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Long before Antarctica was discovered, medieval world maps showed a huge continent, Terra Australis, occupying more than half of the Southern Hemisphere. From the late 15th century several voyages dispelled beliefs about the continent’s vastness and its attachment to Africa, South America, and Australia. Over the next two centuries explorers came upon many of the islands within the present-day Antarctic region, including the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia, and the Kerguelen Islands. In 1773 British navigator Captain James Cook traveled farther south than anyone before him, reaching latitude 71°10’ south. He explored the edge of the pack ice and was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. Cook saw no land, but judged correctly that the massive icebergs around him could have accumulated only on land nearby. Cook’s expedition marked the beginning of scientific exploration of the southern polar region.
In July 1819 a Russian naval expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen complemented and enhanced Cook’s findings. Bellingshausen charted South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, then edged eastward along the pack ice, twice crossing the Antarctic Circle, until he was stopped by ice cliffs. In the following year he returned south to the ice’s edge, continuing eastward and pressing through pack ice very close to the continental coast. Later he discovered Peter I Island and Alexander Island. Like Cook, Bellingshausen sailed to within sight of Antarctica without the satisfaction of positive discovery.
British naval officer Edward Bransfield sighted part of the present-day Antarctic Peninsula in 1820. Sealers of many nations, who had been exploring Antarctic and subantarctic (lying just north of the Antarctic Convergence) islands and waters since Cook’s voyage, had sighted the South Shetland Islands, other parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the South Orkney Islands by the early 1820s. In 1823 British navigator James Weddell explored the present-day Weddell Sea, setting a new farthest-south record of latitude 74° south. Within the next 20 years sealers and whalers explored present-day Enderby Land on the eastern continental coast, Graham Land (now the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula) and Adelaide Island off its coast, and the Sabrina Coast of East Antarctica and the neighboring Balleny Islands.
Between 1838 and 1843 three naval scientific expeditions added substantially to knowledge about Antarctica’s coastline. French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville discovered a part of the Antarctic Peninsula, which he named Terre Louis Philippe. He also discovered neighboring islands, now known as D’Urville and Joinville islands, and part of the East Antarctica coast, which he named Terre Adelie (Adelie Coast). American explorer Charles Wilkes penetrated the pack ice to explore the ice coast of present-day Wilkes Land. British explorer Sir James Clark Ross discovered the Ross Sea, reaching a new record latitude of 78° south. Ross charted the volcanic island and the massive ice shelf that now bear his name; he also discovered present-day Victoria Land and located the south magnetic pole, which at that time was positioned among Victoria Land’s mountains.
From the 1870s to the 1890s German, Scottish, and Norwegian whalers explored the Antarctic Peninsula, discovering Bismarck Strait and several other new channels and islands. On January 24, 1895, Norwegian whaler Henryk John Bull made the first recorded landing on the continent outside the Antarctic Peninsula, at Cape Adare near the Ross Sea. In 1904 Norwegian whaler Carl Anton Larsen established the first Antarctic whaling station, on South Georgia.
In 1895 delegates to the Sixth International Geographical Congress in London, England, declared that exploration of the Antarctic region was the greatest geographical exploration still to be undertaken, and urged that scientific discovery of Antarctica begin before the close of the century. Within the next few years expeditions from six European nations took the field. From 1897 to 1899 a Belgian expedition explored the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula by ship. The vessel became trapped for more than 13 months in the pack ice of Bellingshausen Sea, involuntarily becoming the first expedition to winter south of the Antarctic Circle. In 1899 members of a small British expedition led by Carsten Borchgrevink became the first people to spend the winter on the continent, at Cape Adare. The larger and more successful British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904), led by naval officer Robert Falcon Scott, spent two winters in McMurdo Sound in the southern Ross Sea, exploring inland, discovering the polar plateau, and making the first attempt to reach the South Pole. Although Scott failed to reach the pole, he achieved a new farthest-south record of 82°17’ south.
Several other European expeditions traveled to Antarctica during this period. The German South Polar Expedition, which lasted from 1901 to 1903, became caught in pack ice 80 km (50 mi) from the shore of East Antarctica, wintering on board and freeing themselves the following summer. The Swedish National Expedition from 1901 to 1904 set up a base on Snow Hill Island on the eastern flank of the Antarctic Peninsula; despite losing their ship in the pack ice, the crew explored the area north and south of the island. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902 to 1904 wintered on the South Orkney Islands and explored the unknown east coast on the Weddell Sea. The expedition’s meteorological observatory on Laurie Island, taken over by the Argentine navy upon Scottish departure, has since provided Antarctica's longest unbroken climatic record. Two French expeditions led by physician Jean-Baptiste Charcot wintered in the peninsula area in 1903 and 1908, discovering the Loubet Coast north of Adelaide Island and exploring south into Marguerite Bay and the Bellingshausen Sea.