History of Antarctica Exploration & Expedition Timeline
- Annals of the Exploration of Antarctica: Antarctic Expeditions History
- Human Exploration of Antarctica: The Early Period
- Antarctica Exploration: The Heroic Age
- Antarctic Exploration History: The Mechanical Age
- Modern Age
- How Much of Antarctica Has Been Explored?
- Antarctica Historical Events: Exploration of Antarctica Timeline
No continent is more remote or lesser-known than Antarctica. And unlike the others, the White Continent lacks a native human population, and was genuinely discovered—without the sketchy colonial undertones of that overused term—only in the last few centuries.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the history of Antarctica from that standpoint of discovery, emphasizing the early chapters of its exploration and the epic adventures—both scientific and recreational—which still go down here every year.
What follows is a general overview of Antarctic exploration, followed by an Antarctic expedition timeline. (Keep in mind we’ve got a variety of articles “zooming in” on some of the following milestones in greater detail, including a piece on the initial discovery of Antarctica and more detailed looks at the famous race for the South Pole.)
There is ample speculation—though not uncontroversial—that Maori seafarers from the South Pacific may have accomplished the first Antarctic expedition more than a thousand years ago.
Polynesian oceanic navigation by outrigger canoe was outstandingly refined, facilitating the colonization of such farflung Pacific outposts as the Hawaiian archipelago and Easter Island. Māori tradition speaks of a great Rarotongan (Cook Island) navigator, Hwi Te Rangiora (or Ut Te Rangiora), who sometime in the seventh century C.E. steered his crew’s way southward into what some have been interpreted as iceberg-laden, whale-plied Antarctic waters. However, other scholarship has pushed against this notion, highlighting the difficulty of journeying across the howling westerlies that prevail in the higher latitudes of the Southern Ocean as well as the absence of archaeological evidence suggesting Polynesian presence south of about the 50-degree line.
A 2021 Polar Record paper written by Southern Māori authors associated with New Zealand’s Ngāi Tahu Research Centre noted:
Southern Māori interests have extended into the Subantarctic Islands for 800 years but there is no reference to Antarctica in our historical traditions. Our archaeology and history document a southern boundary to Māori occupation at Port Ross (Auckland Islands), despite habitable islands existing further south. We think it is very unlikely that Māori or other Polynesian voyaging reached the Antarctic.
Ancient European maps, meanwhile, speculated about the existence of a huge continent in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere—a Terra Australis Incognita—which, scientific reasoning of the time went, must be present to “balance out” the vast continental landmasses of the Northern Hemisphere.
A definitive foray into the Antarctic zone came in 1675 with the journey of Anthony de la Roché, a London merchant who described the remote, rugged subpolar island of South Georgia. About a century later, the famed British sea captain James Cook led the first expedition south of the Antarctic Circle on the second of his great Pacific exploratory voyages. That momentous latitudinal landmark was first achieved in January 1773; a year later, Cook and his men penetrated deeper yet poleward, to 71 degrees 10’ S—the farthest south anyone had definitively gone up till then.
Halted by sea ice, Cook—who, on this expedition, circumnavigated the Southern Ocean, made the first landfall on South Georgia, and discovered most of the South Sandwich Islands—postulated that Terra Australis lay beyond, frozen over and otherwise inhospitable. He wrote on this expedition that “[…] there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the Source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean.”
Some decades later, in January 1820, the (rather extravagantly named) Russian admiral Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen—completing the second circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean after Captain Cook’s—likely clapped eyes on the front of the Fimbul Ice Shelf, described as “an ice shore of extreme height.” This would make Bellingshausen—for whom the sea edging the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula is named—the first to essentially see the continental fastness of Antarctica. A competitor for that honor is the British Royal Navy officer Edward Bransfield, who reported spotting the Peninsula’s lofty, snow-swaddled mountains during the same month.
Bellingshausen’s explorations are also credited with logging the first landmasses south of the Antarctic Circle in the form of Peter I and Alexander islands, situated in the (surprise, surprise) Bellingshausen Sea.
Hot on the heels of Bellingshausen’s and Bransfield’s investigations, sealers of multiple nationalities began beelining for—and ravaging—the pinnipeds of Antarctic waters. Devastating as they were to the polar ecosystem, 19th-century sealing (and whaling) expeditions made their own important contributions to mapping the White Continent. That very much includes the efforts of James Weddell, whose ships sailed into the ice-cluttered sea east of the Antarctic Peninsula that now bears his name, and, in February of 1823, achieved a new record for southernmost wayfaring: down to 74 degrees 15’ S, close to 200 miles beyond what Cook had notched off.
Other important explorations followed, including the third circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1831-1832 by the British mariner John Biscoe. Biscoe—under the employ of the Enderby Brothers whaling outfit—identified the eastern continental margin of the Weddell Sea, which he named Enderby Land.
A defining expedition of this era was the 1839-1843 voyage of British explorer James Clark Ross, who forayed to Antarctica via the ships Erebus and Terror partly for the purposes of geomagnetic surveying. Ross’s far-ranging travels identified everything from the Ross Sea and Ross Ice Shelf as well as the Transantarctic Mountains and a number of islands fringing the Antarctic Peninsula.
The so-called “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration is generally defined as kicking off at the very end of the 19th century and running into the first couple of decades of the twentieth.
The 1897-1899 voyage of the Belgica, a Belgian vessel commanded by Adrian de Gerlach (and including among its crew a soon-to-be-notable-Norwegian, Roald Amundsen), was an early Heroic Age milestone of Antarctic exploration. It marked the first time people wintered south of the Antarctic Circle, an unintended exploit resulting from the capture of the ship by Bellingshausen Sea pack ice. The Belgica voyage was also noteworthy in being the first to employ sledges in Antarctica, specifically on Brabant Island in the Antarctic Peninsula’s Palmer Archipelago.
The year 1899 also saw the first overwintering on the Antarctic continent proper: the planned-for residency of a British expedition led by Carsen Borchgrevink aboard the Southern Cross. This was also the first expedition to utilize dogs on the mainland.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott headed the British-run National Antarctic Expedition from 1901 to 1904, which generated scads of valuable geographic and biological data. Along with pioneering photographs of the Ross Sea and the discovery of the Edward VII Peninsula, this undertaking on the Discovery also revealed the first known breeding colony of the emperor penguin and saw the first deep foray into the Antarctic Polar Plateau. That adventure saw Scott alongside Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson approach within some 410 miles of the South Pole before being turned back, at the close of December 1902, by inclement conditions.
The second of the British Antarctic Expeditions took place in 1907-1909 via the Nimrod and the leadership of Ernest Shackleton. Its achievements included the first climb up to the summit of Mount Erebus—the crown of Ross Island and the southernmost active volcano in the world—and a demanding approach, in January 1909, to within less than 100 miles of the South Pole that nearly saw Shackleton and his three companions perish.
The competing attempts launched in 1910 to try and reach the Geographic South Pole are truly the stuff of White Continent legend, ranking easily nowadays among the most famous Antarctic expeditions of all. As we’ve already alluded to, we have a dedicated article on this “race,” enacted by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team via the Fram and Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition.
Amundsen made a late decision to abandon a go at the North Pole upon hearing that a couple of American explorers, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary, claimed to have attained it, and steered instead for the other side of the world. Embarking from a base camp on the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea, Amundsen’s party reached the South Pole on the afternoon of December 15, 1911. They returned late the following month to their Bay of Whales camp, having slogged better than 1,600 miles in just shy of 100 days on this first trip to South Pole.
Scott—alerted to Amundsen’s rival expedition by a telegram from his brother received in Melbourne while he was en route to the White Continent—launched his own attempt on the South Pole from Cape Evans on Ross Island. He and four companions—Lawrence Oates, Henry Robinson Bowers, Edward Adrian Wilson, and Edgar Evans—made it to the coveted spot on January 18, 1912, having discovered the day before they’d been bested by Amundsen’s expedition. While Amundsen and his team came back alive, Scott’s crew was not so lucky, with Evans and Oates succumbing first and then the remaining men dying in a tent about 11 miles south of their final waystation, One Ton Depot, in March.
Ernest Shackleton, who’d lusted after first honors at the South Pole himself, settled on another goal following the exploits of Amundsen and Scott: a crossing of the White Continent via the South Pole. This Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) became one of the iconic adventures in the history of Antarctic explorations, with Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, becoming icebound in the Weddell Sea in January 1915. The expedition initially intended to wait out the winter aboard the trapped vessel, but as the months progressed it was slowly crushed by the pack ice.
A remarkable escape ensued, with the marooned Endurance crew first camping out on the ice, then making a sea voyage via three lifeboats to reach Elephant Island in the South Shetlands in April 1916. Shackleton and several others journeyed from there to South Georgia seeking rescue, making the first known crossing of that mountainous isle to solicit help from the whaling settlement of Stromness Harbor. Those left behind on Elephant Island were ultimately rescued in late August of 1916, with (remarkably) the entire Trans-Antarctic Expedition crew surviving this multi-year at-the-limits ordeal.
Shackleton’s death by heart attack on South Georgia in January 1922, which fell during the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition aimed at scientific investigations in Antarctica, is usually taken to mark the close of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. (Shackleton’s grave remains one of the many draws of a modern-day visit to scenic, wildlife-crammed South Georgia.)
The First World War helped usher in the “mechanical age” of Antarctica exploration history, with its advancements in military technology—not least in the aviation department—ultimately resulting in unprecedented surveys of the Frozen Continent.
Robert Byrd of the U.S. Navy led the first flight over the South Pole on November 29, 1929 as part of an expedition including Bernt Balchen, Harold June, and Ashley McKinley. The year 1935 saw the first transcontinental airplane crossing of Antarctica—accomplished by Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon—as well as the first visit to the White Continent by a woman: the Danish-Norwegian adventurer Caroline Mikkelsen.
Other highlights of this era include the 1946-1947 Operation Highjump led by Robert Byrd, which extensively photographed the Antarctic coast via ship- and land-based aircraft, and the 1955-1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the first overland trek across the entire White Continent, which benefited from supply lines laid by New Zealander Edmund Hillary who’d famously summited Mount Everest a few years before. The latter expedition saw the first motorized vehicles arrive at the South Pole.
From the mid-20th century onward, the increasing establishment by numerous countries of Antarctic research bases helped further scientific exploration and investigation of the most remote of all continents. Cutting-edge science continues to delve into the singular environment of Antarctica, from its volcanic summits and epic glacial cover to the undersea world off its icy coasts.
Meanwhile, adventurers and endurance athletes still view Antarctica as fertile ground for unprecedented exploits. Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud made the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent in 1992 and 1993. A few years later, the Norwegian Borge Ousland—banging out close to 1,900 miles and better than 64 days on skis—became the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unsupported. The many spectacular and unclimbed peaks of Antarctica, meanwhile, lure mountaineers hungry for extreme adventure and first ascents.
Thanks to decades and decades of scientific research across many fields—supported by modern-day polar equipment, apparel, and navigational/support technology—we now have the richest, deepest picture of the White Continent ever. Yet the forbidding challenges of this huge, ice-locked landmass—the coldest, windiest, driest, and most out-there of all the continents—mean much of it remains only roughly mapped and understood. Is Antarctica fully explored? Not by a long shot.
That’s certainly true of the bedrock and seas lying under the ice sheets that mask some 98 percent or so of Antarctica, thousands of feet buried in many places. As a case in point: In 2017, a study identified nearly 140 subglacial volcanoes peppering the depths of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The following is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Antarctica timeline, but rather a chronology of some formative and otherwise interesting events in the realm of Antarctic exploration specifically. (The exhaustive timelines compiled by Michael Rosove and posted at Antarctic-Circle.org, as well as those available at South-Pole.com and the Royal Museums Greenwich website, were among the main references for the information below.)
- ~650 C.E.: The Rarotongan navigator Ui (or Hui) Te Rangiora travels far south from the Cook Islands on a voyage some believe penetrated south of the Antarctic Convergence, though this is controversial.
- 1519: Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan identifies the ocean strait at the southern end of South America—separating the mainland from Tierra del Fuego, at that point considered part of a huge southern continent known as Terra Australis—which came to be named for him.
- 1578: A storm blows Sir Francis Drake off-course after he’d sailed through the Straits of Magellan, revealing that Tierra del Fuego was an archipelago, not connected to the hypothetical Terra Australis. The seaway south of Tierra del Fuego is named for him: the Drake Passage, crossed by many modern-day cruises bound for Antarctica.
- 1592: John Davis of England, aboard the Desire, discovers the Falkland Islands.
- 1675: Shoved on a wayward course by rough conditions around Cape Horn, the English merchant Antonio de la Roché discovers the mountainous Antarctic island of South Georgia.
- January 17, 1773: British Royal Navy Captain James Cook, circumnavigating the Southern Hemisphere on the second of his great trans-ocean voyages, becomes the first to cross the Antarctic Circle aboard the Resolution.
- February 3, 1774: On the same voyage, Captain Cook and his men cross the Antarctic Circle for the third time, and penetrate farther south than any before them: stopped by pack ice at 71 degrees 10’ S. (In subsequent months, Cook would name South Georgia and discover the South Sandwich Islands.)
- January 27, 1820: Admiral Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen leads his Russian expedition within view of the Antarctic coast, likely the Fimbul Ice Shelf of Queen Maud Land: probably the first people to actually see the margin of the White Continent itself.
- January 30, 1820: Close behind, though, was the Royal Navy officer Edward Bransfield, who likely spotted the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula in the same month.
- November 18, 1820: Captain Nathaniel Palmer, helming an American sealing expedition, spies the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula at Orleans Strait.
- February 7, 1821: American John Davis and his sealing crew aboard the Cecilia may have gone ashore on the Antarctic Peninsula in the vicinity of Hughes Bay, after journeying south from the South Shetlands in search of richer hunting grounds. If so, this would mark the first known landfall on the Antarctic mainland.
- February 20, 1823: Captain James Weddell leads his British sealing crew farther south than anybody had up till then, reaching 74 degrees 15’ S in what later became known as the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula.
- April 1832: Scouting new sealing grounds, British sailor Captain John Biscoe circumnavigates Antarctica on the third expedition to do so after Cook’s and Bellingshausen’s. As part of this 1830-1833 voyage, Biscoe also first sighted and named Enderby Land in East Antarctica and Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula.
- 1839-1843: The expedition of British explorer James Clark Ross charts extensive new Antarctic territory, including the Ross Sea, the Transantarctic Mountains and Victoria Land, and islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. Ross’s expedition reaches as far south as 78 degrees 9.5’ S at the Ross Ice Shelf and names the two largest volcanoes of Ross Island after its ships, Erebus and Terror.
- 1892-1894: Carl A. Larsen’s expeditions aboard the Jason, Hertha, and Castor explore the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea, describing for the first time such landmarks as the Oscar II Coast, Cape Framnes, and Robertson Island, and discovering fossils and petrified wood on Seymour Island that hint at Antarctica’s balmier geologic past.
- January 24, 1895: Norwegian captain Leonard Kristensen, deckhand Carsten Borchgrevink, New Zealander Alexander Francis Henry von Tunzelmann, and 4 other crew members of the whaleship Antarctic make the first verifiable landing on the Antarctic mainland at Cape Adare in Victoria Land. Each claim to be the first to set foot on Antarctica.
- March 1898: The Belgica, commanded by Adrien de Gerlache, becomes locked in pack ice in the Bellingshausen Sea, and its crew becomes the first to overwinter—unintentionally—in Antarctica.
- 1899: Led by the Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink, the British expedition aboard the Southern Cross becomes the first to spend the winter on the Antarctic continent, at Cape Adare.
- 1902: Erich Dagobert von Drygalski’s German expedition on the Gauss overwinters locked in ice off East Antarctica, and discovered Kaiser Wilhelm II Land—including the farflung volcano Gaussberg. This operation is also the first to employ aerial photography in Antarctica.
- 1901-1904: Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition maps extensive new territory in Antarctica, including newly described landmarks of the Ross Sea area. In November 1902, three of the party—Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson—leave McMurdo Sound for the South Pole via the Ross Ice Shelf; they’re forced to turn back late the following month a bit more than 400 miles from their goal.
- 1904: The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, led by William S. Bruce, makes the first recorded sighting of Coats Land south of the Weddell Sea.
- 1907-1909: Shackleton leads the Nimrod British Antarctic Expedition, based out of McMurdo Sound. Among the achievements are the first ascent of Mount Erebus and another unsuccessful try at the South Pole that nonetheless brings Shackleton and his companions tantalizingly close: under 100 miles away.
- 1910-1913: Rival outfits—the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram, led by Roald Amundsen, and the British Antarctic Expedition in the Terra Nova, led by Robert Falcon Scott—aim for the first visit to the South Pole. At 3 PM on December 15, 1911, Amundsen and four companions reach the Pole, and make it back safely the following January 26th. The Terra Nova party arrives at the South Pole just over a month after the Norwegian team, on January 18, 1912; Scott and the four who accompanied him all perish on the journey back.
- 1912: A member of the Nimrod expedition, Douglas Mawson, leads the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914, exploring new territory in East Antarctica. In December of 1912, Mawson undergoes one of the great survival ordeals in the annals of Antarctic exploration: Foraying in the wilderness of George V Land with Belgrave E.S. Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, Mawson sees his companions perish (first Ninnis, then Mertz), and ends up trekking more than 100 miles by himself to reach base camp at wind-pummeled Cape Denison.
- 1914-1916: Perhaps the most iconic Antarctica exploration survival story of all unfolded with Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic Expedition, which strove to be the first to cross the White Continent via the South Pole. The expedition ship Endurance ended up trapped and crushed by sea ice, with, remarkably, the full 28-member crew surviving an escape by lifeboats to Elephant Island, then an arduous journey to South Georgia to solicit help.
- January 5, 1922: Ernest Shackleton dies of a heart attack on South Georgia while leading the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, which continues on under second-in-command Frank Wild to the Weddell Sea and other destinations for scientific work.
- November 16, 1928: Taking off from Deception Island in the South Shetlands, Hubert Wilkins makes the first Antarctic flight.
- November 29, 1929: Robert Byrd, Bernt Balchen, Harold June, and Ashley McKinley are the first to fly over the South Pole from a base on the Ross Ice Shelf.
- February 20, 1935: Caroline Mikkelsen is first woman in history to make landfall in Antarctica.
- November 1935: Lincoln Ellsworth of the U.S. makes the first transcontinental flight in Antarctica, sighting the Ellsworth Mountains—the highest on the White Continent—in the process.
- 1946-1947: The U.S. Navy’s Operation HIGHJUMP, led by Robert Byrd, conducts extensive surveying and mapping—including taking more than 70,000 aerial photographs—out of the Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf.
- March 2, 1958: The British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition—overseen by Vivian Fuchs and mustering the services of Edmund Hillary—reaches Scott Base on Ross Island to complete the first overland crossing of the White Continent, having left Shackleton Base on the Filchner Ice Shelf on November 24, 1957.
- January 23, 1966: 57 intrepid travelers become the first tourists to set foot in Antarctica at the Smith & Melchior Islands on the Antarctic Peninsula, on the first ever Antarctica expedition cruise aboard Lapataia, an Argentinean Navy supply ship chartered by Swedish-American adventurer and entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindblad.
- December 18, 1966: Climbers on a U.S. mountaineering expedition make the first ascent of the 16,050-foot Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains, the highest summit in Antarctica.
- 1992-1993: Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud make a 93-day crossing of Antarctica on foot, the first people to do so unsupported.
- 1996-1997: Borge Ousland of Norway makes the first unsupported solo traverse of the White Continent, journeying close to 1,900 miles between the rims of the Ronne and Ross ice shelves.
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