Antarctic Firsts - Part one

Throughout my expedition I've experienced many 'firsts'.

  • First time to New Zealand
  • First time in Antarctica
  • I experienced my first Earthquake
  • First time on a snowmobile (I'll talk about this in a later journal)

All of these 'firsts' got me thinking... who was first person to visit Antarctica, or the first to spend the winter there? And when did they do it? So, today we’re looking at Antarctic “firsts.” The history of Antarctica is full of brave men and women who discovered new things about this unique continent. Their adventures inspire me and the researchers I will be working with who spend their lives studying one of the last great frontiers. These are some of their accomplishments.

First to Cross the Antarctic Circle

In January of 1773, Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle and circumnavigated Antarctica (He sailed all the way around it!). Though Cook did not sight land, he saw deposits of rock in icebergs, suggesting that a southern continent exists. Imagine miles and miles of endless water, and suddenly finding the first tiny hints of a place you never knew existed! Over two hundred years later I am amazed at this opportunity to travel to Antarctica and follow in the footsteps of legends.

Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook’s official portrait, image courtesy of the British National Maritime Museum

Map showing Antarctic circle.
Map showing Antarctic circle.

First sighting of land

Between 1819 and 1821 Russian naval officer Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen, commanding the ships Vostok and Mirny, crosses the Antarctic Circle (the first since Cook) and sights land. Bellingshausen was the first to truly 'discover' a continent since no people were already living there. Before this no one knew exactly what was down there! These were the early days of polar exploration, no one knew exactly what they would find and few countries had the resources to send explorers.

Let's do a little math! When Bellingshausen saw the continent for the first time, about how long had it been since Cook saw those rocks?

Thaddeus Bellingshausen
Thaddeus Bellingshausen , lithograph circa 1835, public domain, formerly available at

Map showing Antarctic circle.
Map showing Antarctic circle.

First to spend winter in the region

In 1821, an officer and ten men from the British sealing ship Lord Melville became the first to spend a winter in the Antarctic region. This was not their original plan! The ship had been driven offshore on King George Island, 75 miles away from the Antarctic continent and did not return to pick them up. Stuck on an island in a strange, unknown land, the crew managed to survive the winter and were eventually rescued the following summer.

King George Island today
King George Island today, photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,

King George Island Map
King George Island Map

First to spend the winter on ship

In 1898, Belgian Captain Adrien de Gerlache and the crew of the Belgica made the first scientific expedition to Antarctica. The expedition met adversity when the Belgica became trapped in the ice near the Antarctic Peninsula in the Bellingshausen Sea, (the entire sea freezes during the colder months!). While they did not actually stay on the continent, they were the first to spend the winter there on their ship, connected to the continent by the frozen sea. Stuck in the ice, with only the food and supplies they brought with them, the ship and crew drifted along with the ice floes until warmer weather let them escape.

Let's do a little math. How long had it been since Bellinghausen discovered the continent?

The Belgica
The Belgica trapped in pack ice. Photo in the public domain, image available through

Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctic Peninsula

First to spend the winter on land

In 1899, Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink led a British expedition that landed men at Cape Adare in the Ross Sea. This was the first time anyone wintered on the Antarctic landmass itself. This crew actually planned to stay! They built huts to live in and used dogsleds to travel around the area. A bit different from your average camping trip!

Carsten Borchgrevink
Carsten Borchgrevink with sextant and snowshoes. Photo in the public domain, image courtesy of

Map showing Cape Adare
Map showing Cape Adare.

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