The first time I saw Antarctica, I actually started to cry. It’d been a couple of days aboard the Scenic Eclipse, a Polar Class 6 luxury-expedition cruise ship, battling the notoriously rough waters of the Drake Passage, but when I raised my cabin’s blackout curtain that February morning, I knew that every step I’d taken to get there had been worth it. Icebergs rose from the water in shades of iridescent blue, penguins porpoised alongside the ship and the snow-covered wilds of the Antarctic Peninsula resembled a world I’d only envisioned in dreams.
More than a century after what’s known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” the White Continent remains very much shrouded in mystery. I can only imagine what it meant to the pioneering explorers who first set foot here, and to those intrepid souls who continue to set new records—and simultaneously break down barriers—across Antarctica today.
Nat Hab’s own 17-day Sailing Antarctica: The Ultimate Polar Sailing Expedition offers a trio of ways to explore this land of snow and ice, from navigating the polar waters of the Southern Ocean aboard the S/V Australis, a 75-foot-long ice-strengthened motorsailer, or the 66-foot-long, ketch-rigged private expedition yacht, Ocean Tramp, to camping on the peninsula itself. There’s even an opportunity to fly to/from Punta Arenas, Chile, straight to King George Island, avoiding the aptly nicknamed “Drake Shake” passage altogether.
But while today’s Antarctic journeys are a welcoming mix of creature comforts and endless adventure, it’s the explorers who came before us that paved the way for these much more accessible experiences.
Here are the stories of five such heroic explorers, and the famous Antarctic expeditions that have left enduring marks on this last unknown continent.
Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition
When Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911, his getting there was a series of fateful twists. Amundsen is one of the world’s great polar explorers, and his history with the White Continent began in 1872 as part of Adrien de Gerlache’s Belgian Antarctic Expedition. At 25-year-of-age, Amundsen was serving as first mate aboard the RV Belgica. It inadvertently became the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica, when the research ship became stuck within pack ice in the sea off Alexander Island, west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Belgica eventually returned north before ever reaching the continent.
Amundsen’s true ambition was to become the first explorer to reach the North Pole, one that was thwarted when he learned that his former colleague, Frederick Cook—who accompanied him onboard the Belgica—and American Robert Peary both laid claim to the distinction. So Amundsen set his sights on the South Pole instead, despite knowing that British Royal Navy officer Robert F. Scott had already publicly announced his bid to be the first party to reach it. Amundsen simply sent Scott a telegram reading, “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen,” and from that point onward, the race to the Pole was on.
On June 3, 1910, Amundsen’s Fram departed Oslo, Norway, and sailed for nearly six months toward the Antarctic continent—though his crew originally thought they were heading north to explore the Arctic Basin. On January 14, 1911, the ship arrived at the eastern edge of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, a massive and enormously thick body of floating ice that’s about the size of France, and set up camp. The location of this Amundsen’s base—about 60 miles closer to the Pole than Scott’s own—would prove essential in the explorer’s eventual success, as was his use of sleigh dogs to help reach the Pole, rather than Scott’s own mix of dogs, ponies, motor sledges and man-hauling.
In fact, Amundsen was extremely well-versed in how to survive harsh Arctic conditions, thanks to the time he’d spent among King William Island’s Inuit people while looking for the Northwest Passage. For his Antarctic journey, Amundsen traded in the heavy wool clothing he’d worn on past expeditions for Inuit-style furred skins, learned to dog sled, and implemented the knowledge of working in unison with the overall landscape, rather than trying to fight it.
Amundsen and four of his men left their base camp for the pole on October 18, 1911, taking along 52 dogs and four sleds. They traveled across the Transantarctic Mountains, persisted through dense fog and across crevassed surfaces, and sacrificed many of the dogs to feed the others before arriving at the South Pole on December 14, 1911, beating Scott’s expedition by more than a month.
Saldy, after reaching the Pole second on January 17, 1912, Scott and his entire party perished on the trek back to base camp: a combination of exhaustion, malnourishment, and plunging late-season temperatures taking their final toll.
Nobu Shirase’s Japanese Expedition
While not as well-known an Antarctic explorer to most people as Amundsen and Scott, Nobu Shirase and his explorations are equally as notable. The Japanese army reservist led an Antarctic expedition aboard the converted fishing boat, Kainan Maru, from 1910 to 1912, proving that Japan was a world power that could compete competently with Europe when it came to polar exploration.
Similar to Amundsen, Shirase’s dream was to be the first person to reach the North Pole. But once American explorers Robert Peary and Frederick Cook both laid claim to that fame, Shirase turned his gaze southward instead. He knew that reaching the South Pole first would be a long-shot—Amudsen and Scott were already in the throes of their expeditions when Kainan Maru first set out in 1910—so when frozen seas forced Shirase and his crew to abort their initial Antarctic landing and winter in Australia, he decided to shift the focus of his journey. When they finally arrived at Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf in January 1912, they passed the place where Amundsen’s Fram was still moored.
While members of the expedition spent time collecting meteorological and geological data for later use, Shirase led a sledge trip across an uncharted section of the ice shelf to see how far south they could get. Dubbed the “Dash Patrol,” it actually became a speed record holder for sledge journeys at the time. Along with these accolades Shirase and his crew also became the first expedition to have a party land on King Edward VII Land—an ice-covered peninsula jutting out from the Antarctic continent’s Marie Byrd Land (which remains the largest unclaimed territory on earth)—from the sea. In fact, the Kainan Maru explored the Antarctic coast further east than any ship up to that time. What’s even more impressive: Shirase’s expedition was the first non-European expedition to ever explore Antarctica.
Despite his heroic endeavors, Shirase remained little known outside of Japan—where his fame was also relatively short-lived—and since he’d funded much of the expedition himself, the polar explorer spent much of life paying off the substantial debt he’d accrued. However, his pioneering accomplishments are finally garnering some of the respect they deserve. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates a polar ice-breaker bearing his name, and Antarctica’s Shirase Glacier also commemorates his accomplishments.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Ernest Shackleton is one of the best-known names in Antarctic exploration. So much has been written, filmed, and shared about the Anglo-Irish explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, including the legendary Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917. Not only is this considered to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but it’s also an incredible story of survival, strength and perseverance.
After serving as third officer Captain Robert F. Scott’s 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition, Shackleton led the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-1909. Although his plan was to be the first person to reach the South Pole, Shackleton and his team came up 97.5 geographic miles (112.2 miles) short—still the longest polar journey at the time. Members of his team were also the first to summit Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano and Antarctica’s second largest, feats that earned Shackleton knighthood upon his return home.
Once Amundsen reached the South Pole in December 1911, Shackleton instead decided to set his sights on a transcontinental crossing—by way of the pole—of Antarctica.
On August 8, 1914, less than a month after the start of World War I (despite its outbreak, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, directed them to “proceed”), the Endurance set sail from Plymouth, England, to achieve this goal.
Shackleton’s expedition didn’t go according to plan, however. Rather than crossing the Antarctic continent that winter, he and his team found themselves trapped at sea. It turns out the thick ice pack they encountered north of the mainland was much denser than anticipated, and the crew of the Endurance was quite simply, stuck.
For nearly 10 months, the ship stayed caught within the ice. At first, it drifted northward slowly, but as the ice around the Endurance began to push, press and squeeze against the ship once the weather started warming, the situation became more dire. On October 24, water started gushing into the ship. By November 21, it was gone.
Shackleton and his team camped on sea ice to survive, but it was a temporary solution. Their ice floe split in two by early April and was very quickly disintegrating. On April 8, Shackleton ordered his men into the Endurance’s three lifeboats, and together they set out for the nearest land. Seven days later, all three boats arrived at Elephant Island, 150 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton and his men were hungry, thirsty, and exhausted—having battled fierce winds and sub-zero temperatures through much of the journey. It was the first time any of them had stood on solid ground for 497 days. Unfortunately, they weren’t nearly out of the woods.
Ice-covered and desolate, Elephant Island offered little reprieve for the men. So 9 days after arriving, Shackleton set out with five of his men to find help. They traveled 800 miles aboard the 22-foot-long James Caird, the sturdiest of the three lifeboats, encountering massive swells and constantly at the risk of capsizing along the way. Despite the deadly conditions, the James Caird reached South Georgia island on May 10, 1916. Once there, Shackleton and two of his men continued on foot for another 32 miles, crossing unmapped mountains and glaciers to reach the Stromness whaling station on the island’s east coast. Somehow, Shackleton and all 27 of his Endurance crew members survived the ordeal.
Strangely enough, South Georgia Island would still become Shackleton’s final resting place. The explorer died of a heart attack in 1922 during his final Antarctic expedition. His death occurred just off the island in his cabin aboard the Quest, and he’s buried at South Georgia’s former Grytviken whaling station.
The remains of the Endurance were unknown until March 9, 2022. when marine archaeologists located the wooden ship at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, four miles from where it sank.
Caroline Mikkelsen and the M/S Thorshavn
Being the wife of a wealthy whaling captain has its privileges, but it’s what is made of them that counts. Take Danish-Norwegian explorer Caroline Mikkelsen, who in 1935 accompanied her husband Klarius to Antarctica aboard the M/S Thorshavn, a whale oil tanker that was part of a series of Norwegian research and discovery expeditions. Klarius served as the ship’s captain, though it was Caroline who secured a spot in history.
The early 20th century was a time when the only women traveling to Antarctica were the wives of explorers and/or their expedition crew (American women weren’t even allowed to freely work in Antarctica until 1969), and although men had been traversing the White Continent for more than a century, no female had ever stepped foot there. So when Caroline joined her husband and his crew onshore on February 20, 1935, it was an extremely pivotal moment. Not only did Mikkelsen become the first-ever woman to stand on Antarctic land, but her accomplishment helped break down polar barriers for females around the globe.
After assisting with the raising of the Norwegian flag, Mikkelsen built a rock cairn to commemorate the expedition. Although she never said (or knew) exactly where the Thorshavn team landed, Australian researchers concluded the spot to be on the Tryne Islands, a group of small Antarctic islands and rocks just over three miles from the continental mainland. It’s now a designated historic site.
Antarctica’s Mount Caroline Mikkelsen is also named for the pioneering explorer. Oddly, it’s located on the mainland’s Ingrid Christensen Coast—named after Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, who is considered to be the first woman to set foot on the actual Antarctic continent, as opposed to an island.
Ann Bancroft and the American Women’s Expedition to Antarctica
Ann Bancroft was born in Minnesota in 1955 to what she once described as a “family of risk takers.” The innate adventurer began work as a special ed teacher but left her job when she was given an opportunity to join Will Steger’s eight-member International North Pole Expedition in 1986. After enduring 56 days of extreme temperatures and shifting sea ice, Bancroft became the first-ever woman to reach the North Pole by sled and on foot. However, this was just the beginning of her polar accomplishments.
In November 1992, Bancroft and three other women set out on the grassroots-funded American Women’s Expedition to Antarctica. Although their original goal was a 1700-mile transcontinental traverse, they fell behind schedule and decided instead to shoot for becoming the first women’s team to reach the South Pole on skis. Exhaustion, extreme weather, loneliness and pain were all par for the course on their 67-day, 660-mile (1,060-km) trek. But despite so many hardships, the expedition reached its destination on January 14, 1993, making Bancroft the first woman to have ever stood at both the North and South poles.
Less than a decade later, Bancroft and Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen, an educator, adventurer and cross-country skier, became the first two women to complete a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. After 94 days and approximately 1,700 miles of skiing and sailing, they reached their goal in February 2001.