Antarctic Peninsula

The Exploration of Antarctica: A Timeline

Zegrahm Contributor|August 16, 2016|Blog Post

Though the ancient Greeks first hypothesized the existence of a southern landmass, Antarctica remained undiscovered throughout most of human history. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the existence of this mythic land was finally confirmed.


Captain James Cook crosses the Antarctic Circle and circumnavigates Antarctica, though he never actually sights land.


First sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula by Palmer, Bransfield, and Smith. On a separate journey, Thaddeus von Bellingshausen sights an icefield at 69 degrees south and lays claim to being the first person to set eyes on the Antarctic continent.


American sealer Captain John Davis makes the first known landing on continental Antarctica. (This is disputed by some historians.)


British whaler James Weddell discovers the sea named after him, then reaches the most southerly point at that time: 74° 15’ S. No one else manages to penetrate the Weddell Sea again for 80 years!


British naval officer and scientist, James Clark Ross, takes two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to within 80 miles of the coast until stopped by a massive ice barrier—now called the Ross Ice Shelf.


Adrien de Gerlache and the crew of the Belgica become trapped in pack ice off the Antarctic Peninsula, in the first scientific expedition to the continent. They also become the first to survive an Antarctic winter (involuntarily!) as their ship drifts with the ice.


Carsten Borchgrevink leads a British expedition that landed men at Cape Adare and became the first confirmed team to overwinter on the Antarctic landmass.


British captain, Robert Falcon Scott, leads his first Antarctic expedition to try to reach the South Pole, with Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson. They are forced to turn back two months later having reached 82 degrees south, suffering from snow blindness and scurvy.

1907 – 1909

Shackleton leads an expedition to within 97 miles of the South Pole, but turns back after supplies are exhausted.


Australian Douglas Mawson reaches the South Magnetic Pole in January.


Norwegian Roald Amundsen leads a five-man expedition that reaches the South Pole for the first time on December 14.


On January 18, Scott reaches the South Pole with his own five-man team to discover he has been beaten by Amundsen; they perish on the return journey, only 11 miles from the supply depot.


Shackleton returns to Antarctica in an attempt to complete the first crossing of the conti­nent. The goal is not attained, but one of the greatest adventures of all time follows. Their ship, the Endurance, is crushed in the sea ice and a small party sets out for South Georgia and the whaling station. The party is eventually rescued in 1917.


Richard Byrd and three others take off in a Ford mono­plane from his base at the Bay of Whales and head for the South Pole. They become the first to fly over either pole in an airplane.


The US sends the largest-ever expedition of over 4,000 men, 13 ships, and 23 airplanes to Antarctica in Operation Highjump. Large areas of the coastline and hinterland are mapped—with some 70,000 aerial photographs.


US aircraft lands at the South Pole. This is the first visit since Scott and his team in 1912.

July 1, 1957 – December 31, 1958

In the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 12 nations establish over 60 stations in Antarctica. This marks the beginning of international cooperation in Antarctica and the start of the process by which Antarctica becomes “non-national.”


The first successful land crossing via the South Pole is led by British geologist Vivian Fuchs with New Zealander Edmund Hillary leading the back-up party, over 40 years after Shackleton’s expedition set out with the same aim.


The Antarctic Treaty System comes into effect and guarantees freedom of access and scientific investigation in all areas south of 60 degrees latitude.

For more information on our upcoming expeditions to the region, visit the Antarctica cruise page. 

Learn more about Antarctica here: The Ultimate Travel Antarctica Guide

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