First Exploration Attempts | Polar Unbound

Early fascination with the American continents and potential trade routes kept exploratory eyes up north until nearly the beginning of the 18th century. In 1699, Britain’s Edmond Halley embarked on an excursion to determine the longitudes of South America and Africa’s ports, calculate magnetic variance and get his sights on the elusive Terra Australis Incognita. Halley ultimately crossed the Antarctic convergence and documented the first sightings of tabular icebergs by 1700. 

Antarctic action continue to pick up throughout the 1700s. 

THE FRENCH: The French sent off several excursions, with Jeal-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier discovering Bouvet Island, the most isolated island on earth, in 1739 and Yves-Joseph de Kergulen-Trmarec claiming Kergulan Island in 1772. Kergulen was a firm believer in a bountiful, welcoming southern continent, however—a persistent believe that led him to return to France with patently false tales of a balmy, inhabited haven he dubbed “New South France.” When Kergulen returned with only 3 poorly-outfitted ships, he didn’t even step off the ship before returning to France in ignominy. 

THE ENGLISH: The English found themselves inspired by Alexander Dalrymple’s An Account of discoveries made in the South Pacific Ocean Previous to 1764, in which Dalrymple persuasively argued for the existence of a southern continent. Captain James Cook made two attempts at discovering Antarctica; though Cook gathered much anthropological, geographical and biological information during his 1768 expedition, it was during the second 1772 that he made history’s first crossing of the Antarctic Circle. Though Cook ultimately crossed the Antarctic Circle three times, he was always turned away by pack ice before reaching the continent. He discovered Willis’ and Bird Islands, re-discovered South Georgia after de la Roch and discovered the South Sandwich Islands. In 1775, Cook completed the first circumnavigation of Antarctica. 

Though James Cook’s dismissal of the southern continent as largely inhabitable dissuaded government funded exploration for many years, his thorough observations regarding the number of whales and seals throughout the area spurred commercial hunters to trek down south. 

From 1784-1822, sealers massacred seal populations on South Georgie, the South Sandwich Islands, the Falkland Islands and the coast of Chile. Subantarctic islands were hit hard as well, and they took nearly 3 million skins from the Juan Fernandez Islands alone, leaving that population nearly extinct. Whalers also found their way south, hunting fur seals, elephant seals and the easy-to-poach southern right whale. 

English merchant William Smith’s 1819 Antarctic excursion served as a catalyst for the decimation of the South Shetland seal population as well after he discovered the islands and claimed them for Britain. His discovery of the South Shetlands harbored in a new wave of sealers and explorers alike who discovered new islands, sighted the Antarctic Peninsula’s mountain tops and sailed into the Weddell Sea. Between 1820-1821 anywhere from 50-91
 sealing ships housing around 1,000 men could be found hunting the South Shetland Islands, and records show that a quarter of a million seals were slaughtered within 3 short months. The sealers didn’t necessarily have it easy down south, however; 6 vessels were lost during this period as well. 

Russia’s Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen spearheaded Russia’s first government-funded Antarctic expedition—and the last one for 135 years. Bellingshausen was the second group in history to cross the Antarctic Circle, the second to circumnavigate Antarctica after James Cook and the first to sight the Antarctic continent when they came upon the Finibul Ice Shelf. He also discovered Peter I Island, the most southerly known land at the time. 

February 7, 1821 saw the first recorded landing of the Antarctic continent. American sealer Cecilia, under Captain John Davis, disembarked at Hughes Bay looking for seals; though they weren’t there for very long, Davis knew they had landed on a continent. Around the same time in 1821, men from a British sealer wintered over on King George Island—the first time men had lived through an Antarctic winter.