The scientific and political legacy

Australians in Antarctica

Australia’s long history of involvement in Antarctica has its foundations in the 19th century. In its early years Australia depended on the sea for its trade and communications and was conscious of the vast unknown region that lay close to the south. Because of this proximity it was inevitable that Australia became closely involved in Antarctic exploration.

The sailing vessels upon which the colonies depended for their supplies and trade with Europe followed the Great Circle routes south of the Cape of Good Hope and sought the favourable westerly winds found well to the south. These voyages brought familiarity with the high latitudes, but were not without risk — in the second year of settlement HMS Guardian was almost lost after striking an iceberg.

From the first days of colonisation in 1788, Australia was closely associated with sealing and whaling industries. These industries rapidly assumed commercial importance but, as Australian waters became exhausted, the attention of sealers and whalers turned inevitably to the sub-Antarctic islands. By 1820, just 10 years after the discovery of Macquarie Island, the fur seal had been virtually exterminated and elephant seals were being slaughtered for their oil.

Over-exploitation around Australia also forced whalers to explore the southern waters. The Hobart barque Venus reached 72°S in search of whales in 1831. Its return to Australia with a cargo of sperm whale oil stimulated others to explore the far south. Elsewhere around Antarctica other voyages by English, American and Russian vessels were making significant discoveries. The geographic and scientific exploration of Antarctica was thus encouraged by the early commercial ventures.

Many explorers bound for the Antarctic, including John Biscoe, Charles Wilkes, Dumont d’Urville and James Clark Ross, visited Australia for supplies for their southern journeys. The use of Hobart as a port of call for most of these expeditions and its support for the southern sealing and whaling industries fostered Australian interest in Antarctica.