Exploring Antarctica: Penguins, Seals, and Polar Expeditions Frozen in Time
Exploring Antarctica: Penguins, Seals, and Polar Expeditions Frozen in Time
Ship navigating rough seas of Antarctica, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Icebergs in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1901-1936.
Man observing a tabular iceberg in Antarctica 1906-1937.
Man on mast of Discovery ship with loose pack ice ahead, somewhere in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1929-1931.
Birds at Kerguelen Island in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1901-1936.
Tumbling ice wave, shot during the Australian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914.
Antarctica explorers aboard a ship, posing with music instruments during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Man meets seals, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Man exploring Antarctica's icy landscape, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Camp on ice during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Antarctica explorers and a penguin, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Men pulling car over ice during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Sir Ernest Shackleton standing by the broken sledge, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Man quarrying ice with a pick on the top of an ice cliff, shot during the Australian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914.
Antarctica explorer standing close to penguins, with an igloo in the background, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Ice hill in Antarctica, between 1901 and 1936.
Man in the center of a group of Adélie penguins during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Commonwealth Bay living hut during the Australian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, photo by Frank Hurley.
Husky dogs watching emperor penguins, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Emperor penguins standing in front of the hut during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Interior of the chemical laboratory, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Men sewing and cutting rope during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Antarctica explorers gathered around a large gramophone, during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Man taking a bath in the cabin, during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Men quarrying ice with picks during a strong blizzard, shot during the Australian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914.
Snowed-up moulting Adélie penguins shot during the Australian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, photo by Frank Hurley.
Rookery of hundreds of penguins with seals on the beach in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1929-1931.
Royal penguin rookery with thousands of penguins at Hurd Point at Macquarie Island, shot during the Australian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, photo by Frank Hurley.
Christmas dinner menu on Discovery ship, written in French, including dish made of penguin, during the BANZARE expedition in Antarctica 1929.
Adult penguin with chick in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1929-1931.
Penguin rookery at Macquarie Island in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1929-1931.
Giant petrel with an egg and a chick shot during the BANZARE expedition in Antarctica 1929-1931.
Sheathbill on Crozet Island in Antarctica, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1929-1931.
Male seal elephant, shot during the BANZARE expedition 1901-1936.
Seal blowing through an ice hole, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-1909.
Husky dog with two puppies sitting on ice, shot during the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913, photo by Herbert Ponting.
Exploring Antarctica has always been perceived as an adventure at the end of the world. But the southernmost continent is not only the edge of the explored Earth. With record-low levels of ice rapidly melting in Antarctica due to global warming, scientists warn that it could be the beginning of a literal end. Recently, the National Archives of Australia brought us to the beginning of the story, the times of the early twentieth-century expeditions, when catastrophic fears were buried under a much thicker sheet of ice.
Exploring Antarctica resembles discovering a new planet, with unique landscapes, weather, and wildlife
Records now available to the public include hundreds of photographs, glass plate negatives, and lantern slides, previously held by the Australian Antarctic Division. Transferred and digitized, this collection provides a rare insight into the everyday life of British and Australian explorers discovering the wonders of the seventh continent between 1901 and 1936.
From encounters with the wildlife (omnipresent penguins and seals) to the daily chores of the Antarctic explorers, these images document the period when humanity that just started with industrial greenhouse gas emissions first laid foot on the new territory. In its white vastness, intact Antarctica was innocent. As for the culprits, it would take decades for us to give appropriate names to human influence on the environment.
Exploring Antarctica resembles traveling to space, discovering a new planet, with its stunning landscapes, unmatched weather conditions, peculiar sunlight hours, and never before seen animals.
Even today, Antarctica attracts attention for its otherwordly mysteriousness. We describe its species as alien-like, and respected news agencies fact-check images of Antarctica spaceships.
Through the photographs of the early explorers, discovering the alien world of Antarctica now produces feelings of nostalgia, a longing for something we recognize as an abandoned home.
Enjoy this photo expedition to the frozen continent of the 1900s, the South Pole as it once was!
Antarctica on the maps
In the 2021-2022 season, 23.023 visitors set foot in Antarctica. Even with Covid-19’s effects on traveling, that’s an impressive number of people exploring Antarctica in comparison to a hundred years ago.
As a matter of fact, the first two decades of the 20th century are often called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. It was a dangerous voyage that ended with injuries and death for many.
Still, drawn by the mythical Terra Australis, the continent that was hypothesized to exist since antiquity, the heroes of this era were aiming to reach the South Pole.
The first one to cross the Antarctic Circle was James Cook in 1773, but even if he commanded the first ships to circumnavigate Antarctica, he never discovered the mainland.
We can ascribe the official discovery of Antarctica to the first people who saw it in 1820, Russians led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.
The first people who stepped on the icy continent were however not explorers, but sealers looking for new hunting grounds. It was believed that there were no scientific reasons to further explore the frozen South.
Well, at least until the end of the 19th century when naturalists and artists that accompanied a whaling expedition resurrected the public interest in Antarctica. The 17 major expeditions followed, eager to discover more of the continent and win the race to the South Pole. This was finally achieved by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1911.
Belgian Geographical Society sponsored the first expedition to Antarctica in 1897, on a ship called Belgica, led by officer Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery. But some historians prefer to give the title of the first proper research trip to the British National Antarctic Expedition on Discovery, led by captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1901.
The heroic age was closed by the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition navigated by Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914-1917. The objective was a transcontinental march via the South Pole. His Endurance ship got stuck in the ice and eventually sank. The wreck of the last major expedition was found on the ocean floor in 2022, surprisingly preserved after a century. Nomen est omen, it seems.
If you are into sunken ships, visit Coron Island, the shipwreck diving capital of the Philippines!
Heroes in the NAA collection
NAA’s collection includes portraits of Shackleton, but also other famous explorers of Antarctica, such as Douglas Mawson, Joseph Kinsey, and Frank Stillwell.
There are however also many unidentified heroes among the explorers that went to Antarctica, who got immortalized in these photographs.
They were members of the crew in British Antarctic Expeditions 1901-1937 (Discovery, Nimrod, Terra Nova, Endurance, Ross Sea, Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, British Graham Land Expedition), Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911-1914, BANZARE (British, Australian, New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition) 1929-1931, and Ellsworth rescue expedition 1935-1936.
The majority of records in the collection originally came from John King Davis who was the captain of Aurora during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.
There are courageous people even in today's uncertain times. Meet Bert terHart, the 62-year-old who sailed around the world alone during the pandemic!
Life of Antarctic explorers – between a blizzard and a song
Antarctica is a desert, the largest in the world. Encompassing an area of more than 14 million square kilometers, almost double the size of Australia, this dry continent where temperatures can drop to minus 80 degrees Celsius is not the most hospitable place on Earth.
When we observe the photographs depicting valleys covered in snow, mighty glaciers, spectacular ice cliffs, and a variety of natural formations ranging from pancake ice and ice floes to imposing icebergs, we could easily get seduced by beautiful Antarctica.
But behind the icicle-adorned shoreline, tabular icebergs, and frost flowers, there’s a much harsher reality to discovering Antarctica. This becomes apparent when we see ships navigating rough seas, getting overflown with water, or even frozen.
We can read the hardship of men pulling sleds over ice, setting up camps literally in the middle of nowhere, or quarrying ice during a blizzard. Some of these photographs would easily win awards today, but they are primarily a document that men exploring Antarctica were not ordinary.
Other images let us peek into the explorers’ huts overfilled with clothes, books, tools, and equipment. We see polar explorers deeply concentrated on writing, baking bread, sewing materials, and mending sleeping bags. We even get a glimpse of hygiene in Antarctica, with a man taking a bath in the cabin, or his colleagues hanging laundry on a makeshift clothesline outside.
In one of the photographs, artist George Marston, the author of illustrations for Shackleton’s Antarctica publishing project “Aurora Australis”, is lying in bed and reading a book while simultaneously balancing the lighted candle on his head.
In another example, the crew is relaxing while listening to music on a gramophone. Even on the ship, we can notice that sailors find fun moments in playing flute, accordion, or a variety of percussion instruments.
7 must-have books about exploring Antarctica
If you are looking for books about exploring Antarctica, consider getting your hands on these titles:
“Endurance”by Alfred Lansing – the New York Times bestseller on Shackleton's attempt to cross the last uncharted continent on foot.
“The Last Place on Earth” by Roland Huntford – the dual biography of Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, British and Norwegian contenders in the great race to the South Pole.“The Worst Journey in the World” by Apsley Cherry-Garrard – the story told by the survivor of Scott’s expedition, proclaimed the greatest adventure book of all time by National Geographic Adventure magazine.
“An Unsung Hero” by Michael Smith – the unforgettable story of Tom Crean who ran away to sea aged 15, and spent more time in Antarctica than Scott and Shackleton.
“Madhouse at the End of the Earth” by Julian Sancton – the story of survival aboard Belgica, an early polar expedition ship stuck in ice and endless night, which led the members into madness.
“Alone in Antarctica” by Felicity Aston – the inspirational saga of the first woman’s solo crossing of Antarctica on skis.
“Last Man Off”by Matt Lewis – the true 1998 story of a 23-year-old’s survival in the Antarctic seas.
Animals of Antarctica
Antarctic explorers were bringing a number of animals with them, to keep them company, help with carting supplies over ice, or simply serve as food. From the photographs in the collection, we can see rabbits, ponies, and husky dogs were very valued, especially when motocar or aerosled were not around. They even made little houses for dogs.
The Antarctica wildlife however spoke about the biodiversity of the continent’s ecosystem but also provided sometimes amusing encounters to explorers.
From spotting killer whales in the ocean around Antarctica to nesting sites of various seabirds (penguin, giant petrel, sheathbill), the everyday in the land of ice-covered mountains and the frozen sea was offering numerous surprises.
It could have been a seal poking a head through the ice hole, or sea elephants fighting for dominance, but research expeditions had a lot of material to observe and document.
Seals seemed to intrigue explorers with their relaxed attitude. Lying down on a beach together provided photo-ops that modern influencers would give their left hand for.
Tenerife was one of the harbors from where ships exploring Antarctica sailed. Accidentally, this Spanish island is also the place for some of the best whale watching in nature!
Antarctica penguins: from company to food
We cannot not notice that penguins, the most iconic inhabitants of Antarctica, became stars of explorers’ photo albums.
With a variety of species around (Adélie, gentoo, emperor, rockhopper, royal, macaroni…), these unique flightless birds were sometimes so abundant that their rookeries would fill an entire frame of the photo.
In some instances, it would seem as if penguins would be almost greeting or communicating with explorers and their dogs.
When they tobogganed or got snowed up after a blizzard, penguins were obviously a source of amusement, cheering up the explorers’ days.
But they were also a source of protein, just like seals. Some of the images show skinning penguins and seals, only to become delicacies on special occasions, together with asparagus in butter, or Embassy cigars.
Even if it was clearly an English-speaking expedition, a menu for one such Christmas dinner was written in French, which possibly camouflaged and elevated the idea of eating a daytime pal.
Besides at the bottom of the world, penguins can also be seen in many world zoos. These institutions have a controversial function of displaying wild animals while also becoming sometimes rare protected habitats for nature conservation. Check out how Basel Zoo approaches these uneasy issues!
Exploring Antarctica – conclusion
In the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, it wasn’t easy to survive. Many explorers didn’t. It required a special mindset to enter such an unhospitable world, not miss the family miles away, and share a rather limited space in the hut with other members of the crew who sometimes didn’t even share a language.
Exploring Antarctica in those early days was much more than collecting geological specimens or drawing diagrams of a penguin.
It was about entering the untamed part of Earth where nature didn’t have to necessarily send a predator to restore the balance. Low temperatures and even lower resources could equally kill you.
Records shared by the National Archives of Australia give us a rare insight into a fragile world that our civilization would additionally endanger in decades to come.
The story of Antarctica today is the story of climate change
It is sad to see that already in the 1930s, a seal is lying on what the archivists call “a polluted ocean shore”. That wooden debris would be just a tiny flashback in the history of much more concerning lighting bolts that would tear up not just this pristine white world, but ultimately become a threat to everyone’s survival.
The story of Antarctica today is the story of climate change. Melting ice and rising sea levels are a consequence of a disturbing experiment that humankind cannot just magically eradicate.
In this precious collection, examples of explorers taking photographs of explorers taking photographs are almost as prophetic as they are meta. Sometimes, the subject of reflection should be an object of reflection.
And to use the method of expedition chefs (pardon my French), niveau de la mer doesn’t stop being niveau de la merde just by giving it a fancy name.
Check out our selection of the best Antarctic expeditions’ photographs from the National Archives of Australia!
Did photographs of exploring Antarctica make you want to visit the continent?
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Such an important topic and discussion. I love your overview of what is happening with climate change in this beautiful and remote part of the world.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, as they say.
Climate change deserves much more media space.
And dealing with the issue becomes a prerequisite if we want to keep exploring Antarctica as tourists!