Antarctica was once the most treacherous continent on the world for humans. Just getting there was a feat in itself, let alone the 320km/h winds and freezing temperatures once you reached land!
Today, it is a lot easier to visit but let’s take a look back at the history of hardship in exploring the great southern continent.
As far back as the Ancient Greeks, there was speculation of a great southern land mass to balance out the northern continents. The Greeks called the north arktos, the word for bear after a constellation in the north. And so they presumed that there must be an anti-arktos in existence too.
In 2 CE, Terra Australis (as it was referred to) was named Antarctica by Marinus of Tyre – like the Greek name, meaning the opposite of the Arctic. However, the continent was not sighted until 1820 by a Russian expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen.
On his way to Australia in 1774 it is believed that English explorer Captain James Cook did not quite come within sighting distance, although he crossed into the polar waters. Recordings in his journal show his reluctance to go closer, concluding “the world will derive no benefit from it”.
“The risk one runs in exploring the coast in these unknown and Icy Seas, is so very great, that 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’s just as well for us adventurous souls that Cook was wrong – only a year after the first sighting, it is believed that sealer Captain John Davis was the first person to set foot on the continent in 1821. The continent was little explored for the next fifty years, with ships struggling to handle the fast freezing ice.
The Heroic Age
The era between 1898 to 1916 marked the Heroic Age of Exploration of the Antarctic, with expeditions setting forth from Europe, the USA and Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these was the race to the South Pole between Roald Amundsen (Norwegian) and Captain Robert F Scott (English). Scott discovered the Polar Plateau on which the Pole was situated in the early 1900s however was beaten to the Pole in 1912 by Roald Amundsen by a month.
Originally Amundsen planned to be the first to reach the North Pole but he was beaten before he had even gotten passed his planning stage. Hearing of Frost’s plans to reach the South Pole, Amundsen set forth a month earlier than scheduled to the South and his hastiness paid off. Upon discovering that Amundsen had pipped them at the post, Frost and his crew turned back and during their return journey tragically perished in the extreme cold.
Another famed Antarctic story of exploration is that of Ernest Shackleton and his crew aboard the “Endurance” in 1915. The pack ice was too thick for the “Endurance” to reach the continent and they became trapped. Gradually over 10 months, the pressure of the ice built up so incredibly as to tear through the ship. Astonishingly, Shackleton and his crew proceeded to camp on the ice for a further 5 months before they managed to reach civilisation on a lifeboat on a 17 day journey.
Modern day exploration
Today exploring Antarctica is no where near as dangerous and can be done in comfort with state of the art safety features aboard all Expedition ships. For example, the MS Midnatsol has a specifically designed hull to break through ice and onboard scientific testing facilities for samples collected during field trips.
On the Spirit of Shackleton tour aboard the MS Expedition, over 21 days explore the Falkland Islands, the remote South Georgia where Shackleton’s grave lies and the Antarctic Peninsula, retracing Shackleton’s route in reverse. And we have many other ready-made adventures for you to experience the thrill of a polar expedition. And, as relatively few people visit the continent today, you can still feel like a true explorer as you discover this incredible land of ice.