most ambitious goals in the field of geographical knowledge.

Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian who had grown up in the frozen fields of his country, a strong man experienced in long journeys through snow, De Gerlache's expedition pilot, a geodesist, and a protagonist of voyages in the northern polar seas.

Robert Falcon Scott was a British Navy official, strong-minded, verging on an arrogance congenial with Victorian times. They were both brave and tenacious as regards their purposes, but they had different approaches as to the way and means needed to face such an enterprise: the conquest of the South Pole.

Amundsen, who was preparing his expedition to reach the North Pole, leaves his plans aside on being informed that Peary, an American, had declared having reached that point. Then, Amundsen decides to go back to Antarctica intending to get to the other extreme of the world. His strategy was simple and -as events proved- particularly effective. He did not follow the route that Scott and Shackleton had used. Aboard the FRAM, a vessel with a glorious history that had belonged to Fridtjof Nansen and had sailed the northwestern passage for the first time, he headed for Bay of Whales. The FRAM cast anchor at the ice shelf, south off the Ross Sea, and he set up a station and prepared the new route marching south with depots during winter. His means of transport was the typical and light sled pulled by dogs. There is an aspect that in view of our current ideas is not pleasant, but it turned out to be a key point for the outcome of the expedition -draft dogs fed from their kind as they died. This calls for a digression. During the second wintering of the Swede expedition on Snow Hill island, the people wintering tried dog meat. The only one who did not dislike this morsel was our fellow countryman José María Sobral. Time and needs coincided.

Let us go back with the Norwegian. Riding -sometimes- their sleds, the caravan headed south. A new and unknown route was waiting for the expeditionaries.

Amundsen had designed a march plan that involved progressing a certain distance daily, if possible, regardless of weather conditions. The accuracy of his previsions is still astonishing -he arrived back at the station at Bay of Whales within the date he had set.

His contribution to geography, which in some cases has been underestimated, was significant -a completely unknown route and a logistic contribution for polar expeditions that only 80 or 90 years later has been surpassed by new technology.

Amundsen reached and conquered the southernmost place of the world on 14 December 1911.


Captain Scott, whose bravery should not be left aside, reached the same finish a month later, on 17 January 1912. One logistic mistake after another led him to glory, but the enterprise took his life and his companion's, who died from starvation and cold a few kilometers away from the depots with provisions and exhausted by the effort that had taken them to the southern extreme of the world.

Thus, man reached the South Pole in the early 20th c.

ERNEST SHACKLETON, a model polar heroe

Ernest Shackleton, whom we have already mentioned as a member of Scott's first expedition and of his own in the area of the Ross Sea, organized an ambitious project to cross the Antarctic continent through the South Pole, from the Weddell Sea in the American area to the Australian sector. A transantarctic project that would only be crowned, several decades later, by another renowned English, doctor Vivian Fuchs. The outline of the project was as follows. A ship would take materials to set up a station in the area where Scott and Shackleton had done so before, on the shores of the Ross Sea. From that point, a series depots would be set up toward the Pole. The other group, commanded by Shackleton himself would penetrate up to Filchner iceshelf, south of the Weddell Sea, and from that point they would climb to the polar tableland, reach the Pole and then descend to the north, in the Ross Sea, and replenish from the depots previously set up by the other group.

The ENDURANCE, ship specially designed and built for this expedition, set sail from the London port on 1 August 1914 commanded by Frank Worsley and made land in Buenos Aires on October 9. On the 26, she sailed off bound for her first Antarctic landfall, San Pedro islands (South Georgias). Then she headed south sailing into the Weddell Sea where she was ice-trapped in mid January. Then, she was abandoned and sunk away in late October 1915. As from that dramatic moment, there started a long and daring odyssey that would take the wreckers up to the north of Elephant island, on the South Shetland.

Meanwhile, the head of the expedition, accompanied by five brave men on a small vessel, faced the most dangerous journey one could think of in the roughest sea of the world up to San Pedro island in order to ask for help from whaling companies. It was not until 30 August 1916 that, after several failures, the Chilean cutter YELCHO, with Shackleton aboard, reached Elephant island and rescued the members of the British transpolar expedition alive.

The oldest project of a transpolar flight

In the 20s aviation reached a considerable development. Exploits such as the first transatlantic flight between Spain and Argentina, with commander Franco as the protagonist, encourage hopes and projects about the future of the new means of transport. Buenos Aires was not alien to this sort of enterprises, so engineer Antonio Pauly, born in Chile and settled down in our country in 1919, supported by the Instituto Geográfico Argentino [Argentine Geographical Institute], forwarded an original polar project, which was to enjoy great public transcendence, for its consideration by that scientific organization and the National Executive Power. The Instituto Geográfico Argentino, as from its foundation in 1881, constantly promoted Argentine activities in Antarctica, so it supported Pauly's project unconditionally. Even the president of the republic, Doctor Marcelo T. de Alvear, promised the support needed for the enterprise's success. Pauly submitted a thorough and itemized detail of the future expedition including a study of the development of what was to become the first transpolar flight. Supported by a series of successive supply depots and retreats until all the fuel and survival elements were set up from the Antarctic Peninsula to the South Pole, progressing later toward the Ross Sea, flying the modern Dornier Wall all throughout the plan, engineer Pauly developed the advanced feasible project sensibly. Unfortunately, while flying to Rio de Janeiro, the plane had an accident that cancelled the possibility to carry out the first transpolar flight. It is worth mentioning that in his preliminary study, publicized in a public conference, Pauly pointed out that the meteorological information that the Argentine scientific station on the South Orkneys recorded and transmitted every year as from the early years of the century was fundamental and unique. The first flights over Antarctica were in charge of a British-American expedition under Hubert Wilkins, who in two successive trips flew over part of the peninsula and the archipelagos that surround it and took place between 1928 and 1930. During the late 30s, the following expeditions were outstanding because of their contribution to the knowledge on the geography of the continent: the American ones under Richard Byrd (1928-1930) and the Australian under Douglas Mawson (1929-1931).

PUJATO, the visionary

HHernán Pujato, an experienced army man and a true visionary of the polar future linked to his country, foresaw the perspectives. In 1949, he draw an ambitious plan to penetrate the continent as part of a sovereignty claim for the Argentine rights on the far south. It must be said that the idea of sovereignty was predominant at that time among the few countries that claimed the polar territory, a pretension that was supported on titles and historical precedents and is practically suspended by the Antarctic Treaty as from 1961. In brief, Pujato's project included: 1º) The foundation of a polar institute to concentrate all the scientific activity to be developed systematically and coordinately, and to plan research to integrate the activity on the issues that the station on Laurie island was developing as from 1904 and the advances produced by the new generations of scientists, thus expanding the knowledge on the continent; 2º) A polar expedition based on the setting up of a permanent station south of the Antarctic Circle; 3º) The settling down of a population with a factory and a navy shipyard in the north of the peninsula, also permanent; 4º) Purchase of an icebreaker that made it possible to reach the south of the Weddell Sea and set up a station on the Filchner iceshelf 1,200 kilometers from the South Pole in view of a consequent conquest of that landmark.

It was Pujato himself who carried out most of his project. In 1951, he hired a private ship from the company Pérez Companc patagonic transports which, charging the symbolic fare of one peso chartered a ship used to disembark tanks, the SANTA MICAELA, and transported Pujato, his people and their materials down to Margarita bay, west of the Antarctic Peninsula and south of the Antarctic Circle to build the station General San Martín. Pujato himself negotiated with the national government the purchase of the icebreaker General San Martín, on which he transported the materials to found the second station south of the circle, in the Weddell Sea, which he named after General Belgrano. It must be said that Pujato was a protagonist of the first winterings as from the foundation of these bases. It is worth noting that the planned expedition to the South Pole was to be launched from an unknown geographical area as it was the southern part of the Weddell Sea. Pujato, piloting a small Cessna monoplane, made a series of discoveries south of Belgrano station, in regions unexplored until then, contributing with a comprehensive knowledge of the mountainous formations and outline of what in the future would be the route to the South Pole. Some years later, in1965, his disciple and subordinate, Jorge Leal, would achieve the visionary's goal arriving at the southernmost end of the world.

Pujato's project meant an important step for the scientific knowledge of Antarctica while it prepared the scientific and technical staff that would take part in Antarctic projects on behalf of the Argentine Republic, nowadays within the larger frame created by the Antarctic Treaty.

Photographs, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia