Westward passage

On 19 January Davis took Aurora out to sea, leaving the 18 men under Mawson at Cape Denison. With a brief to explore the coast and establish a base far to the west before returning to Hobart, he set a north-westerly course, following the tracks of Dumont d’Urville’s French and Wilkes’s United States expeditions in the early 1800s.

Aurora’s passage from Cape Denison to the vast ice shelf which Mawson was to name for his first Antarctic leader, Shackleton, was truly a voyage of discovery. Dumont d’Urville had charted a small part of the coast to the west of Commonwealth Bay in the late 1830s, and around the same time Wilkes had sailed westward to the eastern end of Shackleton Ice Shelf.

But Wilkes had been forced by the ice pack to stand well off the coast, and Davis found his coastal charts too vague to be of much use. His own mapping effort, however, filled many of the gaps. Around 24 January he was sailing within 30 km of a coast Mawson later named Wilkes Land, in honour of the American navigator.

There was to be no coastal mapping for some time, because none was visible beyond the barrier of sea ice. The ‘Sabrina coast’ named by the English whaler John Balleny and Wilkes’s ‘Tottens High Land’ passed without a sighting, prompting Davis to speculate that they might not exist.

He was more positive about Knox Land, previously named by Wilkes, which he concluded probably existed beyond an impenetrable barrier of sea ice around longitude 107° East. The ship could not get close enough for a landing there as he had hoped, so he was forced to continue westward. Approaching Wilkes’s ‘farthest west’, he came to a vast floating sheet of ice, later named after Shackleton.

Open water appeared to the south, which Mawson was later to name Davis Sea after Aurora’s master. To the south, extending eastward behind the Shackleton Ice Shelf and far to the west, was a body of land named after Queen Mary, George V’s queen.

With coal getting low and time running out, an eight-man party under the leadership of Frank Wild was deployed on the ice shelf. It took five days of back-breaking work to get building materials, supplies and dogs up on to the ice and complete construction of the party’s living quarters. With the party safely ensconced in its winter quarters, Aurora departed on 21 February. The lightly-ballasted ship arrived back in Hobart on 12 March after an uncomfortable passage of the Southern Ocean.