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Exploring Antarctica

What’s it like to spend months down in the Antarctic? It’s the world’s driest, highest, coldest, windiest and most inhospitable continent and Jomi has spent the last two austral summers (northern hemisphere winters) exploring it. In this season of the Safari Stories podcast, we explore it with him.


See some highlights of the wildlife sightings we dive into this season, here:


Part one of the first (two-part) episode sets the scene of the remoteness of the inhospitable Antarctic continent by taking a look at how it was initially explored. While Jomi has been able to do this from the relative comfort of a large modern vessel, the original explorers of the region faced more trying challenges.

Jomi on the Antarctic Peninsula

Above: Jomi on the Antarctic Peninsula

 

In the first part of the podcast we talk about when the initial and early exploration attempts into the southern oceans were made. Oral rather than written history of certain Polynesian tribes tells us that the Māori made it down into Antarctic waters about 1300 years ago. While there is no written evidence of this, the Polynesians incredible ability to navigate using weather, currents and seasonal climate patterns is a good indicator that, in all likelihood, these people were the first to make it into the Antarctic region. 


Outrigger Canoe

Above: A modern day version of an outrigger canoe


The first European to discover (and possibly round) Cape Horn was likely British privateer Sir Francis Drake, a glorified pirate who was involved with the European slave trade and who the notorious Drake passage has been named after. Drake got to 71 degrees south and in doing so became the first person to cross the Antarctic circle (which lies at 66 degrees south).

 

The Drake passage is the body of water that separates the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula. It’s reputation precedes it for being the most consistently turbulent body of water in the world and one can only imagine what early explorers of these waters went through when they sailed south into the unknown with no real means of navigation aboard, often encountering thick fog banks upon reaching the Antarctic convergence or polar front as it’s also known.

Drake Passage Map

Above: The Drake Passage is the body of water that separates the southern tip of Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. It is one of the roughest bodies of water on the planet.

 

Greek philosophers such as Aristotle had theorised that a Terra Australis must exist further south in the southern hemisphere to balance out land in the northern hemisphere and in the mid 18th century, the advent of the sextant and the chronometer allowed explorers to not only know their latitude but also their longitude precisely. They were no longer sailing blindly. One of the explorers seeking out Terra Australis  was the famous Captain James Cook. Though he managed to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent, he never actually saw it, and this can likely be attributed to fog, sea ice, adverse conditions and icebergs. Cook was a skilled cartographer and, as well as mapping out large parts of the Pacific during his career, his nautical charts of the Antarctic region were also instrumental and paved the way for later explorers.

How to use a Sexton

Above and Below: Navigating by sextant

Navigating by Sexton

In fact, the first person to sight the Antarctic continent on January 27, 1820 is known to be Russian Fabian Bellingshausen who, on behalf of the emperor Alexander I and using some of Cook’s charts, became the first man to spot a part of what would later become known as Queen Maud land in East Antarctica. 


Just three days later on January 30th, Edward Bransfield, a British sailor, also spotted land, likely becoming the first European to sight the Antarctic Peninsula. 

 

Sighting land and actually landing on land in Antarctica are two very different things. Conditions are often very treacherous with high winds and waves and a steep, mostly glaciated coastline means that getting to shore can even nowadays be tricky. 

Jomi on zodiac with guests in Antarctica

Above: Jomi and guests on a zodiac cruise.The Antarctic coastline is mostly glaciated, making getting on land no easy feat in some areas

 

Several people claim to have been the first to land on the continent, the most famous of which is John Davis, a sealer, who claims to have landed at Hughes Bay on the Antarctic peninsula in 1821 while looking for seal breeding grounds. This claim was never substantiated. 


Early painting of Antarctica

Above: An early depiction of the inhospitable Antarctic environment

 

With the search for mainland Antarctica over, the race to seek out the South Pole had now begun. British sealer and explorer James Weddell, in 1823-24, went in search for better seal hunting grounds in what became known as the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. He reached 74 degrees south, the furthest anyone had ever made it at that point, and he theorised that it might be possible to sail to the South Pole. Adverse conditions forced him to turn around—the Weddell Sea, even at the height of summer, is a difficult body of water to sail into and navigate due to the sheer amount of ice.

 

In the 1840s on the first official British Antarctic Expedition, James Clark Ross sailed to 78 degrees south where he encountered what was known initially as the Great Ice Barrier and later became known as the Ross Ice Shelf. This was as far south as it’s possible to sail and the hope that sailing to the South Pole was an option, became short-lived as the Ross Ice Shelf was and is completely inaccessible by ship.

Great Southern Barrier

The first confirmed landing on the Antarctic continent surprisingly only took place years later, in January 1895, when Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian sailor, made it to shore at Cape Adare where he and his crew took several geological samples over the course of a few days, whilst also establishing a rustic base from which to work. Borchgrevink’s landing marks the end of the sea-based exploration of Antarctica and the beginning of the land-based exploration of the continent or as it’s also known, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which we’ll be chatting about in part two of this episode.


You can listen to the Safari Stories podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast, our website, or wherever you listen to your podcasts! Links below.

 

 

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