The Heroic Era

The Heroic Era is considered to start in 1895, when a resolution passed at the Sixth International Geographical Congress advocated the exploration of Antarctica, and led to expeditions by scientists and explorers from Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Scotland, Norway and Japan. Scientific investigation was often the core mission of these expeditions, but even before this date scientific investigation had been carried out in conjunction with commercial and exploratory activity in Antarctica. The sealer Nathaniel Palmer had been the first to discover fossils in Antarctica in 1821, and in 1829 Henry Foster had undertaken his scientific experiments into gravity at Deception Island.

HMS Challenger

In 1874 HMS Challenger had been the first steamship to cross the Antarctic Circle, proving that Antarctica is a continent through their discovery of continental rocks on the ocean floor. In 1893 the first evidence of Antarctica’s previous warmer climate was discovered by Carl Larsen, when he returned from Antarctica with fossil molluscs and petrified wood, and the first evidence of plant life was discovered by Carsten Borchgrevink in 1895, when he discovered lichen whilst part of a Norwegian whaling expedition.

Belgian Antarctic Expedition

In 1897 Adrien de Gerlache led the Belgian Antarctic Expedition, which made many landings along the Gerlache Straight before the Belgica become wedged in the sea ice and became the first ship to overwinter within the Antarctic Circle. Trapped unexpectedly for over a year, and despite some of the crew suffering mental health problems, the expedition conducted research in meteorology, oceanography and biology, discovering the first land invertebrate (a wingless insect) and demonstrating the importance of krill to the ecology of the Southern Ocean.

British Antarctic Expedition

In 1898 Borchgrevink led the British Antarctic Expedition (funded by a British magazine publisher but with only two British members), and became the first party to deliberately overwinter on the mainland continent at Cape Adare. This expedition was the first to visit the Great Ice Barrier since James Clark Ross’s expedition of 1839-1843, and pioneered the use of dogs and sledges for Antarctic travel, reaching 78°5’S, the furthest south anyone had reached at that time.

Swedish Antarctic Expedition

Several other expeditions unexpectedly overwintered in Antarctica, including Otto Nordenskjold’s 1901 Swedish Antarctic Expedition, whose achievements included the first major sledging expeditions, the discovery of fossils including ammonites, leaves of conifer trees and ferns, and the bones of a two-metre tall extinct penguin. This expedition also found evidence that South America, Africa and Australis were once joined to Antarctica. The following year the German Gauss Expedition led by Erich von Drygalski also overwintered when their ship got trapped in the ice for nearly fourteen months, passing their year with extensive scientific research that filled twenty volumes of reports on their return.

1901 - 1904
Captain Scott

Between 1901 and 1904, Captain Falcon Scott led his first expedition, the British National Antarctic Expedition, on the purpose built ship Discovery. As well as carrying out a great deal of scientific and geographical work in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, an attempt was made to reach the South Pole - ultimately unsuccessful due to problems with supplies and expedition member’s health. From this time onwards, reaching the South Pole was to become a major objective of several expeditions.

Scottish National Antarctic Expedition

In 1902 William Spiers Bruce, having not been selected as lead scientist on Scott’s expedition, set up and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. They established a base on Laurie Island (that was later gifted to Argentina in return for funds and stores), and were the first to sight land south of the Weddell Sea (Coats Land) as well as suggesting that an underwater ridge linked South America to the Antarctic Peninsula.

French Antarctic Expedition

In 1903 a French doctor, Jean-Baptiste Charcot, led the French Antarctic Expedition aboard the Francais. Exploring the west coast of Graham Land, he discovered and took shelter in Port Lockroy when his ship needed repairs, and returned to Antarctica in 1908 aboard the Porquois-Pas?, when he carried out sledging and scientific work.

British Antarctic Expedition

In 1908 Shackleton led his first expedition, the British Antarctic Expedition, and attempted to reach the South Pole. Whilst reaching further south than Scott and achieving a record at 88°23’S, he was forced to turn back as rations ran low. However other members of his expedition, Alistair McKay, Douglas Mawson and Edgeworth David, were successful in reaching the South Magnetic Pole in early 1909.

Australian Antarctic Expedition

Mawson led his own expedition, the Australian Antarctic Expedition, in 1911, building his main base hut at Cape Denison (which turned out to be one of the windiest places on earth), and achieving the first use of radio in Antarctica as well as discovering the first meteorite. During this expedition Mawson endured a thirty-day trek alone back to base after his companions died on a sledging trip, only to have missed the relief ship by hours and thus being forced to spend another unplanned year in Antarctica with the six men who had stayed behind to look for the party.

Race to the South Pole

The race to the South Pole continued in 1911, with Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition and Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition both attempting to reach the South Pole. With a more focused objective and better equipment, Amundsen reached the South Pole on 13 December 1911, thirty five days before Scott. Scott’s party’s return to base was a desperate run of exceptional cold, declining health, and a shortage of food and fuel, and the party perished only seventeen kilometres from a supply depot in March 1912, some of their bodies being discovered later in November of that year.

Japan’s first Antarctic Expedition

Japan’s first Antarctic expedition had also arrived in Antarctica in early 1911, before being forced to return to Australia when poor weather made it impossible to continue. Returning in late 1911, the expedition’s leader Nobu Shirase realised he was too far behind Scott and Amundsen to attempt to reach the South Pole but continued on a programme of scientific work and exploration of King Edward VII Land, also meeting Amundsen’s ship Fram during the voyage.

Shackleton’s Second Expedition

Shackleton’s second expedition to the Antarctic was equally as dramatic. Setting off in 1914 with the aim of crossing the Continent, his ship Endurance became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea and, nine months later, was crushed. After surviving camped on the ice, he and his crew reached Elephant Island and from there, Shackleton with five companions then sailed for help in a small open boat to South Georgia, 1500 kilometres away. They landed on the uninhabited south side of the island and so Shackleton, with two of the men, crossed the unmapped central mountains to reach the whaling station at Stromness. Shackleton then set about rescuing the other twenty two men on Elephant Island, and after four attempts, succeeded.

Cape Evans Base

Meanwhile the Ross Sea party, responsible for laying depots for Shackleton's crossing of the Continent, had set up base at Cape Evans in early 1915, although they intended to use their ship Aurora as their main living quarters. When Aurora, stuck fast in the ice, was carried out to sea in May 1915, the party was stranded without their supplies or equipment for almost two years. Despite their hardships the party managed to lay the depots for Shackleton’s crossings, losing three men and undertaking the longest-lasting sledging journey to that date of 198 days. Eventually they were rescued by Aurora (with Shackleton on board) in January 1917.

After World War One

Expeditions continued to Antarctica after the First World War ended. The British Imperial Expedition, led by John Cope, suffered problems from the beginning with fundraising, the lack of a ship and resources. When the expedition of four landed in Antarctica in 1921, Cope had realised that even his scaled-down aim of crossing the width of the Peninsula was unrealistic, and left and planned another expedition for the following year. Two members of the expedition, decided to stay in order to carry out a programme of science, becoming the smallest party to winter in Antarctica. Surviving with limited supplies, they left in 1922 with a full year of data.

Shackleton's Third Expedition

In 1921 Shackleton also set out on his third expedition to Antarctica. The Shackleton-Rowett ‘Quest’ Expedition, which suffered from a lack of clear objectives from the start, was ultimately overshadowed by the death of Shackleton in South Georgia in 1922. Whilst Frank Wild took over leadership of the expedition, little of note was achieved before the expedition returned to Plymouth a year later. Shackleton’s death is often considered to mark the end of the Heroic Age in Antarctica.

The Mechanical Age

In the twenty-seven years since Borchgrevink had landed in Antarctica in 1895, there had been seventeen expeditions from eight countries, and both the South Pole and Magnetic South Pole had been reached. As well as the huge amounts of scientific data that had been gathered, much had been learnt about living and working in Antarctica, leading to both methodological and technical advances in how expeditions were planned and carried out. These were to lend their name to the next era of Antarctic history: the Mechanical Age.


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

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