<googlemap height="400" width="300" lat="-57" lon="-61" zoom="4" type="hybrid" controls="small" selector="yes" scale="yes"></googlemap>Drake Passage separating the South Shetland Islands
Exploration of the Antarctic - Part 2
See also Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.
In February 1819, a British merchant ship, the Williams, under the command of William Smith, diverted far south of Cape Horn looking for favorable winds. Five hundred miles south, Smith sighted, and later named, the South Shetland Islands. After a return visit in October, the British navy hired Smith to pilot the Williams, under the command of Edward Bransfield to chart the islands.
News of the discovery had already reached seal hunters and a British-chartered Argentinian ship landed the first hunters on the islands a few days before the arrival of Bransfield and William Smith. A few days after their arrival, the first American hunters landed (including a twenty-year-old Nathaniel Palmer). As seals were killed, primarily for their fur skins and oil, Bransfield and William Smith went about the business of charting.
Simultaneously, Russian explorer Thaddeus von Bellinghausen was leading two ships into the Antarctic Circle about 1,400 miles to the east, on a voyage of exploration inspired by Cook's earlier expedition. On January 27, Thaddeus von Bellinghausen saw petrels and heard penguins which convinced him that land was nearby. He saw extensive ice and ". . . in different places over the ice we could see icy mountains to the south." His conviction that his expedition was skirting the coast on the southern continent is backed by the ship's log which confirms that he was about probably 20 miles from shore. While shifts in the ice surrounding the Antarctic coast makes it impossible to be certain about what Thaddeus von Bellinghausen saw, it is generally accepted that he saw the ice shelf that rims the Antarctic continent.
Thaddeus von Bellinghausen's sighting of Antarctica illustrates the challenges that faced early explorers in knowing what they were seeing. Large icebergs encrusted with rock were frequently mistaken for islands or points of land when observed at a distance. Icebergs and pack ice made movement to accomplish a sighting difficult, especially for sailing ships at the mercy of winds and currents. To be trapped in sea ice could be a death sentence for ship and crew. Finally, the ice sheets that surrounded the continent and that split off into the sea frequently presented a vertical face of ice, 100-200 feet (30-60 m) high, dwarfing the ships, and extending out of sight in all directions. Frequent heavy fog, strong sea swells, and violet storms, simply added to the problems of sailors. Explorers would take soundings of the depth of the sea floor where possible and draw inferences from the presence of sea birds and marine life to help them, but exploration of the Antarctic was, and remains, dangerous and subject to controversy.
Three days after Thaddeus von Bellinghausen's sighting, Bransfield and William Smith sailing south from the South Shetlands approached the Antarctic Peninsula and made an unambiguous observation of ". . . high mountains, covered with snow . . .". They sited them on January 30, 1820, before attempting—while impeded by ice and fog—to track the coast north and east. They named the region Trinity Land.
The Thaddeus von Bellinghausen expedition, after spending the southern winter in port at Sydney, Australia, returned to the Antarctic Circle in late 1820 to complete its circumnavigation of the globe. The expedition discovered Peter I Island on January 21; and then, on January 28, mountains were sighted along what was named the Alexander Coast on the Western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. In 1936, it was established that the land is an island connected by an ice shelf to the mainland and renamed Alexander Island.
The rich rewards reaped by the first sealers during the 1819-20 summer season became widely known as soon as they returned to port and caused the equivalent of a "gold rush" in late 1820. Over fifty American and British boats descended on the islands and set about claiming breaches and slaughtering every seal that could be found. Nathaniel Palmer, who had participated in the first season, returned as part of a small American fleet from the port of Stonington, Connecticut. Placed in command of a small (47 foot long) sloop Hero, and sent to find a safe harbor, he sailed south from the South Shetlands along a similar path as Smith and Bransfield. On November 16-17, 1820, Palmer and his crew became the third known to sight the coast of Antarctica.
In an interesting twist of fate, Palmer and Bellingshausen actually met on February 6, 1821, near Deception Island in the South Shetlands. Palmer went aboard the Russian's ship and talked with Bellingshausen before returning to his sloop. It was later claimed that the Russian acknowledged the American as the discoverer of Antarctica, something accepted only by a small number of Palmer advocates.
It is important to note that while the people making these early sightings shared the common belief that there existed a vast southern continent and that they were observing it, many decades would pass until actual observations and evidence would prove that a continent was there. Many believed, with good justification, that what was being sighted were parts of islands that formed a vast archipelago encased in ice.
- Antarctica Observed, A.G.E. Jones, Caedmon of Whitby, 1982 ISBN: 0905355253.
- The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands, 1819-1820 : The Journal of Midshipman C. W. Poynter, R. J. Campbell (editor), Hakluyt Society, 2001
- Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997 ISBN: 0393039498.
- Antarctica: Exploring the Extreme: 400 Years of Adventureby Marilyn J. Landis, Chicago Review Press, 2001 ISBN: 1556524285.
- South Pole: A Narrative History of the Exploration of Antarctica by Anthony Brandt, NG Adventure Classics, 2004 ISBN: 0792267974.
- Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226.
- Index to Antarctic Expeditions, Scott Polar Research Institute, retrieved November 1, 2008
- Antarctic History, Polar Conservation Organization, retrieved February 16, 2009
- Antarctic History, Antarctica Online, retrieved February 16, 2009
- The Antarctic Circle, retrieved February 16, 2009