Exploring Antarctica

"A country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie forever buried under everlasting snow and ice." - James Cook, diary

The allure of the south

The rumour of a great southern continent had circulated since the time of Ancient Greece, but its existence was only confirmed in 1773 when James Cook sailed across the Antarctic Circle.

Cook found a hostile world he condemned as fruitless to explore. Ironically, he sparked the beginning of Antarctic exploration.  The contours of the continent started to take shape on mid-nineteenth century maps as British, French and American expeditions surveyed the coastline, while naturalists who travelled with the expeditions studied the wildlife they encountered. But at the end of the 1800s, the Antarctic mainland was still largely a mystery.

In this age of exploration, Antarctica was declared a key area for exploration and scientific research. Sir Clements Markham, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, pressed for a British Antarctic expedition.

Man with dogs by ship

Discovery in Antarctica
© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Antarctic exploration before the Terra Nova expedition

Scott's first Antarctic journey, the Discovery expedition (1901-1904), carried out geographical exploration and gathered vast zoological collections. But Scott was not the first to reach the Antarctic Circle.

James Cook 1772 - 1775
Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. German naturalist Georg Forster who was on board illustrated the wildlife they found. © Royal Geographical Society

Thaddeus von Bellingshausen 1819 - 1821
This Russian explorer was the first to sail around the Antarctic continent. His expedition is thought to be the first to sight the Antarctic mainland. © U. Schzeibach, circa 1835 (Public domain)

James Clark Ross 1839 - 1843
Coastlines were mapped and Ross Island and its active volcano Mount Erebus were discovered on this British naval expedition of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Meteorological data were collected and life on land and in the seas was studied. © Royal Geographical Society

Adrien de Gerlache 1897 - 1899
This Belgian expedition was the first to winter in Antarctica, when their ship Belgica became stuck in the ice. They recorded the first winter meteorological observations below the Antarctic Circle. One of the officers onboard was the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who in 1912 would be the first to reach the South Pole. © Royal Geographical Society

Carsten Borchgrevink 1898 - 1900
Borchgrevink's British expedition on the Southern Cross was the first to winter in a hut on the Antarctic mainland, and the first to make a trip on the Great Ice Barrier. Borchgrevink returned with zoological specimens and a year's continuous meteorological readings. © Royal Geographical Society

Erich von Drygalski 1901 - 1903
The German South Polar Expedition gathered extensive scientific information in different fields. Meteorological, atmospheric and magnetic observations were made, coastline was surveyed and vast numbers of new species were described. © Royal Geographical Society

Ernest Shackleton 1907 - 1909
During his Nimrod expedition Shackleton discovered a route to the South Pole and in 1909 reached further south than Scott had in 1902. He was only 180 kilometres from the Pole when he decided to turn back. The expedition undertook significant work in geology and was the first to reach the region of the South Magnetic Pole. © Royal Geographical Society

Discovery expedition, 1901-1904

Scott’s first Antarctic expedition is widely known as Discovery, after the name of its ship. Officially called the British National Antarctic Expedition, it was jointly organised by the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society, and had ambitious plans.

The team gathered valuable information about Antarctic wildlife and provided the longest continuous record of meteorological observations. They charted previously unknown coastline, mapped mountain ranges and made an attempt to be the first ever humans to reach the South Pole. Although Scott and his two companions, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton, were forced to turn back before reaching their goal, they had travelled further south than anyone else before them.

When the Discovery expedition returned to Britain, it was celebrated as a success and the idea of a return to Antarctica started to form in Scott’s mind.

Three men by sledge

Shackleton, Scott and Wilson ready for the attempt to reach the South Pole
© Royal Geographical Society