The scientific era begins

Despite the brief extension of harvesting activities to Heard Island, the middle of the 1800’s saw a decline in Antarctic whaling and sealing. The time had come to move from commercial exploitation to scientific exploration.

A Tasmanian scientific journal of 1842 saw the first promotion of Australian research in the Antarctic. However, the call was not taken up until after the highly successful Challenger expedition was concluded in 1876 and the studies of the International Polar Year completed in 1883. Australian scientific societies then became keen to develop research into Antarctica’s geological, meteorological and magnetic phenomena.

In 1886 the Australian Antarctic Exploration Committee was established by the Royal Society of Victoria to investigate, among other things, the establishment of research stations and the use of steam powered ships to penetrate areas inaccessible to sailing vessels. However, proposals put forward by the Committee to mount a purely scientific expedition did not bring immediate results.

A revival of interest in whaling towards the end of the nineteenth century prompted a Norwegian expedition to explore Antarctic waters south of Australia for new whaling grounds. The manager of the expedition was Norwegian H J Bull, of Melbourne, and signed on as expedition scientist was another Norwegian, C E Borchgrevink, who had been working in Australia as a teacher. In January 1895 they were in the party that made the first landing on continental Antarctica, at Cape Adare. During the brief visit ashore Borchgrevink made collections of rocks and lichens. No new whaling grounds were found, but when the Antarctic expedition arrived back in Australia the specimens were proof of the opportunities for research.

Borchgrevink proposed a return visit to the Antarctic with a scientific party that would, for the first time, stay for a winter on the continent. The expedition, mounted in England, sailed from Hobart in November 1898 aboard the Southern Cross and carried a research staff of seven. The first Australian to land on the Antarctic continent was the scientist of that party, the young Tasmanian physicist, Louis Charles Bernacchi. He concluded that although there were poor prospects for commercial advantage, ‘Antarctic exploration is of capital importance to science’. This expedition became the first party to spend a winter on the Antarctic continent.

Over a short period around the turn of the century research expeditions were mounted by several countries. Australia took particular interest in Scott’s 1901–1904 expedition, on the Discovery, offering financial support and port facilities. Bernacchi returned to the Antarctic as Scott’s physicist.

Australia also played a major role in the success of Shackleton’s 1907–09 expedition. The Australian Government donated 5000 pounds (sterling) to the expedition, and Australians directly participating included geologist Professor Edgeworth David, who joined Shackleton as chief scientific officer; Bertram Armytage of Melbourne; Leo Cotton of Sydney; and Captain John King Davis, master of the expedition’s vessel, who would go on to play a major part in Australia’s exploration of Antarctica.