The Discovery of Antarctica
In the 16th century the White Continent had not been portrayed in any geographic map yet; no one man had ever discovered this extreme part of the planet to prove its existence. The famous Terra Australis was only in the imagination of the explorers, between the border of fantasy and hypothetic reality. Since its first sightings reported in 1819, Antarctica has become a sought-after land for the most temerarious explorers. Considering the extreme conditions of the Pole, the mechanical equipments and the sailing ships at disposal, the explorers who died while venturing to the continent, can any but be called “heroes” who immolated themselves to let humanity know about their discoveries.
The South Shetland Islands, off the West coast of the Antarctic Peninsula were sighted for the first time by the pioneer of seal hunting, the English William Smith. In January 1820, Smith and Branfield sailed and drew a prominent part of the Antarctic Peninsula which they called Trinity Land. They also sighted Deception Island, which they never reached due to unfavourable weather conditions. In November of the same year, the captain of the seal hunting ship Hero, Nathaniel Palmer, sailed the strait of Neptune’s Bellows entering the wonderful caldera of Port Forest. It is supposed that the first landing on the Continent had been carried out by the commander of the American sealing ship Cecilia, John Davis. One of the discovered notes of this sealing ship witnesses the sighting of a huge southern land which possibly was the last patch of the great Glacial Continent. The following landing was carried out on an area today called Davis Coast.
Another step forward in the discovery of Antarctica is owned to the English James Weddell. Seal hunter and afferent to the British Navy, he first took the lead of private ships south-bound for trade. In 1823, with the aim to find new populations of seals, thanks to a particular mild season, James Weddell could sail the sea to the south further than anybody else did before. In that occasion he gave his name to the sea he sailed and also to a species of seal geographically stable in that area, that he noticed and described for the first time: the Leptonychotes Weddellii. It was only 18 years later that James Clark Ross sailed the sea opposite to the Weddell Sea and gave it his surname.
In 1902, Robert Falcon Scott was the first who faced the extreme conditions of the South of the World. Along with Drigalsky, Scott could observe the panoramas of the Pole from a hot-air balloon which was constantly kept on the ground by a rope. In 1908 Ernest Shackleton, on board his Endurance, with a crew of 27 men, started off a series of expeditions continuing until 1950. However as he was moving forward in an unknown area and without geographic maps, he had to move backwards with the 3 companions of him without knowing to be only about 170km far from the Pole.
In December 1911, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen at the helm of an expedition managed to conquer the South Pole. After a short time, Scott himself was able to hold Amudsen’s same record, but with catastrophic results. Several misadventures beat down on the brave explorers: many violent tempests struck the group on their way back; Evans and Oates died first, while Scott, Wilson, and Brower died a few days later.
In 1914 Shakleton finally sailed off to the South Pole. The ship of the explorer got caught in the sea ice, and after being dragged northward, it got destroyed in the same grip of ice that had trapped it. However, Shackleton and his crew miraculously managed to rescue themselves and to carry with them both equipment and provisions.
On the 29th of November ,in 1929, Byrd overflew the South Pole with a three-engine aircraft for the first time. Nowadays, thanks to technology several satellites constantly overfly Antarctica sending us, even in real time, all that happens in the core of the Continent. Thus we are informed of the formation of big icebergs, of the eruption of a volcano, or of the collapse of sea ice. Doubtless, however, the White Continent hides a lot of mysteries and areas yet to be studied still today.