Commercial Era

Incidentally, it was Captain Cook’s description of seals at South Georgia that led to the first sealers arriving in South Georgia in 1788. Quickly depleting these new lands (by 1822 fur seals had been wiped out in South Georgia), their search for new hunting grounds also furthered the exploration of Antarctica.

In 1819 the sealer William Smith discovered the South Shetland Islands, claiming them for Great Britain and returning two years later with 30,000 fur seal pelts and samples of elephant seal blubber. However, word had already spread and by the end of 1819 the first sealing expeditions had already arrived in the area.


By 1820 50 ships were working in around the South Shetland Islands, and by 1821 there were at least 91. By 1825 large scale sealing was in decline, and by the 1830s fur seals had been wiped out at many locations in Antarctica. Small scale sealing continued well into the 1900’s as new populations were discovered, but it was not until the 1950’s that fur seal populations began to recover significantly.

Hunting and Mapping

As sealers searched for new hunting grounds they also charted new land, and twenty years after the discovery of the South Shetland Islands, with nearly all fur seals exterminated, the rough outlines of the new continent had been mapped. In 1823 the English sealer Captain James Weddell sailed to 74°S, reaching the furthest south of the time, and in 1831 the first sighting of the continent from the Indian Ocean zone of the Southern Ocean was made by John Biscoe, who in 1832 also became the third person to circumnavigate Antarctica.


In 1839 the first landing below the Antarctic Circle was made by the Englishman John Balleny. As well as exploring and mapping, these sealers conducted the first scientific investigations in Antarctica, and in 1821 the American sealer Nathaniel Palmer discovered the South Orkney Islands along with the first fossils in Antarctica. However, sealers were not the only people interested in exploring Antarctica, and in 1829 the first truly scientific expedition left for Antarctica. Captain Henry Foster was investigating the true shape of the earth using gravity measurements, and spent time on Deception Island painstakingly gathering his readings by counting the swings of a pendulum.

Magnetic South Pole

As sealing and exploration continued, the governments of France, America and Great Britain launched missions to discover this new land as well as find the Magnetic South Pole (the Magnetic North Pole having been discovered in 1831). In 1838 and 1839 the Frenchman Jules-Sebastian Dumont d’Urville undertook two voyages to Antarctica; charting the Antarctic Peninsula as well as discovering a stretch of coastline he called Adélie Land after his wife.

1838 - 1841

Between 1838 and 1840 the American Charles Wilkes, using six ships with several naturalists and scientists on board, charted the new coastline of what would become Wilkes Land. It was the British naval officer James Clark Ross however, the man who had found the Magnetic North Pole, who discovered that the Magnetic South Pole lay inland. By sailing through to the Ross Sea he reached the furthest point south accessible by ship at the Ross Ice Shelf in 1841, and halted further attempts to discover the Magnetic South Pole by ship.

The Early Whaling Industry

With the collapse of the sealing industry in Antarctica and the decline of whale stocks in northern waters, the whaling industry began to look south, relying on the reports by early explorers of abundant numbers of right and rorqual whales, sought for the baleen and oil they could provide. To begin with, whaleboats could not keep up with the rorqual whales, who were too fast, but with the introductions of harpoon cannons mounted on small steamers, this all changed. In 1873 the first steam whaler entered Antarctic waters captained by the German Eduard Dallmann. Whilst often unsuccessful in capturing whales in these early years, he and others continued to explore and chart new parts of Antarctica

1904 - 1910

In 1904 Carl Larsen established the first Antarctic whaling station at Grytviken on South Georgia, and in the same year the first humpback whale was caught. In 1906 Christen Christensen took the first floating factory, along with two whale-catchers, to the South Shetland Islands, and in the same year Adolfus Andresen operated the first floating factory at Deception Island. By 1910 there were nine floating factories operating in the South Shetland Islands alone.

1906: Whale Fishery Ordinance

The establishment of the whaling station at caught the attention of the British government, and in 1906 the Governor of the Falkland Islands (a British Crown colony at the time), William Allardyce, issued a Whale Fishery Ordinance to administer and regulate the industry. This meant that those operating in territory considered to be British had to buy licences to operate, and in 1912 a tax of 3p on each barrel of oil was introduced. As well as providing income and asserting British territorial claims in the area, these licences also limited activity. By allowing each factory to have only two whale-catchers each, it was hoped that the over-hunting and depletion of stock numbers could be avoided. In 1908 the British Government also made a formal claim to the territory, issuing a Letters Patent.

Affects of Licensing and Taxes

Whalers were forced to buy these licences because factory ships had to anchor inside territorial waters to operate. The introduction of these licences and tax encouraged the whalers to experiment with working in open water outside of these territorial waters, and in 1926 a new factory ship was introduced that no longer needed to operate close to shore. As well as leading to a huge increase in the numbers of whales caught, this also led to an upsurge in exploration and mapping, often encouraged by the whaling companies. In 1935 Caroline Mikkelsen, the wife of a Norwegian whaling captain, accompanied her husband and became the first woman to set foot on Antarctica.

Discovery Committee

With whale numbers rapidly declining, the British Government established the Discovery Committee in 1923 to conduct research into whale behaviour, biology and distribution. Using Captain Scott’s ship Discovery, they began work in South Georgia in 1925. By 1931 the whale oil market was so saturated that Britain and Norway agreed to suspend whaling operations for a year whilst stored oil was sold, and at the end of that year in 1932, the whaling station at Deception Island and many of the older floating factories were taken out of service. However, the new open sea factory ships continued to work and whale numbers continued to decline to near extinction.

1930 - 1965

In 1930 the Bureau of International Whaling Statistics was set up to keep track of catches, and during the 1930’s attempts were made to bring in international whaling regulations with very limited success. The Second World War saw a huge decline in whaling, but with the end of the war whaling resumed at the same high and unsustainable level as before. 

In 1946 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up to regulate the industry and set quotas for each season’s catch, but this led to certain larger species being targeted and even competition to achieve the high catch limits set. By 1965 the whaling industry was in decline as whale numbers continued to drop, coinciding with calls for stronger conservation efforts.

1969 - 1994

By 1969 only Japan and the Soviet Union were whaling in the Antarctic, and in 1986 a ban on commercial whaling came into effect, issued by the IWC. Finally, in 1994, the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was created to protect the great whales in their breeding grounds. 

Whilst the Antarctic seas brought whalers to Antarctica, man’s exploration now turned inland to the Antarctic continent as the start of the twentieth century saw the beginning of what would be known as the Heroic Age, and the race for the South Pole.


Go back to our Antarctic history timeline here to learn more about Antarctica and its rich human history.

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