The Discovery of Antarctica

The idea that Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land, existed can be dated back to the Ancient Greeks, who believed that a continent had to exist to the south to balance out the lands of the north, the Arctic. This idea was revived during the Renaissance, and in the early years of the search for Antarctica it was believed by some that a continent to the south would be similar to the recently discovered South America, rich in land and resources ready to be exploited.


In 1520 the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, searching for a passage that would lead from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, discovered what was to be named the Straits of Magellan. At the time it was assumed that the land to the south of that passage, Tierra del Fuego, was part of this Unknown Southern Land. In 1578, after sailing through the Straits of Magellan, Sir Francis Drake was driven south and east by a gale, sailing south past Tierra del Fuego and proving that this was in fact a series of islands. Reaching 56°S, the furthest south recorded at this time, he reported that no land was visible. That stretch of sea is now known as the Drake Passage.

Captain James Cook

It was Captain James Cook however, on his three famous voyages, who first crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773 as well as circumnavigating Antarctica. Reaching 71°10’S, the southerly record at that time, Cook rightly predicted that the land to the south would be ‘doomed by Nature to lie buried under everlasting ice and snow’.

1820: First sighting of Antarctica

In January 1820 Edward Bransfield with William Smith sighted the Antarctic Peninsula coast and called it Trinity Land, whilst in November of that year the American Sealer Nathaniel Palmer sighted Davis Coast. It used to be thought that the first sighting of the Antarctic continent was the Russian Thaddeus von Bellingshausen when he spotted the Finibul Ice shelf whilst circumnavigating the Antarctic continent during his Russian government sponsored voyage, also in January 1820. He also visited South Georgia and ascertained that Cook’s ‘Sandwich Land’ was in fact a series of islands, as well as surveying some of the South Shetland Islands.

1821: The first landing

The first to land on the Antarctic continent is believed to have been an American sealer, John Davis, who is reported to have landed at Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula on 7 February 1821 (the next undisputed landing on the Continent would not be until 1895, when Carsten Borchgrevink landed at Cape Adare). Later in 1821, a group of sealers from the British ship Lord Melville became the first to over-winter in Antarctica, when their ship was driven offshore and they were forced to spend the winter on King George Island (South Shetland Islands) before being rescued the following summer.

Continued Discovery and Exploration

Within the Unknown Southern Lands now located, and reports of an abundance of seals and whales reaching the rest of the world, the exploration of the Antarctic coast and sub-Antarctic islands continued apace, often driven by commercial interests.


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

Subscribe to our newsletter


Press Enquiries

We are very keen to promote the important heritage work that we do, telling the story of life in Antarctica both past and present. If you are interested in running a story about us, using our images or films or want to discuss an interview or potential collaboration opportunity we would love to hear from you.  Please contact either Sarah or Lewis at Limewash to discuss your requirements or +44 (0)1223 813 557.