See Rare Images of Early 20th-Century Antarctic Expeditions

For the first time, hundreds of photos, lantern slides and glass plate negatives are available to the public

Black and white photo of men standing around a flag
Members of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition raise the Australian flag over Heard Island on December 26, 1947. National Archives of Australia

A trove of historic images from early 20th-century Australian and British expeditions to Antarctica is officially available to the public, the National Archives of Australia (NAA) announced this week.

Once held by the Australian Antarctic Division, the collection—hundreds of photos, lantern slides and glass plate negatives—has been transferred to the NAA. Staff members at the archives then digitized the images, creating detailed record listings for each one. Now, anyone can view them online.

“This collection is rare and fragile,” says Steven Fox, the NAA’s assistant director-general, in the archives’ statement. “Acquiring, conserving, digitizing and preserving it means it will be accessible now and for future generations.”

John King Davis—a skilled navigator who is sometimes called the “greatest captain in Antarctic history,” according to the Australian Antarctic Program—took the majority of the photographs during expeditions to the White Continent in the early 1900s.

Renowned Australian photographer Frank Hurley also snapped many of the shots that provide a “unique glimpse of the difficult conditions the explorers faced,” says Simon Froude, the NAA’s director-general, in the statement.

The striking black-and-white images show the hardy, cold-resistant creatures that the explorers encountered on their missions to Antarctica, including a colony of royal penguins on Macquarie Island, a remote island located between Australia and the Antarctic continent.

Black and white photo of penguins
A royal penguin rookery at Nuggets Beach on Macquarie Island Frank Hurley / National Archives of Australia

Another shot shows two seals resting below a massive glacier.

Two seals next to large ice formation
Two seals near ice cliff in Antarctica Bernard C. Day / National Archives of Australia

Some images offer an intimate look at what life was like for the men who ventured below the Antarctic Circle. In one, an unidentified man with frost covering his mustache and eyebrows stands in a hole dug in the ice. Another depicts English artist George Marston lying under a blanket and reading a book by candlelight.

Man wearing cold-weather gear in ice hole
An unidentified man stands in a hole dug into the ice of Antarctica. National Archives of Australia
Man sleeping under blanket
Artist George Marston reading a book National Archives of Australia

Photographers also captured the dramatic Antarctic environment. In one image, an unidentified man stands next to three towering icebergs. In another, the British Terra Nova ship is surrounded by pack ice.

Large white icebergs with small dark figure
An unidentified man photographed near large icebergs in Antarctica National Archives of Australia
Early 20th-century ship stuck in ice
The Terra Nova stuck in pack ice in Antarctica Herbert George Ponting / National Archives of Australia

Although scholars had long hypothesized about the existence of a far southern continent, Antarctic exploration began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Between 1768 and 1775, James Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy, led an expedition that twice circumnavigated Antarctica, but never got close enough to see the continent, per the nonprofit American Polar Society. Then, between 1819 and 1820, Russian explorers became likely the first humans to lay eyes on Antarctica. American sealer John Davis is believed to have been the first person to set foot on the continent in 1821.

Starting in 1901, British and Norwegian explorers began the race to reach the South Pole. Despite the best efforts of British adventurers like Robert Falcon ScottErnest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to reach the geographic South Pole on December 14, 1911.

To this day, the continent continues to lure travelers from all over the world. According to the nonprofit International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, more than 23,000 travelers visited Antarctica during the 2021-22 season.

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