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ICE! Captain Cook's Exploration of the Far South

Updated: Jan 22

Our Special Exhibition last year marked the 250th anniversary of the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle in 1773



William Hodges The Resolution Passing a Tabular Iceberg 1773-4 © State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. PDX11 N.27a
William Hodges The Resolution Passing a Tabular Iceberg 1773-4 © State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. PDX11 N.27a


We should think of Cook as an explorer of the Polar regions, not simply of the larger Pacific.


250 years ago, Captain Cook, with two ships, Resolution and Adventure, crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time during his second voyage of exploration. What was the aim of the voyage? The answer has much to do with geographical curiosity about those regions, which still formed a blank area on the map. Most importantly, was there a great ‘unknown southern continent’ waiting to be discovered?


It was, above all, a scientific voyage with a team of men of science on board. There were many unanswered questions to investigate.

  • Was the South Pole free of ice, as some believed?

  • How did pack ice form when it was thought that salty seawater did not freeze?

  • Was there land which might be the source of such ice?

  • How cold was the ocean at depth?

  • What animals or birds might be found there?

The voyage was full of danger, adventure and resolution – as in the name of Cook’s ships! The Adventure became separated from Resolution shortly after the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle. Fogs descended suddenly. Enormous icebergs threatened the ships; ice covered the ropes and spars. Yet Cook and his crew crossed the Circle no less than three times and came within a short distance of sighting the Antarctic Continent.


The conditions confronting the voyagers were extraordinary. How did the crews manage in the extreme cold, and what precautions were taken for their health? In the longer view, what were some of the legacies of the voyage? We take South Georgia as an example of the expected and unanticipated consequences of putting an island on the map.




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