Captain James Cook

February 5, 2011

The modern history of Antarctic exploration — and, as far as we know, the history of Antarctic exploration, period — can be said to begin with Captain James Cook, the great sea-faring explorer. A few others before him had sailed into the latitudes at and slightly beyond 50ºS, but Cook made the first sustained attempt to push further south. It was during his second circumnavigation that he sailed into the uncharted southern seas in hopes of discovering the long-rumoured great southern continent.

Late in 1772 Cook, aboard the Resolution, departed Cape Town and sailed south. He was under instructions from the British Admiralty to claim any newly discovered lands for the King of England. Fairly early in the voyage the crew actually thought they had discovered land, only to find that it was just a huge iceberg floating north. (In the course of this voyage they sometimes encountered icebergs whose area they estimated at 200 square miles.) On 17 January 1773 the Resolution became the first known ship to sail south of the Antarctic circle (located at roughly 66ºS latitude).  Soon enough Cook encountered an enormous ice pack and, turning east, sailed along it for two months without finding an opening. Discouraged, and unable to ascertain whether the ice was connected to a land mass or not, he retreated north to New Zealand.

A coastal ice shelf, such as that Cook might have encountered. (Source: MBARI)

In the next Antarctic summer he tried again, once again crossing over the Antarctic circle until, on 30 January 1774, he reached latitude 71º10’S, the furthest south that he, or anyone before him, had attained. Though he did not know it, he was just over 100 miles from Antarctica. His way blocked by the pack ice, he wrote, “It was indeed my opinion that this ice extends quite to the Pole, or perhaps joins to some land to which it has been fixed since creation.” Unable, however, to decide the question, he left the southern waters for adventures elsewhere.

The result of Cook’s southward voyage was ambiguous, and it did little to stir further interest in Antarctic exploration. It was to be several decades before the search resumed — but that is a story for another day.

It is interesting to note, as a sidelight, that later on the same voyage, early in 1775, Cook discovered and named the island of South Georgia, which sits north of the Weddell Sea at latitude 54ºS. This island was to play a central role in Shackleton’s famous Endurance expedition in the early 20th century.

South Georgia Island (Source: Ted Dintersmith)


One Response to “Captain James Cook”

  1. […] conditions, which is one of the great Antarctic survival stories. We also hear directly from Captain Cook as he searched vainly for land in the southern seas and from James Clark Ross as he mapped the […]

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