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Early Explorers in Antarctica

Although the Ancient Greeks had believed that there was land to the far South, they had absolutely no proof of it. The very first proof came in January 1773. At that time, Captain James Cook, a British explorer, crossed the Antarctic Circle. His expedition did not see land, but they did see rocks in some of the icebergs they passed. The presence of the rocks meant that there must be land. He sailed his ship right around Antarctica but could not get close enough to spot land. Massive sheets of ice prevented him from getting any closer.

Following James Cook more and more explorers ventured into the Antarctic Circle. Antarctica wasn’t going to be easy to discover, though. It took almost another 50 years before anyone actually spotted land. Fabian von Bellingshausen was probably the first person to see the continent of Antarctica. He was a captain in the Russian navy. He spotted it in January 1820; 47 years after Cook said it was there. He also sailed around the continent. Because he had larger, stronger ships than Cook, he was able to push further south. He described the land as a field of ice covered with small hills.

Cook had said that he thought no benefit could be had from Antarctica. The Russians thought the same. Bellinghausen returned to Russia and never returned to Antarctica.

News of Bellinghausen’s sighting didn’t reach many people at the time. Other people claimed to be the first to see it. These included an American whaling captain and two British naval officers. Most historians now agree that Bellinghausen was indeed the first person to see it.

On February 7, 1821, John Davis, became the first person to land on Antarctica. He was Captain of an American whaling ship. Some Historians claim the part he landed on is not part of the true continent, but a Peninsula, or piece jutting out.

At about the same time as Bellinghausen was making his discoveries a Scot, named James Weddell, was also discovering things about Antarctica. He took two sealing expeditions South, and discovered a sea of ice. He named it after the then King of England, George IV. Last century it was renamed the Weddell Sea. There was a species of seal named after him, also. It took 80 more years until anyone managed to get further south than he had. No one else managed to sail through the Weddell Sea in all that time. Although he began his expedition at the same time as Bellinghausen, he didn’t reach his southerly point until three years after Bellinghausen first saw Antarctica.

Weddell’s crossing of the Weddell Sea, in 1823, marks the end of the first stage of Antarctic Exploration.


Related articles:
The Weather and Climate in Antarctica
Animals in Antarctica

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