Amazing Antarctic Adventures
Antarctica has been doing a dance with history for quite a long time. The ancient Greeks first speculated on something being at the bottom of the globe to balance out the Arctic at the top.
However, if we want to get to some actual Antarctic exploration adventures, we must fast-forward to the late 1700s. The three early Antarctic explorers we’re going to look at today would give birth to the Heroic Age of Exploration when countries and their famous explorers competed for one of the last great exploration prizes left in the world – to be the first to reach the South Pole.
British Captain James Cook was the world explorer in the 1700s. He circled the globe three times, finding out more about the world as a whole than anyone else in history.
Cook’s Antarctic-specific adventure occurred in 1772. When his ships, the HMS Adventure and the HMS Resolution, sailed further south than anyone else in recorded history, going so far as to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773 (the first recorded ships to ever make the crossing).
What Cook didn’t manage to do was spot the actual continent. The coquettish Antarctic shorelines just happened to draw inwards right where Cook and his ships were passing by. It was just bad luck that Cook wasn’t able to be the first human being to set foot on our southern-most continent.
However, Cook didn’t seem too upset by his failure. In fact, he seemed quite happy to be rid of the snow and cold and fog and storms of the region. On his way home, he wrote that he wouldn’t envy anyone who tried to press further south, “…but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefitted by it.”
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes
Several expeditions came after Captain Cook that sighted and claimed the islands (South Georgia, South Shetland, etc.) in the region. However, we’re going to skip ahead to the American Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, mainly because his 1838 expedition was a horrendous mess right from the start.
He received war-ships instead of exploration ships (gun-ports let in water). He was tasked with exploring almost the entire southern Pacific instead of focusing on the Antarctic. And the Navy was jealous and tried to steal away all of his civilian scientists.
Along the way, Wilkes decided to split his convoy up to satisfy all the exploration demands made upon his small fleet. His own ship, the Porpoise, and one other set off to see how far south they could get. The other ship was lost at sea, and the Porpoise suffered storms and severely cold conditions that resulted in a busted ship and some severely sick crew members.
So the remains of his fleet turned back to recuperate and then set out again. On January 16, 1840, they finally sighted land. On January 19th, they set foot onshore.
After exploring and mapping around 2000 km of the Antarctic coastline, Wilkes sailed for home… and more disaster. Instead of a hero’s welcome, he was met with a jealous Navy’s court-martial and perhaps the ultimate indignity; his report was only copied about 100 times (a minimal number for such an important exploration).
He had the last laugh, though – the still extant copies of the reports are now considered classic rarities and run into the thousands of dollars.
James Clark Ross
Scottish James Clark Ross was no stranger to polar expeditions. In 1831 he was part of his uncle’s expedition to the magnetic North Pole. After a lifetime in naval service (he started at the age of 11) and having the North Pole under his belt, he was a shoo-in for the role of expedition leader – his job: find the magnetic South Pole.
In 1839 he set out on the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. His expedition was a complete 180° from Wilkes – his ships were excellent, he was given only the one goal, and his officers were volunteers made up from the cream of the British naval crop.
At a stop along the way, Ross received some bad news – he learned about Wilkes’ and the Frenchman Dumont d’Urville’s expeditions that were already underway. The race was on.
He set a more aggressive course, fighting through four days’ worth of pack ice, eventually breaking through to the area we now knew as the Ross Sea on January 9, 1841. Two days later, he set foot on Possession Island.
Ross now had two choices – head the “wrong” way or go the “right” way but be sailing in the same direction as Wilkes and d’Urville while trying to close their lead.
He chose the wrong way and discovered what would eventually become known as the Ross Ice Shelf. He then ran into a horrific storm that sent huge chunks of ice sailing at his ships’ hulls. The two ships ran into each other, with the Terror actually landing on top of the Erebus, smashing masts and riggings.
Eventually, Ross was forced to turn back to England, arriving there on September 2, 1843.
So the one great prize still remained… being the first to reach the actual South Pole. Enter the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and its famed Antarctic cruises with such renowned names as Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton.